Underneath Athens, the Metro system hides lots of ancient secrets, as David Whitley discovers.
As clashes between ancient and modern go, it’s hard to top the Akropoli Metro Station in. In most respects, it is a shrine to contemporary architecture. It has the gleaming polished floors, the hi-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 a little more than a place to get on and off trains.
But those that are prepared to look around them 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 6th century BC, 1,500-year-old mosaic floors and 3,500-year-old clay cups.
On the other side, there 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’ 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, and 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 the 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 loot in the stations.
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The Akropoli station has one of the best hauls, and the information panels give a fascinating insight into both what the city was like and how the discoveries were made. Burial grounds, ancient roads, small temples and houses with courtyards linked by underground tunnels were uncovered.
Most fascinating is the story of the pilot tunnels that were dug during the Metro construction. One stumbled across a large well, full of discarded rubbish. Included in that rubbish was all manner of treasure; hundreds of pots, shells, loom weights and bones from various eras. On the wall, a photograph of the well taken at the moment of discovery is blown up to super-size. It’s a remarkable sight.
Many of Athens’ Metro stations have similar collections and displays – Syntagma and Egaleo are amongst 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 flowing under a stone vault from the era of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Instead of ripping everything up and blocking the river, the constructors decided to build around it.
The result is that you walk from the train, and across a glass platform which enables the 2nd and 21st centuries to merge with an almost sci-fi effect. Ruins from the classical, Roman and Christian eras also mingle in, and are pretty much guaranteed to elicit a double take from anyone getting off for the first time.
During the construction of the Athens Metro, over 79,000 square metres were dug up and around 50,000 titbits from the past. What the city has done with them is unique – and it’s well worth going underground for.
Theoretically, it’s possible to visit all of the displays in the Metro stations without splashing out a cent. 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. Just be prepared to argue with a guard if necessary. Realistically, though, spending EUR3 on an all day ticket and taking in a few stations is probably a lot easier.
As an 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. Sometimes they can be a little hard to spot, so it’s worth taking the time to have a look around.
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