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The Acropolis, Propylaea and Athens Travel, Greece

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Athens, Greece AcropolisIf history is any guide, one country’s economic collapse, civil unrest, or natural disaster, usually unveils a silver lining for travelers: better deals and fewer crowds. Opportunistic? Maybe.

But traveling to a hard-hit destination also means putting your travel dollars directly where they count. Kevin Bleyer, Emmy Award-winning writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, reports on his experiences in Greece, a country still trying to recover from its economic meltdown.

“WE WENT ALL THIS WAY TO SEE A GATE?”

The 11-year-old girl with the iPod buds in her ears had just walked up a very large hill – we all had – and she was asking her parents what all the fuss was about.

Athens Aerial ShotFirst of all, it’s not just any old gate—it’s the Propylaea, a towering monument worthy of visiting (and gawking at) in its own right. But more important: it’s the entryway to the Acropolis of Athens. Walk through and you’ll see one of the most famous and breathtaking sights known to modern (and ancient) man, a sight that on this day would make even a skeptical 11-year-old take out her earbuds, and take in the sight.

“Whoa. Cooooooooool.”

Like the 11-year-old, it was my first visit to Athens. All spring I had been hearing overheated media reports of union strikes and a Greek economy crumbling more spectacularly than the ruins themselves. Surely, the reports continued, this would (and, they seemed to imply, should) affect Greek tourism. I’m proud to say that reports of Greece’s demise are greatly exaggerated. True, some tourists had canceled their plans to visit Greece, though I can’t quite understand why.

The way I see it? Fine, more room for me.

Learn more in our Italy & Greece Travel section.

So then, even though as a tourist I tend to migrate to the roads less traveled and the sights not featured in the travel brochures, I knew I had to make the Acropolis and its star attraction, the Parthenon, my very first stop.

Luxury Underground Athens, GreeceI was fortunate to stay at the magnificent Hotel Grande Bretagne, which had already afforded me—and Elizabeth Taylor, Winston Churchill, and Nicolas Sarkozy before me—a gorgeous view of the Parthenon from my window.

My first glimpse of the Acropolis came from the hotel’s famous rooftop hotel bar on the night I arrived; a perfect introduction, as the ancient monument is lit up at night like a firework — a breathtaking sight against the cloudless Athens night sky. But for a real sense of scope one needs a closer look.

Everything about this ancient citadel satisfies—from the immense columns most of us have only seen as reconstructions in movies—to the overwhelming and awe-inducing sense that, well, this is where history comes from. After all, the place dates back to the Early Neolithic era, 6th century BC. Few things live up to the hype; this is one of them.

Latest news: Tourism Union Strikes, Greek Travel Disrupted Further.

Athens AcropolisFor visitors (like me) eager to get off the beaten track, even the Acropolis has much to offer. Within a stone’s throw (although they kindly request that you refrain from throwing stones—they could be, after all, ancient relics) are three must-see, can’t-miss features.

To the Northwest, down the hill from the Parthenon, you’ll find the Kerameikos cemetery, an Athenian burial ground in use since the 12th century BC. It’s quite peaceful, surprisingly beautiful, and few tourists visit the cemetery since it’s not in many guidebooks.

All visitors to the Acropolis, understandably, are in search of that one perfect picture of the Acropolis, suitable for framing. For my money—and, I might add, it’s free—the grandest view of the Acropolis and Parthenon is from Areopagus Hill: 360-degree views of Athens, with the Acropolis taking up about 100 degrees. Stunning at any time of day. It also happens to be where the Areopagus Council, the judges of Ancient Greece, met to decide cases of murder, sacrilege, and arson. So be on your best behavior, and bring your best camera.

Don’t miss the Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Athens, Greece.

Athens Greece whitewashed corridorsOne of the undiscovered secrets of central Athens is actually the New Acropolis Museum—undiscovered, at least, in that it’s still relatively new. Opened in 2009, it is a sleek display of a vast collection of Greek statuary, pottery, and friezes. (And, considering it’s Athens in the summer, merely the word “frieze” can be a welcome respite on a sunny day, where on this week the temperatures hit 104 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Here at the museum, you not only walk through history; you hover over it. Below the glass floor of the museum, the designers have preserved an entire ancient Athenian neighborhood dating back to the 5th century BC, so as you walk among the preserved artifacts, you can look down below into the ongoing excavation 10 to 100 feet underneath. Those prone to vertigo needn’t worry too much; the museum has cleverly placed black polka-dots on the glass to helpfully remind you that you won’t fall through.

For people considering a trip to Athens, the best is yet to come: later this year they plan to open up those excavations for foot traffic, in what is sure to be an enthralling, up-close-and-personal tour through ancient history.

It’ll be your chance to say: Whoa. Cooooooooool.

By Kevin Bleyer for PeterGreenberg.com. Kevin Bleyer is an Emmy Award-winning
writer for
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His book, Me The People: An Order
To Form A More Perfect Union, will be published by Random House in 2011.

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