Sunday, May 21, 2006


Athens is the capital of Greece and one of the most famous cities in the world, named after goddess Athena. Modern Athens is a bustling cosmopolitan metropolis, home to some 3.2 million people. The Athens metropolitan area is currently growing both northwards and eastwards across Attica and it constitutes the dominant centre of economic, financial, industrial, cultural and political life in Greece today. The city is also rapidly becoming a leading business centre in Europe.

Ancient Athens was a powerful city-state and a renowned centre of learning, home of Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum. It is considered to have been the cradle of Western civilisation, largely due to the immense impact of its cultural and political achievements during the 4th and 5th centuries BC on the rest of the then known European Continent. The heritage of the Athenian Enlightenment is still evident in the city, portrayed through a number of spectacular ancient monuments and artworks, the most famous of all being the Parthenon on the Acropolis ("high city"). The latter is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of Classical Greek architecture, still standing as an epic legacy to the West and indeed to the rest of the world.

During the Byzantine era, Athens gradually lost a great deal of status and, by the time of the Crusades, it was already reduced to a provincial town. It faced a crushing blow between the 13th and 15th centuries, when the city was fought over by the Greek Byzantines and the 'French' and Italian Crusaders. In 1458 the city fell to the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror. As the Emperor entered the city, he was greatly struck by the beauty of its ancient monuments and issued an imperial decree that Athens' ruins not be disturbed, on pain of death. The Parthenon was in fact converted into a mosque and therefore preserved. Despite the Sultan's good intentions to preserve Athens as a model Ottoman provincial capital, the city's population went into decline and conditions worsened as the Ottoman Empire declined from the late 17th Century. As time went by, the Ottoman administration slackened its care for Athens' old buildings; the Parthenon (or Mosque) was used as a warehouse for ammunition during the Venetian siege of Athens in 1687, and consequently the temple was severely damaged when a Venetian shell targeted the site and set off several casks of gunpowder stored inside the Parthenon. The Ottoman Empire relinquished control of Athens after the Greek War of Independence (1821–1831). The city was inhabited by just around 5,000 people at the time it was adopted as the capital of the newly established Kingdom of Greece on 18 September 1834. During the next few decades the city was rebuilt into a modern city adhering mainly to the Neoclassic style. In 1896 Athens became the first host city of the revived 1896 Summer Olympics.

The next large expansion occurred in the 1920s when suburbs were created to house Greek refugees from Asia Minor. During World War II the city was occupied by Germany and fared badly in the war's later years. Athens grew rapidly in the years following World War II until ca.1980 and suffered from overcrowding and traffic congestion. Greek entry into the EEC in 1981 brought massive, unprecedented investment into the city along with problems of increasingly worsening industrial congestion and air pollution. Throughout the 1990s the city's authorities undertook a series of decisive measures in order to combat the smog which used to form over the city, particularly during the hottest days of the year. Those measures proved to be successful and nowadays smog is much less of an issue for Athens, even when temperatures soar above 40 C. The traffic congestion has also significantly improved in recent years. Part of this improvement is attributed both to the transformation of the once highly problematic Kiffissos Avenue into a modern, 8 lane urban motorway that stretches for more than 11 km along the ancient Kifissos River, linking many of Athens' western suburbs, from Peristeri to the port of Piraeus and to the construction of the Attiki Odos motorway.

Today Athens is a vibrant metropolis with a state-of-the-art infrastructure, breathtaking ancient monuments and museums, a legendary nightlife featuring a vast spectrum of choices and world class shopping malls.

Since I moved to Brussels, this was the third time I visited Athens. And, one of the reasons that makes me love Athens, especially since I moved to Brussels, is the fact that Athens is one of the sunniest cities in Europe! Between April and October, Athens remains largely rainless, with average maximum temperatures of around 32 C. Just like Brussels...


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