Athens was almost as amazing as Rome. In terms of history, Athens is at least on par with Rome - the ancient Greeks left just as many ancient ruins behind in Athens and the surrounding area as the Romans did in Rome. Other than the ruins the city is mostly ugly though - lots of squat, concrete buildings and graffiti.
Most history nerds have a favorite - the ancient Greeks or the Romans. My pick is the ancient Greeks. As a democracy-loving American it's hard to not be impressed by the people who invented democracy more than 2,000 years ago. The military made Athens rich, it was powered by free men, and therefore free men deserved a hand in government decisions. It's a testament to their greatness that they treated men this equally given that democracy went out of fashion for the next 2,000 years after the decline of ancient Greece. (Steve's note: i don't really love democracy. We have too much democracy, which is why we're constantly bothered with stupid propositions from the state on matters about which voters are unqualified to make decisions. America's founders consciously did not want to emulate the idiotic athenians, ha ha! We stood on the spot where socrates died because the people democratically voted he should die! Marisa's counter-point: I realize democracy is not perfect but I don't think all of our readers, or at least the precious few that have made it this far into the post, are interested in a debate about the relative merits of democracy. So I'm oversimplifying. Forgive me.)
The Acropolis and the Parthenon, the greatest ancient Greek ruins we have, sit on top of a steep hill and can be seen from anywhere in Athens. The Parthenon (the main temple) is quite large and its columns are well preserved. Between the building itself, its location and its age, it is awe inspiring. I couldn't get over the fact that people knew how to build such a massive and beautiful structure in such a difficult location over 2,500 years ago, using basic tools of no more than stone or bronze.
Athens also has a really nice archaeological museum with exhibits on the Greeks and the Mycenaens (more on them later). The following is one of the most famous statues. It's nearly 3000 years old. We've seen the progression of the art of sculpture during our trip, and it's amazing how well shaped this statue is:
Olympia is the site of the original olympic games. It's a massive complex of temples and athletic facilities. It's several hours away from Athens (in the Pelopennese) so most tourist don't make it there, but it's a lot of fun. The Greeks were really into athletics, as we quickly learned at the museum exhibits where at least 1/3 of statues/monuments depicted athletes or athletic competitiions. Athletes make good warriors, after all. Olympia started as a temple complex where the main gods and the god of victory (Nike) were worshipped. The Greeks seemed really into the concept of victory based on the number of Nike statues we have seen. Anyway, the olympic games were originally a spiritual event, a way of worshipping the Gods and their relationship to athleticism/victory. They started with a single short distance sprint event and gradually evolved to include things like wrestling, running in combat gear and longer distance runs. They also served wider purposes such as a way for people from around the Greek world to meet and do business, a time to temporarily halt fighint, and a constructive channel for the competitive spirit. Olympic victors became famous (i.e. the subject of many sculptures, carvings, etc.) and sometimes made rich by their leaders back at home. Steve will write more on Olympia later.
Coming back to Athens, one crazy thing that happened was that we saw 2 separate sets of people doing hard drugs in broad daylight. One was snorting something and one was shooting something. The one shooting something was within 200 ft of a bunch of nearby police officers. Our hotel clerk told us drugs are illegal and if the police see these folks they would arrest them. But these folks are just really punk rock, I guess they don't care. We're told Greeks are passionate about freedom - was this a surprising manifestation of that passion? I'm not sure. Note that we never felt unsafe in Athens. My guide book says violent crime isn't a big problem. People seemed defiant, but not violent.