It’s not hyperbole to say that the Iliad changed my life. I’ve written about this before, but I took a class called “Greek Civilization” the spring semester of my freshman year at Iowa. There was no class description, but I needed a Humanities credit and it fit my already packed schedule. I was hesitant to add it, but I was encouraged by my mom to do so because I loved reading Greek myths when I was younger. In hindsight, that encouragement was one of the most significant turning points in my life. The first assignment was to read the first two books of the Iliad, Homer’s epic poem that we were going to cover over the course of two months. I was so drawn into the world of the gods, Hector’s heartbreaking death, and the vastness of Achilles’ rage that I finished the entire poem in less than two weeks. The class only got better from there; I had a professor who connected Greek myths to society today, and a TA who was funny, informative, and best of all, an incredible teacher. I was so invested in that class that I earned an A+ and signed up for another Humanities class the following semester…followed by another the next semester…followed by a Classical Mythology summer class that was taught by no other than my Greek Civ TA. At the end of that summer course, I wrote on my class survey, “This was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Because of you and this class, I’m changing my major to Ancient Civilizations.” Since the first day I read, “Sing for me, Muses…”, I’ve been mentally planning out a trip to the birthplace of democracy and the epicenter of the Greek world, Athens. I was finally able to realize that dream on this cruise. Even though we only were docked at Piraeus for eleven hours, I meticulously planned out our day so that we wouldn’t miss a second. I even went as far as buying and marking a map of the city with the “must visit” spots ahead of time. You might say that I’m a planner…
We woke up early the morning we docked and were the second people off the gangplank at 6:00am. The halls were quiet, and we were surprised that more people weren’t getting off the ship. Then we realized that not everyone is as crazy as we are. After passing through the port authority, we were accosted by about 20 cabbies trying to offer us a ride. We saw that the train to Athens was only a mile away, so we decided to walk over and save our euros. Piraeus was as dead as the ship, and the buildings were covered with graffiti and had an overall sketchy appearance. We walked on a road along the water and through this random pop-up flea market that was being set up in an alley we had mistepped into. We got some curious looks from the vendors and awkwardly passed through rows of socks, hand me down clothes, tools, and paper towels. It was like we were Pee-Wee Herman in a biker bar or something.
The train ride only required one transfer and cost less than 2 euros a ticket, so it was definitely the best way to get to the city center. After only a 20 minute ride, we disembarked at the Akropoli stop to hit the Acropolis before it got too crowded. Every guidebook I had read said in the summer it’s best to get there right when it opens to avoid massive crowds and the hot Athenian sun. We bought a multi-venue ticket (a must purchase if you’re planning on visiting multiple stops in Athens) and started our climb up the south slope of the Acropolis. Since this was a back entrance, it wasn’t very crowded and we were able to take in the Theater of Dionysus (supposedly where Athena planted her olive tree gift to the citizens) and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The Odeon was under construction, so it was hard to (literally) look past the cranes and scaffolding that obstructed the conserved marble.
As we ascended the hill (Acropolis means tip of the city in ancient Greek), the crowds started to thicken, and by the time we reached the entrance stairs we were squeezing around tour guides that were trying to herd their clueless mass of selfie sticks. As we climbed the large marble stairs, the first glimpse of the Parthenon came into view. We were filled with a rush that was quickly punctured by the realization that the entire west facing side was covered with scaffolding. To add salt on the wound, archaeologists and conservationists had disassembled several columns for preservation, so there were gaping holes in the temple. I took a deep breath, said, “Courtney, you more than most tourists know the importance of preservation; this has to happen”, before going into Donald Duck mode and lamenting to Elliot, “Why the fuck does this have to happen when I finally get here?!?!” Now, we don’t allow ourselves pity parties, so even though we were disappointed to not experience the full majesty of the Parthenon, we still were on vacation in Greece, and that’s just incredible in itself.
We walked around the Parthenon and were delighted to find that the east side was not covered in scaffolding. We took a number of pictures before heading to the highest peak of the hill to look out over the city below. Both of us commented how absolutely massive Athens is; we didn’t realize just how far out the city spreads. It was pretty awesome in the jaw-dropping sense.
