25 September 2008

It's All Greek to Me!

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Our day began with a beautiful sunrise over the port of Piraeus that Bob and Emma invited us to see from their balcony.  Much to Bob's chagrin, we were up this early for our date with Nicholas and the city of Athens, and the sunrise gave us hope that we would have sunshine today and not the rain that was forecast.  Alas, by the time we all got off the ship, through the terminal, and outside, it was chilly and drizzling.  And we saw no sign of Nicholas!  Already there were murmurs of uncertainty among us, but since we were a little early, we just crossed our fingers that Nicholas would arrive shortly.  We huddled up and watched other voyagers board their huge buses and turned away offers from Greek taxi drivers who saw us as possible passengers.  Before too long, Rex saw a young man stride into the terminal with a rolled up sign under his arm, and sure enough, it was our driver.  Hooray!  Nicholas led us across the parking lot to his brand-new (as advertised) Mercedes minibus.  The van had seats for twelve, so we had plenty of room.

As Nicholas drove us along the coastline of Piraeus, he explained that Piraeus just sort of runs into Athens (sort of like Raleigh-Durham, only bigger – we know how Piraeus feels!) and it's hard to know where one stops and the other begins.  We passed the Church of St. Nicholas, who Nicholas told us is the guardian of the sailor, so every port city has a church named for him.  Along the way, Nicholas pointed out several Olympic venues – beach volleyball, soccer, basketball, and swimming – as we passed them.  By 8:15 or so we had passed (but not stopped at) the Temple of Zeus the Olympian, the Parliament Building, and the University, and we had seen the church on the highest point in Athens and soon, we had caught a glimpse of the Parthenon high atop the Acropolis.  Nick gave us a quick Greek lesson as we had to figure out that Acropolis means 'high city' – he was making us earn our ride!  Since it was early Sunday morning, traffic was light in downtown Athens (we were SO glad we weren't there for rush hour, if this was light traffic!) so we went into the center of the city and saw the financial district, the government areas, and the business districts.

Nick dropped us off below the Acropolis, told us where to walk, warned us to be extra careful on our way up the slick marble steps, and told us where to meet him and how to call him when we were ready to go.  We were hoping that we'd find our way back to our meeting spot!  I had not realized that in addition to the Parthenon, there are several other temples built on the Acropolis.  After walking up the slippery marble walkway, we looked down into the Odeon of Herides Atticus (a Greek theatre, which is currently being used for the Hellenic Festival) and purchased our tickets at a modern ticket booth, then entered the Acropolis through the Beule' Gate, which is an Roman arch that was added in the 3rd century.  A few steps later, we passed through the Propylaia, which was the ancient (in case 3 AD isn't ancient enough for you!) entrance.  Most of the buildings atop the Acropolis were begun during the golden age of Athens, in 5 BC, under the orders of Pericles.  The Porpylaia was damaged during bombardment by the Venetians in the 17th century, but has been restored.  Next we passed a small temple which is almost completely covered in scaffolding and inaccessible to us.  It is the Temple of Athena Nike, named for the goddess Athena (wisdom), for whom Athens was named, and the goddess Nike (pronounced nee-kee in Greek), who is the goddess of victory.

The most majestic temple on the Acropolis is the one everyone has heard of and the one we really came to see – the famous Parthenon.  It was completed in 438 BC, and it is LARGE!  One thing I didn't know (or if I did, I didn't remember it) about the Parthenon is that it was very ingeniously built – the base of it curves upwards, and the columns actually get narrower at the top – this makes the building always look straight by counter-acting optical illusions.  Today, there is a lot of reconstruction and restoration taking place, especially at the Parthenon.  Pieces of marble are organized all over the Acropolis, marked with numbers and sorted into piles by the types of pieces.  It is painstaking work!  The other large temple up here is the Erechtheion, which is famous for its Caryatids, which are the six maidens who support one side of it.  It is also being restored.  There is wall around the Acropolis (good thing – it's pretty high up there!) and at one end is a raised platform with the Greek flag flying.  It's a good place to gather and to see the whole area, so we took a group photo there.  You will likely not see it in the Durham Herald-Sun, though! 

