Adventures in Athens

The last weekend of September saw us heading for Athens, somewhere that has been on my list of ‘places to see before I die’ for some time.

We headed out on Thursday. Taking a flight that was less than four hours long, required being at the aiport only two hours in advance instead of three, and did not require getting up in the middle of the night to leave on time, is a novel experience for us.

On the down side, we arrived in Athens to discover only one of our two bags had accompanied us. In the last ten years, we’ve been taking at least ten flights a year and have never before lost luggage, so it was only a matter of time before the odds caught up with us. We were also flying with British Airways. They are, in many other aspects, a very good airline, but they do seem to have something of a reputation for losing luggage.

As I went to find the ‘lost luggage’ desk to report my missing bag, it soon became apparent that we weren’t the only people on the flight from London to lose luggage. I learned a lesson about the Greek people that would be reinforced a few more times before the weekend was out. The Greeks don’t queue. As a nation they embrace an individualism – everyone is free to do his or her own thing. The Brits are a famous for queuing, and we are used to waiting our turn. That seems to be an unfamiliar concept in Greece. It’s not that they are intending to be rude. It just doesn’t seem to occur to them that someone else might be wanting to do the same thing at the same time.

Anyway, the bag turned up at the hotel some time in the night, and was there the following morning, and as we always tend to distribute our holiday clothes evenly between two bags, we had enough in the first bag for a couple of days anyway, and there was no real inconvenience.

We were staying at the Hotel Emmantina, in the Glyfada District. It was, it transpired, in quite a nice neighbourhood, and very close to the beach. Quite far away from the centre of Athens, we discovered when we tried to get there on Friday morning. We took the tram. It was a long journey – nearly an hour. But the tram took us from the hotel to the heart of ancient Athens for a Euro apiece, so was good value for money.

Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Solder

Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Solder

Right opposite the end of the tram line was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where two guards march up and down at regular intervals. It’s worth seeing, just to see the way they march. It’s all very stylised and formal, involving high knee lifts, followed by an outstretched leg, then a foot that suspends in the air for a little while, before the soldier steps forward. Quite entertaining to watch.

We then went on to see the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, with its gigantic pillars, and then on to the Acropolis. All the ancient ruins in Athens are quite close together, so it’s easy to walk around seeing everything.

There’s a bit of a climb up to the Acropolis. Once I got there, I spent quite a long time sitting on a bench looking at it. Not just because I was pooped after the climb (though I was a bit, admittedly – I have no stamina) but because I just drank in the grandeur and ceremony of being in the presence of this magnificent and legendary building. Even surrounded by scaffolding (which I gather it is fairly permanently – repairs are an ongoing job) it still oozes magnificence. I wondered who, in legend and history, may have passed by the place I was sitting, millennia ago.

Me at the Acropolis

Me at the Acropolis

Next to the Acropolis is the Theatre of Dionysos, apparently the world’s first stone theatre.

We also visited the New Acropolis Museum, which has only recently opened, a new building to house the artifacts found on the Acropolis site, and built above some more ancient ruins. The floor is glass, so you can look down at the ruins as you walk around (you probably shouldn’t look down too much if you suffer from vertigo – it’s rather disconcerting). In the display of the bas relief friezes taken off each side of the Pantheon, there are, very pointedly, big gaps in the display where the Elgin marbles should go. This appears to be a very complex political debate, one that I really don’t want to get involved in. Suffice to say, the Elgin marbles have been in the British Museum for over a century, and Greece would like them back.

The last historical site of the day was Ancient Agora, which has a wonderfully preserved temple on the site.

Corinth Canal

Corinth Canal

The following day – Saturday – we were up early for our tour to Mycenae, for which we were being picked up from the hotel. On the way to Mycenae there were a couple of other stops, including the town of Nafplio, the impressively narrow Corinth Canal and the Theatre of Epidaurus, which is still in use as a working theatre and is famous for its impressive acoustics. Drop a pebble onto the stone in the centre of the stage, and those sitting up in the far back row can hear it fall.
Me at Mycenae

Me at Mycenae

The palace complex of Mycenae, fortress of Agamemnon, was the highlight of the tour. Walking around these vast ruins, you get a clear impression of how sophisticated the Ancient Greek civilisation was. At a time when my ancestors in Britain were still hunter-gatherers struggling with the concept of language, the Greek people had an advanced culture, with schools, theatres, a democracy, even a water distribution and disposal system.

Sunday we had another tour, this time to Delphi, which is a fair old drive from Athens and therefore required another early start. To get to Delphi we had to pass the city of Thebes, where the story of Oedipus took place. The tour guide gave us an abbreviation of the story on the bus, but I remember studying Sophocles’s play in school.

The ruins of Delphi include the Temple of Apollo, where the Oracle of Delphi, who delivered the fateful prophecy that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother, sat. In later centuries it was discovered that the fumes being emitted from the ground, which the Oracle inhaled in order to get prophetic visions, were poisonous gases – hence the hallucinatory dreams. But the story of Oedipus was meant to illustrate the belief of the Ancient Greeks that mortal man should not presume to disobey the word of the gods, for his prophecy came true. In other Greek legends, the Oracle’s prophecies were notoriously ambiguous.

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Sadly, much of the Delphi site was closed off when we were there, due, it seems, to archeological excavations going on. But we did see the ruins of the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia. Athena has always been my favourite Greek deity. In a patriarchal society, it’s often difficult to find examples of strong-minded women. You really have to look to the goddesses to find a woman who knew her own mind. Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, is possibly the best feminist icon in Ancient Greek society.

Monday was our last day in Athens, and our flight was departing early evening, so we had a relaxing day around Glyfada, walking along the sea front and enjoying the last of the sunshine before returning to the grey clouds and windy streets of Autumnal London.

I have brought a 25cm high statue of Athena home from Greece with me. I have put her by my computer, and I hope she will inspire me to write.


3 comments so far

  1. ralfast on

    Full of envy am I! I learned English by reading books on tape based on Greek Mythology. While other kids liked cowboys I drank deep from cup of Heracles, Zeus, Apollo and Bellerophon.

  2. Yarnspnr on

    Yes well, the British Museum (ditto a few in America) are chuck full of goodies other countries wish they would return. I have some pictures of Hellenic jewelry, the precision of which are astonishing! I’m sure you saw some great stuff while touring in Greece.

    For anyone who hasn’t been to London, you can’t tour the British Museum in one day. It just isn’t possible. Not if you want to take it all in, at any rate. It’s a three day journey at least – kind of like the London Zoo takes more than one day to see it all. But if you’re doing London, I suggest you set aside time to do it right. It is well worth the time expended!

    • sayssara on

      I’ve never heard anyone mention that France should give the Mona Lisa back to Italy, but perhaps it’s the view of someone that it should!

      Yes, I can recommend the British Museum. Well worth a visit, and it’s still free entry!

      Don’t go Easter bank holiday, though. Made that mistake once – the line of European students waiting to get in was so long it took two hours just to get through the door…


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