Thursday, April 7, 2011

Είναι όλοι οι Έλληνες να με (It's All Greek to Me)

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Twenty One years. That's how long it had been since Tamara and I were last in Athens. It was a very different place then and we were very different people. What wasn't different was the charm of the Parthenon sitting atop the acropolis and a town littered with 2000+ years of Greek and Roman history. It felt good to be back!

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While things started off a bit rough with someone attempting to pick my pocket coming up the escalator of a very crowded metro while I had both hands full of suit cases (I felt it and only had an Athens map in the pocket he was trying to pick anyway). It set a bit of a bad tone early on, but we proceeded with a bit more caution, checked in, and grabbed dinner at a street side restaurant before taking a stroll to get our first glimpse of the Parthenon lit up at night. It was great to see how much of the area around the Acropolis had been converted to pedestrian areas compared to the crazy traffic of 21 years ago.

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The next morning we were up bright and early to be the first ones in the Parthenon. Our guidebook, unfortunately, couldn't keep up with the frequently changing schedule so we ended up there about 45 minutes early and in plenty of time for the rain storm that started to pour on us. That wasn't pleasant, but the up side was that it held off the tour groups and we did, in large part, have the place to ourselves—a rarity I can assure you. While I didn't get any postcard perfect blue sky photos I worked with what I had and got some unusual shots showing more of the true color of the columns against the gray Athenian sky.

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We descended the Acropolis via a different route to take in the Theater of Dionysis and several of the other ruins that are scattered on the slopes. But ultimately we gave in to the weather and headed for the brand new (2 years old) Acropolis Museum. This was a glorious place. It's brilliantly designed to incorporate the ruins of a community beneath the floor of the entry way and main building itself that were uncovered during excavation for the structure.

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Then you proceed up several levels within the museum itself that mimic the climb up the actual Acropolis with items found at the ruins closer to the base on the lower floors then the friezes and reliefs that are at the top of the Parthenon crowning the top most floor. Lots of history, descriptions and even a movie are worked into the place all the while the nearly solid glass walls allow you to view the Parthenon sitting up on the Acropolis just next door. The only disappointment was when you looked at the 150 meters of frieze panels you realize that the vast majority of them are missing—and that the vast majority of the missing ones are held not in Athens, but by the British Museum in London who purchased the so-called Elgin Marbles that had been stolen many years before and, to this day, ignore requests to have them returned to their proper home.

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After lunch we thought we'd explore many of the other ruins included on the 6 in 1 ticket you get for the Parthenon and we took the long way to the Ancient Agora only to enter intending to visit the mostly intact Temple of Hephestus. We entered at 2:30 and as we started the climb to see the temple they started shooing everyone off the hill—turns out most of the official archaeological sites close at 3pm! How do you like those hours??? So, we strolled the streets of Athens window shopping and peering through fences at the various sites. When the damp of the day finally got to us we went back to the hotel to dry out and rest a bit until an supper at Scholarhio Restaurant where we were presented 18 different dishes, chose 10 of them, had wine, drinks, dessert and tip all included for about 56 Euro.

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The next day was Tamara's birthday and we started out to revisit the 'through the fence only' ruins and got back to the amazing Temple of Hephestus and the Agora museum. The old Roman Agora, Hadrian's Library, the Temple of Zeus and a many other minor sites were all on the list. We even saw the changing of the guard in front of the Parliament house. We turned in a bit early that day too, once everything closed down.

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We had big plans for that night, Brendan & Heath had been scouring the guide books and web sites searching for the perfect place for mom's birthday dinner. They finally found a place with about the most non-Greek name, Smile, but with great reviews and good prices. We'd booked a reservation by email, but otherwise didn't know quite what to expect. Well, I can tell you whatever our expectations, they were exceeded. The owner, Connie, and her lovely daughter greeted us with kisses on the cheeks, learned our names by heart within a few minutes, had a table set up complete with balloons. They had us feeling like long lost family before the water was poured. ...And then we feasted. Amazing food filled the table. We drank wine, we laughed and just had a wonderful meal. They topped it off with a delicious ice cream birthday cake topped with home made caramel. We left with more kisses and a promise to return the next night—and we did. We walked home still talking about the meal.

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The National Museum is located on the opposite side of town and we had to take the metro again, but no pick pockets in sight fortunately. We were quite excited to see this place as it has several holdings that are unique and ancient. We did get to see, for instance, the Mask of Agamemnon, beautiful Minoan frescoes, and many of other sculptures and pieces.

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We were very disappointed to find that half the galleries and exhibits were closed, on a Saturday, because of lack of staff! This is one of the world's major museums, and to find so much of it inaccessible was very upsetting. We were even advised to return on Monday—the day after we left Greece. A note in the comment book and an email to the director were sent. We then returned to 'our' side of town took in the old stadium where the first modern Olympic games were held, looked at a bunch of other 'old rock things' and made our way to the shopping areas before heading back to Smile for yet another wonderful meal.

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Bed time was pretty early as we had to be up at 3am for a 6am flight. It was a bit shocking to see the clubs around Athens still hopping at 4am as we drove by on our way to the airport!

We wished we had a few more days to visit the islands around Greece and to take some side trips. The people are warm and friendly, and the food is fantastic! I can guarantee it won't be another 21 years before we visit again. A toast of ouzo to Athens. Yamas!

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