Made out of marble from the Mount Pendeli, the Kallimarmaro or Panathinaiko Stadium - the only one of this kind in the world - is a must-stop when visiting central Athens. It is located in the residential district of Pangrati, with the National Gardens on one side. The stadium (owned by the Greek Olympic Committee) is now a tourist attraction, used only for special events. It was used for the 2004 Olympics that were held in Athens, as the marathon took place there (following the tradition of the first Olympics).
The site of the Panathenaic Stadium was originally a small natural dell, between the two hills of Agra and Ardettos, above the Ilissos river. This surprising stadium was originally built in ancient times to house the famous Panathenaic games, which took place in honor of the goddess Athena, protector of the city. The first stage had wooden seats, but in 329 BCE governor Lycurgus restore them with marble. In 140 BCE, the Roman general Herod Atticus restructured the building until it reached a maximum capacity of 50,000 spectators. In the following centuries the stadium lost its functions and was left in ruins. In the Middle Ages, it was used as a quarry and suffered numerous damages as the stadium fell into disrepair: its marble was taken to build other buildings or reduced to lime, and it was submerged by debris.
However, towards the end of the 19th century (1886), it was restored again to host the first modern Olympic Games that took place in Athens. In addition to Greece, 13 other countries competed in gymnastics, weightlifting, athletics and wrestling competitions. The stadium was the arrival point of the marathon, the race that was introduced to commemorate the legendary march of Miltiades from Marathon to Athens, or the effort of Filippide who ran 42.195 km, from Marathon to the Acropolis, to announce the victory over the Persians in 490 BCE.
The reconstruction of the stadium was assigned to the architects Anastasios Metaxas and Ernst Ziller. The discovery of the stadium was possible thanks to the Greek benefactor George Averoff, whose marble statue is located at the entrance.
In ancient times athletic competitions were held and the participants were naked men (gymnikol agones). They were challenging each other in speed races, boxing, wrestling and pancratios (the union of boxing and wrestling), pentathlon and chariot races. Whoever won the chariot race received 140 amphorae of oil as a prize. There were also competitions reserved only for Athenian citizens, such as: military exercises with musical accompaniment, “evandria” (a beauty contest among athletes), a race with torches (from Piraeus to the Acropolis), simulated fights between hoplites and knights, and javelin throwing from horse-back.
Outside the stadium, on the right, you will find the ticket office; admission costs 5 euros (audio guides included in many languages including Italian). Don't miss the interior room where all the torches and posters of the modern Olympics are collected. The stadium can be visited everyday, its opening hours are: 0800 to 1900 from March to October and 0800 to 1700 from November to February.
Cover picture credits © iStock/gatsi
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