The rest of the Parthenon is scattered with stones and rocks, and we were able to see the Temple of Artemis, the Erechtheion with its famous Caryatid portico (although the real ones were in the Acropolis Museum), the spot where the Athena Promachus stood, and the Temple of Augustus. We couldn’t find the spot where Poseidon marked his trident and opened up a spring for the citizens of the city. Before you intervene with, “Uh, Courtney, about the Greek gods…”, yes, I know that myths aren’t real. I was looking for the spot that the ancient GREEKS thought Poseidon had struck.
We had taken in our fill of culture, and the crowds were starting to thicken, so we climbed down the first set of marble stairs to head down the hill. As we were leaving, I looked up to my left and saw the one temple that I was really excited to see: that of Athena Nike. It’s a tiny little guy that’s been reconstructed, and it sits on this stone jetty-like area inaccessible to people. Nike is my favorite goddess, so I struck a flying pose to commemorate my visit. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, bitches…
As we were leaving, I broke my cardinal rule of “Don’t touch the old shit!” and reached out to touch the Monument to Agrippa, one of my favorite Romans to study. Once we got to the bottom of the hill, we stopped for a cold drink and sat in the shade for a spell. Multiple tour buses were starting to show up, and we were glad that we had braved the 5am alarm to make it here at the opening.
While on top of the Acropolis, we saw a monument on a nearby hill that peaked our curiosity. There weren’t any signs, but we surmised that it was the Shrine to the Muses that was marked on our map. Even though we had just climbed up to the Acropolis (really not a bad climb at all), we decided to hoof it up the gravelly tree-lined path to the top of that hill.
Our next stop after the shrine was the Acropolis Museum, just a stone’s throw away down the Dionysian Way (an actual street name). as you approach the museum, you walk on plexi glass that lets viewers look onto the ongoing archaeological dig below the museum. Archaeologists had uncovered a 9th-5th century BCE city, and the dig has almost been completed. It’s pretty incredible how civilizations just build on top of one another.
The Acropolis Museum wasn’t covered on our multi-venue ticket for some reason, so we had to cough up some more euro to visit another one of my “must see” spots. The museum has a very open layout with rooms dedicated to the various time periods of Greek art. There are also rooms with models of the pediments and frieze pieces that now are in the British Museum. As we wandered from room to room, I came face to face with statues that I had studied while in college. The museum had an extensive collection of Archaic Korai women, including the famous “Youth Bearing Calf”. Also on display were the friezes from the Temple of Athena Nike, and I finally got to recreate the “Nike adjusting her sandal” frieze right next to the original. We also were able to see the incredibly preserved Caryatids from the Erechtheion in the Parthenon. The detail was just incredible, but we kept getting mixed signals when it came to taking pictures. For certain statues, there was a no photography rule, while others had a “You can take photos but not pose” rule. So Elliot had to forego his planned “duck face and the Caryatids” photo op. We took a look at the empty spaces where the British Museum parts of the pediment, friezes, and metopes would have been on the Parthenon; you gotta love that the Acropolis Museum is sticking it to the Brits when it comes to THEIR property. The statues are pretty impressive and depict the Gigantomachy, birth of Athena, Trojan War, Amazonomachy, and the contest between Poseidon and Athena for the city. Spoiler alert: Athena won.
It was only around 11:00 by the time we finished with the museum, so we chose to walk to the Temple of Olympian Zeus rather than take the subway. We had vowed that the day in Athens was going to be our 30,000 step day, and there was no way we weren’t going to hit it. We walked south through the city, all the while completely surrounded by the massive amounts of graffiti on the buildings. I’m not exaggerating when I say there was barely any building that wasn’t covered in tags. While some were amusing (Fack the polis stands out in my mind), it gave the city a grimy feel and didn’t look nearly as pristine as I had envisioned.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch are right next to one another, so we were able to kill two birds with one stone. In fact, to get to the temple you have to go through Hadrian’s Arch. Hadrian was a Roman Emperor obsessed with Greek culture and erected the arch to separate Greece from Roman occupied Greece. What a swell guy.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus was the largest temple of the ancient world, and up close it’s absolutely mammoth. There are still standing pillars that make us look like ants in comparison. Even the fallen pillar slabs were almost as tall as us. With a view of the Acropolis in the background, it was the ultimate photo op, and every angle of the temple seemed better than the last. Once again, we saw the honeymoon couple following in our footsteps. To tell you the truth, I was impressed that they thought to venture to this site as it’s not at the forefront of most people’s travel itineraries.
