Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Greece, Day Eight

(Rick's words are in black; Jenese's words are in blue.  I'm not sure we should still be reminding you.  You're smart people.)

On Monday we were looking forward to wending our way to Corinth.  After breakfast, Rick began calling for car rental quotes.  Avanti gave a reasonable price, but they were so busy they couldn't provide a car for another hour.  It was already after 9 a.m., and we agreed that we shouldn't waste any more of the day.  Thus, Corinth was postponed until Tuesday, and we dove back into Athens.  

(Tighten your shoelaces and grab your water bottles, blog fans.  It's gonna be a long day.)

We started by letting Rick Steves take us on his City Walk Tour, intending to use our premium tickets to enter sites along the way, or afterward.  This was, perhaps, not the best planning.  Sites shut down at 3 p.m. on Mondays, so it might have been better to hit all the sites first, and then complete the tour.  Ah, well.

Our tour began at Syntagma Square, which translates to Constitution Square.  It's the place you've seen on the news lately, filled with anti-austerity protesters shouting and flinging malatov cocktails.  It was business as usual, however, while we were there -- the only trouble we had was trying to listen to Mr. Steves over the sounds of the city.

We started at the lemon-colored Parliament Building, and then crossed the square to stroll down Ermou Street.  It was closed to traffic a few years back, and is filled with all sorts of shops selling clothing, electronics, shoes -- even a darling confectionary with dainty, handcrafted treats, dried fruit, and nuts.

The street is "closed to traffic," but for some reason mopeds and even taxis seem to think they are exempt.  There was a surprising amount of traffic in the pedestrian zone.

The first landmark we reached on Ermou Street was the Church of Kapnikarea.  This small Byzantine chapel was also the site of yet another traveling snag:  The Greek Orthodox Church asks that worshippers and sightseers alike show respect through modest dress.  No bare arms, shorts or short skirts, please.  Ricky and his bare knees had to wait outside while I crept through the dimly-lit chapel.  Inside, the aisles between the pillars were fairly crowded with stacks of chairs, candelabras, and various icons.  The pillars and parts of the walls were painted a dark blue, with stars, while larger sections of the walls were covered in frescoes depicting saints with almond-shaped eyes and rich-toned robes.  Looking down on it all from the dome was a large painting of the Christ, which is a common feature for these chapels.  A tiny, gray-haired woman swept the tiled floor quietly, or softly followed devoted worshippers with her spray bottle and cloth, to rub away the lipstick they left on the icons.

My shorts would have been just fine in Corinth, but when our travel days got switched around, I didn't think to also switch my attire.

I rejoined Rick, and we continued down side streets until we found the large square that is home to the National Cathedral.  The archbishop presides here.  And he didn't want to see Rick's knees, so once again I had to go in alone.  It just didn't seem quite right, without him, and this threw a bit of a shadow over my enjoyment. The porch is supported by pillars made of a marble I'd never seen before -- sky-blue, veined with white.  The inside was partially shut off by scaffolding, so I suppose they were making repairs.  More icons and candles, but not so many frescoes.  Next door was my favorite chapel of the the trip, the Church of Agios Eleftherios.  It's a teeny little jigsaw puzzle that was cobbled together from remnants of all sorts of ancient structures, Christian and pagan, and every side is different.  I couldn't go in very far, because the main portion was roped off, but what I could see was fairly stark, compared to the other chapel and the cathedral.  I appreciated the clean inside, and the jumbled-up outside, which reminded me a bit of an inside-out Rosslyn Chapel -- always another new carving you hadn't noticed on the first pass.

