I have made my first ever visit to Greece by attending an economics conference in Athens over the past 5 days. It’s been a whirlwind visit but my impressions thus far have been, in the main, pleasant. Like every first-time tourist visitor to Greece I made an immediate B-line to the Acropolis the first morning. I’ve been intrigued with this site for 50 years. It’s a corny but true story that about the first thing I did at high school was to get involved at modeling the Parthenon with plaster-of-Paris. Since a kid I have also read stories about the Greek myths and heroes. Visiting the Parthenon site was almost a surreal emotional experience. The origins of western democracy and civilization are at an actual site. The Parthenon is a magnificent construction and, raised on a rugged rock outcrop close to the center of Athens, it dominates views in this part of the city. Photographs just cannot do it justice particularly when seen in the setting of the wider city. The nearby Acropolis Museum is a very modern piece of architecture – glass flooring reveals excavation sites below while an upper story models the perimeter of the Parthenon – that collects much of the archeological material excavated (and in some cases reconstructed) from the Acropolis and environs. Very worthwhile.
Below the Acropolis at Plaka I enjoyed interesting surrounds and wonderful Greek seafood and salads. (We have sizeable numbers of Greeks in Australia but Australians don’t seem to have acquired some key Greek culinary skills – salads with tomato that tastes like real tomato, seafood that has flavor as well as quantity and the tasty Greek breads – Australian chiefs are, by one of contrast, lazy and rely on quality of produce rather than culinary skill. Good food can be simple and the Greeks do it in Greece to perfection). I almost feel the need to write a post on the simple subject of the Greek tomato - it’s the best I can remember eating since some home-grown jobs in the 1960s.
I liked the views from the Acropolis as much as the site itself. Athens is an urban sea of concrete that grades off into stony foothills that surround the city on three sides with the 4th side being the Mediterranean. At the macro level it is attractive because of the hilly surrounds. At the micro level it is mixed. Individual streets can be striking but individual buildings can be a bit functional with an overwhelming feel of blanched concrete.
I enjoyed my visit via funicular to Lykavittos Hill that is pitched even higher than the Acropolis – it is, in fact, the highest point in the city. There is a charming chapel at this peak and an OK restaurant but the main point is the city views that are superb. The only obstruction when I went was a not-so-serious pollution haze over the city. Beautiful sunset – I took nearly 200 photographs over a couple of hours.
The second day in Athens I went to the National Archaeological Museum. The guidebooks claim this is one of the best museums on our planet and after visiting it I have no grounds for disagreeing with this. Wonderful since it really arouses a sense of wonder! It is however hopelessly overwhelming for a one day visit – you could easily spend 3-4 days looking carefully through collections of art (and one could spend a lifetime trying to understand the history) that date to 5000BC. The pre-history material impacted on me – I liked this Thinker.
Again an emotional experience gazing at busts of Socrates and the Greek emperors in the Sculpture Collection. Visiting this museum is an absolute must for any visitor though even a scanty knowledge of Greek history particularly after about 1000BC would be helpful. I took hundreds of photographs here and eventually gave up and bought some guides to the various exhibitions.
Most visitors to Greece feel the need to visit the Greek islands and I finally did so also. I took a tour of Hydra, Poros and Aegina all of which were beautiful and all of which involved pleasures getting to the destination through the Mediterranean boat journey. My pick was the car-free Hydra where I could happily while away a lifetime drinking Retsina and contemplating my navel! At Aegina I encountered a modern cathedral as well constructed as I could imagine. The Greek architecture is functional but repeated and creates some wonderful streetscapes – it is like the food – the Greeks have talent in creating a quality experience out of limited inputs. The overall experience of cruising the Mediterranean and looking at these islands is paradise.
I also visited Delphi where the most famous oracle advised of future events in ancient Greece and where Apollo slayed the serpent. It’s a long trip from Athens in a day but got a chance to see some of the dry, rocky interior of Greece during the journey there and passed through some beautiful smaller towns. Delphi has a good archaeological museum with a famous sculpture in bronze, the Charioteer.
I didn’t see much evidence of the financial crisis – what could you expect to see? There were a few small demonstrations in Athens where police outnumbered protesters. Most Greeks I spoke to clearly understood the extreme seriousness of the situation. But life continues and, at least in the tourist areas we visited, people seemed to be enjoying life. My only regrets about the Athens visit were inevitably the short time I had to look around and my fragmentary grasp of its history. I’ll remedy that on my return to Australia. (1919)