With Greece slowly opening up again, the crowd-free Parthenon looks more monumental than usual – even with its ‘keep safe distance’ yellow stickers
During our lockdown in Athens, one thing remained reassuringly constant: the Parthenon was still standing tall, watching silently over the empty city. The absence of cars and planes swept away the Athenian smog and the spring skies shone with an uncanny clarity, throwing the familiar outline of the monument into sharp relief. The Parthenon seemed to vibrate with the promise of transcendence – a symbol of humanity’s ability to outlast, to overcome, to survive. But one thing was missing: the tiny tourists, clinging to the edges of the rock like a trail of black ants, were gone. There was nobody up there communing with the spirit of Athena, except perhaps for a few stray cats snoozing in the shade of those giant columns.
So when archaeological sites opened up again – along with shopping centres, beauty parlours and high schools – in Greece on 18 May, I wanted to be the first up on that hill. But my plan was foiled by an unseasonal heatwave that kept Athenians confined indoors; there was no question of scrambling up the Acropolis hill in 37C. On Thursday, the heat finally broke. In the silvery evening light, my seven-year-old son and I wandered past the restless shoppers parading up and down Ermou Street, the equivalent of Oxford Street. The crowds dissipated in the old town of Plaka, the souvenir shops still shuttered, the touts who normally prowl hungrily outside the tavernas gone. Usually, there’s a long queue of people waiting to enter the Acropolis, even at the quieter entrance on the north slope, by the ancient theatre of Dionysus. For us, there was nobody.