A day in Athens

Written at about 8 PM on July 9

Wow! Today was an incredible day. I have read about ancient Greece and Greek history so much and today there was some payoff. Athens and Sparta are the two big cities you always read about (and arch enemies at that) and today I got to spend the day in the former. I purchased 3 shore excursions as part of this cruise, and today was my first: “A Walking Tour of Ancient Athens”.

The ship docked in Pyrios. I was up at 7:30 AM after a very good night’s sleep (considering my food coma from last night). I dressed, put on some sunscreen (in that order) grabbed my camera, my spare battery, my iPod (in case there was any waiting), my small notepad, my phone and my cruise card, and I headed out the door. The tour group met in the Explorers lounge and at 8 AM, we were led off the ship and to our tour guide, Thenia, a woman with a terrific Greek accent. She led us to our bus, which was quite comfortable. There were 41 people in our group, and yes, I was the “1”. Everyone else was part of some group or other. But I didn’t mind. I was planning on having a great day. I ended up taking 275 pictures (and didn’t even need the spare battery).

Our tour started with a bus ride from Pyrios to Athens. It took somewhere around an hour or so, but we got to see quite a bit of interesting sites. We saw the Presidential Palace, for instance, and the guards who stand out front (and who are changed once every hour). We got to see Athenian traffic, and learn something of their rules of the road. For instance, in the downtown area in order to limit traffic, cars with even-numbered license plates are allowed to drive downtown on even-numbered days; and odd-numbered cars are allowed in on odd-numbered days, and there are hefty fines for violating these rules, if the police care enough to stop you. (It seems that everyone in Athens parks illegally, without the slightest concern of a ticket.)

Our first stop was at the Olympic Stadium, which was built for the first modern Olympics held back in 1896. The stadium is impressive. It holds 70,000 people! It isn’t used for anything anymore, except for honoring sporting heroes. But it is still pretty cool. To the northwest, on a hill was the Acropolis and I was very eager to get there.

We got to the Acropolis around 10 AM and had to walk up to the top in near 100-degree heat. But I was in awe the whole time, almost oblivious to the massive crowds. The ship on which I am staying, the Emerald Princess is a brand new ship, launched this very year with every modern amenity (including wireless Internet access). And yet here I was standing at the foot of an amazing architectural feat that was in the neighborhood of 3,000 years old. The city of Washington, D.C. is not yet 300 years old, and here I was in Athens, a city more than ten times as ancient.

On the south side, on the way up, are views of the old theater, to say nothing of breathtaking views of Athens, spread out all around the plain. There are workers, working to restore some of the main entrance (and the Parthenon itself; they are not trying to make it looked as it looked 3,000 years ago, but instead trying to restore it to how it should look today).

I can see this requires some more explanation. There are two parts to the story. First, as I understand it, the Parthenon was used by the Turks to store gunpowder during a war. The Venetians discovered this and shelled the Parthenon, blowing it apart. It was later rebuild, using the blocks that had been blown off. However, it was rebuilt using iron to hold pieces together, instead of lead, which is what was originally used. Lead does not oxidize, but iron does. Add to that the fact that growing pollution made the oxidation worse. Now, workers are pulling out the iron and replacing it with titanium.

There are three sites atop the Acropolis (Greek for “high city”): the entrance itself, the Parthenon, and a temple to the god of fire, whose name escapes me. Walking around the Parthenon is humbling. Three thousand years old and still standing. It was built in nine years using slave and freeman labor. The slaves were paid the same wages as the freemen in order to encourage speedy production. It took 360 days to build a single column, which gives you an idea of how many thousands of people were put to work on the project. And here we seem to fumble rolling out something as vaporous as software!

