Monday 12th May, 2008, Corinth
On Saturday we "did" Athens. The four of us booked a taxi, the only viable way to reach the new out of town station, to catch the early train into the city where we went our separate ways, meeting up in the evening for the return train ride. The journey took a little over an hour through an uninspiring suburban landscape that followed the motorway. We eagerly watched for the moment we would cross the famous Corinth canal that effectively turns the Peloponnese into an island, but it was crossed in a flash, little more than a brick-lined culvert. On the northern edge of Athens there is a massive railway engineering project underway to build a new central hub linking various parts of the city and mainland Greece. Our journey crawled through an endless wasteland of rails and sleepers waiting to be laid. One day it will transform rail links but meanwhile the train does not even stop at the suburbs which appear to be served by the recently installed underground network. Personally I can think of few things more terrifying than using the metro in a city prone to earthquakes! What railway stations exist are showpieces. It is forbidden to eat, smoke or drink anywhere and litter is non-existent. The station at Corinth could almost be mistaken for a museum with bi-lingual explanation boards to showcases of exhibits from local excavations.
With a population of 11 million in Greece, including all the islands, over a third live and work in Athens. We walked through the crowded, messy back streets with their broken pavements, missing manhole covers, abandoned cars, rubbish, graffiti, street vendors, dubious characters, delivery lorries blocking one-way streets and general accretions of grime. Above it all hung washing while outside snack bars men sat on chairs blocking the pavement, drinking Greek coffee and fingering their worry beads. At one point there were several armed police and a group of youths, some with motorcycles. It felt threatening so we passed quickly by. On the next corner a couple of children were sat out on the street in high chairs with colouring books and crayons. No sign of their parents! Presumably they ran one of the nearby shops.
We were lured to explore the local meat market. It is a gruesome place! Crowded with customers there are scores of individual butchers hacking sheep in half to order, ripping out chicken gizzards and livers before your very eyes, piling up mountains of goats' heads, and using saws, cleavers and choppers with such rapid dexterity it seems inconceivable that the piles of chickens' feet didn't have a finger or two in there as well. No such thing as chain link gloves or health and safety here, and everything you might buy was delicately dusted in cigarette ash.
Soon we could see the acropolis towering high above the streets, the Parthenon silhouetted at the top. This was the "must-do" we had come for. Get it done and the rest of the day could be ours. Easier said than done. The path up is steep and designed to lead you into every taverna on the way. "That way the Acropolis, this way my place" we were told by a cheery restaurateur as we took a wrong turn. "No drink? Maybe on the way down?"
Set right in the heart of Athens we were surprised to see just how close the modern city comes to the Acropolis and the ancient city. The railway runs along the base of the hill, cutting right through the walls while blocks of flats crowd right up to the ruins.
When we reached the top of the hill we were rewarded. Instead of 12 euros each, it was free! No idea why but we happily accepted and joined the crowds shuffling through the Propylaia, the grand entrance to the Acropolis built in the 430s BC. It was encased in scaffolding, as was the Parthenon. Nevertheless this imposing temple, one of the chief wonders of the ancient world, still impressed as it doggedly suffered the restorers and the crowds of tourists. A one-way system had been introduced to cope with the crowds but for much of the classic period the Acropolis must have been equally crowded by visitors and celebrants. It was built by Pericles as a showpiece for the might of Athens in the middle of the fifth century BC after the Persians had destroyed much of the city.
While the Parthenon, with its sculpted frieze of the Athenians fighting with giants and the Amazons was intended to impress as well as to accommodate the gigantic statue of Athena designed by Phidias, it was the nearby Erechteion, with its dignified caryatids which most impressed us from the pure elegance and simplicity of the design. Something of the special sacredness of the location still comes across – it was here that Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and Athena produced the olive tree when they contested for possession of the city. Many of the delicate mouldings and even the roof beams can still be admired. There was a stall nearby with schoolchildren giving out information about the importance of the olive tree.
From the top of the acropolis there are wonderful views across all of Athens, down to the sea at Piraeus. Below could be seen the Theatre of Dionysus, the birthplace of Greek tragedy, where the plays were performed during the annual Dionysia festival. To one side of it is the theatre of Herodes Atticus, a small roman theatre built in memory of his wife by the roman consul in the second century AD. Beyond that could be seen Hadrian’s arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus which took over 700 years to complete (the Parthenon took less than ten), while the end of the Panathenaic stadium could be seen round the edge of a wooded hill. This was originally built in the fourth century BC for the athletic contests which formed part of the Panathenaic festival. The munificent Herodes Attica lined the benches with marble in the second century, and in 1896 it was completely restored to hold 70,000 spectators for the first modern Olympic Games.
