Published: April 17th 2011April 17th 2011
Sunrise over the Mediterranean
Yes, I was up early enough to see the sunrise.
Athens! Named after the Greek goddess Athena, it is the home of the Parthenon on the Acropolis and the birthplace of western democracy. It is the largest city in Greece and is on the Mediterranean Sea. It is so old… (how old is it?)…that every time they try to build they uncover more archeological ruins; history here goes back at least 3600 years.
But before I explored Athens, I had arranged to spend two weeks volunteering at Serpentine Gardens
. It is on the Pelion Peninsula north of Athens. The Pelion is known for its hiking trails and was a place I had planned to visit even before I knew I could visit Serpentine. There I met Doris and her two dogs, five cats, two geese, two ducks and three ducklings. I spent mornings pulling weeds and afternoons walking the dogs on many of those lovely hiking trails. I had a nice time but concluded I would not make a good professional gardener.
After two weeks, I took the bus back to Athens. I arrived about 3pm and, after finding a hotel, set out about 4pm to take a walking tour from my guidebook. The first interesting site was
Syntagma Square which is the main square in Athens. There I saw remains of a Roman cemetery and aqueduct (the Romans were everywhere) that were found when expanding Syntagma Square. As I said, everywhere they dig around here they hit ruins of something.
Next I crossed the street to the Parliament and arrived in the middle of the changing of the guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There were two guards and their costumes were very traditional with a pleated skirt and pom-poms on the shoes. The drill movements they performed were very different from anything I had seen. Their marching was very ornate: lift one knee high, lower it and scrape the foot along the ground, put the foot out in a goose step and raise the opposite arm overhead, transfer weight to the foot and bend the back leg, lower that foot and repeat. Each move took three or four seconds. Twice they faced each other and lifted one foot and went sole to sole.
The next stop was the Panathenaic Stadium. It is a 2500 year old stadium where games (not the Olympics but similar) were held in ancient times. It
This was a stadium 2500 years ago and was where the first modern Olympics was held in 1896.
was also the home of the first modern Olympics in 1896. It is made entirely of marble and seats 28,000 people. What other stadium do you know that has thrones for the king and queen?
I spent the next day at the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. Acropolis means High City and is built on top of a high hill. People lived there during Neolithic times but starting in the 6th century BCE it was dedicated to the gods and there were only temples up there. The highlights are the Propylaia, the Parthenon and the Catydrid Porch. The Propylaia was the entryway to the Acropolis and consisted of a central hall with two wings. The columns of the Propylaia reminded me of Karnac Temple in Egypt with its towering, closely spaced columns. The Parthenon was the biggest Temple on the Acropolis and was dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the goddess embodying the power and prestige of the city. The Parthenon was as spectacular as you can imagine considering how ruined it is. It is easy to envision it in its glorious heyday. Finally the Erechtheion was another temple dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon and is famous for the Caryatid
On the Acropolis
Porch with its six columns sculpted as Greek maidens.
While the monuments themselves are fascinating, all of the interesting art has been moved inside to the Acropolis Museum. Everything from shards of pottery to the original Caryatid statues is there. The top floor of the museum is laid out like the top of the Parthenon with the metopes, freize and sculptures displayed similar to how they would have been on the Parthenon. In 1801 Lord Elgin from Great Britain took (stole) more than half the frieze from the Parthenon and, despite official requests for its return, it is still in the British Museum. The displays frequently point this out describing it as a “Hole in History.” They have plaster casts of the pieces in the British Museum but rather than hiding it, the shoddy plaster casts emphasize the missing pieces. It is probably as embarrassing for a Brit to go to Greece as it is for an American to go to Vietnam. And, you will not be surprised to hear that when they were building the new museum they found an ancient village so they built the museum on stilts and are excavating the village.
The next day
my first stop was the National Archeological Museum. This is a fantastic museum with significant archeological finds from all over Greece. First up was a good exhibit on the Mycenaean culture which makes my planned trip to Mycenae even more interesting. Most of what we know about that civilization (which predated the Greeks) we learned from the excavations of burial pits at Mycenae. It validated the tales from Homer about these people. Next I worked my way through Greek sculpture. In a twist on modern norms, in Greek sculpture women are usually clothed and men are almost always naked.
The next interesting thing was several frescoes from Akrotiri. Like Pompeii, Akrotiri was buried by a volcano but it was buried in the 16th century BC, 3600 years ago. Because they were buried, the frescoes are amazingly vibrant in color. Finally, I saw an exhibit on the Greek pantheon of gods, goddesses, heroes and mythological creatures. There I saw the piece I most wanted to see, a scale model (in marble) of the statue of Athena that used to stand in the Parthenon. The original was 21 feet tall and dressed in gold and this one was just two feet
Temple of Hephaestus
The best preserved Doric Temple in Greese located in Ancient Agora in Athens.
tall with no gold but the original was easy to imagine.
My last stop in Athens was Ancient Agora which was the downtown area for Ancient Athens. I saw the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos which was the shopping mall of its day and the Temple of Hephaestus which is the best preserved Doric Temple in Greece. One sign I read marked the place where the Greek democracy met. I like their system where they choose representatives by lots rather than popular vote and everyone is limited to one term. I did not like the fact that women were excluded.
While I was inside Ancient Agora, outside the gate there was a protest. Apparently the government is damaging or destroying a monument to make way for a metro improvement (dig anywhere and hit a ruin) and some people are not happy. All the time I was in Ancient Agora I heard them chanting. Freedom of Speech is alive and well in Greece.
Now that I am done with Athens I am headed for Olympia, birthplace of the Olympics. I have talked with John every couple of days and he is having a great time on the Camino de
Birthplace of Western Democracy
It does not look like much but here the Athenians met in one of the first democratic processes.
Santiago in Spain. He has promised a blog entry or two so you can look forward to those.
There are more photos below