Monday, May 26, 2014

My Trip to Athens [Bryan]

For anyone who cares, below is a blow-by-blow account of a recent trip to Athens. 

Sunday. Arrived in Athens around 11:30 at my hotel north of Syntagma square. I was told immediately that the day was Election Day, so all of the sites would be closing early. I rushed off to see the Acropolis.

First impressions of Athens: clean, but run down and covered with graffiti (something I had been told to prepare for, but was shocking nonetheless in its scope). Consists mostly of nondescript apartment blocks. Everywhere you turn there are ancient ruins -- sometimes just a city block of excavated buildings, without even a sign to designate what the ruins are. There is a constant traffic of scooters (sometimes on the sidewalks running down pedestrians), taxis, and tourist buses. Dogs are everywhere, including stray dogs at ancient sites (however, every dog I encountered seems to be fat, happy, and lazy. I only heard one dog bark out of the hundreds that I saw!)

After entering a neighborhood of Plaka, which is an interesting mix of extreme tourism and almost seeming untouched narrow back roads, I ascended the Acropolis, an easy hike with a big crowd. Saw the cute little Temple of Nike, the enormous entrance gate the Propylaia, and the Parthenon (covered with Scaffolding on the east side, which is the back side). (Speaking of scaffolding, I never saw any workers actually working on the building. The workers also did odd things, like put the construction trailers both right next to and inside the Parthenon itself!)

Anyway, this was a moment I have been looking forward to for years! It was dampened somewhat by the throngs of stupid tourists ("which building is the Parthenon?"), the scaffolding, the jet lag, my solitariness, and the awareness that the sun was beating down mercilessly and that I'd forgotten my hat and sunscreen. But still, it was amazing to be there. I didn't know which way to look. On the one side you had the ancient structures whose size and delicate construction was unmistakable, and on the other side the city of Athens lying beneath you on all sides. I tried to imagine the festival of the Panathenaea, where the whole city would walk up the hill, sacrifice hundreds of cattle, and present the Peplos, the massive garment that the chosen young girls of Athena would weave all year. I also imagined modern Greek history, where this was a site of resistance to the Nazi invaders. I walked around all the buildings twice and then descended to the Parthenon museum. This was impressive. It is actually built on stilts over an old Christian settlement, which you can peer at through glass windows in the floor. There, the amazing things were the statues from the porch of the Caryatids and the original sculpture from the pediments and freezes from the Parthenon. 

As I was leaving the museum, I was accosted by an aggressive street vendor selling flowers. She said I looked like George Clooney, gave me a flower and demanded payment, because she had a little "bambino" inside of her. It got me thinking about why I am accosted by scammers and aggressive vendors like this when I am abroad. I think it is my propensity to make eye contact. Most others don't even look at these people. I vowed to make no more eye contact! The road around the Acropolis was thick with street merchants, puppeteers, and street musicians. I continued to walk around the Plaka after the museum. I bought two souvenirs, a bust of Socrates and a little Athena X statue for Nora. Had a dinner at a taverna in Plaka consisting of tzaziki, olive oil and bread, and fresh fish. I also stumbled across a quiet, but fascinating little neighborhood right under the northern base of the Acropolis, the Anafiotika. This is a neighborhood cut out of the hillside, with lanes sometimes no more than two feet wide. It had old stone houses, flower patches, tiny churches, punctuated with views overlooking Athens.

I took the street tours from my guidebook of the Plaka and Monastiraki neighborhoods. Monastiraki felt like real Athens, where the Athenians shop and hang out. In Monastiraki square there was interesting mix of people: Africans playing drums, break dancers, Greeks hanging out, and an occasional tourist. There was an old mosque, Pantanassa church, Roman ruins (Library of Hadrian), all existing alongside break dancers and African drummers. It was an interesting mix of worlds.