Church of Agios Eleftherios
Mr. Steves then directed us down the street where icons, robes, candelabras and other worship items have been made and sold for many years.  We only looked through the windows.  The lights inside glinted and flickered off innumerable works of gold or silver, or brass.  We continued through the narrow streets (many of which, by the way, have several blocks of souvenir shops -- same stuff we'd seen before, so I won't bore you with descriptions), crossed a very busy thoroughfare and arrived at the Arch of Hadrian.  It never ceases to amaze me, these bits and fragments of history that pop up, incongruously, in urban areas.  Here was an ancient monument to an ambitious king, watching over four lanes of traffic.  Perhaps it would not displease Hadrian, to know that he has not been forgotten, and that Greece still pays him a type of honor.  Right next door is the Temple of Olympian Zeus with its behemoth columns.  Silly Tuckers did not use their nifty ticket to go in, but continued their walk after a peep through the metal fence.

We didn't use our ticket to go in because we were not at the entry gate.  I assumed we would be making our way around to the other side where we would be able to enter later in the day, but it was not to be.  That was a great disappointment, because this temple was high on my list of things to see.  The columns are massive -- much bigger than anything you can find on the Acropolis.  Construction of the temple began in the 6th century B.C., but not completed until the 2nd century A.D.  Zeus got to enjoy it for only a few decades before it was pillaged during a barbarian invasion in the 3rd century.   In the treatise Politics, Aristotle cited the temple as an example of how tyrannies engaged the populace in great works for the state, leaving them no time, energy, or means to rebel.  (Today, "national greatness conservatives" call for mandatory national service or maybe a mission to Mars.)

Temple of Olympian Zeus (through the fence)
We retraced our steps to get to the cylindrical Lysicrates Monument, and rested in its shady square.  Then we ascended I don't know how many stairs and found ourselves in the Anafiotika neighborhood.  Several signs kept pointing us to the Acropolis, so we were never lost, but it was as if we'd climbed right out of Athens and into a village out on the islands.  Which is precisely what the original owners and builders of the neighborhood intended.  The houses look exactly like the smooth, whitewashed homes sprouting from the hills of the Greek isles.  There were flowers, and painted doors, and a lovely, restful silence.  The passageway narrowed until only one person could pass, and eventually dropped us on a road -- to the left was the Acropolis, and to the right was more Athens.  And more stairs.  So, of course, that's the way we were to go.

Fortunately for our knees, however, we went down instead of up.  Our next stop was the ancient Roman forum and the Tower of the Winds.  This time, we did use the nifty ticket to go in -- a smart move, because it allowed Ricky the pleasure of seeing his first Vespasian toilets.  The walls crumbled long ago, but the long stone bench with enough cut-outs for several sitters is still there.  Moving on . . . 

Vespasian's Legacy
The Tower of the Winds is a fascinating relict.  It's an ancient clock that was built of Pentelic marble by the astronomer, Andronikos of Kyrrhos.  The tower got its name from the relief carvings of the various winds on its eight sides -- Boreas, Kaikias, Apeliotes, Euros, Notos, Lips, Zephyros and Skiron.  Sun-dials all round the tall structure marked the time on clear days, and a water-clock on the inside took over on overcast days.  I would have loved to have seen this clever, elegant device work.  It and the mosque on the other side of the grounds are the most intact buildings on the site.  The Mosque of the Conqueror dates to 1456, and it became a storehouse for wheat after it was no longer used for religious purposes.

Then came more souvenir streets, and finally Monastiraki Square, a hub for souvenir streets with a Metro stop and the Library of Hadrian.  Taking Rick Steves' last bit of advice for this, the end of our tour, we went downstairs in the Metro station to see the ruins of a Roman water system.  Next we went to the Library of Hardrian (Yay, nifty ticket!), took in the view of the square from the balcony of a disused mosque, and plopped down on a the low wall surrounding a small chapel to contemplate our next move.  Our stomachs and feet voted heavily in favor of taking lunch in "Soulvaki Row," a string of outdoor cafes.  This time, we were careful about watching signs and upholstery, and were successfully seated at Thanasis (recommended by Mr. Steves).  We split a beef kebab on pita bread, with yogurt sauce and roasted tomatoes.  Dee-lish-ous.  

Yes, it was very good.  Also, our single order was divided onto two plates for no extra charge.  

