A forest of people move through the Acropolis entrance with it being “free admittance” Sunday. We pass through the Dionysos Theatre and up an embankment to the unmistakable arches of Herodes Atticus Odeon…and after 16 years since we have last tread on Athenian soil – it is once more before us…
From the Parthenon we make our way around the citadel to the temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion, and the ruins of many other grandiose pillared structures – sentinels of the Golden Age of Athens.
There are two ways up to the Acropolis (that we know of) – one on a rather ordinary roadway, and the other through winding streets sided by whitewashed walls, some barely wide enough to walk two abreast, some broad enough for motorcycles to park along one side (although not sure how they got up this far). Around each corner we might be met with a splash of street art, or little gates off towards homes clinging to a hill, or cats lying about like mats not the least bit ruffled as we step over them….this is the only way to go!
Our Athens Greece Photo Gallery
The new Acropolis Museum, which opened its doors in 2009, is on the southeastern slope of Acropolis hill – a grand home to archeological finds from the Acropolis. Most amazing are the thick glass covered sections outside the museum that reveal excavated ruins – a maze of wall remnants that once were homes, with the necessities of life in wells and grist stones.
We relish every minute in this amazing city – and chuckle at how our arrival just days ago is filled with flashbacks of our previous visit. On the metro line train from the airport to the city centre, the train progressively becomes more crowded with each stop, and by the time our exit stop rolls around – the passage to the door is thick with bodies. I’m ahead of Rick. People squeeze over as much as possible to let me through. I hear a familiar voice boom, “THIS WOMAN IS A PICKPOCKET!” I turn to see Rick… pointing down to the head of the cowering culprit. A heavy set woman moves out of Rick’s way; she was part of the tandem, blocking his way to slow him down, while the other reached into his pocket – only gaining a wrist twist as he caught her in the act, thanks to us already being savvy about Athens’ metro being pickpocket territory.
Another re-living of our first visit occurs in Syntagma (Constitutional) Square where the House of Parliament rises in prominence. A huge demonstration is underway – we ask around and are told the demonstrators are socialist party supporters who want better wages and improved social programs. The following day there is another demonstration – we ask around – this time it is a protest against high taxation. “If there is no demonstration, wait 5 minutes,” says our hotel clerk. This aspect of the culture has not changed.
Athens is a fantastic city for walking – and we put on many a mile. After a few days the lawless motorcyclists cease prompting our “fight or flight” reaction when they roar down pedestrian-only streets, or blaze down one way streets the wrong way, or worse yet rumble down a sidewalk. The most jaw-dropping antic is seeing a motorbike bounding down a series of stone steps.
I am taken by the old Orthodox Churches in several city squares. One such beauty is the Panagia Kapnikarea estimated to have been built in the 11th century (perhaps 1050). It stands over an ancient pagan temple.
One afternoon we make our way to the Agora, which from the 6th century BC was the heart of ancient Athens where people gathered to buy and sell all manner of commodities, and where they came to discuss and debate current events, business, politics and spiritual matters. This market place and civic centre saw continual construction, destruction and re-construction over the centuries.
We move on to find Hadrian’s Arch. This 18m (59ft) marble gate decorated in Corinthian style was erected in honor of the Roman emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD (probably before 131/132AD when Hadrian visited Athens). The arch was built over the ancient road that led from the area of the Acropolis and the Agora to the Olympieion (a.k.a. Temple of Olympian Zeus).
At the Temple of Olympian Zeus, only a few columns remain, yet one can visualize the scope of this structure in its heyday. Construction begun way back in the 6th century BC by tyrant Pisistratus, was demolished after his death, the building resumed by his son Hippias, and was stopped again either because of a lack of money or because Hippias was overthrown in 510 BC. The temple was not finished until the Emperor Hadrian completed it, several hundred years later.
In between site-seeing, we have been trekking back and forth to the India Embassy – one of our Athens missions is to obtain our India visa. The first time sitting in the small overly-warm room waiting for our queue numbers 37 and 38 to be called, we find it comedic listening to the no-nonsense clerk’s explanations as to why almost every second person’s application is in error. Rick whispers, “What is so difficult about filling out these forms on line?” And low and behold, ours needs to be redone also – some information in the wrong box. So back we come the next day with corrected forms –and in five business days the deed is done – we leave the consulate clutching our India visas!
On our last visit to the India Embassy we serendipitously come across the changing of the guard in front of the nearby Greek Presidential Palace. It is almost like a private viewing, with a mere two other people watching. The Evzones (Presidential Guards) in their traditional dress march in their ceremonial synchronized gait; the slow motion cadence is to protect their blood circulation after standing perfectly motionless at their post for one hour. (This ceremony also goes on in front the monument of the Unknown Soldier at the Parliament building on Syntagma Square each Sunday at 11 o’clock.)
