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400 Day LETS Odyssey
Copyright � James Taris

JAMES TARIS around the World- (2003-4)

This was my first trip to the Parthenon. It was 2002 and the Greeks were busy restoring
the ancient building in preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games.

GREECE - Athens (Wk.1 of 2 weeks)
Week 6 of World Tour

1. Acropolis

After spending my first 3 days indoors, at last I decided to venture out into the city of Athens. And just so I wouldn�t get lost, I decided to accompany Mariza, my niece, as she left for work at 7.30am. Luckily the traffic wasn�t too bad and by 8.00am we�d arrived by Metro to Sintagma Square Station.

Sintagma Square is to Athens, what Tieneman Square is to Beijing, but without the dark political undertones. As I walked across the crowded square, I watched a young juggler honing his skills with 3 short batons, in preparation for a long day of income generating performances.

Then it was just a short walk to my cousin�s Dry Cleaning business, where the whole family has worked since about 25 years ago. But it was almost impossible to walk down some of the streets. As the Olympic games draw nearer (only 13 months to go!) Athens seems to be getting into panic mode, with building and construction going on in every corner of the city. After all, if they fail to meet the requirements and the deadlines set out for them by the Olympic Games honchos, then the Olympic Games will be taken off them and defer back to the same location as the last Olympic Games � Sydney. Hence it�s like panic stations here. Bulldozers, digging machines and concrete cutting saws were all noisily at work carving up the narrow streets and covering everything in dirt, mud and slush.

Nevertheless, I did notice quite a number of things going on as usual. A coffee delivery man dodged pedestrians smoothly as he delivered coffee to a nearby shop. No, not a box of coffee � a cup of coffee, on an aluminium tray! This personalized service is something we don�t have in Australia, and it�s something I like about Athens and other Mediterranean countries. The green grocery store featured pumpkin flowers which are a delicacy I�ve only had the pleasure of tasting once. I met my first beggar, but he was very different to the beggars I�d noticed in China. He was an able bodied adult, and must�ve simply been unemployed. And a policeman stood casually outside a building carrying an automatic weapon.

But soon I was in Plaka, the old city of Athens which is directly below the Acropolis. And what a contrast! Very quiet and empty. Plaka has always been a huge tourist attraction, so it�s been pretty well looked after, but the shops don�t open until 9am (it was still only 8.27am), so that was why it was still so quiet.

And then I had this unusual experience. I asked a guy sitting in the street for directions to the Acropolis. So? Well, I asked him in Greek! I�m so used to asking for directions in English and being understood only some of the time, or having my host or an interpreter ask for me, that it was just a pleasurable experience to be able to roam around a country and communicate with non-English speaking locals in their own language for a change. He pointed me in the right direction and then I realized I was going uphill. Duh! Obviously!

The Acropolis isn�t the highest point in Athens, that claim is made by Likavitos Hill which has got a famous old church on top of it. But the Acropolis is infinitely more famous. And when I came to the top of the street and turned right � there it was. A massive high cliff face with tall stone walls, standing out in the middle of Athens very much like Ayers Rock stands out in the middle of the Australian desert. A blue and white Greek flag hung on a flagpole above the wall and a large building crane dropped a long metal cable over the wall�s edge. Yes, massive renovations were taking place on the Acropolis as well.

There�s only one entry gate into the Acropolis, so I had a bit of a walk ahead of me. A tall green metal fence went all around the Acropolis, and on the inside were hundreds of pine trees which had littered the ground with thousands of dry pine cones. As it was the middle of summer, all the grass was yellow and dry too. At the top of this cobble stoned road, I noticed some tour groups gathering. The entry would be nearby. And I was right.

I thought I�d better get a ticket first, so I paid the 12 euro fee (AUD$20) then moved to one side to study exactly what it entitled me to. Apart from the entry into the Acropolis, it also gave me entry into 5 other ancient sites; Dionysos Theatre, Temple of Olympian Zeus, Roman Marketplace, Ancient Greek Marketplace and Kerameikos. And what�s more, the ticket was valid for 4 days, so I could take my time.

It was still early (before 9am) but it was already hot and I was getting thirsty. Near the entrance was a kiosk, but the prices were unreasonably high. A 500ml bottle of soft-drink was 3 euros, whereas in the normal kiosks they were only 0.95 euros, less than a third of the price. So I gave the drink a miss and bought a map of Ancient Athens which included the Acropolis and the other historical sites.

