Wednesday, November 8, 2017

My week in Greece (part 1)

I was in the midst of some life changes and didn’t want to write about it on my blog. (I am now divorced. It’s a long story and I won’t bore you with it.) But as soon as I could see the divorce process coming to a close, I went to see where I could go. I didn’t want to arrive in Belarus before October 30, but would be free to leave the USA as soon as the 20th. So, I logged onto the British Airways site to see where I could go on a travel reward. They offered me Athens, and I accepted.

I’d never been to Greece, and never even thought much about what I might do there. I just knew it should be warm, and it would get me closer to Belarus. Busy with personal matters, I didn’t have time to think about what I should do in Athens. Fortunately, the Google Trips app on my phone noticed my airline reservations and recommended a three-day itinerary. So, just before leaving, I booked a three-day reservation at the Golden Age of Athens hotel and assumed I could figure out everything else later.

I arrived on Monday morning, October 23. The desk clerk at the hotel gave me a map of Athens and marked some areas where he thought I’d enjoy spending most of my time. Fearing that jetlag might set in if I sat still, I went out immediately to do a hybrid of Days 2 and 3 of Google’s three-day itinerary. It felt like I could tear through Athens in a big hurry and then think about seeing something else. Anyway, I was learning the layout of the city.

I started in Syntagma Square and meandered through the National Garden and the Zappeion before reaching my first significant historical landmark, the Temple of Olympian Zeus. I bought a single-entry ticket and walked around inside. It didn’t appeal to me very much at this time, and I decided not to buy entry tickets to most places but just to look in through the wrought-iron fencing that surrounds most of the archaeological sites. I had more fun discovering quiet streets and cute restaurants than I had in the recommended sites. But that all changed as I circled the Roman Agora for the second time, wandering around and looking through fences. I met Cati, a Venezuelan professor of Greek classics. She’d been there for a month and was sad to be leaving so soon. She would go to the airport that evening.

Cati told me about her favorite places and the people who had helped her to understand them. She spooled off a long list of ideas, contacts, suggestions and advice. I wrote down as much as I could and urged her to share anything more she thought of. She did write to me that evening with more concrete ideas, but most importantly she inspired me. She reminded me of the importance of the artifacts I was seeing and inspired me to see them better, to try to see them through the eyes of the people who built them. She also told me that I should really buy the 30-Euro pass to get into the Acropolis and surrounding sites. She didn’t think I should go to the Acropolis until the next morning, but my meanderings took me to the Acropolis main gate and I plunged in after climbing to the top of Mars Hill and thinking about Saint Paul’s lecture to the Athenians from there.

I loved the Acropolis, but I still didn’t really understand it. I “saw” it in a couple of hours, but thought when I’d left that somehow I hadn’t managed to see the Odeum of Herodes Atticus just below it. (This wasn’t true, but I didn’t know what I was taking pictures of.) I’d loved my visit and was glad I’d bought the ticket, but I still didn’t really grasp what I was looking at or what it meant.

I made some progress the next day, when I used my multi-entry ticket to go inside the fence I’d peered through at Hadrian’s Library. I stopped to read most of the information posted on signs around the site and began to take a new interest in what I was seeing. I’d had a hard time getting motivated even to go out that morning, but by the time I finished Hadrian’s Library, I felt excited and energized to see more. I finished the library in a little indoor space walking around and around the statue of Athena Nike. The more I looked, the more beautiful, interesting and real she became. No, I didn’t start believing the mythology, but I began to feel a connection to the ancient Greeks and it made Athens much more interesting.

Walking out of the Library, I noticed a little business advertising boat trips to the Greek islands. I’d hoped to “finish” with Athens in three or four days so I could move on to see something else, and I thought it would be more fun to reach Santorini or Crete on a boat than by air. So, I went in to ask what they knew. As it turned out, the guy was promoting the last island cruise of the season, a three-day all-inclusive trip on a big ship. The daily cost would be less than I was spending to sleep and eat in Athens, and I’d see a bunch of stuff, however briefly. I signed up, and I’ll write about that in a separate post.

