Sunday, August 21, 2011
Athens, Day 2
Pictures for this day (more or less) are at THIS Flickr stream.
Just about a perfect day. I'm reminded how fortunate I am that Susan and I travel well together, both loving to do about the same things among the many choices we might make. We often run across couples for whom the stresses of travel are rather getting the best of them (sometimes with kids), and I think how dreadful traveling like this can be. So much enjoyment for me comes from sharing an experience with someone who wants to be there with me and loves many of the same things as I do (though she also constantly points out stuff I hadn't thought of or introduces me to things I might not have explored on my own). I enjoy traveling on my own--which is fortunate, as this is most typical state for me--but I like it more when I can share the experiences with someone.
The hotel here (which we're coming to think of as being perfectly adequate, though not more than this) has a free, simple breakfast, so we each had some fruit and toast and cereal before heading off on foot towards the Acropolis and Parthenon. There are two ancient theatres in the complex, both along the Southern perimeter, and those were the first order of business. The Theatre of Herodes Atticus is on the Southwest corner of the complex and has been restored to functional status. It seats about 5,000 people, and I know I've seen video footage of concerts given here--Pavarotti or Yanni or Andrea Bocelli or someone. Everything is made of stone, and the terraces are steep so that there's a real sense of intimacy to the setting, even with an audience of this size. The backdrop to the performance space is an immense stone facade, which looks like the wall of an ancient building with arches and windows and doorways. It would be a magnificent space to see any kind of performance in, and it is still in regular use for theatre and dance and live music of many stripes. Accordingly, it is fenced off and one can only see it from some distance (which, with the armed guards on the other side, seems to be the only way to keep things graffiti-free). Further East at the foot of the massive retaining wall leading up to the Parthenon is the ancient Theatre of Dionysos, which is a ruin. In its functional state, this would have seated considerably more people than the Atticus theatre--maybe 15,000. Many of these theatres, as I understand it, were built to a certain size by the ancient Greeks and then later expanded by the Romans. The Roman contribution to the Theatre of Dionysos--or at any rate the upper tiers--has long been removed (the stone likely cannibalized for other purposes) so that only the inner seating rings remain. But one can see the stairways extend up the rocky hills to seats which are no longer there, and all of it appears to be yielding to the elements. Everything here is crumbling and dust-covered, and the space seems quite beyond what could be whipped back into a functional state. But to see these things up close--to touch the stones and walk the paths--is to give one an eerie sense of connection to something back at the very start of what has continued thru time to become contemporary Western civilization. The spaces are quiet now, but we readily see what they would be good for; and those things have not changed so much. Human beings have maybe not changed so much in 2-3000 years. (In fact, we learned later that there is a move afoot to restore this theatre as well.)
This leads me to comment on how the Greeks have undertaken restoration and on their management of their national treasures. Or not. These ancient ruins are absolutely jammed with tourists, so much so that we actually abandoned our attempts to get up to the Parthenon because the crowds were ridiculous. Add in 95° heat and any hope of enjoyment and / or awe are duly pummeled out of you. (We plan to try again tomorrow evening, gambling that at the end of the day things thin out a bit.) Of course I don't mean to bitch about everyone else doing exactly what Susan and I were attempting to do, but the whole site seems barely managed by anyone. There are few set walkways, and the surfaces are rocky and sand- and gravel-strewn and nothing is level, so that at times one feels in a rather perilous state going up and down the hills. I have to think that falls and at least minor injuries are commonplace. And while some things are roped off, lots of other things--most things--are just exposed to the elements and to what must amount to millions of yearly footfalls and children's hands and so on. My experiences with the US national parks had let me to expect walkways with guard rails here and numerous explanatory placards--but there's none of this (yet another example, I feel compelled to add, of our tax dollars doing things for which we should be proud and happy to pay). The Acropolis has probably 10 different attractions within the complex, and if each of these had a set walkway and posters explaining what we were looking at, they could probably accommodate the same number of people but in a much more orderly fashion, and with much less wear and tear to the facilities. There is a big gate where the tickets are bought, and they open and close it to admit people about 100 or so at a time. But these groups scatter once inside only to meet and mass at numerous pinch points, like long stairways which need to accommodate both upward and downward traffic, but are wide enough for only one stream. So there is always a huge line waiting at the top and bottom and (again, in 95° heat and pummeling sunshine) no one is particularly happy to be there. The end result was of crowds so haphazard that we struggled to enjoy ourselves at least part of the time. (To be fair, the guidebooks warned about this very thing.)
Of course, what I propose would be hugely expensive, and knowing the state of Greece's finances that seems unlikely. That being said, it's really heartening to see thousands of people eagerly paying their 12 Euros to get in and see these artifacts of human history. And I guess that's kind of my point: these things belong in a small way to all of us, we all trace much of our world back to these places and to what went on here. It would not seem a bad idea for nations who could afford it to pitch in to help Greece with such an undertaking. But that's just me talking.
After we saw the theatres (and decided to finish the Parthenon tour later), we walked extensively through the Plaka, the old neighborhood near our hotel. This is all shops and restaurants and it feels narrow and winding and filled with character. I think the character of the Plaka, nestled beneath the towering Acropolis, will be what we remember most from this trip. We shopped for a couple hours and then picked a nice sidewalk cafe for some lunch. Afterward we walked a short distance to another ruin, the Temple of Olympian Zeus. This is little more than a handful of huge, standing columns where an immense temple once stood. There's enough there to give one a sense of what the original must have looked like, and with the Acropolis towering above as a backdrop it's a breathtaking sight. Our entry fee for the Acropolis gives one entry to several big attractions in town (the Temple of Olympian Zeus being one of them), and you have four days to use your ticket once bought. Nice.
We finished up with a bit more shopping and sightseeing (interrupted by a short nap at the hotel) before a light dinner and some not-so-light ice cream. A fantastic day.
Another gripe (forgive me a little bitching, as we had a really wonderful time today; but I want to record our impressions so I don't forget what we noted at the time). Athens, at least around the Plaka, is suffering a graffiti epidemic. Anything that's not protected by fencing--and very much that is--has been tagged extensively, the most extensive vandalism I think I've ever seen anywhere. The street our hotel is on is literally painted stem-to-stern, like the New York subway trains of the '70s (as are, appropriately, the trains themselves). Damage becomes more extensive in more out of the way places, but the paint is literally everywhere. When there's so much beauty around, it's really discouraging how completely the city is trashed in this way (there are even a couple paint-sellers--advertised as graffiti shops!--in the Plaka). I find I cannot help thinking on what might be tried to put a halt to this, as the defacement is everywhere you look. In truth, I have no idea how one should go about tackling this problem, but it makes a big contribution to the impression of central Athens as run-down and tired (quite the opposite impression we had coming in from the airport). And it seems so unnecessary; it's not like there's some vital rebellion or social movement afoot here. It just feels like kids wrecking shit. Tomorrow we'll head further afield in Athens than our local neighborhood, and maybe the rest of the city has been spared. But I doubt it.