Athens

Trip Start Jun 10, 2007
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Trip End Ongoing


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Friday, September 26, 2008

Even though Megan had been to Athens before (and didn't have a fabulous experience), she was nice enough to return so I could check it out. I had heard the stories that Athens was primarily dirty streets filled with prostitutes and feral animals, so expectations were low. Fortunately my first, and Megan's second experience was much more pleasant.
For a massively sprawling city that is home to half of the population of Greece, Athens is quite the presence. It took over a half an hour for our bus to make it from the edge of town into the city centre, and that trip was surprisingly traffic free (the traffic congestion in Athens is legendary). Thanks to the facelift the city received for the 2004 Olympics, the transportation network has been (and continues to be) enhanced and expanded. We stayed in the heart of Athens in the Plaka district. Plaka is full of pedestrian-only streets, shopping to keep anyone busy for days, tons of traditional Greek taverns and cafes, and of course, the Acropolis - the real reason for the trip into town. The Acropolis sits high above the city and is an intimidating site. It is no wonder that people have fought over it for more than 5000 years. It is the Parthenon that is the big draw. It is the place where the Greeks first practiced their new form of governance: democracy. It is like Mecca for the political junkie. Most of the building, and what was in it, was destroyed in 1687 when a Venetian shell struck a supply of Turkish gunpowder and munitions being stored there. Most of what wasn't destroyed was taken to London by Lord Elgin in the early 18th century - a constant source of tension between the governments even to this day. Unfortunately the museum next to the Parthenon that holds most of the antiquities that were left over from the explosion and the mass exodus to London, has been closed for a couple of years as they are building a new one.
After touring the grounds of the Acropolis we headed back down into the Plaka to check out the Ancient Agora. This was the central marketplace of ancient Greece and also home to their civil and social structures. Churches, temples, courts, and markets drew everyone there. They have transformed the main market building into a museum that houses much of the 5000 years of history of the Agora. They even had old "voting ballots" - shards of broken pottery that the Athenians would carve names into. In an interesting twist, they would vote for the person that they liked the least. If your name had the most votes, you had to leave Athens for 10 years... how nice.
That evening we headed out for some dinner. With so many Greek taverns to choose from we could only do the logical thing... we went to Applebee's. Yes we know, in the heart of 5000-year old Athens with so many places serving wonderful food, why Applebee's you ask? Well after being away from North American franchises for so long we needed our fix. Just to hold us over until we get home. Plus Meg looked as excited as I had ever seen her when we saw the Applebee's sign. Anyway, it was ok. The appetizer sampler platter was good but the nachos had that crappy squeeze container cheese on them and not enough chili. Ok, moving on. With that out of the way we can focus on the local cuisine from now on... except for the Subway sandwiches we had for lunch or the stop at Starbucks the next day. We know we know...
The next morning we headed to the National Archaeological Museum. Focusing on visiting the Acropolis, we didn't give the museum much thought, but wow was it spectacular. We have seen our share of museum collections but this has to be one of the greatest. Frescoes, bronze statues, and enough marble sculptures to fill a few museums, it was amazing. The most impressive artifacts were probably the gold pieces found in various graves in Mycenae. They have golden masks, jewelry, breastplates, the works. They even have full golden body covers for children that had died. Head to toe they were covered in gold. That family had some cash in the bank for certain. After a solid case of museum legs set in, we headed out to explore more of the streets in the Plaka district. Again, you could shop here for days and find just about everything you need. We couldn't even get through the meat and fish market it was so big (and Meg started to feel a little queasy). An interesting twist to the shopping experience is the shop employees. Many of them actually stand at the entrance of the stores and try and convince you to come in to check out their fabulous deals. After so much visual stimulation we called it a day. We have a very early morning tomorrow. We are heading to the islands of Mykonos and Santorini for a week... sigh.
Megan and Kevin
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