30 July 2019

Would Hadrian Build Bike Lanes?

Almost three years ago, the first phase--all 3.2 kilometers (2 miles)-- of the Second Avenue subway opened, nearly a century after it was first proposed. The second phase, roughly two-thirds of the distance, is expected to open some time during 2027-2029. After that, yet another extension is planned. 

Whenever it's finished, it's still running ahead of the schedule on which the Temple of Olympian Zeus was built.  To be fair, no one planned on taking more than seven centuries to finish it.  Begun in the 6th Century BCE by Peristratos, it was abandoned for lack of funds.  It finally got finished in 131 CE under the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who had a large statue of Zeus built in it, along with an equally large statue of itself.

If the Acropolis is the #1 "can't-and-shouldn't-miss-it" sight of Athens, the Temple, only a five-minute bike ride (if that) away is easily #2.  For one thing, it's easily the largest and one of the most magnificent temples you'll ever encounter.   

Just outside the Temple's grounds is another impressive structure:  Hadrian's Arch, completed a year later both to commemorate the consecration of the Temple and demarcate the boundary between the ancient and Roman cities.  The northwest frieze reads "This is Athens, the Ancient city of Theseus," while the southeast frieze says, "This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus."

This Hadrian character had an ego.  But he sure knew how to build a city.  While he destroyed some other cities in Greece, he loved Athens and wanted it to be the artistic and intellectual center of the Roman Empire, as it was for its Greek counterpart. Evidence of his magnanimity and megalomania are found in another stop on my bike tour of Athens:  Hadrian's Library.  There's not much left of the actual library, which was set next to a courtyard bordered by 100 columns with a pool at its center!  The library, in addition to the estimated 75,000 volumes it held (by far the largest collection of its time), also contained music and lecture rooms.  

In between Hadrian's gate and library, I made another stop at the Roman Agora, right around the corner from the library.  While the most impressive remains are near the entrance, the real "show-stopper" on this site is the so-called Tower of the Winds, which has served as an astrological observatory and Orthodox chapel.  If you step inside on a hot day, as I did, you will understand why even with such summer heat, air conditioning was so rare until recently, here and in most of Europe:  It seems like all of the winds are blowing through it!

Plus, I'll admit, I wouldn't mind having a skylight like that in my apartment!

Now, if I were an Athenian or in any way sensible, I probably would have stopped at least for something to drink, if not a full-on Greek lunch, somewhere between one of those destinations.  But since I'm not Greek (and I will let you decide whether or not I'm sensible), I wanted to ride and see more.  You might say I was getting addicted to cycling my way through history.

Oh, and I wanted to pack as much into my day before I had to return my rental to Athens by Bike.  I would have kept it another day if I hadn't had other plans.

So another ten-minute bike ride through a narrow, cafe-lined lane, an only-slightly-wider path rimmed by flea-market stalls and a cobblestone walkway that led to the path I rode to the sea, I came to Kerameikos, which you might say is an early "potter's field" because it takes its name from the clay-workers who settled there, along the banks of clay-rich banks of the Eridanos, a stream that was covered over in ancient times and re-discovered during construction of the Athens Metro.  

Kerameikos is practically a diorama of Athenian history.  In it, you can see the Sacred Way, which pilgrims entered through the Sacred Gate for the annual  Elusinian Procession, which commemorated the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter by Hades, the king of the underworld, and her rescue.  A little further along is the Diplyon Gate, at that time the city's gate and the starting point for the parade.  It's also where prostitutes gathered to offer themselves to travelers.  Oh, and right by that gate, Pericles gave a speech extolling the virtues of Athenians and honoring those who died in the Peloponnesian Wars.

Oh, and right by that is a cemetery used by the Romans until the time of Justinian (6th Century BCE) and uncovered during street construction in the 1860's.  And there's the path to Plato's Academy.

I thought my head was spinning from taking all of that in.  But, in reality, between my biking and all of the sites I'd visited, I'd been out in direct sunlight for close to eight hours.  Even with all of the sunscreen I slathered on myself, I was feeling the burn.  

After returning the bike, I stopped for some yogurt with cherries and an iced coffee.  Then, in walking by down the pedestrian mall that passes the Acropolis Museum and the base of the Acropolis hill, I saw an entrance to the park that includes the Hills and Pynx, which in turn connects to Filopappu Hill, named for a prominent Roman consul and administrator.  It is on these hills that, according to Plutarch, Thesus and the Amazons did battle.  The west side of Filopappu, as it turns out, is right across the street from the apartment where I'm staying.

Like most hilltops in Athens, it offers a nice view of the Acropolis.  But, if you get tired of that (as if that's possible!), you can turn and see this:

 I wanted to visit all of the sites I mentioned because the pass I bought for 30 Euros at the Acropolis included entrance to all of them (except Filopappu, which is free) and lasts for three days. (It's 20 Euros for the Acropolis alone.)  That 30-Euro pass is, as the Athens cultural office explains, for "archaeological" sites, all of which are outdoors.  There's another 15-Euro pass, also for three days, that includes the Acropolis Museum and the Archaelology Museum, as well as others.  As each of those museums has a 10-Euro admission fee, this pass is also well worth the money.

Today, though, I travelled outside of Athens. More about that later.


  1. If I recall correctly, there was free admission to the Acropolis on Sundays - at least when I was there in the mid 90s. Is this still true today?

  2. Annie--I don't think that's the case today. At least, I didn't see any mention of it.