Thursday, 4 August 2011


Flew into Athens and met Tim & Robyn at the airport, who came in from Spain an hour or two later. Unfortunately Sandy took his eye off the ball and lost his wallet to a pick-pocket on the very crowded airport train, all the taxis being on strike for 3 days.

We found our hostel near the Acropolis – unfortunately one bedroom with 4 bunk beds which was not quite what we were expecting. Sandy spent the evening trying to cancel credit cards, which involved every means of communication we could lay our hands on. Nothing seemed to work. Finally purchased an international phone card with its 27 or so digits, and got through on a very dark street corner phone booth.

Athens was pretty hot, 36+ degrees in the day dropping to probably 28-30 or so overnight. We joined a 3hr walking tour the next morning, with an excellent guide. A drama professor, he has worked with his fellow guides, an archaeologist and a historian to put together a brilliant tour of 7 or so historic sites around the city, including the Acropolis, the Greek and Roman market squares, Hadrian’s arch, the temple of Zeus, the huge Panathinaiko Stadium dug out and renovated for the 1895 and 2004 Olympics, and Hadrian’s Library, a 5 hectare site with 3-5 metre deep excavations in the heart of the city. We stood on the piece of polished marble hillside where Paul was reputed to have given his speech to the locals in the first century. It overlooks the site of the original Greek open-air forum, where participatory democracy was used for the first time.
The guide is only allowed to talk about many places from outside, so going into them is left for later – one ticket to the Acropolis will get visitors into all sites except the new Museum which is there in readiness for the return of artefacts from the British museum… they apply every year and are politely refused so no one is holding their breath but they remain prepared and hopeful.

The Acropolis is the most amazing sight. A huge structure of around 3 hectares occupying the most prominent hilltop in central Athens, it looks like a fortress, with sheer walls and only one gate. Not surprising it was used as such by the Turks in the 1687 war with Venice. Gunpowder stored in the Parthenon temple, built around 440BC, was ignited by a cannonball, blowing half of the structure to the ground.
The site is a giant Lego puzzle, with the pieces stacked in orderly and not so orderly piles of bits and restoration is underway so sections are shrouded in scaffolding apparently for years. Impressively the structure of the Parthenon is built with such precision and advanced geometry that many past attempts at restoration using modern methods have failed to last long. For example all those massive marble pillars lean slightly at an angle so a line drawn up from the centre of each will meet all the others at one point 5km above the structure creating incredible strength and durability. If not for the explosion it would still be standing.

The main city square near the parliament currently has a tent city which is home variety of groups protesting the austerity measures of the government and EU. It has apparently been very peaceful except for two days of clashes with police a few weeks ago. Outside parliament is the tomb of the unknown soldier, guarded by two of the elite guard. The extraordinary ritual dance at the hourly changing of the guard was explained by reference to the 400 year occupation by Turkey, where Greek men were not allowed to carry arms. Knives were attached to the front and heel of shoes, hidden by pompoms. The march/dance is essentially a ritualised form of slow motion martial art, I guess a bit like Tai Chi. I was surprised to find that Greece only became an independent country around 1902.
I believe central Athens is dangerously near to crossing Douglas Adams mythical Shoe Event Horizon, an economic feedback loop in which shoe shops proliferate until all shops sell shoes, thereby causing mass starvation and the collapse of the economy. 27 shoe shops in the space of 100 metres, all apparently selling identical women’s high-fashion sandals at “50-70% off! Pretty frustrating for someone like me trying to buy a simple pair of men’s sandals.

For dinner we found the restaurant described by our guide as the best authentic local food in the city without the tourist process. He could not tell us its name, just gave us general directions, and said to look out for the three carnations above the door. It was a very nice meal. However they did join the growing list of establishments who did not serve our favourite taramasalata. If it were not for the name, I would be forced to conclude it was not a Greek dish. Finished the night with a rather too protracted walk to find the open-air cinema showing Shirley McLaine’s 1960s film “How to Steal a Million” A fine thing to do on a hot summer night in Athens.

Next day as Tim and Robyn tackled the Metro to get to the Port, which was the only place to buy ferry tickets on a Sunday. Our efforts to get them in town on Saturday were in vain. We walked up to the Acropolis, then through the ancient Greek market to the Temple of Hephaestos, the lame but gifted blacksmith son of Hera and Zeus. In use until the nineteen thirties, this well-preserved building from around 450BC was closed, but without much sign of renovations.

We enjoyed Athens. Although it looks very hot, barren and built-up, it does have its share of open spaces and trees. It is just that most of the street trees are only half the height of the 5-8 story apartment buildings. The apartment balconies do carry a proliferation of vegetables, flowers and other plants, bringing life and some coolness to the environment. Many pedestrian precincts full of cafes and restaurants add to the ambience.

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