Athens has as many devout lovers as it has fierce opponents. For the enthusiasts, it is the city where the air of ancient eras of Pericles or Aristotle gracefully blends with modernity. Strolling across the Acropolis hill, one expects philosophers to turn up round the corner, engaged in a heated debate, as they would do in the very same place millennia ago.
For the critics, it is an overcrowded and chaotic metropolis, where monuments can hardly make up for the inconveniences caused by the civilisation. As wrote one guidebook: what a bizarre blend of a big metropolis and a provincial hell-hole. That also is one of the reasons to go there - to decide on which side you are yourself. Athens is the city where it all began - or at least the European civilisation, democracy, and the Olympic Games. Quite enough. Though, the city's household image is that of the Acropolis hill, there is much more to Athens than that.
The history of the city is nearly impossible to summarise. Its name derives from Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, who, according to the Greek mythology, also gave the city the crag of Lycavittos in order to shield the city from the enemies. Today, Lycavittos offers an excellent opportunity to view the city, especially at night. Athens' other focal point is the famed Acropolis, hosting the well-preserved remnants of three temples devoted to Athena.
In terms of hard-facts, though, the city began around a castle built in the 15th century BC on the site of today's ancient Acropolis complex. About the year 1400 BC Athens already became a city of considerable importance. In the 5th century BC, after Athens successfully shed several home-grown tyrants and then a series of Persian invasions, it became one of the most powerful city-states that constituted the Greek Peninsula of that time. That period also marked the peak of ancient Athens' architecture, arts, theatre, and philosophy. The downfall followed quickly after Sparta, a former ally against the Persians, went on to dominate the whole Greek Peninsula. By the standards of many other states of the period, however, the downfall would still be considered the best of times as thinkers like Plato or Aristotle graced the city's streets then. The Spartans' domination was the end of Athens as an independent capital until well into the 19th century, when Greece gained independence from the Ottoman rule.
Before it happened, Athens were an important city of the Roman Empire until it was overcome by the so-called “barbarians”, and then, in the 15th century, by the Turks. It took another four centuries before the Turks were driven out of Athens and Greece as a whole – the “Greek cause” was then popular among many Western Europeans, like Byron.
The uprising against the Turks was not the last of the dramatic historic events that befell the city. It suffered greatly during WW2 and then had to bear the ignorant junta government during which the city grew quickly and without much of urban planning. The situation changed with Greece's accession to the EU in 1981.
More recently, it was the granting of the 2004 Olympic Games that further promoted a more thoughtful development of the city.
Athens' face has changed forever by this giant event, the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. Of course, Athens is a special place – apart from being the city of the Olympic Games - to visit all year round. Athens has long deserved the organisation of the world's biggest sporting event. Even those not interested in athletics and games will discover that the Games made the city more user-friendly. The modern infrastructure is finally here plus some of the state-of-the-art Olympic venues are a nice contrast to all the antiquities. Perhaps after the Games, Athens' alleged reputation of a metropolitan hell-hole should be gone forever.
The city's rich cultural heritage has also played a part in the Olympic Games. Most of the ancient monuments have been transformed into venues that hosted a number of cultural events. Street theatres, concerts, festivals of international cuisine filled the city for the three Olympic weeks. When the Olympic Games are organised somewhere else, Athens is still full of events, the biggest one being the giant Hellenic Festival stretching from mid-July right to the end of September. It is mostly about drama, classical music, and dance performances, all set against the ancient panorama and atmosphere of the city.