To be a spectator for a world class event is a tremendous high…and our visit unexpectedly coinciding with the Athens Marathon is just that!! We do a pre-marathon-day visit to the historic Panathenaikon Stadium, with a 40,000 spectator capacity. The empty stands wait in silence. Workmen are hard at work with preparations. A good time for me to make-believe I have completed the 42km (26.2mi) route and am breezing towards the finish line.
The next morning, we are back in the stands for the rush of this phenomenal event. The crowd is gathering, loud music blares from speakers, when Zorba the Greek plays spectators clap and some dance about.
The 5, 10 km and Special Olympic races have already been run, but are in time to see the finish of the “1000m Kids Run” for 9 to 12 year-olds; we see budding marathoners in each and every one!
Now we wait. Anticipation builds as the time draws near for the first marathon runner to appear. These athletes are running, as on the heels of Phiedippides, over the same ground he covered 2,500 years ago, bringing the news to the citizens of Athens of victory over the Persian Army from the battlefields of Marathon. The length of this legendary run has long set the distance of marathons the world over.
A clamorous announcement sounds….and there he is in a flashy orange top….his heels flying over the asphalt…his lean body charging ahead…breathing is as if this is a walk in the park…splitting the finish line ribbon with a record breaking time of 2hrs,10min,27sec! It is 37-year-old Felix Kipchirchie Kandie of Kenya!
And today Kenya reigns supreme! The next three male runners are Kenyan, and also the best-time female marathoner. The crowd uproariously cheers and claps as runners enter the stadium, which takes a spike at the sight of Christoforos Merousis, the first runner from Greece. The hype of this 32nd Athens Marathon is exhilarating – the winners in our book are each and every runner who takes up this challenge.
As is the way with yin and yang – the good fortune of unknowingly encountering such a huge local event can be problematic for travellers (like us), who don’t book accommodations for more than a few days ahead. It comes to pass that we have to yo-yo between hotels – but thankfully do not have to resort to a park bench. And our hotels luckily are all in the same area – Best Western and Pan are similar in good amenities.
On one of our walks down side-streets, we meet Tom, handcuffed to an upright plank of wood with a military police painted on it. Tom, a most colourful character, explains this scene is in remembrance of the November 17, 1973 massive demonstration by polytechnic students against the military regime, resulting in student deaths and the beginning of the end of the regime. Around Tom’s hovel the surrounding boarded up lots are filled with his point-of-view paintings of world events.
Food the Olympians would favour!
Ahhh, the cuisine of Greece is godly in taste and goodly in price. An outstanding lunch is at the mom-and-pop (and son-and-wife) To Kati Allo (which means “Something Else”) located just back of the new Acropolis Museum. The thick flavourful bean soup and stewed spicy beef topped with whipped cheesy potato is a taste sensation; the owners so attentive we feel like family.
Mitropoleos Street (near Monastiraki Square) is filled with restaurants! Our choice is Thananis, where we dive into our first sampling of moussaka and chicken souvlaki – and instantly know why these tables are always filled! So back we go on our last Athens evening to relive our first experience, ordering the same selections…why mess with perfection? Seasoned tender chicken, vine-ripened tomatoes, sweet onions, crispy fries, all over a pita that has soaked up the juices, with lemon wedge squirts to add a bit of tang. The moussaka’s taste-bud bursting flavours of minced beef, slices of eggplant all doused in traditional spices and with creamy topping browned to a crusty finish – and finish it we did, mopping up every last speck.
Street performers do it up right! The winners of the Butler Busker Contest are “Zorba the Greek with a twist” and “The Puppeteers”.
Frank Sinatra’s “Love is lovelier the second time around” lyrics spring into my head on our second Athens visit. Rick concurs it is like coming back to see an old friend, smiling at the differences as if looking at a high-school-reunion buddy years later, but finding the sameness that delighted us before are still wonderfully there. And one can never see the ancient monuments of Athens too many times.
Not quite ready for India (although we now admire our new India visas daily) we bring up a Google map….hmmm, Cyprus is near and still fairly warm…so why not?? Cyprus here we come!
And last but not least….Rick, my finance minister, is furiously clicking the numbers on his calculator. I wait with bated breath as he removes the pen from behind his ear…and enters a final tally in his little black book. “For air fare from Albania, our food, accommodations, entry fees, entertainment – the total comes to $188CDN per day,” he says with a slight grin…which is good.