Athens, in retrospect

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bad, bad blogger. I spent over two weeks in Greece and haven’t written about it at all, and now I’m in a whole other country! Sorry about that. I kind of got stuck in Athens for about 12 days, and my only excuse for not moving on was that the hostel was very very comfortable, and the company was good, and my motivation to pack and unpack one more time was at an all time low. I also had several days of sinus / head cold / stuffy nose business that made it very appealing to just sit quietly and enjoy not moving. In fact I’m still kind of sniffly and my cold has morphed into a tight, tickly-throated cough that comes in uncontrollable fits. One of these hit me in the tram on the way from the Istanbul airport to the hostel, and it left me gasping for breath with tears streaming down my face. I’m pretty sure everyone in the car was convinced I had swine flu or something. (“Hi Istanbul! I’m here! How do you like me so far?”)

But Athens. Of course I saw the sights, chief among which is the Acropolis. I think I’d always blurred the Acropolis and the Parthenon together in my head, so for anyone else in the same boat here’s a brief clarification: the Acropolis (literally meaning “high city”) is the name for the whole complex of religious buildings on the top of a big hill. The Parthenon is one of those buildings. Either way, the whole site is damned impressive; the LP calls is “…the most important ancient sight in the Western world.”

A view of the Acropolis, with Parthenon peeking out over the top

So it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I think I had something in mind more like the Roman Forum, but the Acropolis is very much set apart from the city below. The hilltop has been inhabited since Neolithic times, but the site we know today started evolving when the Delphic oracles declared that it should be “the province of the gods”. Around 480 BC Pericles started transforming it into a city of temples, only a few of which survive today, including the Parthenon (which I suppose explains why it feels like more of a scared place set apart than the spot where your average ancient Greek went for a kebab and the latest issue of “Olive Oil Weekly”). The whole site is in varying states of decay and restoration, with seemingly random chunks of worked stone littering the area. The Parthenon itself is festooned with scaffolding, and people I’ve talked to who’ve live in Athens their whole lives say they can’t remember a time when that hasn’t been the case. This meant it was a bit disappointing, but still you can't get away from the fact that it’s been there for a couple of thousand years and is undeniably impressive.

Festooned, I say

More interesting to me was the ancient Greek Agora, which covers a large, quiet, green area right near the Plaka (the obligatory old neighbourhood of winding streets and shops selling tourist tat). The Agora was kind of like what I’d hoped the Roman Forum would be like and though there was no audioguide, it was really nice to wander among the ruins with just the LP to elucidate where necessary. The best spot in the agora has to be the Temple of Hephaestus, which is the best-preserved Greek temple, and even has bits of it’s roof and ceiling left, and is generally not crawling with tourists. Two thumbs up for the Temple of Hephaestus.

Just like a postcard

I also visited Syntagma, which is the seat of the Greek government, but I could only think of it as the Ministry of Silly Walks. Anyone who’s been there will know why. In front of the main building, at the tomb of the unknown soldier, there’s a ceremonial guard of two colourfully-dressed Greek soldiers wearing pleated skirts and with giant pom-poms on their shoes, who do a bizarre marching thing that has to be seen to be believed.

I’m not kidding, this video is in real time. And that’s why I call it the Ministry of Silly Walks. John Cleese must have seen this.

As for other stuff in Athens, there was the just-completed Acropolis Museum (just €1.00 to get in!), with a display of the Parthenon frieze marbles that includes big spaces where the ones that are in London would go. I saw the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, and there’s no getting around the controversy surrounding whether or not they should be returned to Greece. Cognizant of the fact that this is a touchy subject for both countries involved, and there are loads of issues involved, I’ll just say that if the British Museum thinks that the Greeks don’t have a proper facility to preserve and display the marbles, that’s simply no longer the case. As for any other issues on the subject, I’ll keep my completely uninformed mouth shut.

There’s also a very tall hill in Athens, so naturally I went up it. Called Lycabettus, it’s the tallest point in Athens. I was still sick when I went, so it was nice to take the funicular up to the top (though it cost a usurious €6.00 one way!). Also, it turns out that going to a very high spot when you’ve got a bit of a sinus thing isn’t the best idea. I spent the whole time at the top feeling sort of like my head was in a vice, and needed a nice nap upon returning home that afternoon. The views were impressive, though.

Athens, the Aegean, and the Acropolis

And that, pretty much, was Athens. Not much to show for 12 days, but I did run a marathon in there too. And I think I deserved a break. Stay tuned for more thoughts on Greece, including my big escape from Athens (finally) to a tiny island, and Steve’s Weird Food for Greece!


Steve said...

I can't wait, your tummy is getting a good workout from all the weirdness, AND your in Turkey, where the food just gets weirder. Yea for weird food!!

Luv ya and miss ya,


Karen said...

I love those marching guys. They are fascinating!

Unknown said...

Mmmmm, Greece, the food....



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