Athens!

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
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43
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Trip End Jan 12, 2010


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Flag of Greece  , Attica,
Friday, December 18, 2009

12.17.09/12.18.09             Athens!

[This journal goes out to FOUR special new babies born over the past two weeks to good friends of ours.  Baby Nora, Baby James, Baby Jason, and Baby Isaac – welcome to the world!  We cannot wait to meet each one of you someday.  (Two other notes: to Baby Arielle, born in October to more good friends of ours – ditto to you, too!  And, to Baby Wilson, where are you already?!)]

Yesterday (12.17.09), we had an easy ride (Metro to bus) to the Budapest airport, where we caught an early afternoon flight (under two hours) to Athens.  When we left Budapest it was zero degrees outside, and there were 2-3 inches of snow on the ground.  When we arrived in Athens and first walked outside, it was 63 degrees and sunny.  Yes.

From the Athens airport, we jumped on the Metro and took it nearly all the way to our hotel.  Our final Metro stop?  "Acropoli."  As we climbed the stairs up from the Metro station and turned around, there was the Acropolis, right in front of us – all lit up and looking spectacular!  It was very exciting – I didn't expect to see it so quickly!  Welcome to Athens, indeed.

From the Metro, we walked the few blocks to our hotel for one final night in another fancy pants place, again per Murray’s work entitlement!  Our room at the five-star Royal Olympic Hotel was great, and we had our own balcony with views of local Athens in the distance and the hotel pool below us.  After spending some time in our room, we took a stroll to the hotel’s rooftop garden terrace, which had magnificent views of the Acropolis and the Temple of Olympian Zeus at night.

Later in the evening, we took a walk around our new neighborhood (again, seeing the Acropolis from nearly every street we turned on), eventually finding a little local place for dinner.  Murray had lamb chops with rice and potatoes; I had Greek soup (with lemon, egg, and herbs) and pasta.  For dessert, we split a dense walnut cake partly soaked in honey, which was delicious (the highlight to an otherwise mediocre dinner).  Murray also tried the Greek beer Mythos, and reported back that it is “not a bad drop.”  After dinner, it was back to our hotel for the evening.  We actually found a decent movie in English to watch on TV, and in the end, we didn’t go to sleep until pretty late.  We kept our balcony doors open all night as we slept, enjoying the soft, warm Greek breeze wafting in…

This morning (12.18.09), we had a big buffet breakfast at our hotel (this time, included in the room rate!), which included different Greek specialties like bread with sour cherries and cheese; Spanikopita; Greek pancakes filled with apricots and drizzled with honey and walnuts; and lovely dark mushrooms, sautéed in oil with fresh herbs.  After breakfast, we checked out of our room and left our luggage at the hotel, then headed out to explore Athens. 

Classical Athens became the leading city of Ancient Greece in the 5th century BC, with its cultural achievements laying the foundations of Western civilization.  Today, Athens is a busy, metropolitan city of five million people.  Over the past decade, the city's infrastructure and social amenities have improved greatly, due in large part to its successful bid to stage the 2004 Olympic Games (billions of Euros were pumped into Greece in preparation for those games).

We found today to be a beautiful, breezy, sunny day in Athens.  It was lovely to be outside without being bundled up to the eyebrows – and even more wonderful to feel the hot sun on our faces!  As we walked around Athens, we also found (to the point of it being almost comical) that there are ancient ruins EVERYWHERE in this city – (which, of course, makes sense – but what I mean is) half-temples lie around every corner, as do bits of abandoned columns and foundations.  Even the Metro system has exhibits containing ancient statutes, walls, and other pieces of history displayed in each station.  Since we were already located in the Acropolis area, we decided to go up to see the magnificent Acropolis today

The Acropolis (high city) is considered the most important site in the Western world (have I said that already in another journal about another site?!).  Crowned by the Parthenon, it stands guard on a huge flat -topped rock that rises 150m/490ft above sea level, towering high above the city of Athens.  It is visible from almost everywhere within the city.  During the day, the marble gleam of its monuments changes color from white to yellow to honey hued as the sun sets behind the neighboring mountains – at night, the monuments are brilliantly illuminated and light up the evening sky above Athens.

