romantic notions in the agora

temple of hephaestus - side view

In the middle of Athens, nestled under the Acropolis, is the ancient agora, once the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of the city. Later, it would also serve as a marketplace, where merchants would set up their stalls in the colonnades of long, covered buildings called stoa.  (The Romans would go on to call this conglomeration a forum; we would call it a mall.) A large open area surrounded by buildings of various functions, the agora was a daily part of public life in Athens, whether you were coming to shop, pay homage to a particular god, visit the law courts, use the library, or even go swimming in the great bathhouse. Laying mostly in ruins today, the agora has the feel of an overgrown park or an English country estate. (I can’t help but think of Richard Payne Knight, Uvedale Price and the Romantic notions of picturesque landscape architecture, constructed in imitation of wild nature, which was once in fashion and still survives in the gardens at many a stately British home.) Yet on the top of Agoraios Kolonas hill, keeping watch on the northwest side of the square is perched the Temple of Hephaestus, a well-preserved temple that remains largely as it was built. Like a Parthenon in miniature, it presents a serene sense of what this all must have looked like in the full-flower of antiquity.

temple of hephaestus - looking over the agora

temple of hephaestus

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pena palace

Consort to Portugal’s Queen Maria II – and cousin of Bavaria’s “mad” King Ludwig – Don Fernando II built Palacio Pena in the 19th century atop a ruined monastery perched on the summit of the highest hill in Sintra. Overlooking a vast expanse of countryside, the view – on a clear day – extends all the way south to Lisbon.  Influenced by the romantic and eclectic tendencies of the time, the Don oversaw the creation of a revivalist palace incorporating artistic styles from antiquity to the Renaissance, while entwining art of the Far East with Arab-style domes and minarets.  In short, he built himself the ultimate over-the-top fantasy castle; a worthy rival to Neuchswastein. Almost as dramatic as the castle are the surrounding gardens; a remarkable project of landscape transformation Lord Byron likened to “a wonderful Eden.” Initially barren at the time, the hill was turned into a 200-acre arboretum of historic gardens, grottoes, fountains, and lakes, imbued with the same Romantic taste for the exotic so evident in the palace.  It’s all terribly dramatic and hauntingly beautiful; a testament to the Romantic ideal of man’s supremacy over nature. Pena has spoiled me, I think.  It’s what I always imagined a fairytale castle should be.  And more.

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