Published: March 19th 2010October 3rd 2007
The Glorious Parthenon
It was a dream come true to finally see this amazing structure.
I was hopelessly lost. All of the signs were telling me conflicting things and it didn’t seem like there were any people around that I could ask for help - Everyone who was there hurried past me, averting their gaze, seemingly playing a game of ignore the lost man with the big backpack. The muffled voice came back on the intercom and announced a string of instructions regarding which trains were going where, but the acoustics of the platform made it sound more like Charley Brown’s teacher than a human. It was mid morning and I was standing on a train platform in an unknown suburb somewhere on Athens’ metro line. My journey from Olympia had been uneventful. My brief stop in the Pyrgos train station had gone a lot better than my first visit there and I managed to quickly get on a train bound for Athens. I looked down on the amazing Corinth Canal as the train shot over its deep, narrow gorge, which had been cut straight through the isthmus of land that separated mainland Greece from the Peloponnesian Peninsula. I changed from the regional rail network to the Athens metro rail shortly after we crossed over the
The Warm Rays of the Sun
I waited for hours to see the sunlight on the Temple of Hephaestus.
canal. The signs at that first metro station had been very straightforward, but they didn’t seem to match the signs on the train. The station I was supposed to change trains at never came, or I lost it somewhere in translation, so I got off of the train when I knew I had gone too far.
The sun was shining and it was a beautiful morning. I was sitting on a bench trying to find the suburb I was in on the tiny map of Athens that I had and I was getting nowhere fast. The intercom came to life again, “Waah waaah wah wah train waah wah Athens”. I was able to make out a few words that sounded a lot like English, but Charley’s teacher was still not getting through to me - The first message was clearly in Greek, so I wondered if somebody watching the security cameras had made a special announcement for the lost tourist, not realizing that there wasn’t a soul on Earth that could understand anything out of those sad speakers. A man came up to me and asked in flawless English, “Are you lost? Can I help you?” I looked up
from my map into the man’s smiling face, stalling for a moment on his sea-foam green suit, and then I filled him in on my predicament. He smiled and told me that he was going to the courthouse in Athens and that he could show me the way. I thanked him and followed him on to the next train going back the way I had come. We spent the next twenty minutes or so talking. I told him all about my travels and the exotic lands I had visited and then he filled me in on some of his. It turned out that he was a lawyer who had lived most of his life in America. Several years ago he had been convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to three years in prison. He didn’t want to go to prison, so he decided to leave America instead. He said farewell to the life he had built in the United States and returned to his homeland in Greece. He said that he still had children back in America that visited him every few years and that he missed his life there immensely, but that he didn’t regret his choice to flee.
The Philopappos Monument
This is the monument/tomb on top of the hill that I climbed on my first day in Athens. It was the tomb for Philopappos, a prince from the Kingdom of Commagene, who died in 116 AD.
Just before his stop came up he pointed to the map above the door and showed me which station I needed to get off at. He then wished me happy travels and I thanked him for his assistance. A few moments later, the doors on the train slid closed and the man in the sea-foam green suit was gone. He was one of the friendliest people I had met on my travels. It is amazing how quickly a bad situation can turn into a cherished experience - I am happy that I got lost!
I emerged out of the Monastiraki station into the sunlight. I walked up to the end of the street I was on and looked around me to get my bearings. Over my left shoulder I got my first glimpse of the Parthenon standing high on the fortress plateau of the Acropolis. I quickly turned my head, not wanting to waste my first view of the grand building on a partial, city-clogged view. I knew where the Acropolis was and I new which station I had come up from, so all I had to do was figure out which exit I had used. The street name
This is the little guy that sat next to me on the summit for my first view of the Parthenon.
on the sign at the corner solved the mystery and I turned down a side street and started walking towards the first hostel I wanted to stay at. After about ten minutes of walking I found the place and it was full, but the area it was in wasn’t all that pretty anyway. The next place required a bit more of a walk. It was located right in the heart of a major tourist district and was clogged with nice street cafés and people from all over the world. I had no problem getting a bed in a four-bed dorm at the second hostel. I dropped my bags off in the room and then I set off to explore.
