Greece Travel

Travelogue: Athens, Greece (Part 3)

TUESDAY, 12 MAY 2015

This travelogue’s turning out to be longer than I imagined it would be. Well, there’s a lot more to be said when you’ve had a few days to reflect on what you’ve seen and what you’ve learnt. Yep, I’m boring that way.

Welcome to Part 3 of my Athens travelogue. And we’re only on Day 2.

Neither S nor I really managed to get much sleep on our first night in Athens. Our hotel, Hotel Cosmopolit, was alright — they’d accidentally assigned us to a double room instead of a twin room as we’d requested, but they managed to get that sorted out soon enough. I’d looked up the hotel on TripAdvisor before, and the reviews, while few, were generally positive — apart from the observation that it’s right next to an adult cinema. Which it is. Thankfully, we weren’t assigned a room near enough to the cinema for us to hear whatever was being played in it — as some very unfortunate reviewers were.

At least, however, the hotel, positioned at the corner of Omonoia Square (Πλατεία Ομονοίας), was within a twenty-minute walking distance of pretty much everything that you need to see in Athens. Omonoia Square, according to my Google-fu, was originally intended to be a gorgeous, neoclassical square that would function as a beautiful node of activity in the complex arterial system that is Athenian traffic. But city-planning doesn’t always work out exactly as intended, and if you look up Omonoia Square on TripAdvisor today, you’ll see that on average, tourists have rated it about two stars out of five. It used to be the haunt of drug-dealers and prostitutes, most of whom were swept out by police efforts during the 2004 Olympics; but they returned soon after, although the situation has now lessened somewhat, with most of them moving away to an area north-west of the square.  As my friend observed, the square today ‘at least looks somewhat normal during the day’. It’s definitely not as nice compared to, say, Syntagma or Panepistimiou; but it is very much a busy area, with a lot of cafés and shops around and a central metro station right under it. Having a hotel right by it is very, very accessible, although, of course, there are the adult amenities to take into consideration. Neither S nor I felt threatened at all during our stay there, and the area generally was relatively normal at night, too.

Anyway, we headed back to the Acropolis right after breakfast on the first morning. It was a much cooler and much windier day than the day we arrived — which made it perfect for visiting the Acropolis Museum — but first, we made a stop along the way  at the Areopagus.

The Areopagus is a rocky outcrop on the slopes of the Acropolis. Its proper name in Greek is Ἄρειος Πάγος (Areios Pagos). Whether Areios has anything to do with Ares, the god of war, appears to be subject to debate. Wikipedia says that according to some myth, Ares was tried on the hill for the murder of one of the sons of Poseidon, Alirrothios; no sources seem to be provided for this, however, so it’s difficult to be ascertain whether this aetiology is reliable or not. In any case, we do know that the Romans seem to have accepted some such connection and stuck to the name ‘Areopagus’ – Mars Hill.

The importance of the Areopagus is, to say the least, wide-ranging. It was a significant place in ancient Athenian judicial practice, being the meeting place of the highest court of law in the city-state; it was also, in Aeschylus’s Eumenides, the third play of the Oresteia trilogy, the place where Orestes was judged for the murder of his mother, Clytemnestra, in revenge for the death of his father, the Argive king Agamemnon. The Areopagus, however, is also important to Christians: it was on this very hill that the Apostle Paul was said to have preached to the city and to have converted a number of Athenians to Christianity. His sermon, in fact, is carved on a plaque next to the rock, a mark perhaps that St. Paul’s s words have today more than fulfilled their purpose. In any case, when you’re standing on top of the Areopagus, gazing down at the roofs of Athens laid out before your feet, flanked by the heaving, dark-green canopies that shelter the slopes of the Acropolis, the wind roaring in your ears, there is a palpable sense of power and awe in the air, a beautiful majesty that certainly must have struck the ancients as they climbed this rock, a natural pulpit for the Athenian law and for the Christian gospel. Despite the rubbish bins placed around the rock, despite the artificial, metal catwalks and staircases that have been drilled into its side, it’s difficult to fight the feeling that you’re treading on very sacred ground.

The Acropolis Museum is a very modern affair: viewed from higher ground, it’s a sleek cuboid structure with what looks like an additional level placed diagonally across the top of the building, almost like a deck of cards with the top section of cards slanted at an angle across it. It’s only from an aerial perspective that it becomes clear what this is meant to resemble: the angle at which the top floor has been built is parallel to that of the Parthenon itself. This is because the uppermost gallery of the building is intended to house the Parthenon marbles — if, that is, they should ever be returned to Greece.

The gallery is impressively designed, clearly tailored for the display of the Parthenon’s frieze carvings and the metopes; unfortunately, the majority of these currently have plaster placeholders, indicating those that currently sit in the British Museum. It’s clear how desperate they are for the return of the Elgin Marbles — and I myself, who used to be somewhat okay with them being in London, couldn’t help but feel a sense of pity and am now much more inclined towards the return of these marbles. To begin with, the marbles get their significance primarily from context, and in the treasure-trove that is the British Museum, these marbles are simply one of a massive catalogue of objects. Despite their popularity among visitors, they don’t fully fulfil their purpose where they are right now, having been excised from the environment which best gives them their historical and aesthetic meaning. Now that I’ve seen the Acropolis Museum, the Parthenon Gallery in London seems to vastly pale in comparison, given that the upper gallery in Athens would place them in almost the exact same relative positions as they originally would’ve been over the top of the ancient Parthenon. The full-length glass windows that surround the upper galleries is the Acropolis Museum’s best feature because it allows the visitor to constantly be reminded of the majesty and power of the place on which these objects were left and later discovered.

Will the Parthenon marbles ever be returned to Athens? Who knows? But if they ever are, that would be a good excuse to visit Greece again. For now, however, I suppose I’ll content myself with looking at them in the British Museum, where Keats saw them when they were first brought to London by Lord Elgin:

Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an indescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old Time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

— John Keats, ‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles’

Among the ancient sites that you can visit with an Acropolis ticket (€12) is one that’s not actually near the Acropolis, but much further down at the end of Ermou Street (Οδός Ερμού), near Thiseio metro station (Θησείο), just beyond the ancient Agora. It’s a surprisingly unfrequented site, being much quieter and less popular compared to the others: it is, however, a gem of an archaeological site. Known as the Kerameikos, it was, at one point in its history, the potters’ quarter (hence the name). It was the site of an extensive necropolis, several civic facilities, and most importantly, where the Sacred Way leading to Eleusis began. Just outside the ancient city walls, the public graveyard (or Demosion Sema, δημόσιον σῆμα) is reputedly also where Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration. The only thing that’s left of most of the built structures here are their foundations, but many of the graves and tombs that lined the Sacred Way are still very much intact, a testament to the countless number of Athenians who lived and died in this city. S remarked while we were there that the Kerameikos felt very “spiritual” to her; I could understand why. Life and death, embodied in the graves and in the drama of the rites of the Eleusinian mysteries, very much had their presence here in this site. Today, an Orthodox church, the Agia Triada, looms over the Kerameikos, contributing to the sense of immamence and transcendental power that still lingers over the site.

The Kerameikos is accompanied by an equally impressive museum. It’s a small one, but the collection is focused and well-curated: it features a chronological presentation of select materials found on the site, allowing the visitor an idea of how aesthetic styles evolved throughout the centuries. It’s definitely much easier to swallow than the massive collection at the National Archaeological Museum, but that’s a story for another day. In any case, the Kerameikos site is definitely worth a visit, and beautiful in the summer in the early evening, set ablaze by the soft orange glow of the setting sun.

Still to come: the beach, the marinas, and the bookstores.

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