Saturday 27 March 2010

All aboard on a lap with the gods

Remains of the day ... fortifications of ancient Athens are showcased in the central Syntagma station. Photo: AFP

Only in Athens could the subway take you from the 21st to the second century, writes David Whitley.

WHAT The Metro mini-museums.

WHERE Athens, Greece.

HOW MUCH €3 ($4.50) for a one-day metro ticket.

WHY GO? As clashes between ancient and modern go, it's hard to top the Akropoli Metro Station in Athens. In most respects, it is a shrine to contemporary architecture. It has the gleaming polished floors, the high-tech ticket machines, the piped music tinkling through and the air-conditioning providing a welcome respite from the searing heat outside. It's a rare example of a subway station that manages to look light and breezy, and most commuters plough through without noticing that it's something more than just a place to get on and off trains.

Those who are prepared to look around and peer into the station's nooks and crannies will find themselves peering into ancient Athens. The Akropoli station has cabinets full of oil lamps from the sixth century BC, 1500-year-old mosaic floors and 3500-year-old clay cups.

On one side of Akropoli is a series of plaster casts - they're of the figures from the east pediment of the Parthenon. They feature some of the classics of Greek mythology; the four horses of Helios's chariot rising from the ocean, a panther skin-clad Dionysos lying on a rock and two seated goddesses.

The Akropoli metro station is essentially a mini-museum. This is partly due to its unique construction process. When the new Athens metro system was due to be built in the 1990s, there was a massive problem - the construction work would be disrupting a whole heap of history.

The solution was to combine the new metro with one of the biggest archaeological digs of all time. Ancient settlements, long buried underground, were discovered and it was decided to display the best of the finds in the stations.

Many of Athens's metro stations have similar collections and displays - Syntagma and Egaleo are among the best in this respect - but Monastiraki is arguably the most impressive. After all, how many other metro stations have a river trickling through them?

The Eridanos is a small stream that has long since been buried as Athens has built upwards over old settlements. It was largely forgotten about until work started on the Monastiraki station, where it was found to be still flowing under a stone vault from the era of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Instead of ripping everything up and blocking the river, the new construction was built around it.

The result is that you walk from the train and across a glass platform which enables the second and 21st centuries to merge with an almost sci-fi effect.

During the construction of the Athens Metro, more than 79,000 square metres were dug up including about 50,000 titbits from the past. What the city has done with them is unique - and it's well worth going underground for.

FREE STUFF A lot of the good stuff is on the exit side of the ticket barriers. For the bits on the train side, chances are no one's going to pull you up on it if you wander through and have a look.

Realistically, though, spending €3 on an all-day metro ticket and taking in a few stations is probably a lot easier.

ADDED BONUS The stations aren't just displaying old treasures - they also act as galleries for contemporary Greek artists. Each station displays at least one artwork from internationally renowned local creative types.


Source: The Sun-Herald

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