I know I'm not the first American tourist to extol the phenomenon of a slow European lunch, but I'll risk the accusations of gusherie and say that I truly enjoy being forced to slow down.  And not just because my feet were whining.  There's no gulping down so you can hurry back to your desk, or chewing behind the wheel.  Just sitting, feeling the breeze, watching the other lunchers and the passers-by.  Eventually, the drinks come, and later the food.  Plenty of time to savor, and chat, and be still.  Finally, the waiter discreetly slips the check under the elastic band keeping the tablecloth in place.  When he returns sometime later, to remove the dishes, he asks how we liked the food.  I tell him, just like Greek auntie taught us, and he smiles broadly and thanks us.  This gently-paced process probably took around an hour, but it never felt like a waste of time.

Well, it felt somewhat like a waste of time to me.  I can stare at dirty dishes for only so long before I start to contemplate deep questions, such as:  "Do slow European lunches cause European waiters to be slow, or do slow waiters cause European lunches to be slow?"

Before leaving Monastiraki Square, we purchased some fresh figs, which were really cheap, from a fruit cart, and a small bag of pistachios, which were not cheap, from a pistachio cart.

Now we had to figure out how to fill the afternoon.  We decided to start with Keramikos Cemetery (on our ticket), which had started life as a pottery-making center.  Alas for the long lunch!  The site was closed, and we had to be content with looking down on it through the fence.  We walked back toward the Temple of Olympian Zeus, with little hope that we could get in.  I was hankering after a pretty linen blouse, or a sundress, for a souvenir, so Ricky patiently wandered through several shops with me on the way to the temple.  Some of the shopkeepers were as eager as the waiters on Rhodes.  When I finally found a blouse with pretty embroidery (that didn't look quite like all the others I'd seen over and over again in shop after shop), I had all of 10 seconds to consider it on a mannequin before a man materialized at my elbow, ready to make a sale.  

I have "haggled" but once in my life.  I'm not sure I can really call this my second go, because it was practically effortless.  The gentleman asked for my size and took a blouse out of its bag for me to admire, telling me it cost 38 euros.  I pursed my lips -- in thought only, mind you!  Not in an attempt to open the haggling! -- and he knocked a couple of euros off the price, before I could blink.  I looked at Rick, surprised and uncertain.  Another couple of euros came off.  I suppose I could have scratched my nose or wiggled my ears, just to see what would happen, but chose instead simply to offer him 30.  He checked with the lady behind the counter.  "You'll pay in cash?" he asked.  "Of course."  He took the cash, and I took my blouse.  As we continued to the temple, .Rick praised me. "You haggled!"  I wrinkled my nose.  "Not ... really."

Despite the haggling, I was not convinced we got a bargain.  What we walked away with a compressed, fist-size wad of linen and wrinkles in a plastic bag.  It was easy to pack, though, and once we got home and worked out all the wrinkles, it looked nice on Jenese.

Panathenaic Stadium
The temple was the same story as Keramikos.  Closed.  So much for those premium tickets!  We crossed the street into the National Garden, rested in front of the Zapion Exhibition and Congress Hall (a more buttery color than Parliament), and then went to the Panathenaic Stadium.  By this time, my feet had abandoned whining for wailing, and were inspiring the more northern sections of my legs to join in the lament.  Rick proposed we walk back to the hotel, so we could take in a few more famous buildings on the way.  Since serious love makes you do seriously crazy things, I acquiesced.

I was eager to leave the National Garden.  In the bushes directly behind us, two guys were engaged in behavior that is best not to be discovered or imagined.

Rick chose a route that led us behind Parliament, up Embassy Row, and then along a major street that would (eventually) wind over to our hotel.  As we drew near to the Parliament's gardens and complex, we began to see groups of police standing around, with rifles.  We alluded to this phenomenon in an earlier post, so I'll just add that this sheltered American country mouse has never before been so close to riot police, and was deeply disturbed by the sight of the arms, and the silence in the air.  I wasn't sure how much of the tension I felt was churning out of my own gut, but later events proved that sensation to be a mix of me and the Athenian atmosphere.

