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Impressions of Athens, Greece

It's a complicated thing to guide one through a city of so many faces: the ancient city which contributed so much light of democracy, science, philosophy and culture to humanity, the Byzantine city which lingered in the shadow of Constantinople and later of Ottoman occupation, the new capital of a freshly founded country in the spirit of 19th century Nation-State Romanticism. The time line of history is probably the most logic compass to discover this city of roughly five million people, nearly half the population of the country, packed together on a piece of land caught between the Saronic Gulf and the mountain chains of Ymittos, Parnitha and Pendeli. One big advantage: Athens disposes of marble, lots of marble, sparkling white, transparent and pure. Marble is everywhere in Athens, in the spectacular ancient temples of the Akropolis, in the Olympic Stadion where the Games were revived in 1896, the only stadium in the world fully made of marble, by the way, on the facades of ordinary houses and on the simple sidewalk pavements.

Athens is a big city, and has been so since Antiquity, which is why the word Athens in most languages, including Greek, is a plural: it is the sum of numerous 'demes' or Attican municipalities which were united into one State and which have gradually clustered together also physically into one single agglomeration as the city was growing. It nearly sounds surreal then that, at the time of liberation from Ottoman rule in 1833, Athens was merely a village, tucked away at the foot of the ancient Akropolis and surrounded by unexcavated reminders of a great, nearly forgotten past. For Athens, the Renaissance came several centuries late, it began in 1833. It was also the moment of restoration of the connection to Western Europe, from which it had been cut off by the Ottoman iron curtain for nearly 500 years, only poorly aware of how much Western civilisation had actually inherited from its Antiquity. Is it not ironic that Classic columns, frontons and friezes were brought back to Athens in the 1840s by Danish and German architects, Theophilus Hansen and Ernst Ziller, who spread around Neoclassical buildings by the dozens in the new capital of the Hellenic Kingdom? Today, there are no longer kings and queens residing in Athenian palaces, there is a Republic with a modern European capital, which suffers under its overpopulation, but which has not lost its vibrant creativity in culture and daily life. It is this fascinating mix of history-rooted culture and contemporary vibes which I am inviting you to discover in these pages.

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