At Last, Athens

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The day we docked in Piraeus, port city of Athens, I awoke, pulled open the curtains of our porthole and found that our ship had pulled into a multi-level parkade.  Neat trick for a 12 storey ship, mind you.  The dock workers standing right outside my window looked unimpressed.  Maybe it happens all the time.

Anyway.  Given all the strife in Greece earlier in the summer, we had no idea what to expect upon reaching its shores.  For all we knew, we’d have to sail right on by if there were still riots in the streets.  The riots had ceased but the city was in the throes of a taxi strike so we would have to buy an excursion fare if we wanted a safe, no-hassle ride into Athens.  Anxiety does sometimes overrule thrift…

We boarded the motor coach and were greeted by Irini, our “guide” for the trip into town.  Her main purpose was convey drop-off and pick-up details. “Do not be late!!” she stressed.   The bus  wound its way (miraculously) through the hilly, narrow streets of Piraeus, Greece’s largest port.  A half-hour later we were in Athens, at the foot of the Acropolis.   We  marched forth (up) in the blazing Athenian sun.  With about 5,000 other tourists.

Greece does not seem to be hurting for tourists (although this was only one site on one day).  At the very top where the marble steps become jagged, uneven and very treacherous, there were so many tourists jostling for position, I was fairly sure some unlucky soul was going to leave the mountain face first.  I just hoped it wasn’t my 11 yr old son who was climbing monkey-like, over railings, tourists, and the occasional Acropolis employee.  He got yelled at in Greek quite a bit but since he doesn’t speak Greek, it didn’t impede his progress.  My daughter was having a tough time navigating in flip-flops.  Marble worn over thousands of years is smooth and slick – a tough surface to walk on even in good shoes.  The hike must be deadly in the rain…

As we waited for the “guardians” of the Acropolis to ease the crowding on the steps, I absent-mindedly reached out and touched one of the massive columns in front of me only to get yelled at (in English), “Don’t touch the marble!!”  Did she know we were all walking on it too?  No one explained why I couldn’t touch it but I’m guessing that a)the columns are standing only by the will of the gods and they could topple or b) dirty, sweaty tourist hands do something hinky to the marble which they’ve been trying to restore for hundreds of years.

Indeed, the Parthenon itself was caged by scaffolding and dozens of workmen scrambled all over it with noisy tools.  In places the ruins were ivory-pink, a bit mottled; in other places, the marble has been sanded(?) or polished to a brilliant white.  It was impossible to get a photo with no scaffolding but it was good to see that in spite of everything, the restoration continues.  I couldn’t help but wonder if Greece had to sell the Acropolis, who would ensure its preservation?

Wandering, I wondered how the magnificent temples were constructed all of those many years ago (without the benefit of hydraulic lifts and massive cranes).  The scale and symmetry of the buildings is one thing – unbelievable, and then there’s the intricacy and detail on them, wow!  The word “awesome” is used to much but it truly applied to this place.   Beautiful and mind-blowing at the same time.  The views over Athens were stunning as well.  My husband and I imagined what it must have been like for people coming into Athens from say, a poor remote village and seeing the Acropolis from miles away.  It would be enough to strike awe in the hearts of all who beheld it.  Even today, it’s not a stretch to believe the whole project was constructed by the gods.

The walk down affords a wide open path lined with olive trees.  We were grateful for the lemonade stand too and as we sipped our icy drinks, we idly noted how the city below us was quiet and peaceful.  The kids were blissfully unaware that where we were walking had been the scene of violent rioting just a few weeks before.  We only saw one bit of evidence of the previous month’s strife:  a angry scrawl on an otherwise elegant mansion (government building?) that said, “Eat the Rich.”  I wanted to take a picture but didn’t dare…

Just below the Acropolis is the New Acropolis Museum. Constructed in 2007, the museum integrates open excavation sites (covered by glass floors – very cool), 3-D models of the Acropolis monuments through history, and countless artifacts from the site itself.  It was fascinating. The museum was fabulous and well worth a visit.

After we’d cooled off in the museum for awhile, we walked into the Plaka or Old City.  Here the streets were narrow and twisty – full of scooters and motorcycles. Every now and then a car would squeeze through.  The streets were shaded by lemon trees.  Tourists have no lack of choice in terms of restaurants and shopping there. My husband’s eyes were crossed by about the 50th souvenir shop (but all of the gauzy clothing was so pretty and  gauzy!)  Sadly, we didn’t have time to do much else.

We sampled some Greek gelato and then headed back to the bus stop.  Across the busy street were more ruins.  My husband and son ran across, dodging buses and…wait, was that a taxi? to visit the ruined Temple of Zeus which sits in the shadow of the Acropolis.  Everything in Athens sits in the shadow of the Acropolis – it’s also an excellent landmark if you get lost.  The great thing about Athens is, if you’re into ruins, you’ll find them around every corner.  More worrying, if the Greek economy continues on its current course, the whole city could be a crumbling ruin.

Piraeus, always a key port for the Greek empire, looked in way worse shape than Athens (although, to be fair, we didn’t see much of Athens).  Numerous shops and buildings stood shuttered and crumbling – mere remnants of Greece’s glory days on the sea.  Irini the Guide made sure to point out the wealthy area overlooking a marina, lest we think all the news was bad.

As our ship threaded its way past large passenger ferries and larger container ships, I thought of the Ancient Greek vessels and how they once navigated these waters when Greek civilization was at its peak.  If the water and shoreline could only talk!  I thought of Homer and Odysseus, Jason and the Sirens.  I knew our Captain was sailing away from his homeland and I wondered if he got homesick.  As we entered open water, the Harbour Pilot boat roared by us at full speed, very close.  At the helm stood a slight man toasted the colour of an almond, grinning broadly and waving.  The Greeks have survived worse than a debt crisis – I have little doubt they’ll figure it all out and keep on surviving.

One last stop in Greece – Santorini – and then Brilliance of the Seas would sail for her home port of Barcelona.  Our family odyssey was nearly done.

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