After attending a conference in Romania I had decided to run the Athens Classic Marathon so that gave me an excuse to finally visit Greece. Ever since I was young I was fascinated with Greek history—in fact, I only got into second year of engineering school because I got an A+ in my classical history humanities course which got my overall average just above the cut-off. So I arrived Friday morning from Romania excited to finally see some of the places which have long held my imagination.
The marathon organizers had a booth at the airport and gave me a five day transit pass. I hopped on the metro and headed into town. From there it was a relatively short walk to my hotel. It would have been faster except I asked for directions and was sent off in the wrong direction. A taxi driver put me right.
After checking in I went over to collect my race number. On the way I had an excellent falafel. Lis and I enjoy Greek food and I was not to be let down during my visit! There was an expo at the registration and it was interesting to see all the different products available in Europe which are not available elsewhere. I managed to restrain myself and only came away with the free swag.
Once I had dropped off my race swag at the hotel I went wandering the streets. The Acropolis towered above us and I decided that I would visit there first thing the following morning. This evening I would just stroll around town and enjoy the sights and sounds. As the sun was setting it glowed pink.
It was really nice the way that the streets were reserved for pedestrians. The weather was perfect so I strolled for several hours. Athens has been attracting tourists for over 2,000 years and the central part is definitely oriented towards extracting as much as possible. Most stores sold tourist kitsch with an ancient theme. I wondered what people would do with life sized ancient Greek soldier helmets at home. There was also a disturbing abundance of T-shirts with crude slogans. Obviously not everyone who comes here is interested in Greek culture.
At one point about a dozen South Asian men came running by me flat out. A minute later I saw why: there was a police patrol. I kept on coming across the same men for the entire weekend. They sat on the pavement selling very cheap toys. The Africans were more prosperous: they were selling counterfeit watches and Gucci bags. I wondered where these people slept, and how they afforded to eat. I felt sorry for them being so far from their home, scraping out an existence on the streets of Athens. But I digress …
I had dinner at a restaurant and sat outside watching people wander by. There was a table with three American women who were there to run the race. It was fun to eavesdrop on their conversation, and to try and feed off their enthusiasm.
Saturday morning I was up early and was at the Acropolis at 08:00. It was clear that the Greeks were not early risers – nor were many tourists – as the streets were largely deserted and I was the first to get to the top of the Acropolis. Here are a few photos of what I found.
The centrepiece of the Acropolis is the Parthenon which is shown above. It is one of the most beautiful creations of antiquities. Unfortunately it was damaged over the ages when it was turned into a church, then a mosque, and then an explosives store. The latter was particularly problematic when the Venetians attacked the Turks in Athens. The resulting explosion took out a good chunk of the building.
It was wonderful wandering among the buildings, admiring the architecture. It was funny to see that the ancients (or not so ancients?) were also susceptible to graffiti. Have a look at the column to the right. Reminded me of the time that Lis and I visited a medieval church in Denmark and saw carvings from a thousand years ago in the pews.
The views from the top were great and I could see that there was a path around the base of the Acropolis. Right. That is where I’m off to next. I headed down the hill and then past the amphitheatre below. The seating went much further up the hill than it looks, up to where the trees were.
The base of the Acropolis was the hub of many activities including a bronze foundry. They had assembled a lot of samples of the columns from different periods which showed the evolution of different styles. I was reminded of when my wife Lis was studying Art History and explained to me the differences between different styles of columns. The ancient craftsmen were something else.
There were several caves around the base and one of them had a comment about Lord Elgin “violently” removing statues from the cave. His name is equated with the raping and pillaging of artefacts. He was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 19th century and removed a large number of items from the Acropolis. He claimed to have the permission of the Empire, but some have argued that this was not the case. In any event, the British Museum contains a large number of items, as do museums throughout Europe. He claimed to have saved the items since the locals were burning the marble carvings to create limestone, and others were damaged by subsequent wars. In fact at one point the Greeks sieged the Turks who held the acropolis. When the Turks threatened to tumble some of the columns to get the lead for bullets the Greeks gave them bullets to prevent this happening. But I digress …
It was near here that Paul preached his sermon to the ‘Unknown God’. I thought it was so neat to be walking through places where the Apostles visited. Must get over to Turkey and visit the ancient cities there.
I spent hours exploring the ruins and then went and had a light lunch. From there it was over to Hadrian’s Gate. On one side it said that Athens was a city created by Thesius; on the other side it is now the city of Hadrian. It was a combination of Greek architecture at the bottom, and Roman at the top. The photo below shows the remains.
Near Hadrian’s gate was another ruin. I saw an African-American trying to take a photo of himself with the building in the background. He was most appreciative when I offered to take it for him. Shortly afterwards I repeated the favour for two Venezuelans who were also running the marathon. I passed her the next day but she was zoned out with her MP3 player and didn’t recognize me. The photos below are close ups of the beautiful carvings at the top of the columns.
I had to admit that spending so much time walking around Athens was not exactly the rest one would normally take before a race, but it may be my only visit to Athens!
I swung by the tomb of the unknown soldier and watched the changing of the guard. They went through a very carefully orchestrated choreography of movements, with their pom-poms on their shoes adding an interesting element. But were they ever well controlled. I recall reading, I think it was a dispatch from Hemingway, that during the Turkish-Greek war in the early 1920’s their soldiers were actually dressed like this for the fighting.
The final stop of the day was the Acropolis Museum. This opened in June 2009 and houses many major relics from the Acropolis. You enter the museum along a glass walkway, beneath your feet are the foundations of ancient Athens from 2000 years ago. Again I got reflective about the Apostles walking these streets.
The museum was crowded, and I wonder what it would be like during the peak tourist season. However, it was still possible to appreciate the incredible history, going back some 5,000 years.
The museum transitions you from the ancient through the archaic to the later works. The best part though was at the very top floor. They had recreated the layout of the Parthenon and put in place various carvings from around the top of the Parthenon in the original order. You could see how they told a continuous story from Greek mythology—except where panels were completely missing. Some noted that they were copies with the originals in Copenhagen or elsewhere. There was also an excellent film on the unique architecture of the Parthenon which really was an achievement. Lis would have spent days in here admiring the beautiful sculptures.
Ending the day with an exquisite linguini at a street restaurant, I reflected on what a perfect day it was. As a lover of history Athens is the perfect place to visit. Adding to that great weather and not too many tourists made it extra enjoyable. It was now time to get my head around the need to run 42 km the next morning!