Friday, January 25, 2013

Acropolis (Athens, part II)

I arrived at my hotel in Athens a bit before 1:00 p.m. today and was happy to be able to check into my room right away.  While it’s not the newest of places, the hotel is pleasant and is in a great location about five minutes’ walk from the base of the Acropolis.  I dropped my things, changed into tennis shoes, grabbed a quick lunch, and hit the bricks.

With gray skies and rain threatening, I initially thought that my best bet would be to head to a museum for the afternoon.  But as I started walking, it occurred to me that it wasn’t raining yet and I was just minutes away from one of the greatest places in Western civilization.   A quick check of my guide book informed me that the ticket to the main archeological sites is good for four days, which sealed the deal.  I doubled back and walked the short distance to the entrance of the Acropolis.

At the ticket office, I saw something about a student discount and found my NUI Galway student card on the odd chance that it applied to middle-aged Americans.   I was delighted to find out that not only was I entitled to a student discount, I was entitled to free admission because I am a student at an European Union university.  Now that’s a deal. 

As I started up the path, I felt the slightest bit of drizzle and debated opening my umbrella.  As it turned out, it was unnecessary – the rain held off.  However, the Acropolis is a rocky hill, and most everything built on it is marble, including the stairs.  After I slipped on a step and then stepped in a puddle, I realized that I may have been better off leaving my hiking boots on.

The Parthenon. They really loved Athena.
The path up the western approach of the Acropolis takes you above the Odeion of Herodes Atticus, a 2nd Century AD theater, as well as the Theater of Dionysos from the 5th Century BC.  You pass through a fortified gateway, and then walk up the stairs of the Propylaea, the grand entrance to the sacred hill.  And then, there it is in front of you on the rock: the Parthenon.  A building that is immediately familiar even though you’ve never been anywhere near it.  You think about just how familiar it is – because of all of the monuments, courthouses, libraries, and government buildings that have the same lines, the same columns.  And this is what started it 2,500 years ago.
View of the Agora from the Acropolis.
Right now, there is a lot of restoration work underway, so the entire western half of the Parthenon is filled with beams and scaffold and cables.  And the building itself is pretty skeletal – it has been repurposed, blown up, and large chunks carted off – but is still very, very impressive.  I walked around it counterclockwise, enjoying the views off to the south.  I took most of my photos from the east end, since it is currently less impacted by the restoration work.  On the north side is the Erechtheion, a smaller temple that marks the holy spot where Athena planted an olive tree.  The north side of the Acropolis provides great views of the Agora, the commercial center of ancient Athens.

I walked back down the hill and over to a smaller rock outcropping, the Areios Pagos.  This was the site of the first aristocratic assemblies in Athens, before they invented democracy.  It was also the seat of their court of justice.  And apparently someone named Paul used to talk to Athenians about a new religion from this point.

The wind had been picking up throughout this time, and I decided that I had probably pressed my luck far enough.  In any event, it was already after 3:00 and most of the outdoor sites were closing.  So, I walked back toward my hotel and the new Acropolis Museum.  Once again, my NUIG Cárta Aitheantais Mic Léinn did the trick.

This museum, which opened in 2009, is spectacular.  Architecturally, it is fantastic.  It was built over an early Christian settlement, which has been excavated and is visible through the glass floors of the museum.   This provides some great views as you stroll through the first floor galleries.  (But when you are on the fourth floor and realize you can still see all the way down through the glass floor, it throws you off a bit.)

The fourth floor is set at a 23 degree angle from the floors below to provide an optimal view of the Parthenon on the hill just to the north.  The fourth floor consists of an interior rectangle surrounded by columns, all matching the exact measurements of the ancient building above.  The walls hold the friezes that have been recovered and reconstructed from the matching interior walls of the Parthenon, while the columns hold the reliefs from the outer edge.  At either end are the pediment sculptures. 

The museum’s collection is quite impressive.  On the fourth floor, where the original reliefs are not present, replicas take their place.  But if they don’t have the originals, how did they know what to make the replicas look like?   And why is every other place occupied by a replica that is labeled with “(BM)”?  Well, as some of you may know, much of the Parthenon was carted off to London in the late 19th Century by the British Ambassador to Greece, and now resides in the British Museum (BM).  Apparently the Greek government has been working for years to get these pieces back.  But what I found interesting is that part of the (BM)’s objection to a return was always that the Greeks didn’t have adequate facilities to store and display these treasures.  And that, my friends, is part of what motivated the construction of a new museum, complete with conspicuous gaps in the original works reminding us those originals are someplace called (BM).

I won’t take sides on who has the stronger legal or moral argument, but having seen both museums, the Acropolis Museum certainly has an edge in terms of its exhibition capacity.

Just a short time after I arrived at the museum, I heard thunder.  Heavy rain started soon after.  I had a nice salad and a pot of tea in the third floor restaurant as I watched the storm.  By the time I left, the rain had stopped, but resumed later this evening.  Hopefully, there will be some clear skies tomorrow.  But even with rain the trip seems off to a good start.

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