From the other side we looked down over the Agora, the business and administrative centre of ancient Athens. We descended from the Acropolis towards the Agora along the line of the Panathenaic Way, the route taken to the Parthenon by the procession to honour the goddess Athena during the annual Panathenaic Festival. The Agora is an extensive area of ruins with only a few buildings anywhere near intact. One of them is the delightful brick Byzantine church of the Holy Apostles, built in the tenth century to commemorate St Paul’s preaching in the Agora.
The Stoa of Attalos, one of the cool colonnades of shops and offices has been rebuilt in gleaming marble on the old foundations. Fortunately it is on the edge of the site, so does not disturb the romantic ruins of the remainder, while giving at least some impression of how magnificent the marble city must have been. Several of the original shops have been linked to provide a museum of the Agora which includes fascinating examples of the way of life in ancient Athens. There are displays of ostraca or potsherds with the name of Themistocles scratched on them, a discarded ballot box which records the votes when the statesman was ostracised in 472 and forced to leave the city he had saved from the Persians, as it was felt that he posed a threat to its democracy. There was also a precursor of the national lottery machine, used to draw lots as to who were to serve as jurors.
Outside, the footings of other colonnades could be made out and a leap of the imagination could project them heavenwards and people them with Athenians going about their business. Little now remains of the Bouleuterion where the council met with fifty representatives from each of the ten tribes of Attica. Above this seat of the earliest European democracy stands the Temple of Apollo, one of the most complete temples in Athens.
The Romans moved their Agora a hundred meters or so to the east where the column bases lining the forum can be seen. There is also a public latrine and the elegant Tower of the Winds built in the first century BC by the Syrian astronomer Andronicus. It is octagonal in shape with bas relief of the winds on each face. There was also a wind vane and marking for sundials as well as a clepsydra or water clock which was housed inside to tell the time for the city on cloudy days. The museum in the Agora includes another clepsydra, used to time the speeches in the council house. Also near the Roman Agora was the library of Hadrian which included a cloistered courtyard with a hundred columns with rooms for musical performance and lectures. There is also the remains of an Ottoman madrassa nearby, one of relatively few survivors from that period.
While searching for the remains of Hadrian's library we bumped into David and Lesley picnicking in the shade of an olive tree! Given the size of the city and our different priorities for the day, this was quite surprising.
Time was pressing and we left the ancient sites, passing by the exquisite little Byzantine church of Panagia Gorgoepikos (the Virgin swift to answer prayers), dwarfed by the massive cathedral. This was built in the twelfth century and is considered one of the best of a rather meagre collection of Byzantine buildings in Athens.
We continued towards the parliament building to see the guards with their Greek skirts, tasselled hats, white stockings and pompoms. They seemed sadly abused standing in the hot sun, unable to move a muscle, while an endless stream of female tourists posed for photos beside them.
We continued through a very smart area of the city, filled with architecturally pleasing 19th century buildings in neo-classical style. These included the University of Athens, the National Library of Greece and the former home of the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, responsible for discovering the jewels and mask of Agememnon at Mycenea. This is now a numismatics museum. Unfortunately as we arrived it was closing for the day as it would have been interesting to see the interior of the building.
The National museum is of course one of the highlights of any visit to Athens. It contains many of the original finds from the ancient sites from both mainland Greece and the islands, including the stunning frescoes from Santorini. Unfortunately for us, even in Athens, and contrary to our guidebook, the museum closes at 3pm! So after a hot, weary walk across the city we were faced with a huge bronze door closed fast against us! We had allowed ourselves a couple of hours to see round before our train home. This was really frustrating as there was nothing else in the immediate vicinity. So we went for a very long Greek beer where we sat grumbling about the stupid opening hours of the museums in so many countries of mainland Europe! If we'd paid our 12 euros joint entrance ticket as we'd expected to do, we'd have been pretty miffed not to have been able to use it! Greece is keeping a space in its National Museum for the Elgin marbles, in the hope of Britain one day returning them. With such ridiculous opening hours and normally high entrance prices we have decided there is a valid argument for them staying in the British museum where anyone can see them for free and the opening hours are more reasonable. We will be heading there hotfoot on our return.
At a nearby table as we drank our icy cold Greek beer, sat an elderly lady surrounded by several young people, presumably her grandchildren and their friends. Eventually the youngsters all kissed her goodbye and left. After they had gone her expression changed. She sat pensively watching them leave with such a mixture of emotions etched on her face, expressing a lifetime of experiences, joys and regrets. Browsing our Athens guidebook we noticed a rather similar 4th century BC valedictory stele showing a seated woman bidding farewell to her family. Dignified suffering is not exclusively reserved for Greek funerary reliefs it seems!
We rejoined David and Lesley at the station, snoozed all the way back to Corinth, shared a taxi back to Erik and Modestine and, being too exhausted to cook after our long hot day, we all went for moussaka and wine at the campsite restaurant.