Sunday, 16 May 2010

Acropolis now!

Written 16th May

Athens is everything you expect it to be.  Scorchingly hot, gridlocked with traffic, crammed full of people and littered with ruins.

But once you get out of the car and the clutches of the traffic and on and off a tram and into the shady back streets, its suddenly alright.  Especially having dug my skirt out from the depths of the cupboard we affectionately call 'the hole' (although we haven't got as far as tempting fate by stuffing the fleeces down there yet!) and carrying our own shade chinese style by means of my parasol/umbrella, bought in Shanghai for exactly this purpose.  So sensible the chinese, it works a treat.

As Athens has much the same traffic/parking reputation as Rome - with the added excitement of possible riots! - we decided on a repeat of the proven tactic there and headed (eventually!) to the beach suburbs in the hope of quiet parking.  

Turned out not to be quite as planned as the beach front road is a busy dual carriage way, but in the middle of the night we left the marina back road (was getting full of yoofs doing handbrake turns in kevved up astras) and found a spot on a frontage road, right by a city bound tram station.  Not exactly quiet with the traffic thundering past one lane over but with the trams still running when we finally went to sleep, at least we could be sure there was no danger of missing a last tram home in this city...

Early start then!  Lots to see!  We left our well connected little parking spot and headed on into town.

And did very well.

Athens is named the Greek Goddess of Wisdom, Athena.  Legend has it that both she and Poseidon were rivals for the guardianship of the city which was finally settled by bribery, with Poseidon offering the people a horse whereas Athena struck the rock of the Acropolis with her spear and caused an olive tree (a symbol of peace and prosperity) to grow - much more impressive if you ask me! - and so won the enduring affection of the citizens.  Poseidon has a temple further south at the point of the peninsula.

The monuments and temples which stand today on the top of the sacred rock of the acropolis date back to the 5th century BC, but there is evidence of civilization there going much further back to c3000 BC, including the Minoans (who were centred at Knossos in Crete), the Mycenaeans (under Theseus, he of Minotaur slaying fame) who united Athens with the surrounding province of Attica, invasions of hellenic tribes; Acheans, Aeolians, Ionians and Dorians, before the rise of the "classic" greeks, who built the Agora, started the Olympic games (in Olympia in 776BC), built the temples on the Acropolis and set about founding the principles of modern civilization that we all take for granted, like democracy, philosophy, theatre, marathons and the like.  Although they had a particularly interesting take on elections, very similar in principle to what has just happened in the UK.  But more on that later.

Lots of other peoples had a go at Athens with varying degrees of success; the persians, the spartans, the macedonians.  And then, as in so many places, the romans arrived in c150BC, and set about rebuilding eveything the way they wanted it done.

We decided that a day would suffice for our invasion - big cities are really not our thing, but you can't get this close and miss it - and we did pretty well.

We started Roman, with Hadrian's Arch - built in 131AD to honour the govenor Hadrian, it sits, as the inscriptions on the opposing sides read, between the Acropolis "This is Athens, ancient city of Theseus" and the Temple of Olympian Zeus, "This is the city of Hadrian, not of Theseus".

From there to the aforementioned Temple which was started in 6BC by the greek dictators Hippias and Hipparchos, but was abandoned, started again and abandined once more by the Greeks and as such was never completed until Hadrian - a bit of a hellenaphile by all accounts - took up the task in 132AD.

On to the relatively uncrowded south slopes of the Acropolis, home to various fairly indecipherable ruins, including; the theatre of Dionysos, the most ancient theatre in the world built in 5th century BC (unnacountably unphotographed) with an astounding capacity at the time of 17,000 spectators, the Odeion of Herodus Atticus, a roman theatre build on a grander scale.

And inevitably up through the roman built fortified walls via the Beule Gate,

up the steps, past the Temple of Athena Nike built in 420BC to commemorate the victory of the Greeks against the Persians (currently under going restoration so covered in scaffolding), through the Propylaea,

the grand entrance built by Pericles in 437-432BC,

and on to the rock itself.

Even covered in scaffolding and surrounded by cranes, the Parthenon is almost incomprehensibly huge.  Constructed by order of Pericles during the 'Golden Age' of Athens in 447-437BC it is 17 columns long by 8 wide, all of which appear to bulge under the weight of the massive  roof, and apparently none of which are straight, to create an illusion of harmony and balance or something. Whatever, it is pretty epic.

