Posts

2014 Grateful 19

‘We learn something new every day, and lots of times it’s that what we learned yesterday was wrong’ – I’m with you there, Bill Vaughan. But there’s some stuff I have learned and there’s other stuff I just know. And I often I don’t know which is which. But when I find out that the stuff I just know is wrong, that tilts my world a little for a nanosecond or three.

IMG_3851 (800x600)The Acropolis is not a building – ruined or otherwise – it’s a hill. I never knew that. And on this hill sits the Parthenon, a temple completed in 438 BC, which has variously served  as  a temple, a church, and a mosque, even a munitions depot during the Turkish Occupation of Greece. An explosion in 1687, in a fight with the Venetians, pretty much ruined it, yet in its way, it’s still rather magnificent.

IMG_3876 (800x600)Another lesser known temple, the Erechteion, with its famous Porch of the Caryatids, is even more interesting. I thought I was looking at the real thing in these six maidens, but they’re replicas. Apparently, back in 1801, a certain Lord Elgin took one home to his mansion in Scotland. It was later sold to the British Museum. Legend has it that at night, the other five could be heard crying for their lost sister. The same Lord Elgin then tried to remove a second one – but ended up smashing it (it was later reconstructed). In the mid-1970s, the temple was somewhat restored and in 1979 the five ladies were moved to the Acropolis Museum, where they’re currently undergoing major cleaning. They were replaced by replicas (and very good ones at that… I wonder how many people notice that they’re not the real thing). While at the museum, one of them – a footless lady – was matched with a sandalled foot found in the rubble – reunited and in one piece again.

IMG_3836 (800x600)IMG_3839 (800x600)The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a renovated amphitheatre, is very impressive. The juxtaposing of old and new creates a magic that is mesmerising.  Home to the Athens Festival each year, world greats such as Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Plácido Domingo, the Bolshoi Ballet, Diana Ross, Liza Minelli… have performed on its stage. I’ve added yet another item to my bucket list and am debating about whom I’d like to see at the Odeon. Imelda May – definitely Imelda May.

IMG_3893 (800x600)The Temple of Athena Nike is another one with a story behind it. The first of the temples on the Acropolis, it was completely dismantled in the seventeenth century when its stone was used to build a Turkish wall around the hill.  In or about 1836, an anastylosis (my word for the day – an archaeological term for a reconstruction technique whereby a ruined building or monument is restored using the original architectural elements to the greatest degree possible) helped rebuild the temple from the parts remaining.

IMG_3858 (800x600)Many years ago, when I was visiting the Colosseum in Rome, I was with an architect friend who patiently explained the various pillars and columns to me. Needless to say, with the limited amount of space in my brain, that information has long since been replaced by something far more important, like the price of first class postage in South Africa. But I didn’t need to know what I was looking at to appreciate the majesty of it all. The detail, the hidden men (can you see the chap reclining underneath the roof?), the artistry – and with the tools available back then? It’s almost impossible to comprehend.

IMG_3863 (800x600)IMG_3846 (800x600)The views from the Acropolis are magnificent. To see the entire city of Athens laid out before you is quite impressive. Mind you, it was difficult to find any comfort in it, as thousands of people jostled for a vantage point. The place was teeming. More than 10 000 visit each day, apparently, making for a less than comfortable experience. Although I was one of those tourists, I couldn’t help but wish everyone else had stayed at home. One long moving line passed in through the pillars and another passed out, reminiscent of a human conveyor belt, with staff on site urging everyone to keep moving and not to stop.

IMG_3841 (800x600)Was it worth it? Definitely. Despite the heat, the crowds, and my lack of interest in old temples generally, it was impressive. Very impressive. I’m grateful that someone, somewhere along the way, didn’t decide to bulldoze it to make way for high-priced condominiums or luxury villas. I’ve often wondered what makes people revere some ruins and erase others. To conservationists and the preservationists everywhere, a massive thank you for doing your bit to keep the past intact.

IMG_3898 (800x600) (2)

 

 

 

 

 

Athenian attitude

I have a long list of places I’d like to see before I pass from this mortal soil. The order changes occasionally, with new ones being added to the list on a regular basis. That’s only to be expected. The older I get, the more I learn; the more I learn, the more I want to see. For some reason, though, neither Greece nor Athens have ever appeared on that list. The whole Greek island thing passed me by after I had my first (and last) sun holiday in Spain back in 1984. Athens for me has always been epitomised by the Acropolis and the Agora – and I’m not much of a one for seriously old ruins.