While various buildings were built on this site throughout history (and then destroyed, due to wars/razing, earthquakes, fires, etc.), most of the major temples of the “current Acropolis” were rebuilt under the leadership of Pericles during the Golden Age of Athens (460-430 BC).  Only the best architects, sculptors, and artists were good enough to build a city dedicated to the cult of Athena!  When completed, this Acropolis was a showcase of colossal buildings with brilliant colors, displaying giant statutes made of bronze, or statutes that were marble plated with gold and encrusted with precious stones.

When we got to the base of the Acropolis, we decided to walk around to the northern entrance and ascend to the top that way.  En route, we stopped by the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (actually on the southern slope), a stone theatre structure built in 161 AD.  The Odeon has a capacity of 5,000, and was used as a venue for music concerts in ancient times.  Even today, it is still used as an entertainment setting, considered to be one of the world’s most historical venues (remember “Yanni, Live At The Acropolis”?!  Forget it.  Who listens to Yanni, anyway?).

Climbing up several more steps (huff, puff) and passing through the Beule Gate and the Monument of Agrippa, we finally reached the first major monument in the Acropolis – the Propylaia.  The Propylaia formed the towering entrance to the Acropolis in ancient times.  It was built between 437-432 BC, and consists of a central hall with two wings on either side.  Each section had a gate, and in ancient times, these five gates were the only entrances to the Acropolis.  The Propylaia continues to be an impressive entrance point to this upper city.

From the original middle gate of the Propylaia flows the Panathenaic Way, a large pathway that cuts across the length of the entire Acropolis.  In ancient times, this was the route taken by the Panathenaic procession, the climax of the Panathenaia festival held to honor the goddess Athena.  (This festival was a huge celebration, with dancing, dramatics, royal maidens swinging golden shawls, and old men waving olive branches.  It was quite the event of the season.)

Partway down this Panathenaic Way, and to the right of the Propylaia (before the Parthenon), there used to be the Temple of Athena Nike.  However, we were only able to see the scattered remains of this temple, as in 2003 – in a very controversial move – it was dismantled piece by piece to be restored at an off-site location, which still hasn’t been done.  (Am I the only one who thinks this is tragic?)

Beyond the dismantled Temple of Athena Nike we finally arrived at the Parthenon (“virgin’s apartment”), the most famous of the monuments in the Acropolis – and probably the monument that most epitomizes the glory of ancient Greece.  The Parthenon is the largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece.  It was built with a dual purpose – to house the great statute of Athena commissioned by Pericles, and to serve as the new treasury of this high city. 

Most importantly, I think, the Parthenon just imparts a sense of wonder to most of us who look at it!  With eight columns flanking each end, and 17 columns flanking each side, the Parthenon is an architectural wonder.  What I found wildly interesting about the Parthenon is that to achieve this perfectly formed building, its structural lines were ingeniously curved to create an optical illusion – the monument’s foundations are slightly concave, while the columns are slightly convex, making both appear perfectly straight!  Magnificent.  I know that seeing the Parthenon will already be a highlight of our time in Greece.    

From the Parthenon, we walked to the far end of the flat-topped rock that is the Acropolis, where we were able to see more stunning views of Athens from a small viewing platform (we also met a very funny couple from Spain there – the woman, inexplicably, was wearing a headband with leopard ears on it).  From the viewing platform, we also got our first full view of the Erechtheion, our final stop in the Acropolis

The Erechtheion is the most sacred monument in the city.  Named after Erichthonius, a mythical king of Athens, it was here that Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, and Athena produced the olive tree.  This temple, therefore, housed the cults of Athena, Poseidon, and Erichthonius.

The Erechtheion is recognizable by its six larger-than-life maiden columns that support its southern portico, called the Caryatids.  The monument itself is, architecturally, the most unusual monument in the Acropolis – built on several levels to counteract the unevenness of the ground, it consists of a main temple, a northern porch, and a southern porch, all with different dimensions.

