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As well as the iconic Parthenon, the summit of the Acropolis is home to the Erechtheion, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaia, as well as lesser remains of many other ancient structures.
Today, as throughout history, the Propylaia are the gateway to the Acropolis. In Classical times the Sacred Way extended along a steep ramp to this massive monumental double gatehouse; the modern path makes a more gradual, zigzagging ascent, passing first through an arched Roman entrance, the Beule Gate, added in the third century AD.
The Propylaia were constructed by Mnesikles from 437–432 BC, and their axis and proportions aligned to balance the recently completed Parthenon. They – the name is the plural of propylon, gateway, referring to the fact that there are two wings – were built from the same Pentelic marble (from Mount Pendéli, northeast of the city) as the temple, and in grandeur and architectural achievement are almost as impressive. In order to offset the difficulties of a sloping site, Mnesikles combined, for the first time, standard Doric columns with the taller and more delicate Ionic order. The ancient Athenians, awed by the fact that such wealth and craftsmanship should be used for a purely secular building, ranked this as their most prestigious monument.
The Panathenaic Way was the route of the great annual procession for ancient Athens’ Panathenaic Festival, in honour of the city’s patron goddess Athena. The procession – depicted on the Parthenon frieze – wound right through the Classical city from the gates now in the Kerameikos site via the Propylaia to the Parthenon and, finally, the Erechtheion. You can see traces of the ancient route just inside the Propylaia, where there are grooves cut for footholds in the rock and, to either side, niches for innumerable statues and offerings. In Classical times it ran past a 10m-high bronze statue of Athena Promachos (Athena the Champion), whose base can just about be made out. Athena’s spear and helmet were said to be visible to sailors approaching from as far away as Sounío.
Close to the Propylaia too are the scant remains of a Sanctuary of Artemis. Although its function remains obscure, it is known that the precinct once housed a colossal bronze representation of the Wooden Horse of Troy. More noticeable is a nearby stretch of Mycenaean wall (running parallel to the Propylaia) that was incorporated into the Classical design.
Simple and elegant, the Temple of Athena Nike stands on a precipitous platform overlooking Pireás and the Saronic Gulf. It has only recently reappeared, having been dismantled, cleaned and reconstructed. Not for the first time either: demolished by the Turks in the seventeenth century, the temple was reconstructed from its original blocks two hundred years later.
In myth, it was from the platform beside the temple that King Aegeus maintained a vigil for the safe return of his son Theseus from his mission to slay the Minotaur on Crete. Theseus, flushed with success, forgot his promise to swap the boat’s black sails for white on his return. Seeing the black sails, Aegeus assumed his son had perished and, racked with grief, threw himself to his death.
The Parthenon temple was always intended to be a spectacular landmark and a symbol of the city’s imperial confidence, and it was famous throughout the ancient world. Yet even in their wildest dreams its creators could hardly have imagined that the ruins would come to symbolize the emergence of Western civilization – nor that, two-and-a-half millennia on, it would attract some two million tourists a year.
The first great building in Pericles’ scheme, it was intended as a new sanctuary for Athena and a home for her cult image – a colossal wooden statue by Fidias overlaid with ivory and gold plating, with precious gems as eyes and sporting an ivory gorgon’s head on her breast. Originally the columns were brightly painted and surrounded by the finest sculpture of the Classical age, foremost among them the beautiful Parthenon frieze and pediments. Also brightly coloured, these are generally held to have depicted the Panathenaic procession, the birth of Athena and the struggles of Greeks to overcome giants, Amazons and centaurs. The greater part of the frieze, along with the central columns, were destroyed by the Venetian bombardment in 1687. The best surviving examples are in the British Museum in London (see The Elgin Marbles); the Acropolis Museum also has a few original pieces, as well as reconstructions of the whole thing.
To achieve the Parthenon’s extraordinary and unequalled harmony of design, its architect, Iktinos, used every trick known to the Doric order of architecture. The building’s proportions maintain a universal 9:4 ratio while all seemingly straight lines are in fact slightly curved, an optical illusion known as entasis (intensification). The columns (their profile bowed slightly to avoid seeming concave) are slanted inwards by 6cm, while each of the steps along the sides of the temple was made to incline just 12cm over a length of 70m.
To the north of the Parthenon stands the Erechtheion, the last of the great works of Pericles to be completed. Both Athena and the city’s old patron of Poseidon-Erechtheus were worshipped here, in the most revered of the ancient temples. The site, according to myth, was that on which Athena and Poseidon held a contest, judged by their fellow Olympian gods; at the touch of Athena’s spear, the first ever olive tree sprang from the ground, while Poseidon summoned forth a fountain of sea water. Athena won, and became patron of the city.
Today, the sacred objects within are long gone, but the elegant Ionic porticoes survive. By far the most striking feature, however, is the Porch of the Caryatids, whose columns form the tunics of six tall maidens. The ones in situ are replacements: five of the originals are in the Acropolis Museum, while a sixth was looted by Elgin – they’re replaced here by casts in a different-colour marble.
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