April 24- Athens
Three days into the trip, we finally make our first foray into Athens. On weekdays one of the public commuter buses makes a stop right at the resort, and we decided that would be our best bet for getting into the city without having to drive or park in the city. (On the way in, I scouted the location of a metro station with a parking garage, so we will go that way on our second trip). It takes about an hour and a quarter, not too bad. Traffic in the city is bad, but not any worse than DC, it would have been doable had we had a good sense of where we were going—it's the unfamiliar city traffic driving navigating in a foreign alphabet that will get you.
Had I paid more attention to where we were in a meta sense rather than a "making sure we can find our way back to the bus stop sense," I would have noticed we got dropped off about 2 blocks from the National Archeological Museum—we would have saved time if we had gone there the first day, since it was a bit of a walk from our metro stop on the second day. But we were beelining for the Acropolis, with our 3 PM deadline in mind.
But first, of course, we needed some sustenance. We happened by a bakery that looked promising, Kieran was very pleased to see they had mini chocolate croissants, and proceeded to stock up on a substantial pile of pastries - three aforementioned croissants, a ham and cheese pie, a spanakopita (which turned out to be the best I had ever tasted), a tiropita (likewise excellent), another sweet or two, and a couple small coffees. The woman behind the counter piled it all in a bag, logged it in the register, then said "7.70 €." We were flabbergasted. Lacking the linguistic capabilities to haggle upward in Greek, we gave her the impossibly small amount of cash and devoured our feast. We later realized that no one had even ordered the two bottles of water she had also placed in the bag. Quite possibly the bargain food experience of a lifetime. (I should also point out that Ingrid and Bob are like family, and as biologists we all take the view that germs are like exercise for the immune system, so we share food around probably more than the average gang of American travelers.)
Eventually made it down to the Acropolis, approaching from the north as we did we ended up wandering through some tiny backstreets and little allies that seemed to be dead ends till they turned at the last minute and hit the main path to the site (I believe the neighborhood is called Anafiotika). We paid our 12 € each for a ticket that covered the Acropolis and half a dozen other sites in the vicinity (entrance fees were cheap everywhere, and we never once had to pay for the kids), and proceeded upward. As with Delphi, entrance to the Acropolis is through a Propylaia (gateway) on the westernmost side of the hill. It consists of a series of gates, courtyards, and small temples, including the Temple of Athena Nike (Athena of Victory—hey, maybe those shoe people are on to something). While the top of the Acropolis is big, there are really only two things to see once you get on top—the Parthenon itself, which of course you can't really get anywhere near), and the Erechtheion, a much smaller and less glamorous, but in many ways more interesting sanctuary on the north side of the Parthenon.
The Parthenon is big, and considering its age and what it's been through, remarkably well preserved, albeit swaddled in scaffolding. Converting it into an early Christian church did some damage, and of course, the Venetians bombing it while the Turks were using it as an arsenal in 1687 was decidedly unhelpful to the structural integrity. One of the coolest things about it is the way that it was built to overcome the eye's sense of perspective and give an illusion of perfect straightness and symmetry: The base of the temple is higher in the middle than at the edges, and each column leans inward slightly and bulges a bit in the middle. Not bad for 447 BC.
As I said, however, the Erechtheion is sort of where the action is. It was considered the more private, sacred home of the cult statue of Athena. You Percy Jackson fans will know that Athena and Poseidon contested for patronage of Athens (guess who won?); well, this is where it all went down. The north porch of the building actually does have s a large crack in the floor, where supposedly the sea god struck it with his trident and called forth a saltwater spring. (Uh, thanks, dude.) On the west side of the building grows an olive tree, in the spot of Athena's presentation of her gift. (If you've tasted Greek olives, or olive oil, even the most etymologically challenged will know who won). But the building is sacred to both goddess and god, in fact. The other cool thing about the Erechtheion is the Caryatids, famous statues of women that serve as the supports for the south porch. The real ones are now in the Acropolis museum, but the in situ copies are pretty neat looking. The other great thing about the Acropolis is of course the views of the entire city, which is spawling but low-rise, like London or DC, and reaches all the way to the edges of the surrounding hills (which provide that lovely LA-esque smog capture).
After the Acropolis, we had just enough time to explore the Agora, the ruins of the main part of ancient Athens (located just to the northwest of the Acropolis. It is for the most part rather difficult to connect the individual ruins to the reconstruction map we had, with the exception of the temple of Hephaistos (the smith god), which is one of the best preserved ancient temples in the city, if not the country. It's about half the size of the Parthenon, and sufficiently intact to give a real sense of what that temple would have looked like.
We wandered the Agora till three bells kicked us out, then ambled through the flea market district called Monastiraki. We got a late lunch in a leafy square near Hadrian's library and the Roman agora, then walked back north to catch our bus back. For dinner, we walked along the beach back to Nea Makri, getting another fabulous meal at a seaside restaurant called De Facto (with loukoumades!). Walked back only to realize that the gate to our hotel from the beach had closed at 10 PM, prompting a backstreets ramble through the neighborhood and around a wetland to get back to where we belonged.