I had planned to get the Metro from the airport to my hotel just off Omonia Square. All Metros were cancelled however, due to the drivers striking in solidarity with the railway drivers. Instead I boarded the X95 bus. At Evangelismos Hospital we were told to disembark. A very efficient and helpful bus passenger – who coincidentally worked for the Greek Tourism board whose website is www.visitgreece.gr – told us that protests in Syntagma Square – the largest in Athens, meant that the bus was going no further. Nothing for me to do except walk the remaining forty minutes to the hotel. After check in I looked at my map to the joyful realisation that my hotel was a ten minute walk to the Acropolis. I actually gasped when I turned the corner and saw the Parthenon for the first time in real life. The Parthenon is a marble temple built to the goddess Athina about 2,500 years ago. Sitting on top of the Acropolis (which is actually a compound of temples built on a hill, and not the Parthenon for which it is often confused) I’d been reading about ancient Greece since childhood. This was a special moment. I wandered through the Ancient Agora (Forum) and saw the Temple of Hephaestus and the Temple of Olympian Zeus; Hadrian’s Arch and Library, without paying an entrance fee. These monuments are just there – part of the fabric of the city. I had a ticket purchased to access the Acropolis the next day. That Friday afternoon I was happy to wander around. Supper that evening was moussaka on a terrace on the street in Plaka – a neighbourhood with winding streets beside the Acropolis filled with bars and cafes. The 16 degree, March weather was most pleasant.
On Saturday I woke at 8am and after breakfast of a spinach and cheese pastry I walked the National Archaeological Museum of Athens – the largest archaeological museum in Greece and one of the most important museums in the world devoted to ancient Greek art. Having been to a few of the great museums and galleries of the world, I can recognise a good one. This one was splendid. I spent three hours exploring the treasures, and departed at the first sign of a headache. I respect and appreciate museums but find the great ones overwhelming, so three hours is about my limit. This is a reflection on me, and not the museum of course.
After a kebab lunch I returned to the Acropolis. In my head I was picturing ancient Greece. The world’s very first theatre – the Theatre of Dionysus is located on the hill; the Odeon of Herodes Attica – still used for concerts; the Parthenon; the Erechtheion – a temple to Athena and Poseidon. It was fascinating – a history class before my very eyes. These ancient ruins housed the birthplace of democracy. It was a bit overwhelming. After a few hours on the hill I walked over to the Acropolis Museum – located beside the Acropolis with a view of the Temples from every window. This magnificent museum houses artefacts found on the rock and on the surrounding slopes, from the Bronze Age to Roman Greece. It will also house the sculptures historically known as the “Elgin Marbles” (sculptures / facades from the Acropolis stolen – ‘purchased’- in the early nineteenth century by the ne-er-do well Mr. Elgin of England, from the Ottoman colonisers,) if these are ever returned to Athens. What is noteworthy is that while England (deservedly) gets bad press for theft of ancient Greek treasures, the ancient Romans engaged in the same practice millennia earlier. As the Roman empire emerged while the Greek empire faded the Roman lads weren’t averse to largescale plundering and pillaging and hauling the treasures back to ancient Rome. I suppose the fact that there are still contracts showing Elgin’s theft focuses the mind more on his crime. The Acropolis Museum is a far more suitable and beautiful setting for the statues rather than the ugly, cramped rooms of the British Museum in London where these marvels are currently housed.
As the sun was setting I contemplated a beverage so I went to the nightlife district of Psiri where I had a red wine and lamb chops with tzatziki. After nine hours walking that day, my feet were sore, so it was early to bed on Saturday night. I was lulled to sleep by the sound of ‘The Power of Goodbye’ by Madonna – audible from the street below my top floored hotel bedroom.
During my rudimentary research of the city I discovered that it was possible to ascend the highest peak in Athens – Mount Lycabettus – by funicular. Being partial to a funicular and making sure to use them whenever I visit a city lucky enough to have one, on Sunday morning I made my way to the station. The views from the summit were magnificent – the sea and port of Piraeus visible in the distance. I descended the hill by foot. My next destination was the Benaki Museum beside Syntagma Square. I noticed quite a few strapping young policemen on motorbikes as I approached the square. I heard the crowd before I saw it. There was clearly a protest happening on the Square again that Sunday. The crowd was massive and angry, but there was no obvious violence in my section of the square. I asked a man beside me if it was an anti-government protest, related to the train crash. Not surprisingly he confirmed that it was. I stood on the side-line clapping my support. From out of nowhere there was a series of explosions. Naively I thought nothing of it. Some minutes later a horrible realisation dawned. Those explosions were tear-gas to disperse the crowd. In the space of a few minutes my eyes, nose and throat were burning. Turning on my heel I tried to exit the square. The barricade of vans with armed police standing Terminator like in front of them was preventing through passage. The crowd was surging towards the small exit to the right of one of the vans, screaming insults at the police as they passed. I had no idea what anyone was saying and didn’t care. I wanted out of that square. With a beady eye and gimlet like focus I squeezed through the exit to safety, coughing like I had a sixty a day habit and my eyes streaming. Later that evening I read that according to the police, sections of the protest had turned violent which is why the gas was released.
The Benaki museum – a private art collection of Greek art gifted to the state – was an oasis of serenity, after the chaos of the Square.
Not being sure if the protests were ongoing I decided to get out of town, by taking the metro to the port city of Piraeus. Located in the Athens metropolitan area, and located only 8km from the centre of town it felt very different. The sun was shining as I took a stroll through the historic port area which is very picturesque and peaceful.
After a few hours exploring I made my way back to the Metro to the awkward realisation that the metro had only been open earlier, to allow attendees access and leave the protest. I took a series of buses to get myself back to my hotel for the final night. My eyes and throat were fully recovered by this stage – the effects of tear-gas are temporary. I decided I’d had enough excitement for one day however so dined on a terrace on Omonia Square near my hotel. I ate souvlaki. When in Athens etc.
On Monday morning I was taking no chances. My flight was at 14.30 meaning that I needed to be at the airport by 12.30. I had no idea if the Metro was running that day so I was giving myself enough time to reach Athens International by bus. I left the hotel at 10am. I needn’t have worried. All the metros were running on schedule that morning. Which meant plenty of time for more delicious Greek coffee.
On my baby finger I was wearing my father’s wedding ring. I have no recollection of this happening, but clearly it had fallen off my finger into my suitcase as I removed my laptop from my bag going through security. As I was packing to go home, there it sat, in my bag, smirking at me.
A very eventful trip all told. I love Athens.
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