As you stroll through Athens, you'll discover scores of charming churches. Many date from the Byzantine era of A.D. 330 to 1453 -- although almost nothing survives from the early centuries of that Christian empire. Alas, vandals and thieves have forced many churches to lock their doors, so you may not be able to go inside unless a caretaker is present. If you do go inside, dress suitably: Shorts, miniskirts, and sleeveless shirts are not appropriate. You can leave a donation in one of the collection boxes. Below we list a few churches to keep an eye out for.
Athens's 19th-century Greek Orthodox (Metropolis) on Mitropoleos gets almost universally bad press: too big, too new, too . . . well, ugly. It also suffers terribly in comparison with the adjacent 12th-century Little Metropolis, with the wonderful name Panayia Gorgoepikoos (Virgin Who Answers Prayers Quickly). Fragments of classical masonry (including inscriptions), built into the walls of this little church, create a delightful crazy-quilt effect.
The square in front of the cathedral is a great place to people-watch on summer weekends, when weddings often take place in the evening. As one bride leaves the church, the next bride (and her flowers, attendants, and guests) is poised to enter. It's a very Greek assembly line, with limousines pulling up, horns blaring, and everyone having a fantastic time.
Also on Mitropoleos, crouched on the sidewalk, is the minuscule chapel of Ayia Dynamis, where women who want to become pregnant light candles.
If you like spying (from a respectful distance) on weddings and baptisms, continue on to the 12th-century Church of Ayia Aikaterini, in the little square off Frinihou. The church sits well below ground level, an indication of how much Athens has grown over the centuries. You'll notice ancient columns strewn around the courtyard; you may even decide to sit on one to watch the comings and goings.
If you walk from Syntagma to Monastiraki Square, you can take in a few more churches. A few blocks from Syntagma Square, on Skouleniou, the little 11th-century Church of St. Theodore is also below street level. On Hrissopileotissis, the small Church of the Virgin is a good place to buy incense from street vendors. Check out the flower market at the Square of St. Irene, off Eolou. On Monastiraki Square, Church of the Pantanassa is all that remains of a convent on this spot. A short walk away on Ermou, 11th-century Kapnikarea Church sits right in the middle of the road.
If you're walking along busy Leoforos Vas. Sofias, you may want to rest a bit in the courtyard of the Church of Ayios Nikolaos. A few blocks farther along on Gennadius, the 12th-century Church of the Taxarchi is set in a small park.
Beth Shalom, the Athens synagogue on Melidoni, stands in what was, before World War II, a vibrant Jewish neighborhood. Across the street from Beth Shalom's marble facade is the old synagogue it replaced. You can get information on synagogue visits and services from the Jewish Museum, 39 Nikis (tel. 210/322-5582).
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