Since I had some time, I decided to go and find the spot of Aristotle's school the Lycaem. After some searching, I found it east of Syntagma square. It was closed at that time, so I took pictures from the outside. Mostly just foundations are left. Along the way I saw various political demonstrations and people watching election results. I also saw armed police with machine guns and riot gear. I considered starting a running street battle with riot police in order to make my Athens experience unique, but decided against it.  

I went up to the top of my hotel that night to get another glimpse of the Acropolis, this time from a distance.    

Monday. Spent the morning at my conference hearing interesting power-point presentations. At the conference they served traditional Greek breakfast and lunches. Chicken was prominent and I loved the salad dressings. I met a nice guy from Turkey that I had lunch with. 

I left in the late afternoon to go explore the city again, this time heading north from my hotel. I visited the National Archeological museum. The most impressive things there were (1) the Cycladic art, (2) the bronze Horse with Little Jockey, (3) Aphrodite and Pan, (4) golden baby burial clothes next to the so-called "mask of Agamemnon," (5) the huge Volomandra Kouros, (6) and funeral monument or stele that depicted a dead mother with a baby reaching out to her, (7) the bronze computational device, (8) the Philosopher of Antikythira.

After that, I struck out east through Athens into an unknown and gritty, un-touristy neighborhood to find the site of Plato's academy. I got lost several times, which is a bit nerve-wracking in a gritty part of the city like that. Eventually I found what I was looking for. Plato's academy is now a little park with a few signs talking about the excavation sites. It is neglected. No tourists and few markers. Most impressive was the gymnasium that was there, including a site for the bathing of the athletes. I tried to imagine Plato walking around and giving lectures. I tried to soak up some of the wisdom and brilliance that had been exercised there.

For dinner, I returned to my hotel and, having enough adventures, decided to eat at the rooftop hotel restaurant. I had an odd, but fairly tasty beef dish, swimming in some sort of puree.

Tuesday. Spent the morning and early afternoon at the conference. Gave my paper (ran out of time) and chaired a session. Then, I struck out for my "walk around the rock."

I started at the Roman Agora. There I saw the famous "Tower of Winds," which was an old sundial and water clock. The sculptures depicting the winds I found particularly interesting, a culture that was so dialed in the world around them and cared so much about the way the wind was blowing that they gave the wind personalities. Also of note was a public Roman restroom where people sat around doing "their business" together. After the Roman Agora, I went to the Ancient Greek Agora. I followed by guidebook around to the different sites and, again, tried to imagine Socrates walking around mixing it up intellectually with the unsuspecting populace. Of note where was the Temple of Hephaestus and the Triton statues. It was a quiet place, a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Athens. Tourists were there, but not as thick as on the Acropolis. The Stoa of Attalos was a wonderful break from the sun and I felt kinship with the ancient Greeks finding such refreshment inside. I found that little potty chair from the 7th century BC.  From there, I headed south up the Aeropagus, where Paul is said to have talked with the Athenian philosophers. Great view of the Acropolis from there!  There were many locals hanging out, particularly lovers. Then I hiked up Filopappos hill to the monument of Philopappus. Crowds were non-existent. On the one side, a breath-taking view of the Acropolis. On the other, you could stand and hear the din of modern Athens rising up, see out to the Pireaus and the Saronic Gulf to the nearby islands. I then went searching for the Pnyx, which is the speaking area where the Ancient Athenians met and practiced their democracy. Alas, I was not able to stand on the platform and rehearse a speech from Demosthenes. From there, I went back up the Acropolis and visited the Parthenon again. In the late afternoon, the crowds were much thinner and the sunlight made the marble gleam with a golden light. It was a much more impressive experience the second time. Descending the Parthenon, I visited Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the Theatre of Dionysus, where I imagined plays being performed by Sophocles or Euripides.  A bit disappointing is that, much of what I saw in Greece, was actually a built-up Roman versions of things on the old Greeks sites. So, Sophocles was not so much performed at that theatre, alas, but on that site. Impressive still. I purchased some wonderful nuts to eat at that place (a common theater food in ancient Greece) and headed west to the plaza of Lysikrates. This little monument has Corinthian columns and is dedicated to a victory in the theater competitions. My final site of the day was the Roman temple of Olympian Zeus. I finished my nuts there and contemplated the sheer size of that temple. The columns were 75 feet tall. It must have been absolutely enormous. I had dinner that night at a lovely little taverna in Plaka and had chicken slouvaki with a great side of fried potatoes and a delightful old Greek owner.

