Thursday, July 9, 2009

Piraeus & Athens: Learning so much, and yet so much more to learn

by Richard L. Weaver II

Prior to arriving at the port of Piraeus, we had a badly needed sea day. A day of rest between excursions! We needed time to just relax. In addition to listening to two lectures — one by a professor of history, Dr. Martin Binder, an excellent talk on the “Classical Greek Empire,” and one by the tenor, Alejandro Guierro, on “The Three Tenors” — I spent time in the ship’s library, “Words,” where many of these essays on Mediterranean observations were written. Celebrity’s “Discoveries and Enrichment” series is excellent, and the lectures are well attended.

Celebrity’s “Discoveries and Enrichment” series reminded me of Grand Circle Travel’s (GCT) “Discovery Series,” designed specifically to offer passengers unique opportunities to discover local people and cultures firsthand. Although GCT offers more experiences and numerous one-on-one style adventures, the difference comes down to numbers. Celebrity had 2,067 people onboard; GCT had only about 136, which they always divided into three groups of about 45-people with a cruise director in charge of each one. The point is — and this needs emphasis — their concern over providing passengers learning opportunities is greatly appreciated.

The port of Piraeus is a busy, international port that services all of Athens. Our Acropolis and sightseeing tour began on time, and our experienced (34-year) tour guide majored in English literature at the University of Athens. Knowledgeable, with a great sense of humor, she gave us dates, rulers, and historical information that you don’t get from reading a brochure.

Our tour began by entering the city center of Athens from the southwest along Syngrou Avenue. We drove past the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, the largest Corinthian-style temple in Greece, taking over 700 years to build. We saw Hadrian’s Arch which separates the old and new Roman towns. We saw the National Gardens, the National Library and Parliament Building as well as the Panathinion Stadium built in 1895 for the first modern Olympics in 1896.

From the Panathinion Stadium, our bus took us to the Acropolis, where they expect 17 million visitors this year. The marble pathways and 150 steps to the top of the hill were slick, the weather cool and windy, the crowds dense and loud, the structures imposing and impressive, and the views out over Athens unbelievable. We entered through the Porpylea Entrace, saw the Erectheum, and the Temple of Wingless Victory.

The Acropolis is the best known acropolis (high city) in the world. It is also referred to as the “Sacred Rock.” On March 26, 2007, it was proclaimed to be the pre-eminent monument in the European Cultural Heritage list of monuments. It is a flat-topped rock that rises 512 feet above sea level.

There is archaeological evidence dating human occupation of the Acropolis (then known as Attica) as early as the Middle Neolithic Era (6th millennium BC). Once into the Bronze Age (4th to 5th millennium BC), a Mycenaeum (last phase of the Bronze age) megaron (great hall) stood on top of the hill, housing the local potentate and his family, guards, workshops, and ordinary habitations. It was surrounded by a thick wall and this early Acropolis was spared the violent destruction experienced by other Mycenaeum palaces during the Dark Ages.

There were numerous changes in the Acropolis as various factions took it over in their attempts to seize political power by coups. Most of the major temples were rebuilt under the leadership of Pericles during the golden age of Athens (460-430 BC), and it was during the 5th century BC that the Acropolis obtained its final shape. Construction on it began in 447 BC and it was completed in 438 BC. Decorations were added until at least 432 BC.

Information from our tour guide that I found most fascinating was about the Parthenon named after Parthena (“Virgin” or “Maiden”) Athena. It was the Emperor Theodosius who turned the Parthenon into a Christian Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was the Franks who turned it into a Catholic Church in 1204, and the Turks turned it into a Mosque in 1458.

You may wonder how it became the shell it is today? In 1687, when the Turks were using the Parthenon as a powder magazine, they were attacked by Venetian military forces of Morosini (with Otto Vilhelm Konigsmark (1639-1688) as field commander). A German lieutenant fired the fatal shot on September 26, 1687, and it reduced this crowning glory of Grecian art to a mere skeleton. The roof collapsed, and parts of the sculptures and pillars were destroyed, It is imposing nonetheless, and there is work going on that will completely restore the structure.

We were standing in the place where public speaking had its birth. On our tour of the Acropolis, we stood on the spot where Demosthenes and other citizens not only practiced, but in the Greek democracy, spoke out freely and often. The most important aspect of Greek society given to the rest of the world was democracy — stated by our tour guide, reinforcing in almost the same words what Dr. Martin Binder had told us earlier in his lecture on the Greek empire.

Given the excellent tour guide we had, it is clear that our sightseeing tour of Athens and the Acropolis could be done individually — without a tour — only with great difficulty. Knowing your way around and getting to the places you desire is tough for like other early European cities, the streets are narrow and the traffic is heavy. Even though our tour bus was big as it plied the narrow streets, it commanded an undisputed presence and negotiated easily for its right of passage, despite the yellow taxis, small cars zipping in and out, and the ever-present motor scooters. Our tour guide said, “There are many scooter accidents.”

We have learned so much. Our tour guide to the Acropolis, at the end of our tour as we were entering the port area, apologized for giving us so much information all at one time. She was right, it was overwhelming, but she didn’t need to apologize. The history and background of Greece is fascinating, to say the least. There is just so much to know and understand, and she barely touched the surface, of course. The information about the Acropolis and Parthenon in this essay gives little evidence of how much information we would have to absorb to completely understand it all and put it into the proper context.

One reason for writing these essays — especially for writing each so close to the time the excursion was taken — and for my wife taking the many photographs she did, is to preserve some differentiation. That is, the goal is to keep all of this information from becoming gray and undifferentiated. Clearly we learned so much, and yet there is so much more to learn.
At, there are at least 40 icons tourists can click on to get information about Greece, the Port of Piraeus or surrounding areas.

At you’ll find a panoramic view of the Port of Piraeus as well as nearly 40 icons, one of which has a variety of 360 paroramas. At its Athens website, you’ll find just as much helpful information on the city.

Matt Barrett’s Travel Guide, has an Athens Survival Guide that gives all the specifics including basic Athens information, walking in Athens, services, and additional information.
Copyright July, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

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