After leaving Malta, we had a lovely dinner, listening to the waiters from 3700 countries [something like that] sing “O, sole mio” in Italian. This song means “Oh, my soul” and is not a song about flat fish.
Back in the room, Ron made some hot tea and, while I did a sketch painting of Malta, he went to the library for some computer time.
At dawn on Wednesday, we pulled into Piraeus, the port of Athens from ancient times.
The inimitable Amanda had told us that the train system was a nightmare; she lied. But we believed her and caught a cab into Athens. The driver dropped us at the foot of Erechtheum Street, which I recognized as referring to the Acropolis, so we got out and hiked up.
Piraeus-Athens is as ugly as LA. Freeways fly above crowded streets, higgledy-piggledy. But it is a dynamic place, full of commerce and business, all loud and boisterous.
And with a lot of construction going on. The city just completed the Acropolis Museum—about which more below—too late for the Olympics 2004, but just in time for us.
After viewing the Odeon of Herodes Atticus [theatre built into the side of the acropolis] through iron gates, we tuned away from the acropolis and began to climb Filopapou [Philopappas] Hill. Formerly called “The Hill of the Mousaios,” after a poet, it is now named after a prince of Syria, who, exiled to Athens, was a benefactor to the city and built his own monument there.
This climb resulted in the most delight we had in Athens. As we were early for the Acropolis to open, there was no one—no one—on the hill. We passed by the so-called “Prison of Socrates”. Yes, it was a prison, but no one knows if he was ever there. The prison is built right into the native rock, and now has iron gates. During WWII, national treasures were hidden inside the caves, which were reinforced with concrete.
The path is a work of art in itself. Worked in black and white, with bits of ancient marble and brick placed carefully, I took 30+ photos of the motifs the workers placed into the walkway. We later learned that black and white pebbles were the Greek version of mosaics, which the Romans turned into colorful designs by use of tessarae [little squares].
Just past the prison, there is a little carved cave called the “Heroon of Mousaios,” a little shrine to the poet [?]. People had put flowers around it, whether in tribute to the poet or because it is an intriguing little cave-shrine, I know not.
Back on the path, the trees opened up for us to view the Parthenon, huge on its “high city” or acropolis, set against the misty sky. This view afforded strategic views of the 30-40 foot wall around the acropolis, with enormous buttresses. There is but one way up the hill and that is guarded by an elegant, but functional gate. The only time the acropolis fell to enemies [Persians, btw] was from a siege ending in starvation and plague.
Climbing ever upwards through the woods, we emerged at the top, a bald, rock strewn moonscape, with a Roman monument on the pinnacle.
There is no topsoil in most countries around the Med these days. I read later that the forests had been all cut down in B.C., and, in their ignorance, the people did not plant any more trees. I get this: they thought of wood as wild, not as a crop as we do today. But the loss of the forests meant the loss of the topsoil from erosion, and the collapse of farming. The introduction of goats everywhere has resulted in bare rock, as goats will forage anything down to the root. A most excellent book is Mediterranean: The History of a Sea by Ernle Bradford.
The top of Philopappas Hill is scraped down to bedrock. There are table-sized outcroppings, where people have stacked stones and left wildflowers, the more beautiful version of graffiti “I was here”. I added my own 2 stones and took their photo. The Roman monument itself is nothing special, but the view of the city!! 360 degrees! We could see all the way to Piraeus, including our cruise ship, as big as any skyscraper.
Making our way down by a different path took a longer time, as I was entranced by the above-mentioned mosaics. The path ended with a stunning little church dedicated to St. Peter, “Rocky”, very appropriately. We followed the road the rest of the way down the hill, past the path to the Acropolis and on to the Acropolis Museum.
While excavating for the museum, workmen uncovered ancient buildings, so the entryway to the museum is plexiglas so that visitors hover over the ruins.
This museum is Greece’s answer to the question, asked by museums around the world, “If we gave you back your antiquities, where would you put them?” It is a huge space, sparsely populated, with plenty of room for expansion. Items are well displayed and labeled in Greek and English, no photos allowed.