But if you decide to check with your astrologist to see where your soul would be best positioned on your birthday so that the next six months would go well, and he says Athens, Greece, then you go. So I went. And I learned.

IMG_3786 (800x600)IMG_3897 (800x283)IMG_3782 (800x600)IMG_3927 (800x600)The juxtaposition of old and new in the city of Athens is both confusing and comforting. Wandering though the city centre was like walking through any main European city centre, with many of the usual international chains firmly ensconced on the high street.  The parliament is positively plain, when compared the Hungarian one. And the changing of the guard wasn’t quite as impressive as Buckingham Palace. But stop! This is where I realised that I was tired and in need of a major attitude adjustment. When I start comparing cities, I stop seeing what’s there for what it is. It’s a bad habit, one that I usually have under control. It only surfaces when I’m overworked and my brain loses what little capacity it has to see things without tagging them comparatively for convenience. So I set out to consciously notice.

IMG_3935 (800x600)First off, in Athens store security guards wear bullet-proof vests. That’s something I’ve not seen before. It has to be out of necessity as wearing steel plates in temperatures that regularly hit the high thirties can’t be fun. In the city, both the centre and the suburbs, police trucks park in squares and at intersections, each of which is a mobile riot unit. There’s a heavy police presence, particularly around major international hotels. I’m still not sure if this provided some degree of comfort or just made me a little more insecure. I had thought that the riots of 2010-2012 were pretty much over, but apparently not. When we counted the ninth truck to pass in as many minutes, we asked a waitress what was going on. She shrugged, smiled, and said ‘It’s Athens’.

IMG_3806 (800x600)IMG_3802 (800x600)IMG_3900 (800x600)IMG_3796 (600x800)I was soon distracted though by the many gorgeous churches around the city. It would seem that no expense was spared. All are beautiful; some are jawdroppingly so. And the number of priests and nuns walking purposefully through the streets led me to believe that religion is pretty strong in the city, a religion lived rather than one simply talked about. I will admit to being quite fascinated by the black-robed bearded priests and the look they all have in common, worn almost like a badge of office. I’d quite like to have chat with one of them.  For every grand place of worship, there is a small, simple church that is equally holy. It would be worth walking the city with a man (or woman) of the cloth, just to get their perspective. (Note to self.)

I lit my fair share of candles, said my prayers, and went in search of the old town (or I would have done had I known there was one).

IMG_3904 (800x600)IMG_3908 (800x600)On our way back from the Acropolis, we ended up in a maze of narrow, paved streets which seemed centuries removed from the bland modernity of the city centre. Graffiti takes no prisoners in this town; just about every wall has some sort of acknowledgement that someone saw it in passing and left their mark. The vast majority is urban scrawl, but the occasional gem slips through. Along these narrow streets, cafés and restaurants ply their trade, offering up plates of fish, meat, and rich desserts. The wine was cold, the beer was local, and the service friendly yet unobtrusive. This part of Athens I could grow to like … a lot. Time took on new meaning and three hours passed in a flash.

IMG_3913 (800x600)IMG_3918 (800x600)The layers of walls tell centuries of stories. That no attempt has been made to fix them up only adds to their charm. With few others walking the narrow streets, I quite fancied that I was strolling through a giant book, turning a page as I went around each corner. Yes, there were still some hopeful vendors here and there, but it was nothing like the warren of stalls down at the flea market (which incidentally, is nothing like any other flea market I’ve ever seen – instead of the makeshift stalls and blankets on the ground, this is street after street of shops selling everything a tourist might want). I spent some time in a spice shop and one of these fine days might even try my hand at making souvlaki.

IMG_3921 (800x600)IMG_3920 (600x800)The Agora was on my rather short list of places (3) to see in Athens. The remnants of this ancient market place are quite spectacular. I was slightly amused at the sign at the gate urging me not to take any indecent or defamatory photographs… I spent a good five minutes wondering what exactly had prompted this precaution. The removal of stones I can see. Permission to use a tripod is arguably needed. But indecent photos? The mind boggles. Am sure the spirits of the ancient debaters who used to come to air their views at the Agora are having a field-day trying to figure that one out.

Was it worth a few days? Definitely. Would I recommend it? Yes. Would I go back? I could be tempted.