Athens was on fire when I visited it for the first time. I remember sitting on Mars Hill and watching the horizon grow thick with smoky haze. It had been one of the hottest summers on record and on TV the news cycled through stories of raging forest fires and unbearable heat waves.
We were on our way home after a vacation on the lovely island of Santorini and Athens was our layover. The capital of Greece hadn’t impressed me much at first glance. After having gotten used to the charming quaintness of Santorini Athens seemed too modern and ordinary.
Our hotel was located on the edge of the red light district, a detail that I believe had been provided by our taxi driver as he drove us from the airport that first night. The hotel room was nothing more or less than what could be expected for the area but thankfully we weren’t doing anything but sleeping there.
Things did not look brighter in the morning. We spent the morning wandering around trying to find a place that served breakfast and eventually we ended up overpaying for a couple lousy sandwiches at the only open cafe in the area. The unwavering high temperatures didn’t help endear me to the city.
With little time to explore we decided to take a bus out of the city to check out Cape Sounion, which lies just south of Athens. The ruins of an ancient temple of Poseidon sit on this peninsula, jutting out into the Aegean Sea.
According to legend the sea is named after King Aegeus who committed suicide by throwing himself off a cliff and into the water below. The story goes that Athens had to pay tribute to Crete by sending young men and women as tributes to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a half-man and half-bull. Aegeus’s son Theseus volunteered to slay the monster and set off on the next ship of tributes. They agreed that if Theseus succeeded the ship was to return with white sails but if he died the ship would bear black sails. Although successful Theseus forgot to signal his victory and when Aegeus saw black sails he leapt to his death in despair.
Tragic legends aside Cape Sounion is a breathtaking collision of elements. The harsh rock has been carved by the wind and waves into a pedestal for the temple of Poseidon. Built around 440 BC, about half of the columns are still intact today. Since its origins as a place of worship the temple has seen numerous visitors, some of whom have even left their mark in engravings. Like an earlier form of graffiti tagging, one of the columns bears the name of the poet Lord Byron, neatly inscribed at its base.
Standing on the edge of the cliff with the smell of the sea and the wind pushing against me felt very uplifting. I could almost imagine what this temple had been like for the Ancient Greeks that had made pilgrimages here to pay tribute to a sea god.
After our visit to Cape Sounion we came back to Athens to spend some time wandering around the Acropolis. We went up onto Mars Hill, also known as Aeropagus, which is a large outcropping of marble from which you can see all of Athens. The marble has been worn down to slippery smoothness by all the visitors that have come up there for the beautiful vista. In classical times the Aeropagus served as Athen’s court for homicide and legend goes that the god Ares, for whom the hill is named, was tried here for the murder of Poseidon’s son Alirrothios.
We meandered through the park around the Acropolis listening to cicadas buzzing in the tamarisks and eventually came out into the streets where we found a nice restaurant. This slow unwinding of the day with the sun sinking into the hills to join the dying embers of the forest fire was a nice relief. It was like finding a spot of shade in the heat of the midday sun. By the time the night settled around us we had finally warmed up to Athens.