Athens Study Trip 2019

I could not have hoped for a more fulfilling way to round off my Classics degree at Reading than participating in a study trip to Greece – one could almost call it a Classics student’s ‘pilgrimage’. I first visited Athens over a decade ago when my interests in the ancient world were just beginning and I remember being awed by its incredible landscape and architecture. I was thrilled therefore to finally have the opportunity to return to the city and appreciate its sites from a more informed perspective, as well as experience other places that were completely new to me. The whole expedition was enhanced greatly by the company of an enthusiastic cohort of fellow students and the ever-illuminating insights of Professor Amy Smith and her assistant James Lloyd.

On disembarking at Eleftherios Venizelos Airport, we were immediately struck by the glorious Athenian sunshine, which continued to blaze down on us throughout our stay. We then boarded a characterful, vibrantly purple coach that conveyed us to the British School at Athens (BSA), with the local driver offering us his essential tips on Modern Greek along the way. Having unpacked, we soon set off on our first excursion: Lykavittos hill (closely situated to the BSA), from the summit of which we experienced the most spectacular views of the city and whetted our cultural appetites for all that lay ahead. We also worked up appetites of a more gastronomic nature from all the walking, winding up the day by sharing a meal together in true Greek fashion at a local restaurant, getting to know each other better and sampling a wide range of traditional dishes – many of which were savoured again later in the week!

Each day’s schedule was tightly packed with visits to ancient sites and museums, and I could not possibly do everything justice in a single blog post. Yet I shall at least mention a few of my personal highlights. Firstly, no trip to Athens would be complete without journeying up to the famed Acropolis. It was fantastic to explore not only the iconic buildings on its upper surface, but also both the north slope, featuring some important caves and sanctuaries, and the sites to the south: after writing my final-year dissertation on Sophocles, I could hardly leave without paying homage to the Theatre of Dionysos, and James Lloyd even treated us here to an impromptu performance of an ancient Greek song. Another of my favourite attractions was the Temple of Hephaistos, beautifully situated in the Agora and amazingly well preserved. Further sites visited were the Kerameikos, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Roman Forum and Hadrian’s Library.

Of the museums, I was especially excited to visit the Acropolis Museum which was still being built during my previous trip. It certainly did not fail to impress. Its transparent walls and ideal location enabled us to look directly across at the Acropolis itself while admiring the displays, and so more easily envision everything in authentic context. One of the museum archaeologists, Dr Fiorentina Frangopoulou, helped us to understand the importance of the museum to the modern Greeks. In addition to the splendid array of statues and artefacts, I was particularly charmed by the imaginative lego reconstruction of the Acropolis on the second floor! The National Archeological Museum was also full of fascinating objects, including the famous ‘Mask of Agamemnon’ discovered by Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae. Among my personal favourites were a Cycladic harper figurine lost in song, an ancient piggy bank and a vase depicting a musical goose! In addition, I enjoyed the smaller yet equally absorbing Cycladic and Numismatic Museums.

We were fortunate to spend one of our days in Corinth, which included the highlight of the whole trip for me: visiting Acrocorinth, an enormous rock towering above the ancient city, rivalling even the Athenian Acropolis in its magnitude. Although most of the ruins at the top date from later, medieval times, the views it offers of the surrounding mountains, farmland and sea are simply breathtaking, giving the modern traveller a sense of how Greece would have appeared to its ancient inhabitants. Beautiful wildflowers, bees, butterflies and birdsong added magic to the landscape. On descending, we received excellent tours both of ancient Corinth and of its museum, from Drs Christopher Pfaff and Ioulia Tzonou of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Dr Tzonou even gave us a hands-on experience of artefacts, including a stone foot dedicated to Asklepios, the god of healing, and some lead curse tablets, which thankfully cast no calamities upon our trip! While journeying back to Athens, we had the chance to stop off at the site of the Isthmian games and also spotted the historic islands of Salamis and Aegina from the coach.

In addition to scheduled group outings, we had some free time to spend on whatever stirred our own individual interests. I particularly appreciated the further stunning panoramas available from Philopappou Hill and the Areopagus (which I made sure to ascend via the steeper, ancient steps!), and it was also enjoyable just to wander round and take in the atmosphere of some of Athens’ more touristy areas such as Plaka, with its pretty winding streets and rows of shops. Above all, I loved being surrounded by Greek lettering wherever I went: I had great fun trying to decipher signs and inscriptions.

As a lover of the animal world, I could not conclude without mentioning the thirteen hoopoes I spotted during our stay (one of my favourite birds and very apt in terms of Greek mythology). We also fell in love with the numerous tortoises we found chilling out amid the ancient ruins, as well as the free-roaming dogs, cats and kittens which did their very best to distract us from our primary mission!

I cannot thank the Classics Department enough for giving me this wonderful opportunity at the end of my undergraduate journey, as well as the BSA for hosting us. I would certainly encourage other students to embark on future study trips (…though do be prepared to walk … a lot!).

