The Acropolis rises above the sprawling city centre of Athens and dominates the view, constantly reminding you of the city's grandiose past and the important events that took place here. The monuments are visually stunning but even more fascinating because of what they stand for - the birth of democracy and our way of life in the Western world.
There is an endless number of monuments and museums but of course the Acropolis was our first port of call. You cannot fail to be impressed by the scale and grace of the Parthenon and the other temples. I would have loved to see them in their glory days when they were brightly painted and surrounded by golden and bejewelled statues. Many of the original sculptures are now kept safe at the new Acropolis Museum where we could admire them close up.
Once you've seen the remnants of these amazing landmarks dating back 2500 years, use your imagination to time-travel back in time. We pictured ourselves mingling with the robed Athenians in the Agora (market place) and listening to important decisions being made. The High Court was located at Areios Pagos rock just below Acropolis and this is the actual spot where Socrates stood trial back in 399BC and was found guilty for corrupting the city's youth. There is free access and the rock is popular with locals as well as tourists.
In contrast we were the only visitors when we climbed to the speakers platform at the nearby Pnika. Here Athenians took turns to speak their minds at assembly meetings where important issues were debated and decided by majority vote. They also introduced the concept of selecting juries from the general population and unlike now had a process for dealing with unpopular politicians who could be ostracised if they hadn't had the city's best interests at heart. Nick took the opportunity to proclaim his views to the world while I was busy taking in the world view - from left to right: Mount Likavittos, Areios Pagos and the Parthenon.
The historic centre is like an open-air museum however it's also where people shop, work and go out. I was fascinated by the contrast between the modern city which is not the prettiest and its grandiose past - such as seeing the graffitied trains pretty much run through the ancient Agora or the Temple of Zeus now unceremoniously located on an empty field. City planners in Athens surely suffer more delays than anywhere else as they are likely to find something ancient in every shovel-full of earth.
We also wanted to get a feel for today's Athens and had a great time exploring the narrow cobblestoned streets in Plaka, located on the slopes of the Acropolis. Although commercial, this old Ottoman neighbourhood is still one of the most atmospheric. Keramikos is a less touristy area which we enjoyed for the grunge vibe and restaurants serving interesting modern Greek food. Located just outside the old city walls, it's also worth a visit to see the ancient cemetery with some remarkable statues and one of the original gates leading into Athens.
Throughout the city graffiti has taken on a life of its own and like weed it does add welcome colour to some spots however many nicer buildings are marred by the tagging. It seems the municipality has temporarily given up the fight due to the lack of funds affecting many aspects of Athens at the moment.
Walking around town it's amazing from how many places the Acropolis is visible - from rooftop bars like the one at AthensWas boutique hotel to pavement cafes lining many streets and of course from Mount Likavittos. At 277 metres it was a sweaty climb to the top but so worth it! The views are astounding - over the city all the way to the historic island of Salamis, the Aegean Sea and the mountains surrounding the Attica basin.
All ancient civilisations have fascinating aspects but what stood out in Greece is how many details were recorded and retained until today; from who said what when to the wearer of a specific helmet in battle. The colourful mythology and the historical facts bring the story of Greece to life with lots of human flavour. Athens was a great starting point and from here we were excited to continue our trip around the Greek mainland.