The Acropolis Museum, which was housed up here, is now closed and will reopen later at a site down in Athens - Nick had pointed the new building out to us earlier.  It is truly amazing what was built so long ago, with neither mortar (a Roman invention, later on) nor the equipment we have today (like the cranes, which looked so out of place at the Parthenon).  We agreed we would have loved to have been able to see the Parthenon all lit up at night, but that wasn't happening this trip.  Rex and I particularly enjoyed seeing the real thing, after spending many hours in Centennial Park in Nashville, TN, and enjoying the replica of the Parthenon there.  From our awesome vantage point high above Athens, we looked down upon the Temple of Zeus the Olympian and recognized several other places that Nick had already taken us past.

We got really lucky – the early morning rain had stopped shortly after we got to the Acropolis, and the sun had come out, so we were enjoying a perfect morning.  The stalls that lined the street we walked up were opening for business, and the tour groups from the several cruise ships were now clogging up the area, so it was a good time to make our way back to our meeting place with Nick.  We found it and him with no trouble – what service!  Our next stop was the Temple of Olympian Zeus. You will remember, I'm sure, that Zeus, the most powerful of all the gods, was from Mt. Olympus - it is only fitting that the largest temple of all be built in his honor.  The construction of the temple was begun in the 6th century BC, but it was abandoned for lack of funds.  Finally, Hadrian made sure it was finished in 131 AD, over 700 years later.  Hadrian, being a Roman, loved to have gates erected in his honor, and sure enough, there is yet another Hadrian's Gate at one corner of this temple area.  Although they are no longer standing, Hadrian also had a colossal statue of Zeus built in the middle of the cella, and he put an equally large one of himself there, too.  At least he got the job done!  When it was completed, this temple had 104 Corinthian columns which were 17 meters high and almost 2 meters in diameter.  Today, only 15 of them remain, and one is on its side, looking like a sliced banana.  It was toppled over in a gale in 1852.

We left Zeus at 10:30 so that we could get a good spot to view the changing of the guard at the Parliament building.  On the way there, we passed the Olympic Stadium from the first modern Olympics, which were held in 1896.  The stadium seats 70,000 (on hard marble bleachers, it appeared) and it used today for some outdoor concerts.  It does not have many modern conveniences...  As we turned the corner, we ran smack into the back of the parade of evzones (guards) in traditional Greek dress (and I do mean DRESS) marching down the street behind a military band.  We didn't actually hit them, but we got to follow and then pass them as they proceeded to the Parliament building.  Nick let us out right where they were turning the corner, so we had the perfect view of the whole processional!  We hurried over to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but there was already such a crowd there that only us taller folks were able to see anything or get any good pictures.  However, here's a tip for all of you travelers – don't leave the area when the rest of the crowd leaves.  I have seen more cool things, from blazing sunsets to poignant moments to the actual event when I have stayed around after everyone else takes off for the next thing on their lists.  There was a whole ceremony that took place AFTER the guards had changed places, and 90% of the people that were there for it missed it, much like they had missed the parade because they were there early to get a good viewing spot!  

A couple of funny things happened while we were here – first, we saw a man in women's panties and maybe pantyhose watching the parade.  How did we know he was wearing panties?  Well, his black and white tartan plaid skirt covered about half of his rear end (sorry, we only got a rear view) and he was wearing a red puffy coat that looked like it had been taken from an eight year old.  Be sure to look for him in the fashion DON'T section!  There was an elderly man selling pigeon food (which some idiots were foolish enough to buy!) so everyone who couldn't see the changing of the guard was entertained by the hundreds of pigeons on the square.  Rows of pigeons lined the walls behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, so it looked like they were watching the whole procession, too.  Once the festivities were over, we made our way back to the place Nick said he would be, and by some miracle, he was there.  I cannot begin to tell you how glad we were that we had not rented a car on our own – traffic was unbelievable and parking nonexistent.

