• Mar 09, 2013

Architecture, academia and the birthplace of democracy: Athens is the grandest open-air university in the world

  •     The city is steeped in history with ancient ruins to explore at every turn
  •     Among the must-visit sites: the Acropolis and the Arch of Hadrian
  •     Of course, Athens is also home to an impressive dynasty of athletes

Walking the cobblestone pathway of Europe's largest archaeological park in Athens is a rewarding history lesson in the world's grandest open-air university.

There are no fees. No professors. No homework. You don't even have to attend everyday, just as and when there's an itch of intrigue.

Like Rome, Athens surrounds you with the ancient: the Acropolis, the Theatre of Dionysus, Herodes Atticus, Arch of Hadrian and the Athenian Trilogy. It's the crumbling Meccano kit of empires built and empires destroyed.

No other country can boast such a hard-bastard dynasty of athletes, Titans and Gigantes. And it's the Greek history and landscapes, even more than empirical brick-and-mortar that jointly built the modern Greece we know today.

Here is a country routed in our consciousness, whether we've visited it or not. The names of ancient Gods and Goddesses are taught to us at an early age, and the epistemology of their philosophers still widely referenced in society today.

Those of you with a loathsome memory of school Maths will recall Pythagoras's Theorem, the Trigonometry thorn that created hatred in all exam-sitters for Greek mathematicians. Then, there are the philosophers and the poets – the scholars. Greek mythology and Greek tragedies. When we think of the Olympics, we think of Greece. Even their yoghurts are famous.

With only a passing knowledge of the ancient capital, I set out to discover how notorious and historical Athens was merging with the modern, in what is one of the world's oldest cities.

Below the roads, the Athens Metro interconnects neighbourhoods. The entire transportation infrastructure was renovated for the 2004 Olympics, with each stop now its own underground museum to the wealth of local history and plunder; a sub-sewer treasury of cabinets, displays, exhibits and digs.

The construction of Syntagma station, underneath the Greek Parliament, unearthed a motherload of marvels: a Classical Era sculpture foundry, a sub-Mycenaean/Byzantine cemetery, and a Roman baths complex. This wasn't only Athens' first subway, but the largest archaeological excavation in the city's history. But then, you're always walking over something buried in the Greek capital, whether it's the technicality of Roman plumbing, or the sepulchre of some decomposed Athenian.

In recent years, Athens has become no more than the jump-pad from which tourists depart for the islands. While the likes of Mykonos and Santorini seasonally support visitors, few exit Eleftherios Venizelos Airport and venture to the capital. But they'd be wise to make the detour.

The Acropolis Museum at the foot of the Acropolis replaces the capital's old museum. It has an exhibition space of over 14,000 square meters and houses both permanent and guest collections; such as the marble sculptures of The Parthenon Frieze and the Caryatids from the Erechtheion. The most notorious Athenian display not displayed in Attica however, stands in a room on Great Russell Street in London, 1500-miles away.

The Elgin Marbles are a pertinent topic, just as they were when Lord Elgin, while serving as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, acquired them from the Parthenon between 1801 and 1805.

While it's true that the cultural exchange of artefacts between international museums creates opportunity for study, I join the Greek authorities in impelling the British Museum to return the architectural collection. But, in the principle of fairness, The Acropolis Museum and the British Museum share between 30% of the original surviving sculptures, with further pieces held by other major European museums, including the Louvre and the Vatican.

In a more recent move that has further outraged Greece, the British Museum have loaned the river-God statue of Ilissos to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Another move which continues to fracture the international museum partnership.

Athens demonstrates a clear desire to support the Arts, with several commissioned works to promote the national dance and music scene. The annual large-scale concerts in the shadow of the Acropolis feature national ensembles, such as the Greek National Opera and the Athens State Orchestra, alongside international flair. This season it was Vanessa Mae at the Odeon.

A performance at the Herod Atticus Odeon is the original stadium tour. Donated to the city in 161 AD by Herodes Atticus, it was to stand as a memorial to his late wife, Aspasia Regilla.

No other outside venue in the world comes close to the artistry of an open-air concert here. It makes every performance venue in England look like a rainy day in Hull. Mae is terrific, taking centre stage in the stone amphitheatre, her violin is lifted to something greater in the foreshadow of the Atticus Arena.

The following day I walked from my hotel, the Hilton on the tree-lined esplanade of Vassilissis Sofias Avenue, to another staple in the city's vast caboodle of distinguished edifices: The Panathenaic Stadium.

The athletic stadium was built during the 4th century BC on the slopes of Ardittos Hill. It played host to sporting contests and the willy-waving antics of athletes (who always competed in the nude). As a former wannabe athlete - my ambition outweighing my talent - this is my mecca. It's the original running track and home to the Games of the I Olympiad.

I plodded a leisurely lap in the heat, feeling the shadows of great athletes. Then, caught my breath, had my photograph taken, and felt the cramp in my retired legs. I hoppled off the track to continue my city tour, albeit at a much slower pace.

I marked off the Zappeion National Gardens and Lord Byron monument by the French sculptors Henri-Michel Chapu and Alexandre Falguière; the colossal ruin of the Temple of Zeus, and every archaism and antiquity around me in this venerable landmark city.

Despite the weight of the recession still considered present, with images of public rallies and gathered crowds in Syntagma Square upon the appointment of the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his anti-austerity government in January; while I'm here at least, Athens seems like a city surrounded by antecedent events, but with its greatest years still ahead.