They have moved the caryatids from the porch of the Erechtheum inside the museum and replaced them outside with copies. We saw one in the British Museum, but there is a space for her in the museum. The top floor of the museum, set at an angle to the building, but paralleling the Parthenon at the top of the hill, is a life-size simulacrum of that building. It is designed so that visitors can clearly see where all the carved decorations on the building were in relation to each other. [A film nearby shows what it all looked like in its heyday, fully painted.] All of the extant pieces are there, with casts of the ones in the British Museum [the Elgin Marbles], Louvre and elsewhere.
I have mixed feelings about the return of such treasures to their native lands. On the one hand, if Lord Elgin and others had not picked up the blown-up, broken fragments off the ground, where they were lying, they would never have survived into this century. The British Museum has taken exquisite care of them during 2 centuries where Greece was neither a nation, nor able to take care of anything beyond daily needs and warfare. Thousands of people have seen the carvings that would never had gone to Greece. On the other hand, there is, at last, an argument for assuming the Greek government will take care of them now. I predict that the British Museum will return the marbles in the next 25 years. Nobody feels guilt like the Brits. I also predict that the French will never return theirs.
We did a little shopping at the museum. I bought a book of nice photos of the good stuff and a box of clay reproductions of children’s toys of ancient Greece.
Then we hiked up the long hill to the Acropolis. Halfway up, you must buy a ticket and, across from the booth, there is a snack shack. We bought crusty feta sandwiches, diet Coke and coconut cookies.
We stormed the citadel with many other tourists—the busses were arriving in droves—and entered the narrow gate. The top of the hill is spacious, probably because most of the buildings were blown away in the Greek revolt against the Turks in the early 1800s. This is when the Turks were using the Parthenon as an ammo dump and the Greeks blew it up. [BTW, this is no longer the official story.]
I admit to a bit of conflict about all this. I distain Pericles for using the funds raised for a defensive navy, levied by Athens on most of the other city-states, to build the great temple. I fume over the Greeks blowing up the Parthenon, though I understand why they did it. I am glad to see the buildings being restored, with the more valuable bits being put in the museum. Ron had the proper sense of awe and wonder; he poetically states, “I enjoyed the view.” Athens’ Acropolis is one of the things you must see before you die.
After this, we went down the “back side” of the Acropolis, past the Agora, with the Temple of the Winds, all within an immense iron gate. The term “agoraphobia”—fear of being out in crowds and open places--comes from this marketplace of ancient Athens, now in ruins. [see profile photo above for an example of agoraphobia]
We found a taxi idling by the side of the narrow street next to the agora, and swept through all of the pandemonium of the modern city to the Archaeological Museum.
THIS is what I wanted to see. Indescribable!! The gold of Mycenae; the incredible bronzes of Poseidon [Zeus?], Perseus, the horse and boy rider and many more smaller ones; 5000 year old statues from the Cyclades; grave goods from Tiryns;. Here, they allowed photos and we took scores. Ironically, most of these items were preserved because they were either buried with dead people, or they sank with the ships that plundered them.
We had a lovely sit-down in the museum outdoor café, with a large tortoise roaming the garden. The inevitable Coke and a delicious spinach pie slice.
It was a challenge finding a cab back to Piraeus, as it was the beginning of rush hour, so we walked backwards down a main drag, waving madly. One cabbie was so apologetic that he couldn’t take us—he had an appointment—but he gave us a card to call a cab—in Greek. We finally did get a cab and made it back to the ship with 15 minutes to spare, even taking time to pick up an evil eye charm. These blue glass circles, with white and gold concentric circles, are now coming to be known as “Eye of God” charms, so us non-superstitious Christians can buy them.
We soaked in the hot tub, drank diet Coke, and went to our room to watch as we left port. I think I’m done with Athens, but there’s a lot of Greece I want to see.
N4 27 Cruise 5
[12-15-09] for photos, visit