Saturday, April 4, 2009

On to Athens

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Yesterday was a well-deserved sea day. We slept in [relative to tour days, at least], had a CC get-together and were routed in trivia. After lunch in the dining room, where we shared a table with this morning’s guest speaker, we checked e-mail. MA took a nice long nap and D finished reading his book and played a little blackjack [he broke even again]. It was formal night, but even better, it was lobster night. Yum! After dinner, MA read before going to sleep and D returned to the casino where he made a 30% profit on his investment [i.e., he made $15].

Today, however, was different. We were up in the dark again because we were to meet our driver as close to 8:00 as we could get off the ship for a busy day in Athens. We were the first ones off the Prinsendam but still had to fight a horde of passengers from the MSC Poesia docked next to us. That ship holds about 5 million screaming Italians who rank right up there with the Japanese and Germans in the race for rudest travelers in the world. Apparently, every ship’s tour they offered was disembarked simultaneously; it was a mob scene of running, screaming crazies.

Our tour and day were much more serene. The driver suggested we be off the ship at 7:30 [an impossibility] so we could get to the Acropolis ahead of the crowds; he also mentioned heat but that did not present a problem during our visit. Nick is a driver, not a guide, but he knew enough to keep us happy. There were only four of us today, Scott and Karen opting out for the day, and we were in a Mercedes taxi. After three days in Mercedes minivans, this was a bit crowded but we learned how to coordinate our movements after a while, so it wasn’t intolerable.

We were at the Acropolis before 8:30, among the first visitors of the day. Nick dropped us off at the entrance and said he would await our cell phone call to come and get us. We bought our entrance tickets, which are also good at several other historical sites, and started climbing.

Acropolis means “highest point in the city.” Every city has an acropolis, but in Greece the term is used only in Athens. Another term is used elsewhere in the country. And high it is. In addition to the ruins of the Parthenon, the Theater of Dionysius and other buildings, the summit offers a breath-taking view of Athens. Because of ongoing restoration and preservation efforts, there was scaffolding on some part of all of the ruins. They didn’t detract too much from our enjoyment; they were more of a minor annoyance. The photographs we have all seen do not do justice to the stark beauty of the ruins. We could have stayed for hours just looking and marveling at the simplicity, art and beauty of the Parthenon, but reality set in eventually in the form of hordes of [you guessed it] Japanese and then Italian tourists. The bus brigade had landed and it was definitely time for us to leave. While we waited for Nick, we saw HAL tours arriving; they and all of the bus tourists had had to walk up a steep hill just to get to the entrance and probably thought their climb was over. The MSC groups were so numerous that we saw one group wearing labels and following a flag which said “MSC 39.” That’s why we now take private tours.

We went to Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The arch is just that, an archway leading to the Temple. It was obviously added after the creation of the Temple because Hadrian was a Roman who came after Greece was conquered. Now, the arch faces a busy intersection near the shopping district of Athens. The Temple of Olympian Zeus has fallen on really hard times. Originally, it was larger than the Parthenon, on the Acropolis, having 114 Corinthian columns [the ones with the ornate capitals or tops]. The Parthenon had around 98 columns. The Parthenon gets more attention because of its location, of course, but also because there is more of it extant. The Zeus Temple has been reduced to no more than a dozen columns and no roof and one of the columns has fallen over. The fallen column clearly shows how it was made of discs of marble stacked together with “male” and “female” connections to keep it stable [until it wasn’t]. Imagine the art and engineering that went into constructing these tremendous columns so they look like one solid piece of marble.

We found ourselves outside the Greek President’s house at 10:00 a.m. The presidency in Greece is strictly ceremonial because the government is now based on a constitution – 300 elected representatives with a prime minister chosen by the majority party. If there is no majority in the 300, then a coalition government must be formed. We saw the ceremonial honor guard getting ready for the hourly changing of the guard which occurs on the hour in front of the Parliament building and on the quarter hour at the President’s house. This schedule is in effect 24/7; the only thing that changes is the uniform worn by the soldiers participating. Today they wore red caps to represent blood lost in battles with Turkey; black tassels hanging from the hats to represent the country’s tears; pleated skirts [yes, skirts] with exactly 400 pleats to remind them of the 400 years of Turkish occupation; black straps around their calves as a further reminder; and puffy tops to their shoes to show the tears which fell from the tassels.

