My plan was to go first to the Acropolis and the ancient city of Pericles, Socrates and Herodotus and the guidebook advised getting there early to avoid the crowds.
I did as it suggested and got there early (well, reasonably early) and it was swarming, I mean really swarming and there were hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people ahead of me in the line at the entrance gate. Obviously I wasn’t early enough and I cannot even begin to imagine what it is like when it is really busy. There was no turning back though because I’d only a couple of days in Athens before leaving for the neighbouring city of Piraeus and then sailing for the islands.
Although it was only mid morning it was desperately hot already and climbing the exposed sun-bleached steps to the top of the Acropolis it felt like the anvil to the sun’s hammer and I began to break out into a massive sweat and had to stop several times for a drink of water and a short rest before reaching the site of the Parthenon at the top of the table top mountain.
The top of the Acropolis is huge but there isn’t really a lot to see, no statues, no paintings, no exhibits, but a rather barren archaeological site in the thirtieth year of its restoration with tens of thousands of pieces lying strewn in the dust and long since stripped of its treasures, a stark marble ruin surrounded by ancient brick and concrete, so once a full circuit has been completed, although it felt as though I should stay longer the truth is there is not a lot to stay around for.
This doesn’t mean that the visit experience is in any way disappointing or less wonderful just that it seems to me that there are two types of sightseeing, the first is where we go to admire the statues, the paintings and the exhibits and the second where the experience is simply about being there, in a place that has played such a pivotal role in world history and the development of civilisation and for me the Acropolis and the Parthenon is one of the latter.
The Parthenon is an icon of western civilisation and the most architecurally copied building in the World wherever man wants to demonstrate authority and power through the construction of buildings and monuments. Of course there might have been more to see if the Parthenon marbles had been in place but we of course know these as the Elgin Marbles and two hundred years ago the English aristocrat hacked the statues off the buildings with blunt instruments and sent them back to the London where the fifty-six sculpted friezes, depicting gods, men and monsters can now been found at Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury (more about that later).
After leaving the Acropolis I walked back down the slippery slope of the Parthenon and picked my way between olive trees and day trippers competing for shade from the midday sun and after I had left I had a good long walk around the other principal tourist attractions in the city because in addition to the Acropolis there is the Ancient Greek and Roman Agora and the dramatic Temple of Zeus with its spectacular muscular columns thrusting triumphantly into the sky.
They are all in pretty poor shape it has to be said, the Parthenon at the Acropolis was blown up by Venetian invaders when it was being used as a Turkish armoury store, looted by Elgin and then damaged by ham-fisted restoration work in the early twentieth century, most of the Agora is pretty much non-existent and the Temple of Olympian Zeus has only a handful of its original columns still standing. It was here that I saw what I found to be an amusing notice at the entry kiosk, in large letters it said:
“Please respect the Antiquity”
Just a little late for that I thought. What a pity someone didn’t think to put up these signs two thousand years ago, perhaps it would have stopped people in the middle ages dismantling them to build houses, the Turkish invaders from grinding down the marble to make mortar (yes, really) and made Lord Elgin think twice before he plundered the Acropolis for the treasures he returned to Britain. But this was long before UNESCO and the World Heritage Sites initiative and so perhaps for most of those two thousand years no one has been especially concerned about the preservation of the past.
Much of the tourist area of the Plaka is simply built over the top of Ancient Greece and around every corner there is an open excavation, which disappears under a modern building or a road. The Greek Agora has to be the worst example of all because running through the middle of it is a railway line. I wonder who thought that was a good idea? As the construction workers kept coming across priceless artefacts surely it must have occurred to someone that they should stop and excavate the place properly before carrying on? Part of the reason why it took so long to build the Acropolis Museum was that the builders came across an unexpectedly rich archaeological site and it had to be properly examined and explored before the building could be completed.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus must have looked wonderful, it took six hundred years to build due to a stop-start building programme and when completed had one hundred and four Corinthian columns seventeen metres high (that’s about four London double decker buses). Only fifteen remain standing now and one other lies in pieces across the site, blown down in a gale in 1852. As early as the year 86 people were not respecting the antiquity and two columns were removed and taken to Rome to be relocated in the emerging Forum. An earthquake probably did most of the damage and then everyone helped themselves to the stones for their new building projects around the city.
I walked through the Zappeion gardens to the recently restored and renovated International Conference Centre building that had wonderfully colourful internal decoration and then to the original Olympic stadium of the modern games built in 1884, and which was used symbolically once again in 2004. After that it was a stroll around the official government buildings where I saw the Greek soldiers famous for their lanky legged, goose stepping walk. They are called the Evzones, which is the name of the elite light infantry of the Greek Army and today refers to the members of the Proedriki Froura, who are the official Greek Presidential Guard, a select ceremonial unit that guards the Greek Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Parliament building and the Greek Presidential Palace.
The basic elements of their uniform are a scarlet garrison cap with a long black tassel, a woollen kilt, a cotton undershirt, white woollen stockings and black-tasselled knee garters and red leather clogs with hob-nailed souls and a black pompon. The full-dress uniform, which derives from the traditional uniform of south-mainland Greece is only worn on Sundays, on important national holidays and other special occasions. It has a white, bell-sleeved shirt and a white kilt with four hundred pleats, which represents the four hundred years of Turkish Ottoman occupation and an awful lot of work for the poor person who has to do the ironing!
1. Winged Victory, in possession of the French and claimed by Greece
2. Rosetta Stone, in possession of the British and claimed by Egypt
3. Samsat Stele, in possession of the British and claimed by the Turkey
4. Bust of Nefertiti, in possession of the Germans and claimed by the Egypt
5. Venus de Milo, in possession of the French and claimed by Greece
One final piece of trivia; the Samsat Stele is claimed by Turkey, the hole in the middle of it is because sometime in the past someone made alterations to use it as a vine press. No wonder the British Museum thinks they should continue to look after it!