Katherine Evans

A Trip to Athens

Walking around the busy streets of Greece’s capital is an experience like no other. The saying ‘you can feel the history’ is thrown around a lot, but Athens’ majesty merits this description more than most. Imagine yourself standing in the midst of the busy morning in the gridlocked Omonoia Square, with the scents of every different spice creeping out from the covered market; you look down the busy Athinas Street, and see the Acropolis, the timeless symbol of Athens’ heritage, rising above the horizon. No matter how time, culture and society move on, Athens is a city that refuses to belong to a single era. Not only is this true today, but it has been for centuries.

In early June, I set out to Athens, with the generous help of Reading Classics Department’s Austin Fund. I wanted to see Athens from the perspective of cultures interacting, assimilating and, perhaps, clashing. Specifically, I was interested in seeing how the culture of the early Christians found its place in the late antique city.

Walking around the city today, the assimilation of the cultures is represented by the various Byzantine churches that hide around every corner. The unsung heroes of Athens’ legacy, these oft forgotten structures are a true reminder that Athens’ rich history did not end with the Romans. However, my main interest in this trip was to see how some of the most important structures of the Classical era were repurposed for Christian use. The re-use of earlier buildings was a practice that was widespread throughout the Empire; indeed, many of our best-preserved examples of Classical architecture owe their survival to their Christian conversion (for example, the Pantheon in Rome, the Maison Carrée in Lyon, and many of the temples that are scattered around Sicily). In particular, I was interested to see the Parthenon and the Acropolis from this context of ‘Christianisation’, along with the Library of Hadrian, in which were built several Churches, the first being a 4th-century ‘tetraconch’ church.

Seeing this wonder of the Classical world from this new perspective was a truly great and useful experience; it reminds the viewer that the ‘Classical landscape’ played a defining role in making up the landscapes that would follow. Athens as city moved on from its Classical heritage; however, reminders of this legacy were mainstays on the city’s landscape, spearheaded by the Parthenon and the Acropolis.

Seeing the famous Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles in the ancient agora was an equally memorable experience. I was particularly interested to see how this place of worship affected the landscape of the Classical space. Overlooking the agora is the much-copied Hephaiston, a staple of Athens’ pagan past; I wanted to see how the Christian structure contrasted with the agora’s non-Christian past, and I was not disappointed. I was delighted to discover that, in the 7th Century, the Hephaistion was, like the Parthenon, converted into a Christian church to St. George. It was thrilling to get to know the temple’s later history, and more thrilling still to consider its implications on the landscape.

Seeing the physical indicators of the relationship between Christianity and pagan society was not the only outcome of the trip. Particularly memorable were the wonderful collections of the Benaki, Acropolis and Byzantine Museums; equally interesting were the other sites that the city boasts: the Kerameikos, the national gardens and the numerous churches. Experiencing the city’s culture was also a delight; walking the seemingly endless system of streets and side streets, stopping off for Greek coffee or souvlaki, being pestered by the various buskers on the Athenian metro and chatting with city dwellers all contribute to a truly memorable experience.

As a Classics student, I have spent my entire degree reading about the majesty of the ancient city, but nothing is comparable to witnessing it first-hand on an independent trip. It is an experience that I hope all Classics students and enthusiasts can undertake at some point during their lives. I would like to extend my deepest thanks to Prof. Marzano and the department for making this trip possible.

Alexander Heavens
(BA (Hons) Classics 2015)

Athens 2014 Study Trip

Going to Athens has been one of the highlights of my time so far at University. The trip combined academia and socialising to create a memorable and thoroughly enjoyable experience.

One of the first things we did was dine in a local taverna in the evening. In doing so we experienced a slice of typical Greek life. The food throughout our brief time in Greece was always of a high quality, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Of course not the entire trip was eating and relaxing, hard study and learning had to be done (as well as a fair amount of walking!).

On day two we went to the Acropolis Museum. Being able to view Ancient Greek sculptures in person, after studying them for years, brought the whole thing to life. I was taken aback by the beauty of the caryatids. Later that day we went up Philopappou Hill, this optional climb was a must to see the incredible views of Athens.

On Wednesday, day 3, the stand out activity was visiting the ancient site of the Acropolis. We got to see the Parthenon and the Erechtheion. The main reason I enjoyed this so much was because of my avid interest in Ancient Greek architecture, but I would challenge anyone not to be amazed by the sheer beauty of the temples here.

The following day we went to Thorikos. By now you may be getting the impression that the trip consisted of a lot of climbing. Whilst it is true that we were active for a lot of our time in Greece the gains from these incredible views far surpassed the exhaustion of the excursion its self. The second hill we visited that day, Sounion, was much smaller. More importantly it is the site of Poseidon’s Temple, as well as having incredible views of the sea. This temple for me was the most aesthetically pleasing, and the fact that it was situated close to ground level was appreciated by my tired legs.

On our final full day in the afternoon we got a hands on session in the museum at the British School of Athens. Mr Robert Pitt, the director, allowed us to handle some of the artefacts in their sublime collection. On our last evening we had a group meal where we reflected on the incredible experiences we had shared throughout this trip.

My thoughts on the final day as we travelled home were positive for my whole time in Athens. I made lots of new friends on my course as well as getting closer to those I already had. Whilst my legs do not miss the walking, I certainly miss Athens!

(Text – Rose Lloyd; Photos – Kelly van Doorn)