I spent the rest of my first day in Athens exploring the shops and eating delicious food near my hostel. I found a much needed book exchange and traded in my three read books for a few new ones - By then I was at the end of Frankenstein and I had nothing else to read, so it was my main task for the day (other than getting to Athens). Towards evening I happened across a movie theater near the
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus
This well restored theater at the base of the Acropolis still has live performances - Sadly, they were all sold out when I was in town.
hostel that was playing Shrek 3. I was in the mood for some laughter, so I bought a ticket and followed the signs to the theater. The signs let me to the roof of the building where I found a huge screen and several plastic chairs lined up in orderly rows overlooking the city - Wow! For obvious reasons we waited for the sun to go down before the movie started. I sat in my plastic chair beneath a brilliant blanket of stars and the floodlit ramparts of the nearby Acropolis and I laughed my head off as Shrek and his companions acted out their hilarious adventures on the screen. It was one of the finest movie experiences I have had and the movie was as funny as I was hoping it would be - What a great way to start my stay in Athens!
I was up early the next morning, ready to start my day of exploring. I went down to the hostel’s courtyard and ate the wonderful breakfast that was included in the price and I talked to several of the travelers staying there. Afterwards I gathered my things and set my sights on the Acropolis.
In a Sea of Humanity
The crowds were large as I climbed up through the Propylaea onto the summit of the Acropolis.
I was feeling adventurous, so I decided to leave my map at the hostel. I knew roughly where the Acropolis was, so I just weaved my way through the narrow, cobblestone streets heading in its general direction. I figured that since the Parthenon was on the highest point of land in the area that I could just walk up hill to get there. My plan had unexpected, but, ultimately, more satisfying results. My uphill route led me through some lovely city streets to the forested slopes of a hill that I decided was the Acropolis. I followed the shady paths up a series of switchbacks to the summit. Instead of the beautiful Parthenon and huge crowds I found an ancient monument crowning the deserted summit. I turned around to find out where I had gone wrong and that is when I saw it. The Acropolis was just across a small, forested valley and the beautiful Parthenon sat in all of its glory right on its flat summit! I had accidentally stumbled on the best view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon in the city - If I had brought my map I would have missed it! I sat on a
rock next to the monument and I took in the view. There was a small turtle sitting next to me taking in the same view, but other than him I was alone with the best view in Athens!
It was a powerful feeling sitting there on the summit looking across Athens. The city is considered by many to be the cradle of western civilization and thought. Some of the world’s greatest minds had been there before me. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and many more pushed the limits of knowledge in every direction. Many of their works are still required reading in universities around the world more than two millennia after they were first written down! I know I have read a good bit of their teachings.
I spent about an hour sitting up on my perch staring out across Athens and then I headed back down the hill towards the Acropolis. The forest along the way was lovely and peaceful, but I knew that was all going to change - I had already seen the crowds slowly climbing up the ramparts towards the Parthenon from across the valley. The path I was following deposited me in the busy parking
In the Acropolis
area for the tour buses at the base of the Acropolis. I walked past several buses and entered the massive crowd and started climbing. My travel budget had been feeling the pain of traveling in Europe, so I was very happy when I discovered that the 12 Euro entrance fee for the Parthenon, as well as for all of the other monuments in Athens, had been waved for that day and the next. It meant more crowds, but that was unavoidable any day in Athens. It took me about half an hour to reach the summit of the Acropolis. Everywhere I looked I was greeted with amazing ancient structures in various stages of restoration, most of them partially blocked with scaffolding. I followed the massive line of tourists as we slowly walked along the designated path like sheep. The beautiful façade of the Parthenon dominated the right portion of the plateau. To my left the huge Erechtheum with its many temples was undergoing restoration. A small covered porch-like structure, which was called the Caryatids Balcony, came off of one of the buildings there. Several columns in the shape of women supported its roof - The structure is one of the
The Caryatids Balcony
The lovely statue columns are concrete casts of the originals, which were removed to preserve their details.
most famous in Greece, though the statue-columns are concrete casts of the originals, which were moved to museums such as the British Museum.
I walked around the Erechtheum complex, which was comprised of the temples of Athena Polias, Poseidon, Erechtheus, Cecrop, Herse, Pandrosos and Aglauros. I was amazed at how compete the structures were. Most of the walls seemed to be intact. The columns were all standing and many of the roofs were in place. The entire complex was roped off and a large field of debris was laid out in an orderly manner, as if waiting to be re-erected in its proper place. Perhaps future visitors will see the structures as they were in ancient Greece. For now they will remain a beautiful ruin. I walked over to the edge of the plateau and I looked down the steep ramparts to the town below and then I went over to take a look at the most famous structure in Greece, the Parthenon.
