In the Shadow of the Acropolis

In the Shadow of the Acropolis

It’s been awhile since I wrote a travel blog. Prior to the pandemic, my husband and I traveled with fair regularity. But since the start of the pandemic, out of necessity, all of our trips have been short and mostly involved visiting with family.

Speaking of family, we’ve been trying to put together a bigger trip since pretty much 2021, but the stars simply haven’t aligned. First, because it didn’t entirely feel safe to travel even in December since two members of our group have autoimmune disorders. Later, when we felt it was safe to travel again, our plans fell through.

There was a lot of talk about trying to hit Disney’s 50th anniversary celebration, but the plans were never able to come together. So by 2023, we were all keen to do something a little more exciting than the usual family get together. My husband’s family always organizes these trips, and I appreciate the sheer amount of planning and consideration that goes into making the final arrangements.

After a great deal of talking, we finally decided to take a cruise through the Greek Isles. Stops included Athens, Turkey, Messina and Naples. The main draw of this particular trip, at least for me, was that it included at least two visits to ancient ruins – Ephesus and Pompeii. (I don’t think anyone needs to be reminded that I’m a huge mythology nerd. I even wrote a whole series based on it.)

This was my first time on any kind of cruise ship. I always expected to be nervous about a trip on open water, but my excitement over the destinations kept it at bay. The company we cruised with was Viking (more on that later), and I can safely say we all had a fabulous time.

First Port of Call

Our ship left from Athens, which means that was the city we flew too. I’ll devote a later blog to our air journey, but suffice to say it took a long time. Unfortunately, our initial arrival took place quite late at night (just before midnight). Which means our first drive through the city took place after dark and while we were both extremely tired. So we didn’t see much.

But by the bright light of morning our first full day on the ship, we were able to glimpse quite a bit more. Our first shore excursion featured a bus tour of the city and a visit to the Athens National Museum. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and in addition to giving us the highlights of the city’s history, she also gave us some information about the etymology of several Greek terms.

Acropolis, for example, comes from two Greek words: “acro” meaning “high place” and “polis” meaning “city.” The Acropolis hill refers to the place where the Parthenon is built, originally a high city with protective walls.

Though it wasn’t specifically included on our tour, we were able to catch several glimpses of the Parthenon while driving through the city. As our guide explained, the Parthenon is specifically devoted to the virginal Athena. (The Greek word “Partheos” refers to a virgin.) Athena, of course, was the ancient city’s patron goddess. She won her position by offering the ancient Athenians the first olive tree. Poseidon, the other god in the running for patronage, gave the city a salt spring, which the Athenians didn’t find particularly useful.

According to our guide, one of the reasons the Parthenon remains so visible even in the modern city is that buildings in Athens cannot be built higher than 8 stories in part to preserve the view.

A Glimpse of the Past

We were not able to get up close and actually walk through the Parthenon. If we had chosen that excursion, we wouldn’t have been able to see anything else. But we did get a glimpse of the remains of the temple of Zeus.

In ancient days, there were two massive, 10 foot statues dedicated to the gods. One was the statue of Athena in the Parthenon. The other was a statue of Zeus housed in the temple below the Acropolis hill. Unfortunately, only 3 columns of Zeus’s temple remain, but it was still pretty cool to see the remnants of both temples and imagine what it would have looked like when both were new.

The main reason we chose the Athens tour was so that we could visit the national museum. It’s small compared to several of the other museums we’ve been to in our travels, but it still contains many interesting artifacts. For me, the highlight was a group of fresco paintings recovered from a town buried by volcanic explosion. It was my first time seeing pieces of genuine paintings from Greek households.

The other most impressive find in the Athens museum was the Death Mask of Agamemnon. No one is entirely sure if the mask really belonged to him. It was found buried in a tomb that does not match where the royals would have been buried. But the face depicted matches Agamemnon’s description from the Iliad, so it is attributed to him. The mask is among several other gold pieces found among the ruins of Minoa.

The final stop on our bus tour was a visit to the stadium where the first modern Olympics were held, built in a style similar to an amphitheatre. The stadium is still used for concerts.

Lessons from Athens

Athens was an interesting city. It reminded me a lot of our time in England, where there were a lot of ultra modern things built beside ancient ruins. But the strange juxtaposition (not really present here in Canada where no structures are that old) wasn’t the only thing that reminded me of our time in England.

While we were in the museum, I couldn’t help noticing how sparse it seemed. There were a lot of interesting things to see, don’t get me wrong. My favorite were some tablets in a predecessor alphabet we’ve not yet been able to translate (Linear A). But having spent a year in England, we visited the British Museum a lot. During our second visit, we explored the Greek and Roman section, including the Elgin Marbles.

Famously, the Elgin Marbles are a collection of Greek and Roman statuary taken from the Parthenon and Acropolis. There are a lot of them. They are large and impressive. And the Greeks have asked to have them back.

Our guide made a point to mention how many of Greece’s national treasures had been stolen throughout history. Even the Romans pillaged ancient Greek cities for bronze statues, which are now quite rare. They were quick to pry out the gemstone eyes for ease of theft. Then they would melt the rest down for re-use.

I’ve already devoted some blog time to talk of the Elgin Marbles and where they belong. But visiting the museum in Athens was a stark reminder of how few Greek treasures remain in their original locations. The Parthenon would have been absolutely dazzling to visit in ancient times. But to see its full glory today, you need to visit two different countries.

This was only the first stop on our epic journey. Next was Kusadasi in Turkey!

One Reply to “In the Shadow of the Acropolis”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.