From the temple, the Panathenaic Stadium was only a hop, skip, and jump away. The stadium is where the first modern Olympics of 1896 were held, and even though it’s 119 years old, it looked so modern in comparison with everything we had seen that morning. It’s crazy how your sense of time changes when you travel outside of the United States, a baby in the world scene.
We backtracked toward the Acropolis and walked through the lively Plaka where lively Athenians were having coffee in tavernas that were somehow stuffed onto narrow cobblestone streets. It was a Sunday, so friends and families had gathered to share a meal and a drink. Despite the quaintness of the streets, its beauty was tainted by the graffiti and soot that also covered the buildings. Now, I’m no anti-graffiti prude, but the amount of it in Athens just seemed excessive. There is such a thing as “too much of a good thing”.
We got turned around a bit and ended up in several little squares before finally emerging onto the Ancient Agora by accident. Much like the Roman Forum, the grass was scattered with pillar remnants but unlike the Roman Forum had very few standing structures. Also unlike the Forum, there were ropes and barriers around the antiquities. Boo! Despite the lack of structures, however, it was still pretty bad ass to walk down the Panathenaic Way. This path leads up to the Acropolis and was the road that the procession to Athena would travel down. It was easy to picture all the animals and people celebrating thousands of years ago on that very same road.
After forgetting to say something smart in front of the School of Athens, we walked up another hill to see the remarkably well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus. I mean, this thing was pristine in comparison to everything else we’d seen that day. We were flabbergasted as to why it isn’t written about more in travel guides. It’s nestled in some trees at the top of a small hill and is accessible by a few stone stairs. It was the most well-preserved ancient temple I’ve ever seen, and it had a few feathery residents who lived on its roof.
It was getting to be lunch time after we finished up at the temple, so we used Elliot’s phone to find one of the restaurants Lonely Planet had recommended. I had read that it was difficult to find because it was in the middle of a big flea market, but that the search would be worth our efforts. Sure enough, we went through a labyrinth of crappy antique shops, souvenir stands set up in garage-like spaces, and trying to dodge people walking at a snail’s pace. Since it was a Sunday, no one besides us was in a hurry and were taking their time looking at all the wares being peddled in the streets. To Americans, it would seem chaotic, but to those in the Mediterranean, the snaking alleys made complete sense. It’s a very different way of life, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
We finally found our destination, the Avisinnia Cafe, hidden in a square across from an antiques dealer. Since the Greeks eat their meals later like the Spanish, the restaurant was virtually empty except for one other small table. It was still way too early for the Greeks to have their main meal of the day, so we were able to choose our seats. I had read that there was a great view of the Acropolis on the second floor, so we parked ourselves by a window to take in the sights while we dined. The restaurant itself felt like a house, and every room was filled with knick-knacks and paintings that looked to be acquired from the nearby antique shops.
Because we were the only ones on the second floor, we had three different people waiting on us; I guess they had nothing else to do. Elliot got a Greek salad with fresh feta cheese and green peppers. I ordered a tomato and cucumber salad with vinegar, olive oil, and oregano that was much bigger than anticipated. I couldn’t finish it all because it was so big, but that didn’t stop me from mopping up the excess dressing with the crusty bread on the table. For his main course, Elliot ordered these bbq pork skewers that came with a sauce that was the color of buffalo sauce and tasted delicious. I had spinach moussaka that was sliced and served to me by a young kid. It was absolutely amazing, and I begrudgingly had to listen to my gut and not eat the whole thing. I was so full already, and eating any more food would have made me feel sick the rest of the day. Everything was fantastic: the food, the view, the decor, and the service. Avisinnia Cafe is a must visit for anyone looking for an authentic and cozy Greek meal.
We grabbed a cab after lunch to our last tourist stop, the National Archaeology Museum. We were in the car for about ten minutes, but our cab only ended up being three euros. We were surprised by how reasonable our transportation was, especially considering how much we had to pay for cabs in Santorini the day before. Score!
