Athens

Our first good look at the Acropolis was late in the afternoon. After landing in Athens and taking a cab to our apartment we went to the Plaka area for a late lunch. We stuffed our faces with everything on the menu and then walked up the back road to the Acropolis with the intention of visiting it. But google lied to us and the ticket office was already closed for the day. So we climbed up on a well-worn rocky outcrop just to the west of the Acropolis with about a thousand other people of every ethnicity and race and watched it in the rays of the setting sun.

The next morning we ate the best chocolate croissants so far at Kekko’s, a cafe near our apartment and walked past graffiti urging us to go back home and for Airbnb to fuck off. Ignoring them, we made our way to the enormous Temple of Olympian Zeus – one of the biggest temples in Greece. Construction started in the 6th century BC. The temple was finally finished by Hadrian, the Roman emperor (of Hadrian’s Wall fame) 638 years later. Of it’s 104 colossal columns only 16 stand today but they still convey what it must have felt like to stand before it in its full glory.

Then we got to where I was itching to be – the Acropolis Museum. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the museum displays its contents in an amazing way. Starting with the archaic period you slowly start developing a sense of what the Acropolis must have been like over the many millennia, going back to the Bronze Age.

The hall dedicated to the Parthenon is set askew from the rest of the museum and is aligned to the actual Parthenon instead, which you can see outside its glass walls. The friezes, metopes, and pediments are displayed just as they would in the Parthenon, except they are at eye level. I read up a bit on the gods and the depicted stories so I could keep up with Evan later.

That afternoon we finally climbed up the steps of the Acropolis. Evan was full of information when we got to the spot where Athena is said to have competed with Poseidon for patronage of the then unnamed city (sorry, unavoidable spoiler alert). Poseidon struck his trident on the rock and gave the citizens a spring. But the god of the sea could only conjure up salt water in his spring. Athena offered an olive tree and won. Evan wasn’t happy though. According to another version of the story, Poseidon offered the horse. “Imagine, horse versus olive tree! What were the Athenians thinking?!”, Evan said multiple times in a very exasperated voice. He hates olives.

All good things come to an end. We ended our trip to the Acropolis at a gelato store.

The next day Vivian complained of a stomach ache. Between late evening and mid morning she threw up several times. When she felt better we took s short ferry ride to the island of Aegina. Evan threw up there. That night I too hurled. The next day Jo went through the other symptoms but never did actually throw up. In about three to four days the bug ran through us. Luckily we recovered pretty quickly without any medication and carried on.

When we all felt better, we walked from our apartment up to Aristotle’s Lyceum. It was an unremarkable piece of land in a very nice part of Athens. The lyceum was destroyed by Sulla, the Roman general, when he crushed Athens in 86 BC. Aristotle had taught here till 323 BC and many other luminaries had learned and taught here in the ensuing years. Thousands of books and botanical samples were also destroyed when Sulla razed the lyceum to the ground.

From here we wandered to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Snytagma square and witnessed perhaps the weirdest change of guard in the western world.

On our final day we went to Cape Suinion and visited the Temple of Poseidon built in 440 BC. The location is perfect – perched high above the startlingly blue waters of the Aegean at the southern end of the Attic peninsula. Along with the temple, there are fortifications and remains of a small town. This was one of the locations where the population could retreat to during times of war.

Afterwards we drove around the coast and stopped at a small town for gelato. Evan sat under a eucalyptus tree and even resisted gelato because he was mad at Vivian about something. He appears to be in deep thought.

Speaking of deep thinkers, it’s not the Greek gods and the temples in the Acropolis that made Athens special (though it is what tourists like us flock here for). Back when the rest of the world was still mired in monarchy and would stay that way for another twenty five hundred years, the Athenians were writing constitutions and experimenting with democracy. In version one they had an aristocracy who elected leaders from amongst themselves to run the city state and command its armies. In version two they divided themselves into four classes, and even the poorest class could participate in electing their leaders, though they could not themselves be elected. The demos, the people, were gaining power. In the most successful iteration, anyone could hold office. In the span of a human lifetime, this one spot on earth saw the likes of philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and other notable contemporaries like Sophocles, Pericles, Herodotus, Phidias, and Demosthenes. Imagine being a fly on the wall of the agora of Athens during this time (I’m having to imagine even harder because the agora is an open plaza with no walls, but there are plenty of flies here :-).

As smart as they were, they essentially fought their way to their demise – with enemies from far away, like the Persians, and with their neighbors, the other Greek states.

Lessons to be learned here for mankind, for us, and for Vivian and Evan. But I think we’ll have to come back when they are older and not puking up their guts. Next up – Egypt!

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