The Parthenon was completed in 438 BC. It was dedicated to the city’s protector, Athena and was one of the grandest structures ever built in the Doric order. In Roman times it was converted to
At the Acropolis.
a Christian church and then a Mosque when the Ottomans took over in the 1400s. The amazing building stood intact for more than 2000 years. On September 26, 1687 an Ottoman ammunition dump inside the building was ignited by a Venetian bombardment and the resulting explosion badly damaged the Parthenon. In 1806 the Earl of Elgin removed most of the sculptures from the ruined Parthenon and sold them to the British Museum, where they remain to this day. Elgin had permission from the Ottomans to remove the sculptures and in doing so he preserved their detail, which would have been eroded during the smoggy days of the Industrial Revolution. Today there is a big, somewhat heated movement to return the works of art to Greece, but that is another story. What remains of the Parthenon was impressive. Most of the colonnade is intact and the walls are standing more or less where they were originally, though the restoration work continues. I was amazed at the level of restoration going on at the Parthenon. Modern scaffolding heavily obstructs the building making it look more like a constructions site than an ancient monument. The blocks of white marble are being meticulously restored
An Intact Roof
At the Acropolis
using new marble from the original source. Expert stonemasons are carving and fitting the new pieces to form a seamless repair - The untarnished color of the new stone is the only way to notice where the repairs are! Though the mission of the restoration is to stabilize and protect the structure, I would not be surprised to see a fully restored Parthenon standing in place of the ruined one in my lifetime. The structure is beautiful as it is surrounded by scaffolding and badly ruined, so I can’t even comprehend what it would look like complete!
I spent about two hours walking around the Acropolis taking in the scenery. The crowds were huge, but not as annoying as I expected. The views of modern Athens and the ancient ruins that are scattered about the city were stunning, though a bit smoggy. It had been a lifelong dream of mine to visit Athens, the cradle of western civilization, and to see the Parthenon with my own eyes, so I had a big smile on my face as I started my descent from the Acropolis. The Parthenon had been more beautiful than I had hoped, but there was a lot
This is one of the temples in the Erechtheum temple complex.
more to see in Athens and I had two (free) days to do it in.
I spent the rest of the day exploring the idyllic landscape of the huge, ruin-filled park at the base of the Acropolis. The park was known as the Ancient Agora of Athens, which meant it was the main meeting place in ancient times. It was comprised of beautiful debris fields filled with ancient stones in a lush, green park-like setting. Most of the ancient structures in the park were badly ruined, but some were stunningly restored or completely and mind bogglingly original. The Gallery of Attalos was a very impressive two-story building, which had been completely restored and now serves as the Agora Museum. Inside there were amazing sculptures from the nearby Temple of Hephaestus as well as several other interesting finds from the area - My favorite was a small baby toilet!
The Gallery was truly amazing, but the Temple of Hephaestus was far grander, possibly the most amazing ancient structure I have seen in Greece. The temple was built in the fifth century BC and has been standing ever since. In the seventh century AD it was converted to a Greek
The Construction Site
I was not bothered by the scaffolding, because I would love to someday see the Parthenon whole again.
Orthodox Church and then, in 1834, to a museum. Now it is considered the best preserved of all of ancient Greece’s structures. It is located in a lush, green garden in a quiet corner of Athens. I was surprised that so few people actually made it out to see the amazing building - It can’t really be called a ruin - but I was happy to have it to myself. I sat down in the shade of a big tree and I watched the temple and the few tourists that actually ventured away from the Acropolis. I ended up sitting there for about two hours watching as the sun slowly shifted to fill the temple’s most impressive side with warm, afternoon light. Eventually I got the pictures I wanted and then I walked back to the hostel though a quaint neighborhood near the base of the Acropolis. I ended up stopping for a delicious ice cream on the way - The first I had eaten since I arrived in Athens. I spent the rest of the evening writing and talking to my new friends at the hostel.
I woke up energized and ready to go the next morning. It
The restoration of the Parthenon is being done in the best way possible, using new stone from the original source and master stonemasons to carve and fit the pieces together.
was day two of free admission and I had several sights I wanted to see. I started at a coffee shop where I spent an hour or so writing and then I headed out to explore. I had seen the massive columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus from the Acropolis the day before, but that first look didn’t prepare me for how amazing the ruin would actually be. The temple was one of the biggest temples constructed in the ancient world, but little more than the foundation and a few columns remain today. Of course, the giant fluted columns and their massive Corinthian capitols dwarfed all of the mortal men and women who were staring up at them with amazed, awestruck looks on their faces and seemed to have been constructed for a race of giants, or immortal Olympian Gods. As I said, the temple was badly ruined, but one corner of it was fairly intact and really helped to demonstrate how massive the structure had been. There were a few other columns standing at the far end of the structure and there was another that had fallen in a bad storm in 1852. The rest of the structure
The Horse's Head
I am not sure if this is an original or a cast, but I know I saw a real one in the British Museum.
served as a quarry for the construction of other buildings in Athens over the years.
