After our short stay in Istanbul, it was time to move on to Athens.
A decent-sized group of us arrived early on the Wednesday travel-day in Athens. We touched down a little after noon, and after getting settled into our hotels it was about half-past one. We were pretty hungry, so of course first on the itinerary was lunch. I had spent almost the entire flight from Istanbul to Athens reading my guide-book on Athens and familiarizing myself with the lay of the land. This proved fairly useful – especially since there were a couple restaurant recommendations in the area of our hotel. The first one was a bust – closed despite their posted hours – but the second one turned out great. Unbeknownst to us, the mysteriously closed restaurant was the first hint of a running theme for our Athens trip.
The next stop, we reasoned, was the Acropolis and the Parthenon. Our hotel, thankfully, was within site of the Acropolis – right in the heart of virtually everything cool that you’d want to see in Athens. So it wasn’t a far walk from where we ate lunch, in the same neighborhood, to the Acropolis. We moseyed along, taking our time. It was drizzling lightly – the only sun we’d seen so far on the entire trip had been through the windows of the plane as we rose above the cloud-cover on the way from Istanbul. We took a few pictures along the way, but by the time we got to the entrance of the Acropolis, we encountered another setback. The posted hours had recently been changed, and the Acropolis closed even earlier than it used to during the tourist off-season. It was now just a few minutes until 3:00, and they weren’t letting anyone else up on the hill.
This didn’t make sense to us, a group of business students. The marginal cost of keeping the Acropolis open a little longer, we reasoned, was extremely low. The marginal benefit was positive, which would mean additional revenue for the government. Why close?
This, we discovered, was symptomatic of the Greek response to the recent debt crisis in that country. Nearly everything – from government-run landmarks to privately-owned restaurants – closed early or opened late. It was as though the entire country was taking a holiday. Contrasting the Greek response to the world financial crisis with what we saw in Istanbul would also be the main theme of our business-site visits the next day.
Luckily for us, though the Acropolis was closed, the nearby and still relatively new Acropolis Museum was open, and fairly late. So there we went. The Museum still felt new, and state-of-the art. Eventually, we learned that it had been constructed in order to belie the claims of the British Museum that Greece had no place to safely store the various artifacts and treasures that had been plundered from the Acropolis over the years – many of which have found their way to the British Museum.
I learned much of this sordid tale from my guidebook – which continued to come in handy on this leg of the trip. The history of the Acropolis goes back to the Greco-Persian War – the same war that gave us the famous battle of the 300 Spartans. Over the course of the war, Athens was razed by the Persian army. But after a decisive naval victory, the Greeks were victorious over the Persians, and the Athenians returned to their city to rebuild. In honor of their great victory and growing political power, the Athenians determined to build a temple to their city’s protector and patron goddess, Athena, and various other temples on the ancient Acropolis. The Acropolis, the High City, had been the center of Athens since long before, but these new structures would be symbols of the ascendancy of Athens. The Parthenon, the temple of Athena Parthenos, would be the greatest of these.
It was a triumph of architecture, the details of which are too many to go into here. But, in time, the winds of change blew, and Christianity came to dominate Europe. The Parthenon became a christian church – and many of the wonderful classical statues and relief metopes carvings were removed for being heretical (and others repurposed as illustrations of biblical events rather than as illustrations of Greek mythology). Change came again with the Ottoman conquest of Athens in 1456 – a minaret was added and the church became a mosque. During war between Venice and the Ottoman empire, Venetians surrounded the Acropolis and bombarded the Ottoman emplacements. The Ottomans had stored a large gunpowder magazine in the building, and the Venetian bombardment ignited the magazine, nearly destroying the Parthenon. Shortly thereafter the Earl of Elgin, a British lord, with apparent permission from the Ottoman Sultan looted most of the remaining statues and artifacts on the Acropolis, and it was thereby that these artifacts eventually found their way to the British Museum. It was not until after Greek independence in the 1830s that restoration efforts would begin (first with the destruction of the remains of the minaret and other Ottoman buildings, and then later with a full restoration and reconstruction effort beginning in 1975), and they are still ongoing today.
