3 days in Athens: Great food, Ai Weiwei and an ancient oracle

I ought to tell you now that during these 3 days that our team stayed in Athens, it was hot! In fact it was SUPER hot! A breath-taking 39 degrees C. temperature made everything slightly cooler than an average cooking stove. Nevertheless we managed to survive by limiting our exposure to the sun and using the mass transit system (a combination of metro & light rail) which is fast, easy-to-use and (most importantly) air- conditioned. (Standard fare: 1,40 euro, valid for all line changes for 90 minutes).
Plaka- Athens - Tourism Media © 2016 Expedia, Inc
While in the Greek capital we had the chance to visit many museums and galleries, see our Greek friends, taste amazing food and enjoy the outdoors (a night stroll around the Acropolis Rock is an experience you will remember all your life). Due to a schedule conflict we did not have the chance to visit the impressive Benaki Museum at Pireos Str which hosts some of the most interesting exhibitions in the city! If you happen to visit Athens, though, do check what is on at this particular venue as there is always something worth visiting on view!

Our first day started with a visit at the National Archaeological Museum; standing majestically on the noisy Patision Str, in the busiest part of the centre, the National Archaeological Museum should be everyone’ first stop on your museum-hopping while in Athens. Some of the finest specimens of ancient Greek art from the Archaic era to the Classical and Roman ones are exhibited in the museum, wonderfully bathed in natural light. Starting from the first hall on the left, which contains various amazing Kouros and Kore statues, we let ourselves be enchanted by the wonderful statue of Venus, holding a sandal and we stood in awe before the majestic Poseidon or Zeus’ bronze statue. While visiting you should definitely read the descriptions (in English and Greek) which, most of the times, recount some fascinating stories.
The National Archaeological Museum, Athens © 2016 cityartnow.com

The upstairs halls containing the murals, pottery and several other findings from Thira (Santorini) is one of Greek art’s gems. There is also a -rather surprisingly- rich section of Ancient Egyptian art that will surely interest the visitor. A temporary exhibition is also hosted in the ground floor (entrance by the stairs leading to the upper floors) by the title “Strolling through the Athens of Travelers, 17th-19th century” which contains the 3rd century copy of the cult statue of Athena, once standing inside the Parthenon. The original statues was 12 times larger than this copy and was made of ivory (the naked body parts) and golden leaves; which explains why there was no chance to, ever, be found!
When visiting don’t forget to enjoy a refreshing drink at the beautiful café in the garden-atrium, where you can literary sit among stunning archaeological finds from ancient wrecks. Another photographic exhibition about people posing in front of ancient ruins in the years from 1839 to 1955, is also on view at the café walls.

National Archaeological Museum: General admission € 10 (includes admission at temporary exhibitions). You can visit the café or the gift shop (both at the basement) without a ticket.
We started our second hot day in Athens at the ultra cool (literary and metaphorically) Museum of Cycladic art, at the Kolonaki district, which along with the breathtaking Cycladic art collection, hosts a major Ai Weiwei exhibition! This is the first time Ai Weiwei shows his work in an archaeological Museum, featuring some of his celebrated older works, new works inspired by the refugee crisis (a result of his involvement with the refugees’ relief campaign in Lesvos Island and Idomeni camp, in Northern Greece) and a statue created specifically for this exhibition inspired by the Cycladic Art. The show is spread in the two levels of the Stathatou Building (a magnificent 19th century neoclassical mansion) while some artworks are exhibited in the main building side by side with the permanent collection. (Full exhibition-coverage here).
Ai Weiwei, Divina Proportione, Huali wood, ø 130 / 70 cm. Photo: Paris Tavitian © Museum of Cycladic Art

Our next stop was at the nearby Benaki Museum’s main building. The permanent collection is a gem of Greek art from the ancient times to the 19th century with a particularly important section of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine icons (search for the icon of St George holding a severed head; a rare iconographic subject). If you visit before September, there is a charming exhibition with Ceramics from China ; the Tang dynasty figures and the artworks influenced by the contact between the West and China were most interesting!
Benaki Museum, main Building. Full admission : € 9, temporary exhibition: € 7

Still excited by both ancient Cycladic art,  Ai Weiwei’s exhibition and the Benaki icons, we visited the next-door Gagosian Gallery which currently shows a small but pretty impressive exhibition with works by architect/designer Jean Nouvel under the name Triptyques; a series of colored mirrors (in orange and red hues) mounted on the wall with movable side panels. It was quite an exciting installation and the ladies working there were, as always, extremely helpful. We ended the day quite tastefully by having the most refreshing Greek-style salads (with lentils and vegetables) at a petit restaurant on Ploutarchou Str.
There is no answer to the question “How many times can an art historian visit the Acropolis Museum”. For our team, being there is quite like coming home as we were all here for the inauguration of the museum, 7 years ago and countless times since. This week the museum celebrated its 7 years run (during which 10.000.000 visitors entered the halls) with a brand new exhibition about Dodona in the Epirus district of Northern Greece. An ancient religious centre of Zeus and the oldest oracle in the Greek world, Dodona is mentioned by Homer as an important place to seek and receive advice. Aristotle himself described Dodona as “the most ancient Greece”.
The exhibition is cleverly designed as to connect the archaeological findings with the actual place where they were found, through wallpapers and video showing images of the actual site. There is even a recreation of the sacred oak tree, supposed to dominate the ancient oracle, made of hundreds of artificial leaves hanging from the ceiling. The most fascinating part of the exhibition is the projection room where you can see (and hear) the requests that the advise-seeking individual addressed to the oracle, like: “Is the servant responsible for the stealing of my jewels” or “If my husband cannot get me pregnant, can I find someone else who can?” and so on. It is like opening a window to every-day life in ancient Greece!  After the presentation, our gracious host, the museums’ director, archaeologist Mr Pantermalis offered us top-quality traditional Greek meze and tsipouro (a strong distilled drink) at the museum’s café with the best view in the world: the Parthenon!
New Acropolis Museum - Athens - Tourism Media © 2016 Expedia, Inc
If you have time, we also recommend the following exhibitions:
Thomas Hope: Drawings of Ottoman Istanbul at Benaki Museum Kerameikos Building
(close to Kerameikos archaeological site)
Stratos Kalafatis: the pig and other stories at Bernier/Eliades Gallery
(Thissio area)
Sotiris Sorongas at Theocharakis Foundation
(next to Gagosian Gallery and very close to Benaki Museum Main Building and the Museum of Cycladic Art)
David Hammons: Give Me A Moment at George Economou Collection Space
The cityartnow team visited Athens on June 19.
George Margaronis - @cityartnow
Daniel Stuart - @DanielStuartArt
Helena Valls - @cityartnow_exh
Read the brand new Ultra-short guide to Athens!

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