I really wanted to take some photos, but I was afraid that the very bored riot police would consider that to be as good of an excuse as any to get some use out of those batons.

We passed through Embassy Row (Sorry, Mom!  I know I promised to stay away from places people like to bomb, specifically that very street!  Talk to your son-in-law.) and turned onto Panepistimou Street.  Along the way we saw the Athens University, the Academy and the National Library.  Our surroundings changed from the smaller, older buildings to the taller buildings of a busy metropolitan landscape.  Lots of shops and fast-food eateries.  I really don't know just how many miles (kilometers) we traveled that day, but I've never been so grateful to drag my bones into a hotel room in my life.  We collapsed onto the bed, and I don't remember anything after that, for some time.

I enjoyed our walk, getting away from the tourist area and seeing shops and restaurants that cater to Athenians, rather than tourists.

I regained consciousness to find Rick mulling over the Rick Steves guide.  He was considering dining options for the evening.  We agreed to try the rooftop restaurant of our hotel, first.  Up we went.  We emerged on a terrace with a great view of the city and the illuminated Parthenon,  and with raucous music that completely clashed with what should have been a romantic atmosphere.  I think it might have been some sort of dance music, but neither of us can remember, for sure.  Whatever it was, it was awful, played loudly enough to jangle your auditory nerves into spasms.  We gazed longingly at the Parthenon for a moment or two, and then jumped right back in the elevator.

Plan B involved walking back down into central Athens to find another Steves-recommended taverna.  Rick said it wasn't far at all, but we could certainly take the Metro back to the hotel.  Eh, why not?  I sighed to myself.  My legs and feet hate me anyway, and maybe they'll forgive me after resting in the car, tomorrow.  We walked through a dark, dank, impoverished section of the city.  There many Arab and Asian shops, and quite a few people of those descents walking on the sidewalks.  It could have been the neighborhood where Dino's son-in-law, Mark, had his ministry.  I'm ashamed to say it, but I felt very unsafe.  Upon later reflection, I realized that we might have been safer there, than anywhere -- after all, we have heard how these people just want to work for a better life, a peaceful life, but are suffering at the hands of some of the police, and how they are being deported in large numbers (after being beaten, some of them).  Sirens howled behind us, and I gulped, remembering the abuses Mark had mentioned.  I dreaded such a sight.

I didn't like the smells, but I didn't feel unsafe and did not realize Jenese felt unsafe until later.  I was intrigued by these small clusters of ethnic neighborhoods.

We walked into the Psyrri district, and it was like passing through a curtain between worlds.  The street glowed warmly with the lights from a few tavernas, and a patisserie.  One measly block away was poverty and fear, yet here was touristy comfort and ease.  Strange, strange, this world.  

We sat down at the Taverna tou Psyrri, and were served another slice of Greek life.  As we opened our menu, the handsome young waiter explained many of the dishes and drinks were no longer available.  (There were about a dozen wines listed, but the waiter told us the actual options were "house white" or "house red.")  Thanks to the troubled economy, some suppliers could no longer ship items to the restaurant, or had left altogether.  What was still offered, however, was far from disappointing.  Melt-in-your-mouth eggplant baked with graviera cheese, tender, grilled octopus, savory meatballs, and fried potatoes.

I never thought I would refer to eggplant as succulent, but that's what it was.  It was baked in a generous amount of sunflower oil and then topped with the cheese.  I was impressed by the flavors that resulted from such a simple preparation.

 Entrance to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus
Rick led me back to the Acropolis, so we could enjoy a closer view of the Parthenon in its evening dress.  The lovely, gentle notes of a guitar played by talented fingers wafted through the olive trees.  As promised, we took the Metro back to the hotel.  We shared some fresh figs, and turned in.

I would like to take credit for the photo of the Parthenon at the top of this page, but it is not mine.  None of our nighttime photos of the Parthenon turned out very well.  I took the above photo of the Odeon of Herodus Atticus, though.  This is where our Athenian sightseeing had begun the day before, and this is where it now ended. 

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