Beautiful, inspiring, and a bit sad.
On my vacation last fall, a two-week trip around the Mediterranean with a couple dozen of my favorite people, I really looked forward to the stop in Athens. As a school girl, I devoured all the Greek mythology books in the school library and could rattle off the major stories and the relationships between the various gods. I had also seen the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, and wanted to seeing their original home. The downside of cruises is that sometimes you have only ten hours or so to visit a place, so I had done some research on what I wanted to see in the short time allocated to me. Additionally, I had recently acquired a new friend, Dimitri, a brilliant scientist who was raised in Athens but is now a U.S. citizen living in nearing me. He had prepared a map and short walking tour.
As it turns out, we arrived at the port city of Piraeus shortly after the beginning of a transportation strike. There were no taxis, subways, no buses. Piraeus is a very unlovely port city, and sites of Athens were miles away. Additionally, there was a garbage strike. Piles of uncollected garbage sat at every intersection and overflowed onto the side walks and streets. We found a privately-owned charter bus company, one of those two-level red buses with an open top, that made a round through the main tourist areas, with an on-and-off policy. We were warned to not miss the bus, because if you ended up in Athens after the last stop, you had a six-mile walk back to the ship.
The bus wound through crowded streets, filled with people who weren’t able to take public transportation. At one intersection, I watched from above as the bus eek past cars with clearances of an inch (I’m not exaggerating). My main impression of the route through Piraeus and the subsequent highway past the vacated arenas for the 2004 Summer Olympics can be summed up in a single word: crumbling. We passed apartment buildings, perched above small shops, decorated with peeling paint and rotting shutters. A large terminal adjacent to our ship was deserted and incomplete, with gaping concrete beams and exposed rebar rusting in the salt air. But, there were also beautiful scenes of fruit markets, cafes, and people going about their lives.
Our bus dropped us on a tree-lined street, where we started our ascent to the Parthenon. There were ‘official’ government employees who offered to give us guided tours, for a fee, and who were quite insistent that we would not be able to truly appreciate the site without them. When refused, one tried to confiscate the nautical signal code flag (symbol: Lima) that Jeff Wagg, our trip coordinator, carries with him to help group members locate each other, saying that flags could be a source of conflict or agitation. After running the gauntlet, we broke up and trekked upward.
The scene from the top of the Acropolis was breathtaking. You could see for miles in all directions. The huge city spread out below. This site has been the center of various religions for over 2500 years, including latecomers such as Christianity and Islam. What history has been viewed from this hill! Sadly, so much of the original building has been destroyed: corrosion, erosion, pollution, wars, misguided attempts to turn the site into churches for the Virgin Mary or mosques. The Ottomans also stored munitions in the temple, which didn’t end well. The columns and sculptures were badly damaged when it exploded.
The Greeks have been in a ‘restoration’ process for nearly 40 years and as you can see, they are still a ways from completion. They have tried to undo past, poorly executed restorations, are using the original bits as they can identify them, use marble quarried from the original digs, and use synthetic materials where required. I try to crop with my camera to minimize the distractions, but this is really what the site looks like.
- What About Athens? (tombakercruises.wordpress.com)
- Athens explorations – Athens, Greece (travelpod.com)
- Travel in the Parthenon