Wednesday, November 12, 2008

There's More to Athens Than The Acropolis

Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Athens, Greece

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And so we finally arrived at our last day in Greece. It had been such a blissful ten days that Llew and are were loath to return to routine, even though, comfortingly, that routine would be for me at least, in London.

Though friends had told us that Athens can be covered in a day and a half, we so loved the city and its many varied quarters, some of which we had yet to explore, that we had several places lined up to see before we returned home. However, I woke up feeling awful and for some inexplicable reason, had no appetite or energy to tackle anything. Llew breakfasted alone while I took a rest and it was only after he had checked out, an hour later, that I stirred and found the enthusiasm to go ahead with our plans.

Our first stop was Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus in "Roman Athens". These remnants of Rome's occupation of Greece take the form of large monuments in rather dismal shape. While the Arch is quite impressive, it is the few standing columns of the Temple that catch the eye--mainly because they are so tall. This temple was once the largest in Greece and though today only 17 columns remain, they do give an idea of how stupendous a sight it might have presented to contemporary Athenians.

Then, we found ourselves skirting the Temple's precincts and making our way towards the National Gardens to see the Zappeion, at the suggestion of Ted Francis, a corporate attorney in the States, who was once Llew's colleague and is now a good friend. Ted has Greek heritage and Llew had made sure to ask him for his travel tips before he left the States. One of the places that Ted thought we should see was the Zappeion and I am very grateful he suggested this, not just because it allowed us to explore the interior of a very unique and very imposing Neo-Classical Building in the middle of the city, but because we also had the opportunity to explore the 'lungs' of Athens in the huge and very well-maintained garden. Inside the building--which is odd because it appears like a rectangular structure on the outside but is really circular within--that was used as the press center for the Athens Olympics in 2004, there was a publicity event on for the forthcoming Special Olympics and the press was busy setting up cameras and lights.

Having viewed the Zappaeion, we went in search of the Athens Olympic Stadium of 2004 and though finding it on foot following a map was something of a challenge, we were quite overwhelmed when we did see it. For the stadium is massive and entirely constructed of marble. The five international Olympic rings dominate the structure and make a marvelous backdrop for the pictures that visitors feel compelled to take. This was the stadium into which the finalists of the marathon entered at the end of their long run and we could just imagine what it might have been like--thousands of cheering fans greeting the winners and screaming during their victory lap.

Walking through the lovely flower-beds of the garden, we arrived at the main thoroughfare, in time to take in the rituals of the 12 noon "Changing of the Guards" ceremony at Syntagma Square. This is very similar to the ceremony in London except that instead of wearing funny bear-skin hats, these Greek guards wear funny frilly skirts and large pom-pom shoes and march in the fashion that is distinctly reminiscent of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers in the episode in which he attempts to be a Nazi soldier. Needless to say, the moves of these guards brought a great deal of laughter--some of it suppressed, much of it not--and photo opportunities for the assembled tourists who arrive at the tolling of each hour. The handsome Parliament Building makes a very fitting backdrop to this ceremony which is performed on a platform that contains the Tomb of an Unknown Soldier. It is meant to be a solemn and dignified ritual and I was sorry that so many young tourists found it amusing.

After resting for a bit, we walked along the main avenue towards the three Neo-Classical Buildings that one cannot fail to notice as one rides in the city's trolley buses. These comprise the Athens Academy, the University of Athens and the Central Library. Each building is more beautiful than the other, the Academy fronted by the statues of Socrates and Aristotle and crowned by those of Apollo and Artemis. At the University, we were delighted to have strayed into the midst of a graduation ceremony where lovely young ladies all decked out in summer floral dresses and chiffony frills with either improbably high heeled boots or delicate stilettos, bore large bouquets of flowers in their hands and posed for pictures with their loving relatives. It was a lovely sight to see and we were so glad to receive this spontaneous glimpse into contemporary Athenian culture.

A few moments later, having covered Roman Athens and Neo-Classical Athens, we crossed the street and went in search of Byzantine Athens represented by the ancient churches that dot its oldest quarters. Llew was especially keen that I visit the 11th century Church of Kapnikarea that stands smack in the middle of Ermou, one of the city's busiest shopping areas and which he had seen earlier on one of his solo rambles. This tiny church is so old that when you enter it, you almost expect its walls to crumble in your hands.

It was time for lunch and we hurried again to Thannasis which was doing roaring business at midday. It was our last chance to enjoy a really good meal and we opted for a Greek Salad and the moussaka, which was served in the terracotta pot in which it had been baked and was easily one of the best we have ever tasted. Over Mythos beer, this meal went down like a dream and we were so glad that we would take back superb memories of Greek food through the many varied restaurants we had visited on the recommendation of Lonely Planet.

On the way back to our hotel to pick up our bags, we did have a chance to see one more old church, the large Cathedral which stands right next to the smaller 12th century Church of Agios Eleftherios. All Byzantine churches have a similar design inside and exude an air of religious formality through the use of swinging incense-burners and glass chandeliers.

It was, sadly, time for us to think of returning to our hotel as our flight left at 8pm. We wanted to arrive at the airport by 6 pm, which meant that we needed to get on the metro by 5 pm. A last stroll through Monastriki allowed us to pick up some inexpensive souvenirs trinkets for relatives and a scarf for me depicting the glory of classical Greek architecture, before we arrived at Acropolis House and picked up our baggage. En route to the metro stop, we could not resist stopping at Syntagma Square to pick up some edible goodies to carry back home--Greek pistachios, mixed nut brittle studded with sesame seeds, and some more sokolatina (chocolate mousse pastry) from our favorite confectionery at the corner.

On the metro back to the airport, we ran into the group of four Asians--two couples from Hongkong--whom we had seen repeatedly on our travels. Together, we entered the train that spirited us away to the airport and on to our Easyjet flight which landed at Luton airport at about 11 am. Because there wasn't much traffic on the motorways at that time of night, we did manage to get to the Baker Street Tube stop before the last train left and the system closed for the night. We were home twenty minutes later, holding close to our hearts, some indelible memories of the ten blissful days we had spent in Greece--the cradle of Western civilization.

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