After a week in Athens, I now feel that I am something of an expert on Athenian life and culture. My deeply considered thoughts are thus:
The worry beads look like fun. I’ve seen a lot of men working strings of beads this way and that. They spin them around, they play with each little bead. Each guy seems to have his own special ritual. I want a pair, but I will surely drive my wife crazy. Is this a guy thing? Do guys worry more than women? Who knows? I do know that I picked up a set for my mom, and I’m sure she’ll put them to excellent use.
People seem chilly. Not socially, just physically. It’s been in the upper sixties and people are dressed for a space walk. The other day it was sunny and warm, and one guy was wearing a long sleeve shirt, a hoodie sweatshirt, and a puffy coat.
They smoke a lot here. Good heavens, the people smoke like chimneys. It is technically illegal to smoke inside restaurants and bars, but those laws are less heeded than the jaywalking laws in New York, or the helmet laws in Uganda. It’s best to get a table on the sidewalk and try to sit upwind of the rest of the city.
The service was gracious and lovely. People were friendly, they made us feel welcome, and they spoke excellent English. I do my best with Italian, French, Spanish, and Japanese, but Greek is a bridge too far. Thankfully it was not remotely a problem. Thanks, Greece, for learning my language!
I’m hooked on souvlaki. It’s filling, it’s delicious, and it’s dirt cheap. These are the grilled meat sandwiches served on pita bread and covered in substances that will give you dragon breath for a week. Here in Athens one becomes a connoisseur rather quickly. On our first day, I sought out (surprise, surprise) some place that I read about that is purported to have the finest souvlaki on the planet or somesuch (CRAP, CRAP, CRAP, I just remembered that I read about that in the New York Times as well. I am as shallow and lazy a traveler as they come. Damn.) No matter, we couldn’t find it. I dragged Janine through this plaza and that and we just couldn’t seem to find the joint. I also flatly refused to sit down at one of the touristy souvlaki places on Monastiraki Square. It would defeat the purpose to pay ten bucks for a souvlaki. It would be like paying twenty bucks for a pizza…oh, wait, never mind.
We finally settled for a little joint right off the square. The stuff they put on the vertical spits are called gyros (which is Greek for “stuff they put on a vertical spit,” I think), and you can have chicken or pork. I love the concept of chicken on a spit. They just stack a bunch of boneless whole chickens and run a spike through them and cook them forever. The fat drips down and seasons the meat and the result is incredibly juicy and chickeny. But the pork’s great too. Then there’s that weird lamb and beef paste that you see everywhere in New York. That seems sketchy, although I also like sketchy. Or you can get a skewer of beef or pork. Let’s face it, they’ll grill up their thumbs if you ask nicely and it will be delicious. Then they put it on a pita bread, but not that flaccid, emaciated excuse for pita we get in the states. In Greece you get a substantial, swarthy, vigorous Frisbee of bread that soaks up the juices and keeps things more or less intact. Then they add mystery spices, lots of raw onion, sometimes tomato, and depending on what meat you pick they add that garlicky yogurt sauce called tzatziki that makes your children’s breath back home in the U.S. bad even though you’re here and they’re there. And just for kicks they throw a couple of French fries on top. French fries? I find this to be the strangest part of the procedure, but who am I to argue? The thing is, if you eat it at 1 you won’t be hungry until the restaurants open at 8 or 9. All that for 2 euros. What’s not to like? We’ve had three souvlakis so far, including one at the joint I had been looking for in the first place, and they’ve all been slightly different but absolutely delicious. What a country.
Okay, I’ve been told that there are things to do in Athens other than eat, and that may be true.
In addition to eating ourselves into food comas, we have been attempting to do some historical stuff.
We decided to begin our tour of Athenian culture and history at the Acropolis Museum. This is an absolutely smashing museum, which opened in 2009. It sits just below the Acropolis (the site on the top of the hill that overlooks Athens) and has a great view of the Parthenon (the famous temple that dominates the Acropolis). The museum is modern and bright and takes a lot of the fussiness out of looking at old pieces of marble. It showcases a wide variety of artifacts recovered from the slopes of the Acropolis, it has some splendid sculpture, and it even has an extraordinary bust of Aristotle that was just discovered in 2005 when they were excavating the site of the museum itself.
There are other wonders – early in the process they realized that the museum was sitting on a valuable archeological site in its own right (people have been living in this neighborhood for the past six thousand years) so they built the structure on top of the diggings in a way that would allow the research to continue and which would let visitors observe the ongoing work. It’s nifty.
Finally, they have transferred the marble friezes from the Parthenon to the new museum in a full sized presentation of the Parthenon’s exterior. They are replacing the actual Parthenon with exact replicas, which may offend some. It’s a tough call. If you leave them out there they will be damaged by the elements and could be destroyed by earthquakes and such. Moreover, you can now look at these amazing sculptures up close in a controlled environment. But taking them away isn’t so great either. I’m not sure it matters. We’ll all be dead before the scaffolding comes down up there. Maybe our grandchildren will get to see a cleaned up Parthenon site. On the other hand, maybe not.
The actual Acropolis and the Parthenon
Armed with some context, we hiked up the hill the next day to see the place itself. It was nearing sunset, which made the visit even more lovely. Walking in the place of all that history is really something, but the story of how this amazing site has been plundered and mangled is quite depressing. The temple complex, which was constructed in 443 BCE, was pretty much intact until the 17th century, when bad things started to happen. In the mid-1600’s the entrance monument, called the Propylaia, was badly damaged when the gunpowder the occupying Turks were storing there exploded. Later, they largely dismantled another structure, the Temple of Athena, to shore up the hill’s defenses. Then, the Parthenon itself was bombarded by the Venetians in 1687. The final blow came when the Turks allowed Lord Elgin of England to walk off with many of the marble sculptures that surround the upper face of the structure. The Elgin Marbles, as they came to be known, are still on display in the British Museum. If you ask me, they should have hoisted Elgin up by his marbles, and the British should return the sculptures. The British position, as near as I can tell, has been, “Nanny nanny boo boo. We’re taking your marbles and you should go home.” Give back the marbles, Britain.
National Archeological Museum of Athens
The next stop on our archeological history tour was a visit to the archeology museum in downtown Athens. By this time you might imagine that we were maxing out on archeology, but in fact we were starting to get the hang of this stuff. There were thirty three galleries of statues, many of which I first saw in my textbook when I took my one and only art history class back in the 20th century. Despite all this truly impressive art and history, the highlight of the visit might have been the bold determination of this box turtle, which escaped the inner courtyard and was making its way into the exhibit without a ticket.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus
We wrap up our tour of old stuff with a visit to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, a massive site in the middle of town. There’s no museum, not much explanation, just a bunch of columns (including one that fell in a storm in 1852) and a few excavated outer sections. The lack of fuss is part of the charm, though. We shambled in late in the day, paid our two euros, and basically had the place to ourselves.
We had a number of other fun adventures, most of which involved food or cocktails. We wandered the central market and looked at the sheep’s heads and piles of fish and then had a nice market lunch. We hit a few rooftop bars for our pre-dinner cocktail. (Is the economy rebounding? Maybe, the cocktails were almost as expensive as they are in New York.)
My favorite dish of the visit was at Melilotos, where we returned for a second visit, proving that I can choose good, cheap, and reliable over different once in a while. The dish that made me sing was meatballs in tomato sauce with tagiatelle. What? Italian food in Greece? Well, it was Italian with a twist – the meatballs were made with cinnamon and mint and I can’t stop thinking about them.
Today we are off to Istanbul. What should we do? Where should we eat?
And finally, my favorite picture so far: