Monday, August 22, 2011

Athens, Day 3

Pictures of the day's doings here.

Today was a lazier day, as Susan was not feeling 100% and we'd both had plenty of heat and sun in the last couple days. So we slept in late and had a lazy breakfast downstairs before heading off for the National Archeological Museum, the one must-see museum among the many here in town. We decided to use this as an excuse to get familiar with Athens' subway system, which did not go particularly well. The stop nearest our hotel is under construction, and trains are running both directions on only one track. We realized this little salient detail during last night's supper, where we chose a cafe overlooking the train stop (the train runs in a channel here, open to the sky, and the station is just at the mouth of a tunnel that runs underneath the Plaka). I noticed that trains came and went on the same track. What we did not know is that the trains running the "wrong" direction on the existing track do not stop at the platform during the day (they were certainly stopping in both directions last night). And so, after about 20 minutes, we realized we needed to ride the wrong-direction train to the next stop and then cross the tracks and board the right-direction train back. The other thing we did not realize is that once we were on the correct train it would only run for two stops and then everybody had to get off and change trains. A comedy of errors ensued.

We made it up to the correct stop for the National Archeological Museum eventually, the actual stop being 5-6 blocks to the Northwest of the museum proper. We exited the station and headed back in the opposite direction on foot and eventually found the place after being sent in the wrong direction by an armed security guard and running a gauntlet of homeless and loitering men in an alley between buildings--the only time we have felt unsafe, and the place was strewn with trash and feces and smelled like a latrine. This was definitely Athens at its least welcoming. After that the museum felt like a bunker, a stone crypt of safety.

The museum was pretty amazing, having room after room of sculpture and pottery and such covering about 500 years from roughly 500BCE onward. I took a bunch of pictures and we stopped at the museum shop and the cafe in the basement. But I simply don't know enough about any of this to have any intelligent commentary except to say the age of things rather takes one by surprise. So many confident, brilliant pieces which date from a couple thousand years before America was even discovered; it makes the bits of history in America seem, well, very recent indeed.

Well, I do have one comment: lots of statues appear to have been beheaded, and it also appears to be a fact of life noses are not safe. Noses and penises. Penises especially. It's a rare stone bloke who has survived with his tackle intact (which is odd when so many were pointedly sculpted with these bits on display). Someone appears to have gone through the collection with a brick and removed all offensive appendages in a systematic way--though why noses are offensive remains a mystery to me. The Greeks seemed to like their boys entirely au naturel, and the Romans seem to have liked theirs covered. Women were in a different category, it seems: the Greeks paid little sculptural attention to them, and the Romans seemed to like them nude. Go figure.


Evening now, and we're back from a full exploration of the Acropolis and Parthenon and environs plus (naturally) some more shopping and another excellent dinner.

I take back any criticism of how Greece is dealing with their historical sites. I realize I had formed an opinion before even getting inside the site proper (not that this has stopped me in any other of my posts). This time I made note of the work on the walkways and entries leading to the site, and of course I got to look at the restorations actually ongoing within the compound--something I had not seen before climbing the steps and inside the walls of the main compound. And what the Greeks are undertaking to restore the Acropolis site is almost beyond fathoming. There is so much up there, and so much has been lost, that figuring out what stones go where and then crafting replacements for what is missing is, well, a decades-long process. I couldn't help noting that what the Greeks accomplished with slave power (and by what exact mechanism I cannot imagine), the modern Greeks are using contemporary heavy construction equipment.

The whole site with its breathtaking panorama of the city of Athens and the Aegean sea to the South is an unimaginable treasure. When I see what they have accomplished already with the Theatre of Herodes Atticus and with the Parthenon and the smaller Erecthion temple, I can see that it quite misses the mark to not only what they have NOT done. So I stand corrected. This ended up being a high point for us, naturally, and we were both glad we waited until the late afternoon when the crowds were notably thinner and the sun was not pounding down. I daresay we would have enjoyed all of this much less had we continued the previous morning. And I think the discomfort would have stolen some of the inevitable awe that one feels in this place. It's not a supernatural thing, of course, but there is an almost religious sense of the work of humans like us on a massive scale going waaay back.

Tomorrow, off to the island of Milos

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