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Notes on the Geography of Greece: Modern Athens

With independence in 1832--the end, as the Greeks say, of the turkokratia--Athens had fewer than 40,000 people, mostly clustered in what were Turkish neighborhoods to the north of the Acropolis. The new country found a suitable monarch in Otto, a 17-year-old Bavarian prince. With the help of German architects, he began shaping a modern city.

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Shortly after 1900, the city had grown to 175,000 people, more than four times its population at independence. The city changed profoundly during those 70 years. The area immediately north of the Acropolis has the crazy-quilt street pattern bequeathed by the Turks, but farther to the north lie new, gridded streets, including the axis seen here of the street called Eolou (or farther to the north, Patission). The plan for the new city was the work largely of Gustav Eduard Schaubert and Stamatios Kleanthese, both of whom were pupils of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, master planner of Berlin. The two had hoped to build Otto's palace along Eolou so the monarch would have a commanding view of the Acropolis. The street was cut, the view obtained, but the palace was shifted eastward, leaving little of the planner's ideas except the street network.

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Looking northeasterly from the Acropolis across the old district of Syntagma ("Constitution") to Lykavittos Hill, which is to say "Wolf Hill Hill."

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The German architect Friedrich von Gärtner designed Otto's royal palace. It was built in 1836-42 and fronts Syntagma Square. In 1935 the palace became the house of parliament.

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Kitty corner to the palace is the city's longstanding top-of-the-heap hotel.

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This is tourist country.

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A pedestrianized escape.

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The tourist neighborhood may be grim, but farther from the Acropolis it's just downhill. Thomas Hall writes of Athens in Planning Europe's Capital Cities (1997). He says: "The town seems to stretch for miles and miles in a monotonous street network and with very little in the way of former villages or modern planned suburbs and green areas to relieve the dull impression. Developments in Athens during the twentieth century seem to be characterized perhaps more than in any of the other examples discussed in the present book, by a persisting libertarian attitude left over from the previous century; apart from a rectilinear street network, there seems to have been hardly any systematic control at all." What's that? Houston, you say?

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Want a supermarket? You'll have to hunt.

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As usual, the central market is one of the most interesting places in town.

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Street vendors.

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Suspicious? Apprehensive? For good reason. Time to count your lucky stars.

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Hands down, the most interesting neighborhood in the whole city is the Anafiotika quarter, which was built by masons from the island of Anari. They had come to build King Otto's palace.

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The neighborhood they built for themselves wraps around the northeast slope of the Acropolis.

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A main pathway--not a deadend. The authorities have long considered the district an insult to the glory of classical antiquity. The whole district is legally illegal, and the residents are subject to eviction. Roxani Kaftantzoglou has written about this if you want to learn more.

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Not far away is the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, built in 334 B.C. on the Street of Tripods that wrapped around the Acropolis and connected the Theater of Dionysus to the agora. These tripods commemorated prize-winning plays. This one, which commemorates both Dionysus and Lysicrates, is bigger than it looks: the drum is 9 feet in diameter, though hollow. The columns around it mask its joints. An inscription reads: "Lysikrates, son of Lysitheides, of Kikynna, was choragos when the boy-chorus of the des of the phyle Akamantis won the prize. Theon was the flute-player, Lysiades of Athens trained the choir, Euaenetos was archon."

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Speaking of monuments, we've come to the city's old cemetery.

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Notice the temple up top?

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A close-up, with a frieze showing the Trojan War.

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It's the tomb of Heinrich Schliemann, excavator of Troy.

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Part of the frieze recounts his work there. Presumably he uses Homer as a guide.

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The German influence is pervasive, but here's an exception: the monument to Lord Byron, a Greek hero for his help in the struggle for Independence.

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