Still in Athens, brimming now with enthusiasm, I continued my reevaluation of sites I’d previously seen only through fences. I had a nice lunch in a sunny spot and finally entered the Ancient Agora. Wow. Guys. This is incredible. I walked back and forth through the Agora, circled the Temple of Hephaestus, surveyed the vast territory and finally went inside the museum in the rebuilt Stoa of Attalos. Somehow I still had time to return, afterwards, to the Roman Agora. Once again, I liked it a lot better from the inside even than I had through the fence.

I don’t know how far I walked that day. It wasn’t even over. Mid-afternoon, I went out to climb Filopappos Hill to see the like-named monument, which is visible from almost everywhere in Athens. From the top of the hill, I could see the sea, the city, and a lot of the history. I met some Lithuanian travelers who spoke Russian and we shared our favorite impressions. They told me about the museums that interested them the most, and I remembered how much Cati wanted me to see the Acropolis Museum. I made my way slowly to the museum, passing the spectacular side walls of the Odeum of Herodes Atticus. I’d have to come back to see this in the daytime.

The Acropolis Museum was open late that evening, so I went in. Generally, photography is not allowed in there, but the docent encouraged me to take pictures of the original columns from the Temple of The Muses. (The columns I saw at the Acropolis were reproductions. After restoration, the curators did not want to put the original columns outdoors again.) These are the columns that look like women in robes, and they are amazingly beautiful. Truthfully, one of them is missing, stolen by Lord Elgin and placed in the British Museum. The Brits have a bunch of Greek antiquities, and I get the impression that Greeks today aren’t too happy about it. Anyway, I had a great time in the museum though I went through it in a bit of a hurry. I even finished my speedy tour in time to have dinner there just as the staff was closing the dining room.

I felt pretty satisfied by the end of the day that I’d seen the highlights pretty thoroughly, and wondered how I’d use my last two days in Athens before the cruise began. I slowed my pace a bit for those last two days, but was never bored.

On day 3, I started out by getting into that Odeum of Herodes Atticus from the downhill side. This also gave me access to long pathways leading left and right around Acropolis Hill and even back into the Acropolis. I really enjoyed my second visit to the Acropolis, seeing things with new eyes and new interest this time. I stayed on the hill for hours, exploring obscure areas off to the sides of the main structures. I met and chatted with tourists from China, Argentina, Germany and a few others. The Chinese were boisterous and enthusiastic. I enjoyed them, but their group was so big that it became easy for them to block masses of people as they assembled for selfies.

For my last day in Athens, I visited several museums. This post is already so long that I won’t describe them to you in detail, but they’re all fabulous. The Benaki Museum is the most colorful of the three I visited, and they have a great rooftop café. The Museum of Cycladic Art was more intimate, and included a large and interesting space dedicated to Cypriot arts and culture. I also enjoyed listening in as a teacher addressed a very young and very interested group of school kids. Unfortunately, she taught in Greek and I understood almost nothing. Finally, I walked a long way to the National Archaeological Museum. I walked a lot all day because of a one-day Metro strike, but I had enough time that I didn’t mind. The Archaeological Museum has, in its spacious halls, an amazing collection of beautiful and important artifacts. I spent lots of time among beautiful statues and other artistic artifacts before discovering that they also have the actual Antikythera mechanism and a lot of other amazing scientific stuff. I loved all three museums.

Coming home from the Archaeological Museum, I squeezed into a bus along with about a thousand other people who might otherwise have been on the subway. I don’t know how anybody managed to unzip my over-shoulder bag in that crowd, but they did. I left, however, before they reached anything interesting. The most interesting thing might have been my wallet, which I kept in a sticky rubber band inside my front pants pocket after snatching it from a pickpocket’s hand on a crowded Metro train two days earlier. Everything is fine, but I decided not to take public transit to the pier the next morning. Packing my suitcase, I thought about how much fun I’d had in Athens, how many interesting things I’d seen and how many kind people I’d encountered. Maybe traveling alone is going to be OK.

I’ll tell you about the second half of my Grecian adventure tomorrow. Meanwhile, you can see all of the pictures I posted from this trip here.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing, Steve. I love Greece, and the Greeks! Because I studied and learned it for five full years, I could read menus and street signs, which was very helpful!