Our two day visit to Athens began with an early-morning visit to the Acropolis, a good thing since this would become the hottest day of their summer. It was also a Saturday at the height of the tourist season, so although most Athenians had the good sense to leave the area for vacation, throngs of visitors were standing in line as we finished our tour. But we’re going to cover a bit about Athens from our second day first, because there’s so much to say about the Acropolis later.
Ancient Athens, a beautiful walled city-state, was originally called Aktaio after a king, then Cecrops who was half man/half snake. Athens was the most powerful town in Greece, and its citizens developed an enduring civilization based on the principles of democracy. According to legend, the gods of Olympus saw this beautiful place and wanted to name the city after themselves and become its patron. The most persistent rivals were Poseidon, sea god, and Athena, goddess of wisdom. To solve the dispute, Zeus asked each of them to make a gift to the city and let the citizens decide. Poseidon went first. He struck a rock with his trident, causing a spring of water to gush forth. This, he promised, would assure a ready source of water and the end of droughts. The water he commanded, however, was sea water and tasted of salt. Athena planted a seed which grew into a beautiful olive tree. The people knew that olive trees produce delicious food and oil, and can also be used for fire wood if necessary. They therefore proclaimed Athena their patron, giving her the everlasting honor of naming the city after her. Glorious temples were built in her honor, and when money was invented, she and her sacred bird, the wise owl, were depicted on their coins.
You might think this is simply a myth, but as with all great stories, there’s a grain of truth to it. Olive trees still thrive throughout Athens and its countryside, while drought continues to be a major problem. Water has to be imported to Athens from nearby lakes, especially in the summer.
The port of Piraeus, also an ancient city, still serves as the primary port of Athens. The Viking Sky docked there for two days, giving us a bit of time to explore this town as well.
Looking out from our deck after dinner, we noticed a beautiful church close by. We learned that it’s a Geek Orthodox church dedicated to Saint Nicholas. Denise decided to investigate further.
The next day being Sunday, I decided to attend services which started at 7:00 am. I made my way to the church around dawn, and was a bit surprised that I was the first to arrive. Shortly thereafter, a priest came in, and then an older woman dressed in black. I knew enough to dress modestly for church, but missed the memo to wear black. As people entered the church, all wearing black, they made an elaborate ritual involving multiple crossings, bowing, and kissing specific icons. Then one woman entered wearing all white. She proceeded to the front of the church, placing an elaborate cake with a picture on it on a table in front of the altar. Soon a florist delivered three beautiful floral arrangements around the table, and then more cakes. A cantor was singing, but the priest was nowhere in sight. Slowly people started to file in, and after about 90 minutes, the lights came on, the screen opened, and the priest came out. He carried a gold bible around to each person in church, and everyone kissed it. I did the same. Services lasted three hours in total, but people seemed to arrive whenever they felt like it. I couldn’t see what was going on during communion, and since I stuck out wearing pink anyway, I didn’t want to call any further attention to myself so I refrained from receiving. At one point a large man charged the altar shouting and attempted to pull the cantor’s microphone away from him. No one seemed particularly worried, but several men subdued him and led him reluctantly out of the church. I figured they knew him, but I don’t think that was part of the liturgy. As the service was drawing to a close, however, everyone crowded to the front of the church to receive a small piece of blessed bread from the priest. I followed the crowd. I took a few pictures of this beautiful church before and after services, and although I didn’t understand one word, I felt at one with the congregation. I’m glad I started my day this way.
After church it was time for a Greek coffee, a strong brew with foam on top, sweetened and prepared in a special copper pot called a briki.
After our visits to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum yesterday (described below for continuity) we made this a low-key, relaxing day taking in a few sights around Athens. We got to see the “new” Olympic Stadium, built in 1896 for the first modern Olympics. And we visited a few shops in Plaka, the oldest neighborhood in Athens.
For us, the Acropolis was the most interesting part of our visit to Athens. The word acropolis comes from the Greek words akron (highest point) and polis (city.) The Athens Acropolis sits high on a rocky hill above the city of Athens. It contains the remains of many ancient buildings of great historical and architectural significance. While there is evidence that the Acropolis was inhabited as early as the 4th century BC, the first records of construction are from around 495 BC.
There are several very well-preserved buildings among the ruins at the Acropolis. Teams of archaeologists are conducting painstaking, careful restoration work and new discoveries are being made daily. Many of the original artifacts have been moved to the Acropolis Museum for further restoration and preservation. We visited the museum later in the day as temperatures reached close to 100°!
The most familiar building at the Acropolis is the Parthenon. This majestic collonaded marble temple to the goddess Athena has been under restoration for the past 40 years. It has become almost synonymous with the City of Athens as it stands watch over the city. As the day went by, more and more visitors were arriving to view this marvel.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a stone Roman amphitheater at the southwest slope of the Acropolis. Completed in 161 AD and renovated in 1950, this performance venue has been used for concerts since it was built. Today it’s the primary venue for The Athens Festival which runs annually from May through October.
Over the years, the Odeon has played host to such stars as Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, Luciano Pavarotti, Yanni, Sting, Elton John, Liza Minnelli, and many other well-known musicians. What an incredible backdrop for a concert!
The Erechtheion, built as a temple of Athena Polias, is best known for the six beautiful Caryatids holding up the porch roof. We learned later that these beauties are actually replicas of the originals, five of which are housed at the Museum…but more on that later! It is believed that the olive tree seen peeking out next to the temple in the third picture down was actually the tree planted by Athena in the contest that gained her naming rights to the city.
As the temperature climbed and the crowds grew, it was time to make our way to the Acropolis Museum just a short walk away. The Museum was opened in 2009 to preserve and display the important artifacts found on the rock and its surrounding slopes from the Greek Bronze Age to Roman and Byzantine times. Photos are prohibited in several rooms, but most of the museum is welcoming and accessible. Visiting the museum truly enriched our overall Acropolis experience as we learned more about certain treasures, their histories, and whereabouts. The museum makes extensive use of windows and light to create aesthetics that compliment the exhibits beautifully.
The ground level contains artifacts from sanctuaries and settlements along the Acropolis slopes throughout history. There is also active archeological work underway on this level.
Actual remnants from the pediment of the Parthenon are displayed up close to tell their stories of war and triumph.
There are many mythological artifacts, such as this beautiful sphinx, a creature with the head of a woman, wings of a bird, and body of a lioness.
But the most surprising thing we learned is that the six Caryatids displayed at the Acropolis itself are replicas of these beauties. Five of the original six are displayed in the Museum.
There’s an empty space awaiting the 6th caryatid, which we were surprised to learn is found today in the British Museum along with many original marble artifacts.
It seems that Lord Elgin (Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and British ambassador to Greece) was an art collector as well as a diplomat. There’s great controversy over how he was able to procure these Greek treasures back in 1802, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the ladies are missing their sister. And it’s also pretty clear that this story’s ending is yet to be written!
Our two days in Athens flew by, and by the end of the second day we were pretty tired. So as we sailed away toward the Island of Crete, we stopped by the ship’s Wintergarten and did something we’ve never done on a Viking Cruise…we enjoyed afternoon tea. It was a perfect ending for two busy days.