Sunday, May 18, 2008

Backpacking in Greece: Attica, Peloponnese, Northern Greece, Islands (Part II)

I really didn't know what to expect, with a flight as long as the one from Atlanta to Belgium was, but it turned out to be quite nice. I guess here is a good place to put in a kind word for Delta. Sabena was also commendable, though the on-flight smoking was awful and clouds ruined the views of Europe crossing on to Athens (but they can't do anything about the weather now, can they?). Well if it had been clear, and the plane had gone a little further up... OK, a lot further up... then I would have seen something like this picture as I passed over Attica (the big grayish, greenish area in the middle of the map is Athens. You can even see the canal at Corinth if you look to the left side where the land narrows)

Athens: (885,737 inhab. or 3 million in greater Athens area from 1981 census)
Arriving: Athens is a city that needs preparing for. Thankfully now you can do so at various online sites (e.g., Matt Barrett's Athens' Survival Guide, and mine of course). I really should have been totally bewildered but this is where reading up before hand pays off. When I first landed in Athens it was a big shock coming from two really nice airports (Atlanta's new international wing just before the Olympics and Brussell's very modern one). The planes don't pull right up to the terminal, they send a bus out to the plane and then they ferry you back to the terminal and you exit through the gates there. I don't travel too much and this was quite a surprise to me, but it wasn't that big of a deal. Though the wait on my backpack was excruciating (20 min. after all the other passengers' on my flight), I knew which bus to take to Syntagma Square, but be sure and buy tickets at the booths before boarding.

In Syntagma Square, the 'center' of tourist-driven Athens, I was an easy mark. The trick of having a drink (nothing alcoholic here though, which is not the case in most of these scams) and then the bartender tries to force you to pay for the drinks with the people you toasted with, well it didn't quite work on me, thanks again to my reading about it online. It would have only been 5000 dr. ($20) and compared to the amounts I've read about other travelers getting taken for, that isn't much, but thankfully I got out of the place quickly. I got nervous though, since I was not able to find a hotel that had a room available and it was getting dark. I was also exhausted from the flights and hot. Reading in a travel guide, you see room prices really ranging to extremes, so I wasn't sure what to expect. On my first night I got suckered. I'm almost embarrassed Temple of Zeus Olympios at sunriseto say, but in the hopes that it will help others avoid it, I'll tell you that I wound up paying $80 for a room that claimed to have AC (it didn't) and a TV (surprise! nope). Now I know that it doesn't sound too high, but in comparison to the rooms I stayed in for the rest of the trip, it was much higher in price and much worse in actual accommodations. After a quick nap, I made myself go look for a cheap place that night, and found one right around the corner! - The lesson here? I dunno. Just try to give yourself time to find a place to stay, counting for the sure cheats that you will run into. Try not to arrive at 7 p.m. or later. Also, never, ever, ever stay at the HOTEL PARTHENON in Athens.

The Dioskouros Guest House, managed by young Americans, Australians, et al. is very inexpensive and it wound up as the place I stayed every night thereafter in Athens. It cost around $20 a night and I got a room to myself. The rooms are in view of the Acropolis and there is a quiet patio out back with a lemon tree shading the tables. For less you can share a double or even a quad. It is really close to the Plaka too. To get to it, you'll have to head northwest into Plaka from Hadrian's Arch. Can't tell you much more except that it is on a side street just a block away from the main thoroughfare. Wish I could remember more. Plaka is one of the old areas of the city and today you'll find it crowded with restaurants, kiosks, and tourists, not to mention the numerous reproductions shops and jewelry stores. Here's a panoramic view of Plaka.

The sites: There are countless archaeological sites in Athens, but be sure not to miss the Ancient Agora of Athens. Balloning above the Athenian AgoraThe civic, commercial, and political center of Ancient Athens, I went there three times (remember, it was free for me) and I spent a good deal of time at each visit. Ancient Agora of Athens
It is also highly underrated in most travel guides save the wonderful information that Pausanias preserves for us, Pausanias 1.3.1. I could easily spend two or three days there if I had had the time. Though I won't go too in depth about the Agora (lord knows I've read enough about it over the past four months), you should really take a break in the shade at the museum of the Ancient Agora, also known as the Stoa of Attalos (photo). It is a convenient place to go when a quick shower comes along, as it was intended to be! Of course you can access some old photos of the Agora. Just northwest of the Agora is the Kerameikos, a classical cemetary and neighborhood (here are some old pictures of the cemetary and its monuments). It has its own archaeological museum which houses many remarkable grave markers and sculptures (Great book by Ursula Knigge, The Athenian Kerameikos, on sale at the museum for only 2000 drx.). The main ones you'll see outside are reproductions so don't miss that museum! Head back southeast and see some Roman sites now.