Right to the end for the view back

and down over the town

and across to Lycabettus Hill.  

Getting a bit hot now, so back past the  Erechtheion, built between 420-406BC on themost holy site on the rock, the spot where Athena caused the olive tree to sprout (although the tree itself was apparently destroyed by the Persians in their invasion of 480) and

which is where copies of the famous marble Caryatids are found.

A side note on the statues.  As most of you will probably know, most of the marble decorations and statues in the Parthenon were removed by Lord Elgin in 1801 and are now in the british museum.  This is still a very sore point and the greeks have a lot of unresolved issues about which they need counselling and some sort of closure.  Paragraphs in guide books such as "[the Acropolis] suffered as a result of natural disasters like earthquakes but mor so at the hands of man... perhaps the greatest damage occurred when an explosian rocked the Acropolis [during a seige in 1687] and as a result of Lord Elgin's looting of the marbles".  Even better, the same sign which described Elgin's violent removal of the marbles and was followed by a description of the subsequent turkish attack which destroyed much of what remained of the Acropolis.  Surely in these circumstances they should be thanking him for saving them...  As I say, a lot of unresolved anger.

It is at this point that I should also confess, that, having never been to the british museum, it was only yesterday that I realised that Elgin's marbles are not, in actual fact, giant marbles, made of, well marble...  To be fair I was assuming they were big - think the rolling rock in Indiana Jones - and therefore impressive for that reason.  Apparently not.  Honestly, I really didn't know!  Will looked at me when the penny dropped as if I was some kind of idiot.

Although I am comforted by the account of a friend - no names to protect the innocent - who actually did go to the British Museum, looked at lots of statues and square plinths and then asked where the marbles were...  It is good to know I was not entirely alone in my misapprehension... :)  

Down via the north slope and the sacred caves of Pan, Zeus and Apollo, and so to the Ancient Agora.  The heart of greek commerce, politics, religion, culture and daily life.

Another place with mostly just the remains of the foundations of buildings

but also the amazing Temple of Hephaisos - built in 460-415BC it is also known as the Thesion although it was dedicated to Athena and Hephaisos (God of Health I think) not Theseus. 

It is pretty much intact and is the best preserved temple of its type -

and the museum which contained the usual pots and stuff but also some fascinating stuff about how political life functioned including the water jugs, the completion of the flow of water from one to the other being the marker by which public speakers knew when their time was up, the system of slots, name tags and coloured balls by which juries were selected

and most particularly pertinent, the system of democratic ostrascism by which, instead of voting for your favourite, you scratch your least favourite/person you think is most despotic on a shard of pottery and the person with the most votes is banished from town for ten years, ten years!    I guess Gordon Brown is lucky to be able to keep his back bench seat...  

Bit hot and energy deficient so we diverted from our route to the next place,the Keramikos, by way of china town - in the clinging heat and sticky, gritty dust, with the traffic, the scooters and the unexpected chinese shops and signs, it did feel very similar to back street Shanghai!.  The Keramikos is the biggest ancient cemetery in Attica but ssdly the site and museum was closed by the time we got there - hey ho we have seen grave goods before.  

And so on through the pedestrian streets, flea market and tat stalls of Monastirki, to Hadrian's library and the Roman Agora, respectively the seats of learning and commerce of the Roman era.

There's not a lot left of either, just the external walls of the library (which once held small lecture theatres and reading rooms and thousands of papyrus scrolls)

and the foundations of three churches subsequently built within the site,

the gated entrance to the Agora,

and the Tower of the winds. 

Named for the reliefs of the eight winds carved around its top, the edifice served as both weather vane and time piece by means of the water clock (not sure how that worked) and sundial by means of the spikes and lines on each face.

Bit ruined out by now - although not as much as the americans we met who were on a one week, two centre visit to Europe taking in Rome and Athens, now that would be history overload! - so a wander back to the parliament building and the tomb of the unknown soldier by way of the typical streets of Plaka for the changing of the guard.  Not the silliest uniform but definitely the silliest shoes and walk we have so far between - proper John Cleese, leg waving, goose stepping stuff!