The historical refresher in my guidebook supplemented by my already pretty-good memory of Greek Mythology, both of which came in handy when explaining many of the artifacts in the Acropolis museum (especially those that depicted elements of Greek Myth). Generally, I only answered direct questions, so as not to come off as too enthusiastically pedantic. A few of us made a very leisurely circuit through the museum – we had little else to do, as virtually everything in Athens was closed! – before we made our way back to the hotel to plan for dinner.
The next day we had our business visits – including one with a Greek shipping company, of course, as well as the “Invest in Greece” organization which was the counterpart to the “Invest in Turkey” group we had met with in Istanbul. The day ended with a closing dinner – the official end of our Colloquium – which was attended by a few of our hosts in Greece (I’ll tell more about this dinner in the next installment). From there we were off as a group to hit a local club – but from which I retired early with a few other classmates who were eager to get back to the hotel after a relatively short club scene.
Finally, Friday was a “free day” – a chance to see the sights in Athens without any other plans – before flying back on Saturday. Here is where my guidebook really came in handy. I planned a route through Athens to hit as many of the major sites as possible, and before leaving the club let everyone know when to meet me in the morning if they were interested in joining. Luckily, Athens is a city that can be fully experienced in about a couple days, so only a small handful of sites had to be excluded from my itinerary. A handful of classmates gathered Friday morning, and we were off to the Acropolis.
The day began beautifully, with our first glimmer of blue skies and sunshine, even if a partly-to-mostly cloudy day. Our little band began on the Acropolis, taking our time seeing the sites, before heading out for a little stop on Mars Hill (the site of one of the Apostle Paul’s ancient sermons) and then down into the Ancient Agora, the civic and mercantile heart of Ancient Athens. Down in the Agora our little group grew in size as we encountered a few more of our fellow classmates. By this time, it was pushing past noon, so we hied ourselves to the little square of Monastiraki where we picked up some super-cheap but delicious street Gyros. From there, our route took us past the Cathedral of Athens and down to Arch of Hadrian and the Temple of Zeus. From there, a fast trot brought us to the Parliament building barely in time to catch the theatrical changing of the guard.
We took the scenic route back to the hotel, and rested shortly, then a smaller group of four of us grabbed a taxi over to Lykavittos Hill – the highest point in Athens, to catch the view there. To our surprise the taxi took us almost all the way to the top, whereat was perched the Chapel of St. George and an overpriced restaurant. We relaxed a little at the restaurant – I got the last of many hot chocolates on this trip – then headed back, one of our number by funicular and the rest by foot thinking we’d find a taxi. (Apparently Lykavittos is where Taxi Drivers go when they don’t want a fare – another instance of the peculiar aversion to work that we witnessed in Greece – plenty of taxis waiting at the top and zipping up and down, none of them busy and none of them interested in being busy.)
At the hotel, a larger group of us planned one last dinner at the homiest (and one of the cheapest) place we found in Athens (highly recommended by our guidebook, and very tasty) where we shared a table of food, then we stopped for some gelato (I tried a local flavor called Mastic) before retiring back once more to the hotel. A group of half dozen of us were on an early flight back to the states. (What follows there is a harrowing tale of being treated like a terrorist while trying to get to our flight; every one of our class that morning was held for additional extended pat-downs and bag-checks. The only explanations we could guess at were (a) that Greeks don’t like Turks and we had just come from Turkey or (b) we weren’t flying a traditional roundtrip but had taken a multi-stop tour from the US to Istanbul to Athens then back to the US. Regardless… it sucked being held back without explanation or rationale, but we did finally make our flight.)
And that was the end of my colloquium trip through Istanbul and Athens. In the next and final installment of this series, I’ll share a little of what I learned about Greek Language and Culture.
Other posts in this series: