Tomorrow is going to be an extreme travel day. Our flight to Malta leaves at 6:45, so, with early check-in and transport to the airport, we will be leaving the hotel around 4:30. Put this together with the early arrival yesterday, and we have a perfect travel storm. Our desire to rest and recuperate is balanced, however, by the very short time we have in Athens.
Rather than waking and hiking immediately to the historic center, we decided to begin our day by taking advantage of a local attraction. We indulged in a compressed tour of Athenian history by visiting the National Archaeological Museum (next door to our hotel).
The Museum is a drafty barn of building, consisting of several wings with evenly-spaced exhibitions. We followed the sculpture trail, beginning with the rough-hewn images of the gods, progressing through the classical period of Grecian art, and ending with images of Roman Emperors, cut after Rome had annexed Greece. I was particularly moved by some of the grave steles — tombstones which commemorated the long-departed dead. A particularly poignant piece depicted a child in its nurse's arms, stretching out its arms in an attempt to embrace its dead mother. This 3,000 year old carving captured perfectly the anguish and sorrow of death, the pathos of a child deprived of a mother's love.
We took our lunch in a nearby sandwich shop, and then it was time to brave the heat and crowds of the historic center of Athens. We wanted to take the subway to shorten the trip, but upon arriving at the ticket office, we were greeted by “On Strike” signs. A work stoppage had frozen the subway in place, and it was scheduled to last until late afternoon. We would have to make our way to the center on foot.
Now for those of you who decide to visit the gems of Athenian antiquity without the benefit of a tour company, let me give you fair warning. The route to the Acropolis is not as well marked as it might be. Near the cathedral, a sign bearing the legend “Acropolis” points in the general direction of the looming peak. This single route marker exhausted the city's guidance to the top of the hill. We made several wrong turns in our path up the mountain, and were frequently ensnared by cul-de-sacs and dead ends designed to make us retrace our frustrated steps. It almost seemed like a cunning city plot, a way to reduce the number of visitors trampling around the sacred precinct.
A book could be written about our circuitous route to the top, but that account can be distilled into three short words: we made it. From the top of the hill we had magnificent views in all directions. Athens is huge: I had no idea how big it was until I could see it in all of its glory, white, sun-baked buildings spreading to the distant horizons.
The Acropolis was less enchanting. The Greek government is involved in a long term conservation/renovation project and the columns of the structure were wrapped in gray pipe scaffolding. Not very photogenic, although there was an interesting juxtaposition between modern construction technology and these ancient columns.
Near the Acropolis is the Areopagus, a hill where once criminals were tried, as well as the place where the Apostle Paul preached to the Greek philosophers. We scrambled to the top of this stony outcrop for a moment. The Areopagus is some form of reddish marble. Centuries of foot traffic have worn it smooth and slippery. We had a tough time walking on the hill, but maybe that was why the philosophers chose this hill to have their debates: philosophy is a slippery subject.
The girls were exhausted, so we took a quick stroll through the Roman Agora and Hadrian's library. The subway had resumed operation by the time we turned our footsteps back toward the hotel, so that helped.
We discovered that it is impossible to even begin to see Athens in a day-and-a-half. There is so much here; we could have easily stayed much longer. This seems to be a consistent theme of the Euro2008 tour: too many places, too little time.
On to Malta!