Next stop – the Sunday flea market, the Ancient Agora and the Roman Agora, and lunch.  Nick dropped us off at the street that would take us down through the flea market (which covered BLOCKS of the Monastiraki area of Athens) and would lead us to the entrance to the Agora, or marketplace.  I have forgotten to mention that the tickets we purchased at the Acropolis have come in handy – we used the same ones to get in to see Zeus, the Agora, and the museum here – so hold onto your ticket stubs if you ever visit Athens!  We fought through the crowds past vendors selling everything from t-shirts and silly souvenirs to furniture, crystal, jewelry, tires, broken typewriters, old sewing machines, photos of the ancestors, you name it and you could find it here!  The smell of good things cooking and the sight of ice cream was making my mouth water, but we pushed on and made it to the entrance to the Agora.  Nick had told us that while the ancient Greek agora was mostly in ruins, the Roman agora still had a roof and walls, so that we would be able to imagine what it had all looked like centuries ago.  The juxtaposition between the modern street market and the ancient agora was made even more pronounced as a metro train went flying down tracks adjacent to the ancient agora.  Wild!  We enjoyed a leisurely, uncrowded stroll through these old meeting places (guess the cruise ship tours don't come here!) and marveled at some of the centuries-old technologies and philosophies – drainage systems, elaborate friezes, sundials, a building whose sides were once plastered with 'posters' carrying the news of the day, big schools and amphitheatres, governmental centers and systems, ways to determine systems of weights and measures – all found here and founded here.

By now, the sun was hot and we were hungry so we skipped the museum (for now) and went in search of good Greek food.  We stopped at one cafe that offered plenty of drinks, but the only food options were a club sandwich and something else equally as American.  Plus, we were sitting in the hot sun, so we moved on.  We ducked into Diados, where we found a tiny WC (water closet, aka rest room), shade, tables for eight, and Greek food!  Bob ordered a hamburger and got a plate of five little burgers, no buns, and French fries, no ketchup.  Robert got a plate of three huge sausages, Emma got chicken souvlaki, Nancy got 
moussaka, and our table (John, Judy, Rex, and I) split two orders of moussaka and two Greek salads.  YUM!  Rex was brave and ordered some ouzo, but when I smelled that licorice smell I couldn't even think about trying it!  It was clear in the little mini bottle, but over ice (!) it got cloudy.  I don't know how anyone drinks the stuff, unless they love licorice.  Our food was delicious and we left happy, ready to tackle the museum back at the  agoras.

The Agora Museum is housed in the Stoa of Attalos, an ancient arcade, and it had some really interesting exhibits, mostly of things that had been excavated from the site.  Some of the ones that were most fascinating to me were a mechanism for voting (democracy was founded at the agora), some ostracism ballots (another voting thing), a 'potty seat' for small children, and the grave of a young girl.  When we had had enough culture and refinement, we were ready to brave the streets of the flea market again in hopes of finding Nicholas and the spot where he dropped us off.  As we left the agora, a little old man was pushing a hurdy-gurdy (no monkey) along and singing a horribly off-key song.  It didn't look like he was getting much money as he walked and sang his way up and down the street that was lined with cafes full of people.  Rex and I gave in and got the Greek version of gelato – I had peach and Rex got chocolate, but it wasn't as good as the Italian stuff – as we strolled through the flea market.  None of us were tempted to buy much, and we found our way to our meeting spot with no trouble.  It seemed like we had just called Nick and voila! - there he was.  We noticed for the second time today that garbage pickup was being done, which we thought was odd for a Sunday.

On our way out of Athens, Nick took us past the most expensive apartments in the city, by the Prime Minister's house and the President's house and back by the old Olympic stadium.  We then drove along the busy coastal road in Piraeus, where seafood restaurants lined the narrow streets.  It was very unusual to us – the seating areas of the restaurants were right on the seaside, but the kitchens were across the street in separate buildings.  Even with all of the traffic (again, where would you park if you wanted to eat out?) we saw waiters carrying plates loaded with food and busboys carrying trays of dirty dishes across the street from the kitchens to the restaurants and back.  Talk about needing hazard pay! All too soon we were back at the port, so we pooled our Euros and paid Nicholas for a job well done.

It was about 3:30 when we got back to the ship, so we all retired to our staterooms to rest and revive after our busy day.  We set sail for Istanbul, Turkey, at five, and we met for dinner at 7:30.  No show for us tonight, but a fantastic day in Greece!

Glad the ancient civilizations were so smart!


No comments: