City of Athena

Athens, or as it is written here Αθηνα, is the largest city in Greece. However, this was not always the case; in fact, Athens only recently rose, some say reluctantly, to the status of a metropolis. Athens became the capitol of an independent Greece in the mid 19th century, but it wasn't until the 1920s that the city began to sprawl—and its sprawl is indeed impressive. From certain vantage points, there seem to be no end to the low, concrete buildings that make up Athens.

I was properly primed for my visit by my seat mate on the ten-hour flight. Her name was Anthe and she was on her way to Rhodes where she's building a house. We talked for most of the overnight flight, so I did not get too much sleep, but she had such a wealth of information to mine I easily resisted sleep.

I arrived in Athens at 11 AM, Saturday morning. My hotel, the Baby Grand, was just south of Omonias Square, the main square in Athens, which evokes memories of pre-Disney Times Square: busy by day with many tourists, equally busy by night with prostitution, drugs, and ne'er-do-wells.

The Baby Grand was one of these designer hotels and, I must admit, the novelty was pleasantly fun. The rooms are tame when compared to the public spaces, but they are surprising nonetheless. I was welcomed by a faux tiger's head staring at me.

I showered and began to work on my talk for the conference, but soon my eyes felt heavy and my head wanted nothing more than to rest on my desk. After my nap, I wrapped up my talk and burst into the Athens night. I walked toward the Acropolis and the historic neighborhood beneath the giant rock outcrop called the Plaka.

I stumbled onto Ermou Street, a bustling pedestrian street with shopping, street musicians, and plenty of tourists. In a tiny square sits the Church of Kapnikarea, one of the oldest churches in Athens, dating back to the 11th century.

Soon I turned down a small street and caught my first glimpse of the Acropolis hovering over me. Bathed in golden light, it was a marvelous sight.

Walking toward the light of the Acropolis, I found myself in the Plaka, the old part of town where the streets are narrow and the houses are small. The word old is an inadequate descriptor in Greece—records reach back thousands of years—but I believe the modern incarnation of this neighborhood dates to Turkish times. Of course in ancient times, this was the bustling center of the city—I'm standing on ground where Socrates taught in the 5th century BC and St. Paul converted people to Christianity in 49 AD.

After grabbing some dinner and strolling around the Plaka, I became disoriented. I spent the better part of an hour trying to match up the street signs to my maps. I was down by the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian's Arch. It was approaching midnight when I passed an older Englishman. Looking back into a car window's reflection, I saw him stop and look at me. I turned to talk to him, but he didn't quite know where we were on the map. He was able to tell me what direction was north but could not understand why I didn't just get in a taxi. Knowing what direction to head in, I finally figured out where I was located and walked up Stadiou Avenue to my hotel, where I fell fast asleep.

Every town in Greece is filled with kiosks that sell news, candy, food, drink, phone cards, cigarettes, and anything else they can cram into the tiny, fotomat-like booths. This is the Greek convenience store and, at times, acts as the town's water cooler.

For lunch I walked into a residential part of the city, where few tourists go, to find a decent meal at local prices. I was not disappointed. Although there were some language difficulties, I figured out how to order and got what I wanted. After, I met my friend, Ryan, and we went to the Acropolis.

The Acropolis is perhaps the most important ancient monument in the world. The name acropolis means high city and this particular high point has been inhabited since the sixth millennium BC. In 510 BC, the Delphic oracle declared the high rock outcrop to be a sacred place. Temples were built, only to be destroyed by the invading Persians in 480 BC. Pericles (495-429 BC) began a massive rebuilding program culminating in the temples we see today. Well, what's left of them. Wars, occupation, and looting have reduced the temples to ruins. Perhaps the most devastating blow came when the Venetians bombed the Acropolis, which the Turks were using as an armory. An explosion in the Parthenon ignited a fire that burned for two days.

