Saturday, September 5, 2009

Athens At a Glance


Map picture

Athens At a Glance

So far our trip has been pretty normal, if you can ever call flying to Europe “normal.” It started with a 2 plus hour flight to Atlanta, followed by a 2 plus hour layover, followed by an 11 hour flight to Athens, and then a one hour drive to our hotel, where we arrived at 11am. Bone tired and looking for lunch, we were told that they started serving lunch at 1, and they stopped serving breakfast at 11; we were stuck. Ah, the joys of travel. We do have a beautiful room however, which overlooks the former palace of the King, and which is now the Greek Parliament Building.

On our flights over there were several things of interest. Our flight to Athens was probably 1/3 full of American troops on their way to a deployment. The hostess made an announcement about their presence and the passengers gave them a standing ovation of appreciation for their service--very heartwarming! Next, I was surprised by our route of flight. We traveled north from Atlanta, and crossed over New York, continuing up over Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, crossing both Greenland and Iceland, and entering Europe across Scotland and England. We then crossed France, and entered Greece from the North. I probably should know why that makes sense, but I don’t.

Our first full day in Greece started with an 8:00am pick up for an all day drive into the countryside. That meant that we had to awaken at roughly midnight Kansas City time. That would not have been so bad, except that I made a mistake in setting the “am/pm” indicator on our clock, so the first we knew of our new day came when our guide phoned from the lobby. Whoops!

Suffering badly from jet lag and clearly not up to our best, we set off on a drive to the South of Athens, making our first stop at the Corinth Canal. When you look at a map of Greece you will see that it is technically surrounded on 3 sides by the Mediterranean. However, to be precise, one side of the sea is referred to as the Ionian Sea and the other is the Aegean Sea. The Corinth Canal cuts directly across Greece to connect the two Seas. As you will see from my pictures, the canal is very narrow and quite steep on both sides. Construction was started in the late 1800’s by a wealthy merchant, but he eventually ran out of money and the project was abandoned. Later a consortium of companies picked up the project, but they, too, eventually abandoned it. Finally in the early 1900’s a very wealthy shipping merchant once again started the project, and by the time it was completed, the cost for him had ballooned to more than double what was initially projected. In spite of its very narrow passageway, it has become a very important shortcut for smaller ships which otherwise would have to spend almost a full day steaming around the tip of Greece.

IMG_1652 Corinth Canal

Our next stop was to visit the ancient ruins of Epidavros, an important center of healing in the ancient world. The ruins are not impressive being for the most part just a jumble of stones lying across a large field. What is impressive, however, is the most perfect and best preserved of the ancient Greek theaters, built in the 4th century BC. It could accommodate over 5,000 people and is built of marble--a most impressive site.

IMG_1668 4th BC Theatre at Epidavros

We continued South and East to the quaint seaside town of Nafplion, where we got out of the car and just walked the narrow streets. Nafplion was the ancient capital of Greece, before the seat of government was moved to Athens. Today, it is a popular resort for young people on a weekend getaway.

Above the town were impressive ruins from the Middle Ages of a massive fortress built by the Venetians in 1350. They designed the fortification to be impregnable from the Turks and made it completely self-sufficient. Only one little problem with their plan: the architect for the project hated the Venetians. When the fort was completed, he sold the plans to the fort to the Turks for a great deal of money. Armed with information about secret access tunnels, etc., the Turks one evening invaded the fort and reclaimed the citadel and the city.

IMG_1690 City of Nafplion, Ancient Capital of Greece

Leaving Nafplion, we headed back North in a long loop towards Athens, stopping along the way for lunch. It was a lovely restaurant clearly catering to large tour groups. As is the custom, we were seated by ourselves with the guide and driver seated at separate tables. We insisted that we all eat together and as the rearrangement was taking place I headed off to the men’s room. Along the way I looked at what people were being served and I could not see anything I wanted to eat until I spotted a lone diner enjoying an omelet and fries. That is absolutely our favorite lunch! Hooray, I thought to myself. Now, have you ever been in a situation when you know you have said something wrong, but you don’t know what it is. Well, that is where I found myself when I asked for omelets for lunch. Our guide looked as if she could climb in a hole. Much discussion took place around us in Greek, until soon the owner herself came over to our table. More conversation ensued until everyone seemed to accept that we wanted omelets and fries. When I could get a word in I asked what the problem was. Clearly omelet’s are on the menu because I had seen another gentleman eating one. It turns out that an omelet is not considered appropriate food to serve a guest. Omelets are only served to drivers and guides, never to a guest. Well, whatever; it was absolutely one of the best omelets I have ever enjoyed, and so there!

After lunch we then continued to the Archaeological Ruins At Mycenae. Here was located the main center of the Mycenanean culture that ruled the entire Greek world between the 16 to 12 century BC. The acropolis dominates the surrounding plains and was a stronghold unrivaled in the Mediterranean basin. Recent excavations at the site have given proof that civilizations were living here as far back as the 3rd millennium BC. Even today the fortress is still impressive and as one enters through the Lions Gate you can sense the strength of this civilization. The capstone above the single gate into the walled city weighs over 200 tons, and the huge stones used the construct the fortress walls were hauled over mountainous terrain from a quarry more than 3 miles away. A short drive away we visited the Royal Tomb of King Agamemnon. It was a massive structure dug into the hillside. The gate was an enormous opening with massive capstones. Inside the walls rose to great heights and ended in a 360 degree arch.

IMG_1712 Mycenaen City of Atreides 16th Century BC

IMG_1734 Tomb of King Agamemnon

By the time we ended up at the hotel we were so tired that we both fell into bed exhausted.

Yesterday we toured Athens itself. It is a very interesting city which lies in a large valley surrounded on three sides by mountains, and on the remaining side opening to the sea. It is home to over 5 million people and in the entire city there is not even one skyscraper. Our hotel at 8 stories tall is perhaps the tallest building in Athens. The reason for this is the earthquake risk in the region. Dotting the valley floor are the occasional small hills, but rising almost magically in the center of the valley is the imposing Acropolis, a majestic mound of bare rock on top of which sits the Parthenon. This is truly one of the “wonders of the world.” It was constructed in 445 BC as a temple to the Goddess Athena. It is difficult to understand Athens except in the context of the fact that it has been inhabited for over 3,000 years. It has small streets and traffic is almost in constant gridlock. Because of its ancient past any new construction almost immediately encounters ancient ruins which must then be meticulously investigated.

IMG_1747 Acropolis, with Parthenon

Our city tour was a blur of old buildings and grinding traffic. We ended at the New Acropolis Museum, which is a magnificent building constructed to house the artifacts of the Parthenon. But our highlight in Athens happened this morning as we went up to the rooftop restaurant. We arrived early, around 6:30 am. The sky was still dark with just the faint tint of light presaging the coming dawn. Before us was the Acropolis all aglow with large lights and just behind it was a full moon. The valley floor was obscured in the early morning haze and so the Acropolis seemed to be suspended in a magical mist. The picture was breathtaking. Lisa begged me to go grab my camera, but I told her it would only last a minute. Indeed to sun quickly took over from night and the giant lights were extinguished, and we were left with the magical image in our minds. But what a memory!

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