Thrum, Thrum, Thrum.
We are tucked deep in the bowels of the Rhodes to Athens ferry. It has been a rough night in steel bunks. Our ragged sleep is broken by the sudden imposition of ship's bells scratching over the loudspeakers. Have we struck an iceberg? Are we manning the lifeboats? No, a perky voice informs us that it is 5:30 AM and the ferry will be docking in 30 minutes. Everyone out of the berths and up in the main lounge, please.
In a few minutes we are steaming past the ships moored in Piraeus Harbor. They glow like Christmas puddings against a black sky. We dock, stumble down the escalators with our bags, and find ourselves milling around on a concrete parking lot with a large number of similarly disoriented ferry travelers. A sign reports that there is a bus that runs toward the city every fifteen minutes. This bus will take us somewhere else, from where we might be able to catch a subway into town. From there, we might find the way to our hotel, wherever that may be. The mind works poorly at 6:00 AM, and this leg of the trip has not been well-researched. The first bus arrives. People rush to get aboard, scrambling like passengers competing for the Titanic's last lifeboat. We watch in dismay. If there is only one bus every fifteen minutes it will take hours to move this crowd into town.
I find another sign that states the taxi fares for a variety of Athenian destinations. The National Archaeological Museum, which is allegedly located near our hotel, is only supposed to cost ten euros. Suddenly, I have an idea. Minutes later we are bundled into a taxi and speeding through the desolate dawn of an Athenian morning.
Amazingly this is not a scam. Our taxi costs twelve euros for a nearly forty minute ride. It would be an astonishing value at twice the price. Not only is it inexpensive, but our driver drops us off right in front of our hotel. It is a little after 7:00 in the morning. We don't expect the hotel to have a room for us until the agreed check in time of 2:00 PM, but (miracles and wonders) our room is ready to receive us. I don't usually offer free advertisements for commercial institutions, but let me just state that the Best Western (Museum) hotel in Athens is an absolutely incredible place, and it comes highly recommended by the members of the Euro2008 Tour. I plan to stay there every time I visit Athens.
After a short rest in our hotel room, we decide to begin our discovery of Athens with a visit to the Byzantine and Early Christianity Museum. This requires a lengthy stroll, but it is not as hot as we had expected, so no one suffers too greatly. The museum is extremely engaging: a new building with a moderate number of exhibits. I have probably said this before, but I tend to enjoy the smaller museums which allow you to linger in front of items. Large museums (like the British Museum) overwhelm you with the sheer mass of exhibits. They have so much to see that there is always a pressure to keep moving from fear that you might miss something. Less is so often more.
One of the strong points of the Byzantine and Early Christian Museum was its grouping of material to parallel the history of the Byzantine Empire. We were able to trace an evolutionary development in art and statuary as Christianity replaced the traditional Greek gods, and then this richness became a bit stultified and static. There was also a sharp break in artistic style after the Fourth Crusade and the creation of the Latin Kingdom.
After the museum, we were ready to explore some ruins, so walked down past the presidential palace (and its contingent of armed riot police) to the Panathinaikos Stadium. This stadium, which dates from the fourth century BC, was once the site of the Greek games held in honor of Athena. It has been renovated a couple of times, and served as the venue for the first installment of the modern Olympic games (1896). During the Olympic games of 2004, it hosted the archery competition as well as the last few steps of the marathon.
As we approach the edge of the stadium, tour buses are vomiting groups of camera-clutching daytrippers. Must be the right spot. The stadium is built like a paper clip: rounded top and flat bottom. It holds 50,000 people and its marble seats once were wood. For whatever reason the stadium is closed off, so we all have to lean over the railings, snapping our photos. This makes it hard to get the best shots, but on the other hand there aren't crowds of people in my photos either.
We cross the street, walk through a park. head for the remains of the Temple of Dr Seuss. No, wait a minute, that's Olympian Zeus.The line of parked tour buses tells us we are close. Once again the site is fenced and we are kept back from the handful of columns which still stand. On the southern edge of the complex is a toppled column, looking like a collapsed pile of gears.
I do not know if this temple should be characterized as an ancient success story. The Athenians originally intended to build the largest temple in the world to honor Zeus. Construction began in the 6th century BC, and it was still unfinished when the Romans conquered Greece. The Romans opted to get sucked into this building boondoggle, and finally, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138), the temple was completed. It took more than 700 years to build the temple. In 267, northern tribes sacked the city and damaged the temple. Shortly thereafter, the site was turned into a marble quarry, as Athenian builders hauled away stones for local construction projects.
In the history of urban development, the temple does not belong in the Notable Civic Projects Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to stare at the ruins of the ancient columns and ponder the glory that might have been.
The skeleton of a triumphal arch, erected in honor of Emperor Hadrian, stands outside the fences of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. Its worn stone pillars frame the Acropolis on it hill. But that is tomorrow's challenge. Having expended a great deal of energy hiking through the center of town, and already sleepy from a all-night ferry ride, the Euro2008 Team is ready to eat and put our feet up for the night.