Getting off the boat in Piraeus, I had a flashback to freshman philosophy in university and the opening lines of Plato’s Republic. But the more pressing need was to find our little port hotel to get a good night’s rest…and a proper dinner. Both ventures were successful and we awoke on October 5th feeling fresh and romantic, as it was our first wedding anniversary. So we romantically got on the metro and headed into central Athens to spend our day in a city that has stood the test of time, with its 7000 year history.
Of course, our first goal was to visit the Acropolis and the gem that sits on the top, the Parthenon. We found our way to the ticket booth quite by accident and then started the climb, following signs and the general flow of people. At long last, we reached the grand marble gate with its timeworn steps and entered the sacred area at the top of the mountain. Of course, there were many other people there, but that did not at all deter us from enjoying ourselves. You see, we planned it so that we would be there, with the Parthenon and Athena Nike and all the weight of the history at precisely the hour between 1 and 2, when our wedding happened. Felt like a good omen for the years to come.
Overwhelmed and starry-eyed, we headed back down to reality to eat a very late lunch. It just so happened that we stumbled upon a local and tourist favorite that serves up some seriously cheap and delicious souvlaki, gyros, and falafel for me! As evening approached, we wandered down a side street and found the entrance to the Ancient Agora…and we were both entranced. Here, the daily life of Athens played out in its heyday. We passed the Speaker’s Platform and the Odeon. We lost ourselves in the treasures of the museum on the grounds, where the truth of the refinement of the ancients hits you like a sledgehammer.
As the sun set, we made our way to the amazingly preserved Temple of Hephaestus for the view to the Acropolis. Compared to the crumpled, heavily scaffolded ruins of most temples, this one seems to be standing with only a few steel supports on the inside. We found a perfect seat to watch the purple tinged sunset, while a flirtatious moon ducked in and out of the clouds as we watched the lights come on over Athens before heading down to have our celebratory anniversary feast. We found a restaurant on the main food street where there were live musicians and seats available out front, where we could watch the world go by. We stuffed ourselves with bread, olive paste, fava, giant beans cooked in tomato, sardines, moussaka, dessert cakes, and wine. We waddled off down the shopping streets all the way to Syntagma Square before we headed back to the hostel for a good night’s sleep.
Monday morning we had to get up very early to take a little trip to the Korean Embassy, five metro stops away. It was interesting to see the workaday, tall building part of Athens that rarely sees tourists. Sadly, our mission was not exactly successful, but the people at the embassy were extremely kind. When we headed back to the beaten track, we headed back to the Acropolis, tackling the southern slope this time. The main feature is the Theatre of Dionysus, which once sat up to 12,000 people for performances. We climbed up and down the seats, admired the statues at the back of the stage, and then traipsed through the surrounding ruins. It was easy to imagine grand, wild theatrical spectacles here.
From there we descended to Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which looms up out of the surrounding urban landscape with impressive columns in a wide field of green. Taking the back way home, we passed through the green oasis of the National Gardens, coming out next to Parliament. Had not planned it, but we arrived right on the hour and in time to see the changing of the guard in all its high kicking, pompom clad, heel clicking glory. As the sun started to set, we made our way to the oft ignored Keramikes site, which we had almost to ourselves at that time of the evening. Like the agora, we found the ruins very evocative of that time and the life that happened there. Of course, I was excited to see that this was the beginning of the road to Plato’s Academy…there’s that freshman philosophy cropping up again. The Road of Tombs also started here, so we got to check out all the funerary art on the grounds and in the adjoining museum, including one of those explicit vases one always sees only in books.
We enjoyed a simple dinner of gyro and falafel at the same restaurant…where they already greet us like regulars. That night we headed to bed early so we could make the most of our final day in the city. Tuesday morning, we checked out of the hostel and stashed our bags in the luggage room. Of all the sites on our unified ticket, we only had Hadrian’s Library and the Roman Agora left. Neither is verz large, which was a good thing, considering our tired feet! At the library, we explored the old foundations, while dreaming of the manuscripts that would have been here. It also happened that it was turtle mating season and the library area is full of them, so we got to see several males fighting over a female by banging their shells together. It was a bit quieter at the Roman Agora, where we mostly enjoyed sitting in the shade with the gentle stray dogs…and seeing the famous Nike statue. From there, we went went on errands to the post office, the market, and to get coffee. We waited out a sudden rainstorm in a cafe before dashing back to the hostel to retrieve our bags.
In the rainwashed streets, we rushed to the bus station to collect our reserved bus tickets. That left us time for one last cup of coffee to say goodbye to this ancient city of beauty where we celebrated our own new history. It feels like just the right kind of place to hope for our own longevity. At 8pm on the dot, we presented ourselves to the smoking bus conductor and boarded our overnight bus to the next destination….Albania.