Thursday, July 31, 2008

Day 1 (Athens): It's F*cking Hot As Balls Here

I landed at Athens' Venizelos Airport* on the morning of July 23, far from rested but full of excitement (and caffeine!). This was to be my "alone" day -- my day of solitary adventure, which is the kind in which I suppose I take the most pride. Having perspired many a bullet over the potential closing of the Athens Metro beginning in July, I was relieved to find it running. Better than just running, it was actually efficient and extremely easy to navigate!

The Metro took me (with one transfer) to the very Acropolis of Art History lore. After exiting from the underground, I surveyed my surroundings to momentary panic: there was nothing but tourist shops in every direction. In desperation I looked up, and in doing so caught my breath. Rising above the schlock was the Acropolis, with the corner of the magnificent Parthenon peering out from over the top of the hill like a street cat, afraid to show too much of herself but unable to resist scoping the action.

In my wildest, nerdiest dreams, I could not have imagined being so impressed. To mount the Acropolis I followed the crowd, popping in at every incorrect entrance (why don't they just have an all-Acropolis ticket?) until I finally found the main one. Half a mile and twelve Euros later, I was on my way to the top.

The Parthenon Restoration Project, according to a sun-worn placard I read, began in 1983 (I was four). An article in February's Smithsonian magazine adds 8 years to the project's life and illuminates the obstacles and disctractions encountered by restoration team members (and the gaffes of turn of the 20th Century "restoration" attempts, which did far more harm than good). It also gives props to the ancients for genuinely baffling us moderns by the scope of their ability.

The iconic Parthenon view, iconic tourists included.

After not hearing "American" for a solid two hours, I had my first taste of home when a group of young Americans walked by me and one of the girls observed to her friend, "It's fucking hot as balls here." She was right, but I had long forgotten discomfort. Surveying the panorama of Athens, I tuned out Americans, Germans, and Italians alike (okay, maybe not the Italians) and inhaled the history and fresh air. I snapped photos of the Erechtheion and its famous caryatids, which I giddily recalled having studied in freshman Art History class. After gawking at the caryatids I noticed a hunk of stone on which was carved a blurb about the Erechtheion. To my great disappointment (although had I paid closer attention in class, this may not have come as such a surprise), I learned that the original caryatids (along with other archaeological finds from the Acropolis) had been removed and placed in the Acropolis Museum (ALSO under construction!); what I was marveling at were in fact replicas.


In order to get back to the airport in time for my flight to Chios, I had to cut short my Acropolis visit. In looking back, though, it's safe to say I got my money's worth. With more time I'd have entered the Agora and the various other temples that appeared to be on separate entrance tickets. The truth is that the signs are mostly inadequate and relatively scarce, which, given the Acropolis' status as THE Greek ruin to see, surprised me. On the one hand, it assumes you're well-prepared, with a guide, or have a guide book. On the other, it leaves so much of the history of the site open to interpretation. I get the impression that most people are disappointed, or at least underwhelmed, by the Acropolis. Putting aside the signs' deficiency, I can see why, given the ubiquitous "improvements." Scrutinizing the buildings' skeletons, I noticed just how many of these modern touches there were: a cement filling here, a metal rod there, a stray dog, a construction crane, and an umbrella salesman here, there, and there. . .

Maybe it was that I hadn't counted on making it, or maybe it was that I'm a bit of a history geek, but my Acropolis visit didn't disappoint or underwhelm. I value elation at learning and imagining, and I hope I never stop experiencing it.

From the airport I took the Metro line 3 (the blue line) to Syntagma Square and switched to line 2 (the red line) to Akropoli, just one more stop. Armed with my Wiki printout, I made it in 45 minutes with no wrong turns. On the way back to the airport I spent about 20 minutes browsing the Syntagma Square station, where excavation finds (and plenty of informational signs detailing them) are displayed. The coolest one was an aqueduct piece placed just right to show where Classical-era Athens street level was. I've chosen, however, to display the photo I took of a thousands-year-old skeleton as I'm probably the only lame-o who'd get excited about an aqueduct.

Back at the airport, I caught my flight to Chios. My friend (the bride) picked me up at the airport and I spent the next 8 hours pining for sleep until I was finally allowed it, while we ate, drank, drove around, and ate some more. (In Greece you can get chicken souvlaki AND french fries in the very same pita!) Chios photos in the next post.

*Anyone not sure how to maneuver the picking up of their bags from the baggage carousel should consult this very helpful guide (scroll down), chock full of advice on everything from claiming the best real estate for baggage-spotting to getting the most out of people-watching during this ordeal.

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