March 21st, 2011

Greece - Day Two

Up in time to see the sun rise over the Temple of Olympian Zeus and to catch a half-day tour of Athens.  We started at the new Olympic Stadium (only a little over 100 years old) and went past Parliament and the beautiful university but had to take pics from the bus with varying amounts of success. 

Our first real stop was the New Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009.  It’s amazingly constructed so that you can see through the shaded glass walls 360 degrees around and even through the floors, down into the archaeological excavations going on underneath.  It’s a little disconcerting to feel like you’re standing practically in mid-air in the more transparent sections, but truly a unique experience.  There they’ve moved portions of the friezes from the temples of the acropolis and transported the Karyatids (aka Korae) from the Erechtheion, to the museum in order to protect and restore them.  Replicas currently sit in their place. 

After visiting the original artworks, we moved to a guided tour of the acropolis itself.  The sheer scale, the views…it  was enough to make a person speechless.  Not me, you understand, but a normal person.  It’s especially impressive to consider that the Parthenon (at least the version of it that we generally think of, since several structures stood on the site before the incarnation that was completed in 438 B.C.) only took fifteen years to complete (approx. half on construction and half on the decorative artwork for the pediments, metopes, etc). 

The Erechtheion was supposedly built over the tomb of the mythical King Erechtheus, who was the son of Haphaestus and Gaia, but raised by Athena, so it’s appropriate that a monument in his honor would be found in the same complex as the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena.  It’s an amazing structure and unique in its lay-out among classical structures.  Just outside it sits the olive tree, supposedly the very same one that Athena presented as her offering to the city when she and Poseidon competed to become its patron.  It’s said that the Erechtheion also housed Poseidon’s offering, a well, which, sadly, produced salt water and thus didn’t win him a whole lot of support when it came to decide the match.

The Parthenon is still being restored and thus can’t be viewed entirely unobstructed by scaffolding.  The Ottoman Empire has a lot to answer for as far as the acropolis (and many other ancient sites) are concerned, both for the looting of treasures like the chryselephantine (ivory and gold) statute of Athena which once dominated the Parthenon, and for the use of the buildings as munitions storage, leading first to the destruction of parts of the Propylea (the impressive entryway) after the powder was ignited by a lightning strike and then later to the devastation of the Parthenon when Venetian bombardment caused a similar explosion.  The temple and the statue were dedicated to Athena Aptera (Wingless Victory), according to the tour guide made that way so that she’d never fly off and abandon the city.  

Still,  it’s impossible to do either of these structures justice in words, so pictures will have to suffice.

From the acropolis there are some impressive views of the Theatre of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodus Atticus and of the city.  After behaving like the shutterbugs we are, we took a leisurely stroll through the Roman Agora (marketplace), past the Tower of the Winds, built in the first century BC, which was once topped by a hydraulic clock and sundial with a weather vane.  One of my guide books says, “believed by the Turks to be the tomb of two local prophets, Socrates and Plato, and thus protected and guarded by dervishes.”  Whether it is or isn’t, the agora was once walked by the two impressive philosophers, and it was kind of incredible to walk in their footsteps.  In our meanderings, we came upon Hadrian’s Library, of which, sadly, very little remains, and some mosques and churches that stand (or used to, in some cases) nearby, like the beautiful little Church of the Holy Apostles. 

We also wandered the Monastiraki Flea Market, since it was Sunday and shopping and I are very close personal friends.   (Note: access to many of the sites, like the agora and Hadrian’s Library are free on Sundays; they’re also always free to those under twelve.) 

In short, we practically walked our feet off, but really, what are feet in the grand scheme of things.

Geek report: in the midst of my guide books and history, I was also reading the fourth novel in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series for fun.  I’m kicking myself for not having brought Mary Stewart’s My Brother Michael, which would have been most excellent.  Further Geek note: I read The Order of the Phoenix while traveling through England a few years ago.  It just seemed the thing to to.

Tomorrow starts our four-day classical tour throughout mainland Greece.


Favorite comments: “You are Greek!” (shopkeeper when I tried on a gown)

“Then why come to Greece?” (a waiter expressing dismay at my olives/olive oil allergy)