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In the bottom drawer of my desk, I keep a scrapbook, within which I have pasted mementos of my travels. The book falls open on a particular double-page spread, and on those pages are photographs of an ancient site beneath a starry sky, and a ticket stub for an open-air ballet production.

The ballet was Sleeping Beauty. The site was the Acropolis. The evening, many years ago now, was one of the most memorable of my life – and an inspiration for my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, which is rich in Greek history and mythology.

No doubt you have heard of the Acropolis in Athens. Perhaps you have been fortunate enough to visit it yourself. But how well do you know the history of this most famous of Greek landmarks? Here are eight things to know about the Acropolis:

1. The word ‘acropolis’ means ‘highest city’. The Acropolis is a group of buildings constructed on top of a big rock overlooking the city of Athens. The hilltop situation was important for two reasons: military strategy (the Acropolis is a citadel) and god appeasement. Effectively, the Acropolis was a home for the goddess Athena, patron of Athens.

2. Buildings were erected over a long time on the hill, but the most famous parts were built in the fifth century BC to stand as a unique monument to the arts and to wisdom. The man with the vision was the statesman Pericles, and the sculptor Phidias guided the creators of what would become the most important architectural and artistic project of Ancient Greece.

3. The Acropolis is not the only acropolis in Greece by any means. But because of its importance and its position in the capital, it became ‘the’ Acropolis.

4. According to Ancient Greece mythology, the founder and first king of Athens was Cecrops. He was half man, half serpent. When the goddess Athena competed for the city of Athens against Poseidon, Cecrops acted as judge – and he decided that she had won the race to the Acropolis. Thus she became patron of Athens, and the Acropolis became known as Cecropia.

5. Of the structures that can be seen today (albeit as ruins), the most famous are the temples dedicated to Athena – the Parthenon (pictured), the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena Nike. Also significant and impressive are the Propylaea (the monumental entrance to the Acropolis, never completed) and the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, dedicated to Dionysus, god of plays and wine.

6. The Parthenon was constructed of marble from Mount Pentelicus. Pity the workers who had to haul all that marble to the Acropolis site – it weighed 22,000 tons!

7. The Acropolis is a supreme example of Doric and Ionian architecture. Think lots of sturdy fluted columns, arranged with mathematical precision, and detailed sculpted friezes.

8. The Acropolis Museum houses all kinds of artefacts removed from the site. Not on display there, however, are the so-called Elgin Marbles. These sculptures were made during the sculptor Phidias’s time for the Acropolis and displayed there – until, in 1801, the 7th Earl of Elgin got the Ottoman Empire government to agree to his taking them. A furore erupted in Britain over his actions, but he was ultimately exonerated. To this day, despite long-standing Greek protests, the sculptures are installed in the British Museum.

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Did you know that the plaza – a large, open urban public space, especially a square – originated in Spain? The Spanish built them to be the hub of towns and cities. There, in the buildings, resided the religious authorities (usually in a cathedral), the administrative staff and the law court. In the middle, in the open space, people of the community could come together: for market day, for meetings, for military parades, for fiestas.

In my travels through Spain, I have seen many beautiful plazas, but the one that stands out most in my memory is in Seville: the Plaza de España.

The plaza was built for a world fair called the Ibero-American Exposition, held in Seville between May and June of 1929. As is the case in any world fair, the host was very keen to impress on international visitors their stature and style, and so the design of the square and the surrounding buildings was carefully conceived to impress – and so it did, and does to this day!

The plaza is situated in the Maria Luisa Park, whose gardens were designed by French landscape architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier (the man behind the gardens at the Eiffel Tower, Paris) to be lush and paradisiacal, with pavilions and fountains and Mediterranean tiling, along with palm and citrus fruit trees.

The plaza is vast: some 50,000 square metres, the size of five football pitches. The 500-metre canal in the plaza has earned it the nickname ‘Venice of Seville’; you can even hire boats and row around the square. Access to the buildings is via four bridges over the canal named for the ancient kingdoms of Spain: Castille, Aragon, Navarre and Leon.

The buildings stand grand and elegant, forming a semi-circle. They were designed by Aníbal González, who was influenced by the Renaissance, Art Deco and Neo Mudéjar (Morish Revival) architectural styles.

My favourite part of the design is the huge central fountain, designed by Vicente Taverner (who took over the design of the plaza when González resigned in 1926), and the many ceramic-tiled alcoves in the walls of the plaza, each devoted to a different province of Spain. Here is the alcove for the province of Zaragoza:

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Beautiful, don’t you think?

For a breath-taking bird’s-eye view of the plaza, I recommend climbing up to one of the first-floor balconies – the central one is particularly grand, and affords an amazing view. (The view may, in fact, look familiar, if you are a Star Wars fan; the Plaza de España features in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones as a city on Naboo.)

If you can bring yourself to walk away from that view, there are two wonderful museums housed in the old buildings, the Archaeological Museum in the former Fine Arts Pavilion, and the Museum of Art and Popular Costume in the Mudejar Pavilion.

Have you visited any Spanish plazas? Do you have a Spanish-inspired plaza, perhaps, in a town or city near you? I would love to hear about your own travels.

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