Moments later I had walked through the entrance and was amongst the Ancient Greek ruins on the Acropolis � and so were hundreds of tourists! Two million tourists visit the Acropolis every year, and most of them come with tour groups led by tour guides. This causes a few problems with traffic, but it also helps in gleaning information from them as you eavesdrop on their information packed monologues to their tour guests. Most of them don�t mind, but I was surprised to here a male Greek tour guide say, �If there�s anyone here that�s not part of this group could you please move away to another group, or otherwise just leave us alone. I must protect the rights of my tour group.� Though I couldn�t see how the people in his group would be adversely affected by the presence of a few extra onlookers. I was tempted to pretend to be part of the group, but when I noticed all the others were wearing identification cards strung around their necks, I thought I�d better move on in case I was singled out for a more personal and embarrassing request to �piss off�!

Something I leaned from my short career as Tour Guide snoop was that all the ancient statues were painted. They weren�t displayed in the stark white which we see them today, but they�re not repainted today because no-one knows what colours were used, and they wouldn�t be able to present them authentically. And it only took 15 years to build the Parthenon, which is the most famous building on top of the Acropolis hill. Not only that, but the people of Athens voted democratically for its construction which was built entirely by skilled free citizens, and without the use of any slave labour.

I already knew that Athens had a huge population of maybe 100,000 slaves back in those days, so when I wrote my humorous monologue, �Pericles-Athens Most Glorious Ruler�, who arranged to build the Parthenon, I wrote the majority of the speech about the slaves who were building the Parthenon. And I�ve recently expanded that monologue into a 60 minute play, The Glory Of Athens, so I was feeling a little guilty about being so misleading about the labour force used in its construction. Nevertheless, I thought I shouldn�t lose any sleep over it because the whole script was so ridiculously funny that no-one in their right mind would dare to accept it as historically accurate.

A few other short facts, and I�ll move on. The Parthenon was built between 447 BC and 432 BC. It had 92 statues surrounding the roofline, most of them looted over the years, including the Parthenon Marbles on display in the London museum. And each column was built to a height 5 times that of an average man.

My first impression of the Parthenon? Very disappointing! Many of the pillars along the longer 2 sides of the building had been dismantled for restoration purposes, and much of the structure still standing was propped up by metal scaffolding. I�m sure this would normally take place in stages, but in keeping with the Greek�s attitude of �Let�s get everything finished before the Olympic Games�, restorations were going on all around � left, right and center!

And it�s dangerous up there! Remember those 2 million tourists that visit every year? Well, as they walk around the Acropolis, they wear away the marble rocks and steps they stand on, which then become smoothly polished and unbelievably slippery. I saw a young boy (about 10 y.o?) running down some steps, who slipped, bounced along the shallow steps on his backside for a couple of metres, then managed to land back on his feet again and continue running down the rest of the steps � but more carefully this time. And signs were everywhere cautioning people to be careful of slipping on the rocks.

I was hoping to give my first reading of The Glory Of Athens in an Ancient Greek Theatre, so my visit to the large Dionysos Theatre below the Acropolis was of special significance to me. But what I saw was the remnants of a massive theatre which could seat about 6,000 people in its heyday. Much of the marble seating from the upper rows had since disappeared, so it didn�t have that grandeur any more, unlike the nearby Roman Theatre (The Odeon), built around 150 AD, which had been restored and is in constant use today, though it only seats about 2,000 people. Needless to say, these 2 ancient theatres were definitely out of bounds to me, so I�d have to rethink the venue for my play reading.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was just up the street and across 8 lanes of road. Not anything as majestic as the Parthenon, but still historically significant. There were maybe a dozen people scattered over the large empty space, so I was unsure if I�d be able to get someone to take a photo of me in front of the few remaining, but extremely tall, columns. Luckily a woman strolled my way and obliged when I asked her to take my picture. It turned out that she was from Sydney, Australia, and she was sailing up and down the Mediterranean Sea with her husband in a sailboat they bought in France. In fact, they�d planned to do this for a year, but it had gone so well for them that they were already into their second year without much thought of giving up their new lifestyle.

It was now around 12 noon, and I was getting a little tired, so I thought I�d visit the other tourist attractions the next day. Walking back through Plaka, I bought a grey T-shirt with �Athens � Greece� on it and a picture of the Parthenon. �Great!� I thought, �This is something I can wear while I�m giving my reading of The Glory Of Athens.

2. Ancient Markets

Day 2 of my Acropolis venture started off very poorly. Again I left with Mariza at 7.30am, but as soon as we shut the door to the apartment, I realised I�d left my bag inside.