I spent the rest of the day on a whirlwind tour of the remaining sites in the area. I stopped by the huge, marble stadium that served as the first Olympic Stadium of the modern era and then I walked through a lovely green park with the huge Parliament Building in it.
After lunch, I walked all the way across town to the Athens Archaeology Museum. My time at the museum was not all that good, despite the wonderful exhibits there. The problem started when I walked in and the woman at the entrance told me I had to check my small camera bag. It wouldn’t have been a big problem except that it was only me that she was picking on. As we were discussing my bag, she waved no less than ten women into the museum with bags and backpacks that could have held two of mine. When I asked her why they were allowed in with their bags she smiled broadly and told me in a snide, ‘I am god and you must bow down to me’ way, that women
The Parthenon Pediment
A few more statues on the Parthenon's Pediment.
are allowed to bring in purses - It turns out that the National Archaeology Museum in Athens thinks sexual discrimination is OK. It was clear that there was no chance of breaking through that miserable woman’s roadblock, so I gave up and went to the bag check. There I discovered that the museum had no secure bag storage lockers and the big sign at the counter said, “Do not leave valuables in your bags!” The lady at the counter, who was considerably less pleasant than the woman ‘welcoming’ tourists to the museum, informed me that I could not leave my camera gear with her, just my bag - She had an evil smile on her face that told me she loved her job! I was blown away! Considering that everything in the museum is bolted down or in alarmed display cases, it is clear that the rule of ‘No Bags’ is meant to keep careless tourists from bumping into the exhibits. Forcing me to carry my camera, my extra lens, my batteries, my portable hard drive, my water and my journal, all of which she refused to let me leave, made me the most likely candidate for bumping into stuff,
My hair is getting longer and longer.
because my arms were over full! I wandered around the museum quickly, but the experience was continually unpleasant. I actually got to watch one of the women with the duffle bag purses turn around quickly and bump one of the prettier statues, which made me smile a bit. I managed to see all of the main exhibits and then I went back to the bag check to retrieve my bag. I got to return a bit of the pleasantness that the two women had given me by blocking the bag check line as I repacked all of my belongings at the desk - When they asked me what was taking so long I simply told them they shouldn’t have made me unpack it if they didn’t want the delays. I smiled at both of the women and said in the most pleasant voice I could muster, “Have a wonderful day!” Their contemptuous gazes bored into the back of my head as I walked out. I had been told to expect a lot of unfriendly people in Greece, since I was traveling at the end of the tourist season, but those two women were far worse than anything I could have
I had another leisurely night at the hostel talking with my new friends. When I went up to my room I discovered that I had a roommate. It wasn’t all that unusual that I had a roommate, I was staying in a dorm after all, but what was unusual was that she had also worked in McMurdo Station, Antarctica, though at a different time than me. We were both a little surprised, though it wasn’t the first time it had happened to either of us - The people that work in Antarctica are usually voracious travelers and can be found just about anywhere (I unexpectedly ran into one of my former coworkers in Punta Arenas, Chile once!) We spent several hours reminiscing about life on the Ice and then we said goodnight.
I had two days left in Athens, but my experience at the museum had crushed my desire to do anymore exploring. I spent both days just relaxing and reading and writing. One afternoon I got into a lively conversation with several people at the hostel. We were talking about our travels and our favorite places when one of the girls mentioned that she had just
Looking Out Over Athens
The large temple on the right side of the picture is the Temple of Olympian Zeus. In the mountainous clump of trees there is a white horseshoe structure, which is the first modern Olympic Stadium.
spent three months in the Peruvian Amazon doing macaw research. We talked for a long time about her experiences in the jungle and then, when she found out how interested I was in going there myself, she dug up all of the contact information for the Tambopata Macaw Project (I am so far behind on my blogs that I have already been to Peru and posted my blogs from the Macaw Project on this site!)
On my last evening in Athens, I climbed back up to the lonely summit that I had climbed on my first day and I watched the sun set on the Acropolis. Afterwards, I splurged on dinner and went to the Hard Rock Café and devoured a giant cheeseburger - When you haven’t had a cheeseburger in nearly ten months it does fit into the splurge category! I made my way to the Athens airport early the next morning, said farewell to Greece and boarded my plane. With the thrust of the engines and butterflies in my stomach I left Europe behind me and I headed south towards Africa and the sands of the mighty Sahara. Next stop: Ramadan in the land of the Pharos!
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