One thing I did not expect from Athens was the number of dogs on the streets.
These were not the homeless canines I have seen in the cities of some countries. But genuine, acclimatised local dogs who spend their lives outside - sleeping wherever they can. Most seem to be of pensioner age and seem to be doing it for decades. I saw tubby labradors on Syndtagma Square, imagine labradors sleeping on the pavement of Piccadilly Circus and everyone stepping over them. There were a number of them inside the entrance of the Ancient agora and when you approached they raised their heads and their tails wagged weakly. But mainly they spent their time asleep in the sun. When the heat gets too much for them they follow their chums into the bushes for a good old howl...
They were one of the things lying around the superb Ancient Agora. This is your chance to get close to classical Greek ruins without the hordes that hit the Acropolis. The Temple of Hephaestus is the best example of a surviving Doric temple in the city. The whole area is littered with fallen columns, ancient statues, and the ruins of ancient buildings. This was where Athens did business 2500 years ago. When most of Europe was still lived in mud huts here Athenians discussed philosophy and mathematics. It was the centre of Athenian public life - the focal point of all art, politics, commerce, and religion. This was where Socrates and Aristotle moved amongst the spice and oil stalls trailed by followers who hung on every word. And now only ghosts, ruins and pensioner dogs inhabit this pine grove in the shadow of the Acropolis.
To get there is easy. It stands next to Thissio METRO station and is a short walk to the east along one of the pedestrianised streets to Adhrianou. You can also reach it through the bazaar in Plaka, you know you are on the right street as Adhrianou is a tourist restaurant street scattered with tavernas. Although the Agora is visible from the Acropolis, the entrance is on Adhrianou so you will have to walk down from the mound. Entrance is 4 euros but it can be combined with an Acropolis ticket for 12 euros which lets you into the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Karameikos cemetery. Take water and a hat in with you as there are no refreshments inside and take your time. Even in September only lizards can cope with the heat at midday.
First thing you notice that the stony yellow earth at the foot of the Acropolis is dotted with the bones of buildings some of them going back to 3000 BC. The Agora (market) has taken many forms over the millennia and at first glance can be very confusing. One building you can latch onto is the stoa (market hall) which has been recreated in stone. The stoa acted as a kind of shopping mall with about twenty shops and a long loggia of white marble is its main frontage. The loggia is dotted with classical statues some missing limbs and ravaged with age but you can still pick out the forms of goddesses and Greek heroes. Inside is a small museum which had a large scale map of the Greek empires trading links with the outside world as well as numerous recovered pottery and statuary. Incidentally, in the Agora, custom didn't allow women to participate in shopping - that was the realm of slaves.
Outside are the ruins of the Agora. Most are not above knee height and it takes a bit of imagination to recreate the bustling market in your minds eye. You can just about make out the great rectangle it was formed around with the stoa at the eastern end. Most of the ruins housed Athens' administration buildings and lines of shops - something like Athens' central market today. But once in a while there is a statuary base or a fully fledged statue of a Greek warrior .But none were as good condition as the The Temple of Hephaestus which sits on a hill lording it over the Agora. A small walk uphill through the pines takes you to the preserved temple. And although you are not allowed inside you can get very close and it is a wonderfully pristine state standing forty foot high with a about twenty Doric columns. This, although smaller, is probably what the Pantheon looked like in its prime. The friezes around its roof show the adventures of Theseus and Perseus in graphic detail.
Wandering around the ruins on a hot day can be hard work. If you can make your way to the National Gardens just south of Syndagma Square. One of the few green oases in central Athens this is a good place to buy an ice cream, find a seat under the shade of a palm, and take a break from the heat.