Wednesday, November 5, 2008:
On one of America's most historic days--the election of our first African-American President--Llew and I awoke in the very cradle of Democracy--Athens, Greece--and rejoiced. "He did it, Babe", Llew shouted to me through the bathroom door in our hotel in Athens. We high-fived each other, then joined a jubilant band of local Athenians at breakfast, all of whom were celebrating the great win of Barack Obama and, hopefully, the beginning of Change in America.
We were at the base of the Acropolis is ten minutes, strolling in leisurely fashion through Plaka, the area that looks completely different by daylight. Through the quaintest little Greek village we passed and joined the bus loads of late-season tourists trooping towards the towering monuments at the top of the world's most famous urban mountain. Twelve euros covered entry into a number of attractions and Lonely Planet made it very easy for us to tour the complex without the need of a pricey personal guide. We passed by the awesome Theater of Herodes Atticus where we have seen so many famous performers (Yanni, Charlotte Church, etc.) wow audiences in recent years. It must be a stunning venue at night when the lights are turned on and the rest of Athens sleeps quietly just beyond the stage walls.
Next we advanced towards the Prophylea and the Temple of Athena Nike with its high steps and its endless scaffolding, for conservation is an on-going process at these ancient sites. Through the arches and into the main courtyard, the Parthenon finally came into sight. Of course, we spent ages examining it in loving detail, noting the acquisitiveness that led to the hacking of sculpture from the central frieze by Lord Elgin in what has become an endless controversy. It became clear to me then that he did not 'rescue' these sculptures in any way. They were not buried hundreds of feet beneath the earth as the treasures of Tutankhamen were, for instance, or the city of Pompeii. These marbles were just cut clean off the pediment and transported to England to the best of my knowledge on a bare whim. I realized that I ought to read more to educate myself on why and how the Elgin Marbles are now in the British Museum. At any rate, the two remaining sculptures--one on each end, of a seated youth, and a horse's head--that are still on the structure are deeply stirring and I simply couldn't take enough pictures of these works "in situ".
We then made our way towards the Erechtheion, another beautiful temple of Poseidon that features the Karyatids, a series of six sculpted women that are charmingly graceful. Here again, five of the originals can be seen in the Acropolis Museum while the fifth original is in the British Museum in London. Plaster of Paris replicas of the five that are in Athens are placed on the building and they make a striking backdrop for pictures. Greece must be so enormously proud of these visions of Pericles that have allowed so many such buildings to survive, albeit in ruined form.
Just at the foot of the Acropolis is the Theater of Dionysus, an enormous complex that is now in the process of refurbishment. Here it is possible to see the original venue on which the plays of the Greek tragedians, Aeschyles, Sophocles and Euripedes were performed with the works of Aristophanes providing comic relief. Here were created the classical principles of dramatic composition upon which playwrights the world over have depended. The lion-footed throne on which the high priest sat to watch the shows is still in place and I was deeply stirred by my rambles through the Pentellic marble spectator stands of this strangely atmospheric place.
The original Acropolis Museum which was a part of the Parthenon has been shut down and a superb new and very modern building has taken its place a few blocks away. Llew and I walked quickly there to see the original Karyatids only to discover that they were not yet in place as only part of the museum has been opened to the public. Instead, we were treated to a special exhibit containing the items that were acquired fraudulently by such great international museums as the Metropolitan in New York and the J. Paul Getty in Malibu, California, that have now been returned to Italy. These pieces, which include the famous Euphronious Krater about which I had learned while training at the Met, were on loan to the Athens Museum and were on display for a limited period before they find a permanent home in Italy. I was so thrilled to see the Euphronius Krater again--it was like running into an old friend! Indeed, I had wanted to visit the Met and bid goodbye to it at the time that the newspapers in New York were full of the news of its departure to Italy but had not been able to find the time--and little did I expect that I would see it again on foreign shores! That is the beauty of travel too, isn't it? You never know what or who you will run into when you set sail for distant lands. I cannot wait to tell my fellow docents at the Met about my serendipitous discovery.
After a delicious Greek Salad lunch on one of the wayside restaurants that line Adrianou just outside the gates of the Ancient Agora, Llew and I launched on to the next phase of our sight seeing--an examination of the Temple of Hephthasos, a classical Greek temple that stands almost intact on the great grounds that once constituted the most important part of official Athens. It was in the Agora (marketplace) that St. Paul disputed with his critics endlessly while trying to find converts to Catholicism; it was here that Socrates was imprisoned and accepted the cup of hemlock that led to his heroic death; it was here that merchants, bankers and financiers created the economic glory that was Greece. Only three buildings are in a good state--the Stoa of Attalos, the Church of the Holy Apostles built in honor of St. Paul and full of lovely Byzantine mosaics and the Temple of Hephthasos. The rest of the Agora is in dismal condition, most of it lying in ruins in the shape of columns and blocks and red terracotta tiles--somewhat like the Roman Forum in Rome, only in worse condition.
By this point in our day, my feet were fatigued and I needed to return to our hotel for a long rest. Upon awaking from a siesta, we went out in search of dinner and chanced upon Thannasis, a wayside restaurant at Monastiraki, which Lonely Planet had extolled as having the best kebabs in the city. And they were quite correct indeed. Our meal was simple--lamb kebabs with roasted tomato and onions wrapped in pita bread, but so delicious and so laughably cheap we actually spent less that three euros for the lot. For dessert, we picked up Sokolatina, a chocolate mousse pastry that had been recommended to us by Llew's former Greek colleague Ted Francis. And it was simply fabulous!
After a day that had been both historic and deeply fascinating, we packed up our few belongings and get ready for our early morning departure, the next day, for the ferry cruise to Mykonnos. Athens are just amazing and we were glad that our itinerary included one more day in the city on our way back when we hoped to explore those bits of it that we had yet to traverse.