�Can you open up for me?� I asked Mariza.

�Don�t you have the keys?� she said.

But I�d put the keys in the bag with everything else and � those were Mariza�s keys! Mariza looked at me unsympathetically and said, �Well, today you�ll go out without your bag,� which was simply a statement of fact.

But how would I manage without my maps, my wallet and my camera?

Luckily I had my Acropolis entry ticket in my pocket as well as a couple of bus and Metro tickets, so I borrowed 5 euros from Mariza and we went on our way. Instead of getting off at Sintagma Square with Mariza, I changed Metro carriages and went one more stop to Acropolis Station. Slowly I began to realize I had taken more things with me than I thought. I had my little notepad and pen in my shirt pocket, and I also had my sunglasses and my reading glasses on my head (I do that!). So I could still see and write my stories. I was sure I�d be able to get by after all.

It was 8.15am as I walked up the cobblestone road towards the Acropolis. Four young backpackers slept soundly on a couple of street benches, with their sleeping bags and backpacks tucked securely amongst their stretched out limbs. The gates to the Acropolis were already open, but I�d already been there, so I didn�t have a valid ticket for another entry. Today�s visits would be to another 3 ancient tourist attractions nearby: the Roman Agora (or marketplace), the Ancient Agora of Athens and Kerameikos.

The nearest of these was the Roman Agora. This site was a little disappointing. Apart from the octagonal Horologion of Kyrrhestos (Tower of Winds), nothing else seemed to make much of an impression. And the numerous pillars which stood as an indication of the size and structure of the Roman Agora, seemed to have been just placed there, rather than standing in their original location. But this area had been built on over many centuries and those buildings since demolished in order to save the site of the ancient Roman Agora. So I guess there wasn�t much choice in the matter.

Now I�m not much of a botanist or horticulturist, but most of the hardy deep green bushes in the enclosed Roman Agora looked uncomfortably similar to an hallucinatory-inducing plant commonly known as Marijuana. But before you start forwarding this on to whoever you think may be interested in this information, I did say �similar�, and not �exactly the same as�. But then, my experience with this modern day drug is extremely limited at best.

In stark contrast to the Roman Agora, the Ancient Agora of Athens was amazing. First of all it was a massive area in comparison to the Roman Agora, but it had a few buildings of great interest. Most impressive was the Temple of Ares, which looked very much like a mini-Parthenon, but in a much better condition. It was built in 440 BC, at the same time the Parthenon was being built, yet this building still had a roof (which the Parthenon lost back in the 1600s). As I walked around its perimeter I noticed some of the column sections were stacked very roughly, with one section being off centre by about 12cm (5 inches). It looked as if someone had taken the pillars down and stacked them up again very hastily. This was very disappointing.

But the tourist attendant explained it very clearly, �That was caused by an earthquake.�

Ahhh!!! The assumptions we make!

The Stoa of Attica (built 159-138 BC) is a very long building which has been restored beautifully and is now a very impressive museum. There are 2 rows of massive 6m tall marble columns (45 across the front and an inside row of 22) each about 2 feet in diameter. And amongst these pylons were displayed many ancient statues of known and unknown figures.

The toilets at the far end of the building were very modern facilities, with foot operated flushing and hand-washing facilities. As the female toilet attendant (cleaner) refilled the paper towel dispenser, I noticed that it was quite uncommon to see a male toilet with 4 cubicles and no urinals, but then I realized why. I was in the ladies loo! And not even a peep from the toilet attendant! So I casually walked into the loo next door. Yep! There were 4 personal urinals in there as well as the cubicles. Honest mistake!

A few items in the museum caught my attention. There was a 5th century portable clay oven which looked amazingly like a Weber barbeque oven (maybe the source of inspiration for this popular Australian outdoor cooking appliance). And there was a little clay pot with a narrow opening at the top and a slender tube coming out of its midsection, which turned out to be a baby�s feeding bottle. And nearby was a clay seat which was like a cross between a child�s feeding chair and a potty (it had a large hole in the seat) � and that�s exactly what it was! Very creative I thought. In one end and out the other! (but hopefully not at the same time!)

I did miss my camera though. I would�ve loved to have taken some photos there.

The last site on my agenda was Kerameikos. So I asked a museum attendant how to get there.

�It�s closed until further notice, � she said. This was because there were roadworks being done in the area and so I never even found out what Kerameikos was!

This article is taken from the ebook,
400-Day LETS Odyssey

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