And from there, up to Lycabettus Hill, an unexpected rock which juts out of flatland Athens almost as surprisingly as the Acropolis.  According to legend, Athene wanted her temple on the Acropolis to be nearer the heavens so was carrying a lump of pentellic marble (the rock from which most of the classic 'stuff' is made) from Mount Penteli to Athens when she was given some bad news by two ravens which caused her to drop the rock in her rage and haste to go sort it out.  At 278m high, it is not somewhere to be going in the heat of themidday sun (unless you go by cable car) but in the early evening, it is a strenuous climb which is more than rewarded by the view over the city and out to the Saronic Gulf, over all the famous sights;

The stadium 

The Acropolis 

A perfect way to finish the evening, with free entertainment in the form of american teenagers.  "hey look over there, that's like the Parthenon", "it is the Parthenon.", "oh yeah".  The best kind of amusement... :)

The closest we came to riots, fortunately, were the few smashed windows and burnt out buildings during the day and the massed policemen and riot police round the parliament building.  But when their radio chatter seemed to be on the increase in the early evening, we decided discretion was the better part of valour and made a strategic withdrawal back to the beach.  Well, it would be a shame to be so sure of not missing the last tram only to have them cancelled by popular unrest...

We had hoped to get back in time for a swim, but it was dark by the tume we got back - our Athens book describes the southern beach suburbs as being only 20 mins away from the centre, i'm not sure what time of day or means of transport they propose in making this statement! - and the clostest beach was a bit full of floating rubbish so we just cooled off in the beach showers - satisfyingly chilled but not as cold as the swearing, exclaiming boy who followed our lead made out - a lots of fuss about nothing!

With Athens done, insomuch as we are going to do it - honestly it is again one of those places you have to go, and I am very glad we did, but I still think the uncrowded simplicity of the Pasteum temples silhouetted against the evening sky will take some beating in terms of temples... - the plan had been to escape Athens under the cover of darkness when the traffic was lighter.


Turns out that whilst yes, by 11:30, the traffic was somewhat lighter, it is still no easier to find your way out.  Even by the point at which you are finally thinking 'sod it, lets just find a toll road if that's what it takes'.  After we had spent an hour driving round and were approaching for the fourth time the same three road junction we had already driven into and out of by every possible road, we eventually found our way out and on the road in the direction of Corinth, stopping in the first patch of near deserted gravel we found.  Nightmare.

Turns out, that not only do the roads on which you drive bear absolutely no resemblance to the roads shown on the map, the toll roads we were initially trying to avoid don't have tolls at every entrance and exit, instead the shiney booths are retro fitted at random points along the road, often in the middle of nowhere.  So if you know what you are doing, you can come off an exit before, drive round on a little minor road, and get back on afterwards - brilliant.  And they wonder why they are on the verge of bankrupcy...

So, an easy day at the beach at Pachi yesterday - a spot we found thanks to a brilliant google map someone has done of wildcamping spots in greece,24.89502&spn=8.531475,19.665527&z=6
- fettling for Will, beach and book and sea for me.  Struggling with Dante so am on to lighter things - Sense and Sensibility no less - but I am determined to get beyond Canto II of the Inferno at some point!

Pachi is nice, the café/bar/restaurant suburb of nearby Megara with views of islands over the blue blue sea, just enough shingle to be called a beach, lots of buzzing restaurants which smelt delicious,

our first sugarcube church

and this brilliantly subtle water cooled veedub conversion -  honestly, you would never know... ;)

Back on the road today.  We have decided to skip Corinth a  apparently there isn't much left and I am done with greek and roman foundations for now.

So, to the Peloponnese and Nafplio - haven't been to any venetian seaside towns for, oh, at least a week... :)

Btw, the greece pages of our atlas are distinctly lacking in circlings - if anyone has any unmissable Peloponnese or norther greece suggestions, we'd love to have them!

Ttfn x


  1. Hi, I expectetd to meet you on the acpropolis. Got a serious cold there, caused by the temperature differences between museums, outside and hotelbus!
    Greetings from Northern Germany! Stephan

  2. 278m too high for you to climb? pah, try hiking up to 5100m (ok, from 4400m, but still, there was a lot of altitude and lack of air involved). of course we were toughened up from hiking up 1200m in a day a few days previously. I guess that's just how we roll.

  3. I saw you while you were in Pachi and I liked your van, so I took a picture of it (! Later the same day I was in Nafplio, your next stop!
    I am sure you enjoed your travel to Greece.

    Best regards, Despina