Wednesday. Got up early to go with the conference on a cruise to the Saronic Islands of Hydra, Poros, and Agina. Met some LDS folks on the ship who live in Dubai. On the ship they had a group playing traditional Greek music and dancing.  First stop was the beautiful island of Hydra, where cars are not permitted and they travel by donkey. Quintessential seaside Greek village with white houses and red roofs. I had a wonderful gelato in the port there. Lots of tourists, but I hiked up the side of the hill into the old neighborhood and it suddenly became very quiet. The wind was blowing through the narrow little streets, no one was around except an old lady waling up the road, and it seemed very peaceful. After lunch on the boat, the next stop was Poros. This was still picturesque, but it was much busier. We didn't spend much time there. I walked up the hill to the clock tower, took some pictures, took a quick visit in the archeological museum (every island seemed to have one of these), and watched some little Greek boys playing soccer. Finally, we went to Agina. I went up with the tour group to the Temple of Aphaia. It was beautifully situated, with the Saronic gulf spreading out everywhere. You could see to Athens. 

Everywhere you went you could see pistachio trees. I had the best pistachio ice cream, indeed some of the best ice cream I have ever had, at the Temple of Aphaia. I also purchased some lovely pistachio nuts, which seems crunchier and fresher than I have ever had before. We returned to Athens and we had dinner that night at the street side. 

Thursday. A powerful day. We took at day trip to Delphi. Delphi, the site of the temple of Apollo and the Delphic Oracle was one of the most important sites in the ancient world. The bus stopped on the way at a place were you could get fresh squeezed orange juice, which was yummy. Given the heat, dryness, and my constant walking, I had an almost unquenchable thirst the whole time I was in Greece. As we approach Mount Paranasses, I began to feel at home. It is much like the Wasatch Mountains, although the valley is greener. Delphi sits on the slopes of a breathtaking mountain valley.  Like the temple of Aphaia, it really felt like a sacred place, even without all the temples. There are ruins spread up the hillside. We walked up the "sacred way," the path that the ancient people took with their most burning questions. It was easy to imagine walking past the treasures and votive offerings that lined the path -- the most valuable and impressive objects and offerings of the ancient world. What made it real was the writing that was everywhere. Instead of modern graffiti, though, it was ancient writing. Dedications. Tributes by freed slaves. As you walked up the road you could see the imposing temple looming above you. I don't worship Apollo, but it really felt like a sacred spot. I can only imagine how it must have felt to enter that temple, see the ivory statue of Apollo, descend the pit to the Pithia, hear the burbling of the gases bubbling up, and receive the oracle -- all after spending weeks of travel to get there, offering sacrifices, and participating the cleansing washings. The museum of Delphi was wonderful, too, with (1) a statue of a philosopher, (2) the omphalos stone, (3) the bronze statue of the young charioteer, (4) the statuary from the shrines depicting ancient battles. Also there was a theater and a stadium, and our tour guide pointed out how the body (stadium), mind (theater), and temple (soul) were all sacred to the Greeks. We had a great tour guide, by the way. She had a PhD. After the shrine, we stopped for lunch and at some of the small hillside communities -- a mixture of alpine resort towns and Greek seaside villages. We could look down into the valley, saw the wild olive trees, and the gulf of Corinth to the north. We returned home. I went back for another walk around the rock. I went up the surrounding hills, saw a sunset over Athens on the Areopagus, and returned to a tavern in Anafiotika (my little neighborhood discovery) for a meal of Greek salad, mousaka, bread with oil, olives, a complimentary desert.