After the Erechtheion, we walked back through the Propylaia and then down the southern slope of the Acropolis to the Theatre of Dionysus.  While this theatre was not as impressive as the Odeon of Herodes Atticus we had seen earlier in the day, in ancient times it had to be impressive – it was an even bigger theatre than the Odeon, with a capacity of 17,000 spread over 64 tiers (only 20 survive today)!  The Theatre of Dionysus used to be the site of the annual (and huge) Festival of the Great Dionysia, as well as several other festivals and plays (written by Sophocles, Euripides, and other Greek greats).  From the Theatre, we finally reached the southern entrance of the Acropolis, where we exited the grounds.  Wow – what a day so far! 

(Yes, I know I’ve written a lot today about the Acropolis – but it was spectacular.  There are so many more sites and ruins, and so much more history (both on top of the Acropolis, and surrounding it down below), that I could’ve written about – so in my defense, I left a lot out, too!  Hah.)

From the Acropolis, we explored part of the Athens promenade, a 3km-long  pedestrian promenade that connects some of the city’s most significant ancient sites (a wonderful product of the 2004 Olympic games “clean-up”).  By mid-afternoon, we found a little lunch spot, where we had a mediocre lunch of soups, salads, and souvlaki near the southern entrance to the Acropolis.

After lunch, we walked the short distance (a few blocks) to Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus.  Hadrian was a Roman emperor who had great affection for the city of Athens.  As such, he erected several grandiose monuments here (although it is thought by the maybe-sometimes-snooty art historians that Hadrian’s monuments lack the sophistication and artistic ability of their classical predecessors).  Hadrian’s Arch was built in 132 AD as a dividing point between the ancient city and the Roman city, as well as to commemorate the consecration of the Temple of Olympian Zeus.

Walking past the arch, we then explored the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest temple in Greece!  While construction on this temple began in the 6th century BC, due to lack of funds and other circumstances, it was not completed until 131 AD (and only then, completed because Hadrian stepped in and directed its completion).  Originally, this temple had 104 Corinthian columns – today, only 15 remain (there also is a fallen column on the site, which was blown down in a gale in 1852!).  Also originally, a huge statute of Zeus towered over the middle of the temple (and, just before the temple’s final completion, Hadrian – in typically immodest fashion – also erected an equally large statue of himself next to Zeus!).

By late afternoon, we were done touring the Temple and we returned to our fancy hotel to reclaim our luggage and check into our new hotel a neighborhood or two away, the nice-but-much-cheaper Hotel Carolina (located between Plaka and Syntagma).  Hotel Carolina is a quaint little place, and we decided to stay here for the rest of the seven nights we’re in Greece.  We thought about (and looked at) traveling up to Thessaloniki later this week, and possibly doing another 1-2 days trip outside of Athens in addition to Thessaloniki, but we finally decided (with traveling getting harder for me) to stay in Athens for the whole week and do a few day trips out of Athens.  So – somewhat reluctantly, I'm trying to realize my limitations and not overdo it (and hopefully, not get sick – again!).

Tonight, after resting a bit while Murray went out to do more exploring of our new neighborhood, we took a walk around Monastiraki Square (full of life and activity and buskers!) and ate a very so-so dinner (Murray had a huge plate of gyro with pita and tomato (plus another Mythos, but who’s counting?); I had some moussaka).  Afterward, we walked back to our hotel and I made myself several cups of tea from the kettle in our room.  We were in bed with lights out by 10:30pm.   

Today was a spectacular day in terms of the sights we saw – the ancient ruins of the Acropolis completely blew me away.  However, I have to say – after three mediocre meals out in Greece so far, (sadly) we have yet to experience the wonderful, world-famous cuisine of this country.  I’m determined to do more research tonight regarding our various dining options in Athens, so that starting tomorrow, we bring about a change in this dire culinary situation of ours!!! 
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Comments

Vicki Schmidt on

I actually DO listen to Yanni.

Great blog. Brings me back to my 2008 trip there. Whew! Fantastic!

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