You can see much more information about certain buildings in the Agora by visiting these locations (note, all of these buildings were either constructed, tranplanted, or refurbished during the Augustan era): the Odeion of Agrippa, the Temple of Ares, the Early Roman Podium Temple, the Northeast Stoa, the Altar of Zeus Agoraios, the City Asklepieion, the Monument of Agrippa, the Double Stoa, the Southwest Temple, the Annex of the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, the nearby Market of Caesar and Augustus (i.e., the Roman Forum), and the Temple of Roma and Augustus on the Acropolis.

The Roman Agora of Athens is also very appealing to travelers due to its location in Plaka and especially the oft-photographed Horologion of Andronicos (aka Tower of the Winds) which is the main remaining monument in the immediate area (here are some great photos of the tower). Still you might not want to pay for it since you can walk around the whole thing and see through the fence. Unfortunately I saw a pack of dogs tear apart a poor cat right there in the middle of it. This is a good place to mention that the stray dogs and cats are a very big problem in Athens (and much of Greece for that matter) and undoubtedly you will run across quite a few. - Also, make sure you see the Lysikrates Monument (also known as Demosthenes' Lantern), Hadrian's Library, and the rest of the Plaka, all within short walking distance on the north side of the Acropolis.

Oh yeah, I guess I almost forgot the Acropolis of Athens (try this walking tour as the Acropolis might have looked like in Classical Athens, see it today with a panoramic view, or just read Pausanias' comments, 1.22.4). I went Almost a full moon over the Acropolisthere a couple times, try going early in the morning. Give yourself enough time so that you won't pass up The Acropolis Museum. It holds most of the sculpture found atop the Acropolis, that is, most of the items that weren't filched by Elgin and his like. Of course you won't want to miss the Parthenon. It's only the main reason why you climbed up all those steps anyway (Closer to my home, there is a full-size replica of the Parthenon -in Nashville, TN - with a museum in it. It also has a virtual tour, ancient time-line, and other interesting facts). If you're interested, there's a great book on how the Parthenon was constructed, and it has some of the information from it online. You can also find out about the reconstruction project currently in progress.

Getting to these sites and museums early is very important since they all close around three p.m. and it's less crowded in the mornings. While you are at the Acropolis, take time to view the Erechtheion, the most holy site on the Acropolis. It's also the building I'm most interested in since the architecture was so influential on later generations. The little Temple of Athena Nike (yes, just like the tennis shoes - Nike meant Victory) has been reconstructed on the lip of the westernmost point of the Acropolis. A few centuries ago, the Turks had just pushed the whole thing off the edge of the cliff since it looked like such a good place to put a piece of artillery, but let's not broach that subject right now. Don't just pass by the Propylaea either. It was elaborately decorated and there is much reconstruction going on there even today. You'll also pass by the Monument of Agrippa, a great big pedestal at the Propylaea entrance. When you come down, you shouldn't miss the Theater of Dionysus on the South Slope of the Acropolis, as well as the Odeion of Herodes Atticus (try here for some old photos of the Theater). I took a sandwich and some water here early one afternoon and had a very pleasant lunch, sitting in the shade of a long ago broken column. Continuing alongside the hill is the Stoa of Eumenenes and the city Asklepeion above it, amidst all the spotlights, like the ones in the picture above.

Another place to get some great pictures of the Acropolis is from the Hill of the Muses (Museion), across from the Acropolis, with its Philopappos Monument (also dating from Roman times). It is usually quiet there and no modern structures are between you and the Acropolis. The picture above of the Acropolis at night was taken from the Museion. Right next to this hill is The Pnyx (which means "the packed place"), appropriate for the site where assemblies were held.

The Temple of Zeus Olympius was the largest temple in all of Greece and took 700 years to make (it is pictured at top). It is incredibly large and it's part of an even bigger complex, the Olympieion, which Pausanias describes (1.18.6). Also at the Olympieion is Hadrian's Arch, dating from the Roman era of the city. The arch was supposed to mark the extent of the classical city (to the west) and the beginning of the new Hadrianic part (to the east). Again you can see lots of old pictures of the entire Olypieion (if you look really close in one of them, you can see the hermit's hut, built on top of the Temple of Zeus Olympius, of course now it's long gone).

Away from the central part of the city there are still some important sites. Plan to give yourself alot of time at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, north of the oldest parts of the city. I rushed through it one afternoon and had to come back a couple days, but they do have a little restaurant/rest area so you can pace your investigation of one of the most important museums in the world. Adjoining the NAM is the Epigraphical Museum, probably only visited by you diehard classicists out there. And no, I didn't make it out to see the Museum of Atlantis (a guy only has so much time).

There is plenty more to see and do in Athens, but you'll have to experience it yourself. Make sure you can have some time to rest and then decide if you want to stay a little longer in the city. Near Athens you can take some day trips to pleasant areas in Attica, though I was in a hurry to get further away from the city.

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