We toured the site for about an hour before they closed. We planned to come back later in the week, so we were not worried. After the Acropolis closed, many visitors ended up on the Areopagus Rock, or Mars Rock, the site of great speeches by the great philosophers and orators of the time. We ran into several friends and colleagues here, in town for the conference which begins tomorrow morning. We also took tons of pictures (as you might imagine, astronomers and science visualizers love taking pictures).

After watching the sunset from Mars Rock, we then watched as lights transformed the Acropolis into an equally awe-inspiring masterpiece by night.

As we took picture after picture, adjusting shutter speeds and ISOs, I could smell people's smoke, and not the legal kind that is ubiquitous in Greece, but that other kind. Soon after, this guy stood in front of my camera and would not move. His friend tried to pull him away, but was having little success. Rather than become annoyed, I embraced it. I Asked him to change his pose and took a couple of shots. He said he was from Afghanistan and we talked about that for a minute. After I showed him the photo, he was off.

It occurred to me later that this was the perfect time to use some of the whackier phrases in my Lonely Planet Greek phrasebook. They have a section on dating and partying that's a stitch to read. Phrases like (accent on the italicized syllable):

I'm high
Pronounced: i·me ma·stu·ro·me·nos
Written: Ειμαι μαστουρωμενος

Other fun lines include:

Can I take you home?
bo·ro na se pa·ro sto spi·ti
Μπορω να σε παρω στο σπιτι
Easy tiger!
si·gha re gho·i
σιγα ρε γοη!
And, the ever popular: Do you want a massage?
the·lis e·na ma·saz
Θελεις ενα μασαζ

I highly recommend the Lonely Planet phrasebooks, they are not only useful, but entertaining as well.

After, a bunch of us got dinner and walked home to get some sleep before the early wake-up call tomorrow.

The following day we were busy at the conference all day and night. And, the day after that was busy, but we had the conference banquet, which was being held at a hotel below the Acropolis. This offered another opportunity to explore. My friend Ryan and I walked around the Acropolis and into the parks to the west.

We walked around the Acropolis to the east, then walked toward the old Athens Observatory, which was built on a hill to the west. It was getting dark, and our dinner time was approaching. We walked along the grand promenade to the south of the Acropolis, where we took a few pictures of the Parthenon.

Our dinner was on the roof of a nearby hotel, with a view of the illuminated fortress. Wonderful! Every dinner in the area is designed with this in mind—tomorrow night's view will be no different.

On the last day of the conference, we skipped out a little early to take in the Acropolis, full-scale. I met my friends Angie and Curtis and we walked down to the great hill once more. This time the sun was shining and the morning light was great.

I'll take this moment to mention that Greece is plagued with stray cats and dogs. They seem friendly and the dogs are tame, but they are everywhere. All of the roadkill I saw were dogs. I found this sign funny, as there are a dozen cats and dogs that roam the Acropolis freely.

We arrived at the temple before the tour buses arrived, so we rushed to take pictures before the site was flooded with tourists. It didn't take long though. We bumped into a few other colleagues playing hooky too.

We spent several hours at the site, then Angie and I decided to grab some lunch and see the Ancient Agora. Agora translates to "marketplace" and was the center of activity in ancient Athens, where political, commercial, and social activity thrived. It was the city center.

As with all ancient sites, it has seen great phases of construction and destruction. It was first built in the 6th century BC, but destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC. Pericles rebuilt it during Athens' golden age, but it was again destroyed in 267 AD by a Gothic tribe from Scandinavia. The Turks built a town here, but it was dismantled after Greek independence in the 19th century.

On our way back, we walked around town and came across a demonstration across from our hotel. I'm always a little leary of demonstrations in a foreign land, as one never knows what it's about or of the cops are going to come in a disperse the crowd.

Athens was a good way to get my feet wet in Greece, but I was ready to see the countryside. The city is, like any city, noisy, filthy, and populated by people from all over the world. Athens does not provide me with the feeling that I am experiencing Greece, just as New York City cannot (and does not) represent America. So, I'm off to the airport to pick up a car to drive the roads of Greece, to see the small towns, and to talk with the natives (as best I can).