Their ceremonial walk is unusual, too. There is a lot of stiff-legged walking with one leg stretched straight in front and the other slightly bent. The soldiers slap their feet on the ground when they bring them down and, because they are wearing shoes made from rosewood, giving out a slapping sound. The motion and noise are designed to imitate a horse’s gait, so it is like watching the Lipizonner [sp!] stallions of Vienna in drag. It was marvelous to watch the precision choreography and emotionless demeanor of the guards.

The President’s house is across the street from the Amalia Park, named for Greece’s first [?] queen. It is a large, obviously urban, green space which includes flower and rose gardens as well as a small zoo. We wandered through the zoo with Bill and Sharon taking pictures of the animals and D taking pictures of a cat in the poultry pen; the cat pictures will be added to The Cats of Southeast Asia collection.

What else did we do today? We made a short visit to the original Olympic Stadium. The ancient walls are still pretty much intact, but the wooden seats didn’t stand the test of time so new, concrete ones have been installed. Sharon and MA stayed in the taxi while Bill and D went shooting.

We went to the highest point in greater Athens, higher even than the Acropolis. At the peak of the Hill of Lycabetous, there is a small Greek Orthodox chapel which is still active; while we were there, several worshippers came to pray and light tapers. It’s sort of ironic since just below the chapel are two restaurants with folks lounging, eating and drinking.

Access to the peak is available by foot or by funicular. The funicular reminded us of the Victoria Peak tram in Hong Kong except it is mostly single-track with a pullout so the two cars can pass each other. Unlike Hong Kong, however, this tram was entirely enclosed by the mountain, not a good experience for Sharon who is claustrophobic. She also is acrophobic, afraid of heights, which made the whole adventure a nightmare for her. We loved it, of course. The views of Athens were spectacular and unobstructed, and we were able to look down on the Acropolis, Hadrian’s Arch, The Temple of Zeus and the Olympic Stadium.

The National Archeological Museum merited more than the 45 minutes we gave it, but it was hot inside and all four of us confess to suffering from museum feet. The displays were dazzling, everything from the Hall of Naked Men to Zeus to bronzes, busts, miniatures and home appliances BC-style. We wanted to see the jars [amphorae] on display but discovered too late that they were on the second floor and we didn’t have time to find them. Once again, we were surrounded by the rude and pushy. We did see Marvin and Barbara from CC at the Museum as well as at the Acropolis – they were being driven by Nick’s brother Jimmy [Demetrios], so they probably saw the same things we did today.

Lunch today was in a taverna near the lookout. Once again, and thankfully, we were the only tourists in the place. Nick helped us to order in the absence, apparently, of printed menus. D had a gyro platter with pork; Bill had the same with chicken; Sharon had a spinach and calamari dish; and MA had a “shoe,” an eggplant and ground meat dish which was really a mini-moussaka named for its shape not its taste. Beer and Coca Cola rounded out the meal, we thought, but Nick sent a plate of four tiny baklava to the table, two plain and two with chocolate tops. Bill can’t eat nuts, so Sharon ate his and MA and D split the other two. It was a perfect [and perfectly sinful] way to finish the meal.

By the time we finished lunch, it was 2:00 and we had to hurry to see the Roman Agora and the Temple of the Wind in the Plaka district before they closed at 3:00. The agora was an open-air market place and was typically found in most Greek and Roman towns. We saw the remains of the ancient agora in Rome from the Capitoline Hill just a few days ago. This was similar but on a much smaller scale. Old and dilapidated, there wasn’t much to recommend it except its antiquity. The Temple of the Wind, on the same parcel of land, was an octagonal building which served as a public bath; right next to it are the remains of the public latrines. Hmmm. The top of the Temple, a tower really, has bas reliefs showing the winds in action, hopefully blowing away from the latrines.

Nick told us that the Greek agora and other sites had, unknown to him, changed to summer hours, but we chose to wander through the Plaka district, the tourist shopping area. We lost Sharon and Bill as we walked but found them already at the car when it was time to go. We bought a Hard Rock CafĂ© shot glass, a box for the collection and masks of Thalia and Melpomene, the symbols of comedy and tragedy. The box was the second choice because we didn’t buy one we liked at the funicular. Wrong again! How-ever, that was the only disappointment of an otherwise marvelous day.

We were home at 4:00, just eight hours after we had left, but we have a lifetime of memories.

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