April 21, 2022. 67°F/19°C
OMG, are we really in Athens?
We docked this morning in Piraeus, which has been a port since the 5th century BC. Back then, 2500 years ago, it was the most important port and biggest naval base in the Greek world. Today it is the third busiest passenger port in Europe. From here we’re headed just 7 km into the heart of Athens, a place I never thought we’d ever visit, despite my years of obsession with Greek mythology.
Our morning tour focussed mainly on the museum itself, although en route to it we drove by a couple of yacht-filled marinas, and had a photo stop at Athen’s Olympic Stadium, a solid marble reconstruction built at the end of the 19th century and in which the 1896 Olympic Games were played; the first of the modern games. The stadium is variously known as the Olympic Stadium, the Panathenaic Stadium, or the Kallimarmaro (beautiful marble) Stadium, and is the only stadium in the world constructed entirely of marble. A small percentage of the stadium is original to it’s first century AD construction.
We also noted a few things about modern Athenian buildings. Unlike apartment buildings in most of North America, apartment balconies here (and in Turkey) often have large awnings that completely shade them. In fact, entire buildings have matching awnings on every balcony.
We also noticed (again, as in Turkey) that most residences have solar panels AND water tanks on their roofs. Electricity is expensive here, and the climate is warm, so it makes sense not to waste electricity on heating water when the sun can perform that service.
One of the most interesting buildings we noticed on our drive was this one, with coloured glass outer panes that could be swivelled to allow more or less natural light in. It was unique and quire attractive.
We drove by the parliament buildings where the changing of the guard takes place every hour at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Interestingly, the “unknown soldier” is wearing a Spartan helmet!
As soon as we got off our bus near the Acropolis Museum the air was filled with the scent of jasmine and wild orange blossoms. Heavenly!
The Acropolis Museum is gorgeous – a modern structure perfectly juxtaposed against the Parthenon-crowned Acropolis at whose base it is located.
The entrance courtyard and much of the ground floor of the museum is glass, through which two levels of excavated ancient ruins can be seen. The archeology exposed includes both Greek (evidenced by stone construction) and Roman (layers of bricks) buildings, and wells that still collect groundwater. We didn’t have enough time to explore the underground area, but our guide took us through the highlights of three of the four upper floors of the museum (the second floor houses only the museum’s café),
On the first (as opposed to ground) floor, we viewed pottery and sculptures unearthed in and around the Acropolis.
On the second (third in North America – you get the idea) floor, we viewed marble sculptures, as well as models of the two pediments (the triangular gables) of the Parthenon. Our guide elaborated on every single character depicted, and did so in a very entertaining fashion, comparing the Greek deities to modern Greek people and politicians. He also showed us how ancient gods and their myths were incorporated into Christianity.
The museum houses 5 of the 6 Caryatids, the females who hold up the ceiling of a porch on the Erechtheion. One in particular has only a few pieces that were recovered. These 2 have well-preserved faces.
The third floor of the museum was, in many ways, the most impressive. It is set up as a glass-walled chamber laid out to match the footprint of the Parthenon, with steel columns spaced exactly like the temple’s Doric columns, and the decorative friezes placed to match their original locations in the ancient building. The only difference is that the friezes and pediment sculptures are placed lower down so that museum visitors can more easily see them.
The view of the Parthenon and Acropolis from the vantage point of inside the museum’s glass walls is perfect.
We took a short walk through Athen’s Plaka district, back to our bus, with just enough time for an excellent cup of coffee at one of the many sidewalk cafés.
The café was very close to Hadrian’s Gate, which is the entrance to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, right in the middle of Athens.
Viking provided an amazing “extra” for all of us in Athens in the afternoon and early evening, with a 6-hour event that began with an in-depth guided tour of the Acropolis and concluded with a delicious dinner and lots of interactive entertainment at Zafiro Experience.
I think Ted and I will always remember this day in Athens. The weather was perfect, the historic sites were incredible, and the evening event was more fun than old folks deserve to have.
Climbing up the Acropolis to the Parthenon is mostly via gentle marble and granite ramps, followed by original marble stairs (with no railings), some newly installed wooden stairs, and more stone-covered slopes. The marble would be incredibly slippery if it were wet, but today it just meant paying attention to our footing.
The climb was absolutely worth it. First we came to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a stone Roman theatre completed in AD 161, and renovated in 1950.
Next was the Erechtheion, the temple to Athena with its iconic “porch of the maidens”, which features six caryatids (columns shaped like females) holding up the ceiling. We saw the remnants of 5 of the originals in the Acropolis Museum in the morning; the 6th was taken to England by the 7th Earl of Elgin, along with the marble friezes he cut from the Parthenon. The six visible today at the Erechtheion are reproductions made about 50 years ago.
And then it was the Parthenon itself. I knew it was huge, but standing there seeing it left me almost breathless. Even with scaffolding around portions that are being restored, it is nothing short of magnificent.
When Ted zoomed in, the remains of one pediment still contain partial figures at each end; having seen the model in the museum allowed us to picture what was missing.
Our guide explained some of the “elegances” that the Greeks used in constructing the Parthenon that make it seem so perfect. The huge Doric columns are actually slightly wider at the bottom than at the top, and slightly bowed at their midpoints, but those things serve to make them seem perfectly straight when viewed from below. The corner columns are slightly bigger than those between them, but that also creates the illusion that all are the same diameter. Further, the pediment (triangular gable) is slightly curved, but the weight distribution and design of the statues in the gable make it seem straight.
After leaving the Acropolis, we drove through winding streets to Zafiro, located high on one of Athens’ hills. There we were greeted with bouzouki music and a buffet that featured moussaka, spinach pie, cheese pie, baked meatballs, stuffed tomatoes, chicken roasted with lemon and garlic, roasted potatoes, and a wide array of vegetable salads including, of course, traditional Greek salad and olives grown on the Zafiro property. There was plenty of red and white Greek wine, and baklava for dessert.
Our entertainment consisted of live music, and wonderful dance demonstrations.
At one point, dozens and dozens of unfired clay plates were handed out for us to smash while the dancers danced. Opa! A few of our fellow passengers were then co-opted to sweep up the mess.
We were encouraged to get up and dance along, and then a few if us were dragged away to “do the dishes”, but actually costumed in traditional garb and brought back to the hall to dance!
Our guide and our hosts at Zafiro were beyond welcoming, and there’s just so much more to see here, that we really don’t want to leave. Thankfully, we have one more day in this port, and we can always come back!
We got one last glimpse of the Parthenon at night, shining on the Acropolis overlooking Athens. Thank you Viking for making our day so very memorable!