The museum is actually pretty modern despite the classical pillars that dot its entranceway. The museum is huge and confusing in its setup; there really didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to its configuration. We spent a big chunk of our time just trying to figure out where we were on the museum map. On our travels, we enjoyed the museum’s extensive collection of Archaic Korai, amphorae, and Egyptian art. A few statues that made me especially excited were the Diadoumenos (Fillet Binder), the Artemis of the Sea, Perseus holding Medusa’s head, and the bronze spear thrower that I recognized from my ancient Greek college textbook. There were also Panathenaic amphorae (from the processions I mentioned earlier) in addition to victory amphorae from the early Olympic games. The majority of them were black attic vases with depictions of various sport scenes, and it was pretty awesome to see the original “gold medals” of the games.
Despite all the treasures that we saw while in the museum, the crown jewel was definitely the so-called Mask of Agamemnon discovered by Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann was a German archaeologist obsessed with the Trojan War and, according to him at least, “discovered” Troy in Turkey. Although I don’t believe that there was a mythical Troy, archaeologists have proven that a series of cities existed in the area Schliemann discovered, and there was a war at one point. One with gods and sea serpents and a giant wooden horse? Not so much. In addition to the Mask of Agamemnon were several thinly hammered gold death masks and swords from the Bronze Age of Mycenae. Much like the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes, the one in Athens had workers sitting at every door watching people as they walked through the rooms. We figured that the museum has to be funded by the state, and given the country’s dire financial situation, they probably could have saved a ton of money not having all those workers. I’m not heartless or anything, and I know that those people need a job, but it was insane how many people were employed there.
We finished up with the museum and walked back towards the Acropolis. Almost all of the shops and restaurants were closed, and there were hardly any people walking around the streets. We tried to find a beer hall to kill some time, but but the one Elliot had looked up ahead of time, Barley and Cargo, was closed like the other places we had passed.
The closer we got to the Acropolis, the more crowded the streets became. Everything was much livelier than earlier in the morning, and there were plenty of shops that were now open. We stopped in an olive wood shop to browse, but everything was too expensive to justify buying. instead we picked up our Athens magnet before walking back to the metro to head back to the boat. Back on the ship, we rested our legs for a bit (we ended up hitting 32,000 steps that day) and had some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream from the Cafe Lattetudes (see what they did there?).
We watched the ship pulling away from Piraeus, and it became even clearer how far Athens spreads out. It is just a massive city and its sheer size was even more apparent from a distance. We walked around the pool track for awhile and listened to a terrible calypso version of “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” by the pool band. We went to dinner shortly after and had a good marinated pork shoulder with provolone potatoes, veggies, and brown sugar. Dessert in the dining room didn’t look too fantastic, so we got some tiramisu and chocolate bread pudding in the Windjammer Cafe. We grabbed some 2 for 1 Australian beers and hung out in the hot tub and watched Inception on the screen above the outdoor pool. It felt good to rest our tired muscles after moving nonstop for the past nine hours.
We finished the movie in our room and turned on CNN to see what was going on in the world. Imagine our surprise when all the news reports were about how the Prime Minister of Greece declared bank closures and rejected the bailout deal that day. We were glad we got the hell out of Athens in time, because the news showed long ATM lines and people protesting in the street. It’s insane how the government was in upheaval only hours after we had walked the country’s capital streets. The same damn thing happened when we were in Rome four years earlier. We were walking around, and cars started driving by with honking horns and people cheering out of them. We found out from a local news source that Silvio Berlusconi had stepped down that day as Prime Minister, and that’s why the streets were alive with celebration. Maybe we have anarchist dust trailing behind us when we visit Mediterranean ancient cities? We also saw that police had violently disrupted the gay pride parade that took place that day in Istanbul, another city we had been in just days prior. Brouses = masters of destruction.
Although Athens wasn’t as pristine as I had imagined for the past twelve years, it was still a once in a lifetime experience to see the ruins, statues, and stories that I had studied and come to love. Elliot was an absolute champ going with me to all these sites, not complaining or questioning why I wanted to go to a museum just to see one statue. He realized how important our day in Athens was to me, and he, like every trip we’ve been on, was the best travel buddy I could ask for. Now that we had experienced the history of Athens, it was time to bring on the party in Mykonos…