Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Collision of Two Cities

One of the reasons we chose to stay closer to Athens was because on the first of our two full days in the city we had a walking tour at 9.30am. Admittedly I didn’t plan this so well – I thought I would choose the earlier of the two tour options to avoid the heat and that I would do it on the first day to give us an overview of the city before we explored on our own. Logical, no? But had we stayed in Raffina as planned we would have been quite far from the city and we didn’t have much time to figure out public transport. As it was, we took a bus from camp to the nearest Metro station and then the Metro to Syntagma square and all up it took around 30 or 40 minutes and all for 1.40 each.

We were early for the tour having left enough time to get lost on the way so we went and found a small café to have coffee and water. Even before 9am we were already starting to feel dehydrated but after buying a bottle of water the café staff topped it up from the tap for free and we found out throughout the day that Athens is full of drinking fountains that are not only free and safe but cold. When the temperature moves into the 30’s, cold water is a godsend.

Our tour guide was a vibrant older lady named Voula from Athens Walking Tours. She talked a lot, which might seem obvious for a tour guide but she filled the gaps in her commentary with chatter as well. It was really lovely because by paying attention to her chatter I learnt a little bit about Greek life and family, recent events in Athens and the local-knowledge back stories behind events and buildings that weren’t part of the tour.

We started off the tour in the Syntagma Metro station we had originally arrived in. Voula explained that the Metro is relatively new, around 10 years old, but that it took a really long time to construct because every single piece of land in Athens is essentially an archaeological excavation site once you put spade to earth. The Metro system is testament to this and they have done an amazing job of preserving their finds. Entire walls of the underground station are glass, set away from the earth and showing cross sections of what is under the modern-level land. Below early Christian graves and water mains are the remains of the road that lead to the plains which now host the airport, and nearby are greek graves from the classical period. Even further down you can see layers of prehistoric seashells showing the bottom of the ocean from a time when Athens was actually part of the sea bed.

There are gravestones, amphoras, perfume bottles, piggy banks and even a few square metres of mosaic church floor that were uncovered during the excavations and preserved for display in glass cases within the station. A mere Metro station and yet all this is just there for anyone to see, in its original place. It’s very impressive that they have gone to these efforts to properly excavate and preserve these sites instead of bowling through and putting the Metro wherever they wanted, however they wanted.

From the station we went to the nearby Parliament buildings to watch the changing of the Presidential Guard. It was while waiting for the ceremony that we asked Voula about the dogs that roamed the streets everywhere we turned. They were sleeping, playing and wandering the streets of the city, sometimes on the edges of paths next to multilane roads. They all had collars and tags and looked very well fed so we didn’t understand where their owners were.

Voula let us know that the dogs are all registered and vaccinated and that they’re fed and cleaned up after by volunteers. The city of Athens basically lets them run free and do what they want. They’re apparently not dangerous although one decided he didn’t like a man nearby and ran straight for him, staying a metre away and barking continuously until the man went away 10 minutes later.

It’s so weird seeing dogs just chilling out on the city streets. Voula recognized most of them and they listened to her as well – the same dogs seem to hang around the same areas and so doing the tour every day she is familiar with them. Once we had left the changing of the guard, five of them followed us all the way through the National Gardens to the Temple of Zeus, stopping when we did for commentary and continuing when we continued.

By structuring the tour to go to the Temple of Zeus first, we missed the massive ticket queue at the Acropolis later. We were able to buy the 12 Euro ticket that grants access to all the major monuments with hardly a queue at all and then skip to the front later in the day. The Temple of Zeus was awesome even though the remains are just a taste of the huge number of columns that used to support the now non-existant roof.

Next to the Temple of Zeus but outside the ticket area is Hadrians Arch, which was built for Hadrian to pass through in order to consecrate the temple. It used to show the blurry divide between the old side of Athens supposedly created by the Gods and the 'new' (2000 years ago) side that Hadrian presided over. It now lies on the edge of a busy main road and kind of points out how the ancient city has been taken over by the new. We passed it to cross the road and found ourselves on a shop-laden pedestrian road that leads into PLaka, the old neighbourhood, and straight to the acropolis. We stopped first for samples of Greek Yoghurt with black cherry preserves and Courts and I ended up buying more, his with black cherry and mine with honey and walnuts. Best yoghurt I’ve ever had.

To avoid the massive queue heading straight up, we came to the Acropolis from the side, passing first the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus, the medical temple, shops and stores and then the Theatre of Herod Atticus, which has been restored and is still used today for opera, orchestras and occasionally artists like Vanessa Mae and Norah Jones. Despite the more intact nature of the Theatre of Herod Atticus I preferred the Theatre of Dionysus. Thrones for the priests still remain in front row and you can see where the romans converted the full circle orchestra into a roman-style half circle. You can also see the foundations of the stage and the various layers of what was underneath which was awesome.

Passing all of these ruins the path started to get steeper and steeper as we climbed the hill to the Acropolis. I think our guide struggled the most with it to be honest, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant in the heat no matter what. Arriving at the Propylaea, the main entrance to the Acropolis, was very cool. Despite the crowd there being thicker than anywhere else on the complex, to know you are walking up the same steps as ancient Emperors is mind boggling. Not only emperors either but pilgrims, who came to worship at the temples and would have felt the same awe as we did as the buildings unfolded before us.

The Propylaia was designed as a taste of what the Parthenon beyond it would be like. The Greeks felt that pilgrims needed something to ready them for the incredible sight of the Parthenon and you can see why. Despite the Parthenon being covered in scaffolding, it is incredible in size, structure and feel. No other wow-moment of the trip quite prepares you for the structure, which is being restored at the moment, along with the rest of the Acropolis complex. They won’t restore it back to its original state, although that would have been cool, but they will continue restoring it until they run out of original pieces to fit back into the puzzle. The world’s oldest, heaviest, and most awesome puzzle.

The marble for restoration is coming from the exact same quarry the original marble came from thousands of years ago, which is nerdily exciting, and it’s really cool to see the parts that have been finished already with new bright white marble contrasting against the yellowed original marble. The restoration doesn’t detract from the authenticity at all, I think it makes it more exciting to actually see the site as active and seeing modern builders using power tools to shape the flutes of the columns gives a clearer perspective of the immensity of the project the Greeks undertook when mules carried the marble and the flutes were hand carved to perfection. The entire building took 9 years for the Greeks and the restoration will take longer, because this time the entire population hasn’t essentially stopped what they’re doing to make it happen.

Our tour ended at the top and Courts and I made our way down the hillside and around the opposite side of the hill from where we had come up. We wandered the old winding streets of the Plaka and perused the Monastiriki market. We ate authentic Gyros for 2.20 and attempted a Hard Rock Café detour but they didn’t have any pins. Our wanderings lead us back to Syntagma Square where we had started and after a short walk around looking for a supermarket we retreated back to the Metro and went home for a Courtney-cooked meal of packet mashed potatos, fried salami and gravy. Not healthy, but a very good end to a very long day.