The 360-degree views of Athens are incredible. It is a low city, but it is spread out in all directions, with the sea to the southwest. I spent 30 minutes wandering around in a kind of daze, amazed at the culture that I was surrounded by. But I couldn’t say forever. We were meeting at 11:45 AM and I noticed that getting out of the Acropolis was more crowded than getting in. I got in the line (read: random mass) heading out at 11:20 AM. It took me 20 minutes to get to the exit. This is where my iPod came in handy. I pulled it out, popped in the earphones and listened to music the whole way down. (Until then, I was listening to many of the senior citizens complaining about the long line and that there should be a better way to get out. I was afraid I might blurt out something rude like: The ancient Greek architects apologize for not thinking of your well-being when they were building these amazing temples 3,000 years ago!. Listening to the iPod prevented me from doing that.

From the Acropolis, we walked down into old Athens. Narrow streets and low buildings, in some ways very similar to Dubrovnik. We arrived at a small Greek restaurant around noon where a Greek lunch had been arranged for us as part of the tour. This lunch rivaled the dinner at Sabatini last night. Since I was the “1” of 41, I ended up at a table by myself, which sounds worse than it was. there were 4 people at every other table and the dishes that were served and the wine that was served was for four people–including at my table. Which means I ate well. Some stuff I didn’t recognize, so I took pictures of it. But of the things that I did recognize, I had the best white wine I’ve thus far had–a whole jug of it to myself! I had bottle water and a glass of Uozo. Then there were rolls and the most delicious hummus I’ve ever eaten. The plate was for four, but I ate nearly all of it myself. There were dolmas, gyros, some kind of doughy triangular-shaped thing, and a large Greek salad. And then they brought in the main course, which was a kind of thick-noodled, doughy beef lasagna. And we wrapped up with a dessert of watermelon and cantaloupe. Needless to say, I was ready to so more walking when that meal was over.

Next, we walked through some of the narrow streets of old Athens (which is built on top of ancient Athens) until we reached one of the dig, the old Roman market. After stopping to take pictures of that (and the Athens branch of the University of Indianapolis–no joke), we threaded our way to the ancient Greek market place. This is where many of the original philosophers gathered, where there were ancient gymnasiums, and where people mingled throughout the day, thinking great thoughts and developing culture. Walking through there, I wondered if I was standing on the same ground as a famous ancient philosopher such as Socrates or Plato. Did they stand under this tree? Did they sit on this stone? While I quietly pondered these thoughts, our tour guide told us the following joke:

A grandmother walked into her granddaughter’s room one day to find her laying naked on her bed. Rather in shock, she said sternly, “What is it you are doing there, Granddaughter?” The granddaughter looked up in mild concern and said, “Why, Grandmother, I’m laying here on my bed, in my love gown.” The Grandmother raised a dark eyebrow and said, “Oh, that sounds very nice.” Later that day, Grandfather walked into Grandmother’s bedroom and found Grandmother laying on the bed, naked. Scandalized, the Grandfather said, “Grandmother, what it is you are doing there?” The grandmother looked up in mild concern and said, “Why, Grandfather, I’m lay here on our bed, in my love gown.” To which Grandfather, snorted, shook his head and said, “Well, could you at least have ironed it.

Next we walked into the Plaka, which is the marketplace. We were given half an hour to dash in and out of the shops, purchasing all kinds of useless gewgaws with which to fill our luggage. I took the opportunity to zip into the first bar I could find, and order a 16 ounce Mythos, which I consumes heartily and quickly, for it was hot out. It cost me 4 Euro, which is a bargain if you ask me.

We met up half an hour later, met our bus, and then rode over to the Temple of Zeus. I could see the temple of Zeus from atop the Acropolis, but it was even more impressive standing right next to it. Of the 104 original columns, only 15 remain standing, but they are massive columns. It was the largest temple in all of Athens. I managed to get some good photos of the Acropolis frames between the columns of this ancient temple.

And then we boarded the bus for the last time and made our way back to the port in Pyrios, where we said goodbye to our tour guide (most of us tipping her) and climbing back on the ship. It was nearly 4:30 PM by the time I was back in my stateroom. And it was truly a remarkable day in Athens. It was the best day, as far as touring goes, that I’ve had thus far and well worth the price of the organized tour. I would definitely recommend it.