September 15, 2008

Athens (Slight Return) - for Byzantine stuff, obviously...

Arranging flights from Chania to Macau was a bit of a nightmare, with a lot of the routes offered taking over 24 hours to make the journey. We eventually settled on Qatar Air via Doha, but that meant having a six hour wait in Athens. Having just visited it a few weeks before, we decided that rather than hang around the airport, we would head into Athens on the Metro whilst waiting for our connecting flights.

It was a bit of a risky plan - what if we got stuck in town? And we nearly abandoned the whole idea, because a couple of days before we were due to fly the train drivers of the Athens Metro started staging strikes. In the end though it all worked out fine. Although it is on one of the three main lines, trains from the Metro only depart from the airport every half-hour, and take about 40 minutes to get to the centre of town, so we didn't have a great deal of time for sight-seeing.

We left our baggage in their airport at a 'left luggage' counter that was a wonderfully Greek affair. There were about 5 guys behind the counter, but only one actually serving people. The pricing was done by one of the guys lifting the bags up, and guesstimating the weight (although, to be fair, he was absolutely spot on to the kilogram with our two bags). And there was just one long, long, long, queue, regardless of whether you were doing the lengthy process of checking a bag in, or just trying to quickly collect your bag before your flight departed...

We decided to head straight for lunch, and so went back to one of the restaurants we had visited on our previous trip. Although we often like trying new places, with such a short amount of time to spare we didn't want to waste any hanging around trying to chose a place to eat.

Ευχαρις is in a very touristy area near to the Acropolis and Monstiraki Square, but they seem to go the extra mile in preparing and presenting their food, and, for central Athens, it is reasonably priced. They also have another big attraction - very efficient air conditioning.


After lunch we popped back on the Metro for two stops to visit the Byzantine & Christian Museum. Now, you might think you can have too many Byzantine Icons, but as far as I'm concerned, there can never be enough!


The Museum looks rather small and unimpressive from outside, but turned out to be one of the best exhibitions I've seen in Greece. Not only do they have some great artifacts and preserved wall paintings, but they have an amazing room full of double-sided icons dating back to the 13th century, all beautifully displayed so that you can walk around them to get the full effect.


I was also pleased with another thing - there were a couple of displays with fragments of marble which attempted to recreate what Byzantine Christian Basilicas would have been like. For the backdrops they used several photographs of the Churches that I dragged poor Claire around in Ravenna. At least it proved I had been right when I was explaining to her just how unique and important that umpteenth Church mosaic was!



August 13, 2008

Trying to recreate our fantastic voyage - FAIL

Greek culture is keen on recreating legendary voyages. We have our own replica Minoan ship in Chania, and a few weeks back a multi-national EU crew rowed a replica of Jason's Argonaut carrying boat to Italy. We tried a bit of a recreation of our own, and decided to get the ferry from Piraeus to Chania at the end of our Athens trip.

Just over two years ago we made the same voyage. That time we weren't sure what to expect on the ferry, had never visited Crete, and had no idea whether we would be able to find a house or make a home there. But what we did have was a couple of backpacks full of stuff, and a lovely, lovely ice cold beer by the side of the ship before we set sail.



This time around, we were much better prepared for what to expect from ANEK lines. We got the complimentary bus that takes you from just about the door of the Metro to the ANEK ticket office - even though it is only ten minutes walk.

Then we headed off to get our ice cold beer...only to find that the quayside bar has been converted into a Starbucks!



August 11, 2008

The Arabic Parthenon

Like many ancient monuments of the Greek and Roman civilisations, there are a lot of misconceptions about the Acropolis in Athens. Not least of which is that I'm fairly certain that a vast majority of Britons would identify the Parthenon as being a building called 'The Acropolis'.


We see these gleaming white marble buildings today, and imagine our European forefathers standing around them looking just like that, only a little less run-down. There is also a tendency to think that the buildings were used by 'the ancients', and then fell into ruins, and were re-discovered as a postcard tourist attraction sometime in the 1950s. In fact they were in constant use for much of the last millennium, and it is only in relatively recent years that they have been isolated as a 'monument'.

The Parthenon was used as a church (both Orthodox and later Roman Catholic) and a place of Christian pilgrimage during Byzantine times. It then became a mosque under Ottoman rule, and had a minaret added to it. It was also used as an ammunition store, which was how it came to be blown up in 1687.

Of course, using the Parthenon as a Church is just seen as part of the rich Christian heritage that the Greek-speaking people clung onto even under Muslim occupation. Using the buildings as a mosque, however, was a bad thing that was so beyond the pale that nobody seems to mention it much these days.

I suspect it is for that reason that the pieces of marble you see lying around the Acropolis complex with Arabic inscriptions on them will never find themselves part of a restoration project...


August 08, 2008

Those marbles

Nothing vexes Anglo-Greek relations as much as the Elgin Marbles Parthenon Frieze those bloody bits of marble in the British Museum.


Well, except perhaps the actions of the British in Cyprus.

Or that time Greece lulled us into a false sense of supremacy by letting Steve McClaren win his first game in charge of England 4-0 against the then European Champions.

But I digress.

Depending on which side of the fence you are sitting on, the removal of the marbles was either a beneficial act of conservation, or outright theft and vandalism.

From the British point of view, the argument runs that the removal of the artifacts was done with the permission of the Ottoman Empire, which was the legitimate government of the time, and that the stuff was mostly just lying around waiting to be picked up and reassembled, or already in the hands of looters and private collectors.

From the Greek point of view, they feel that the Ottomans had no moral right to start giving the heritage of the ancient Athenians away, and that Elgin went a bit further than just picking up a few bits of stray rocks that had fallen off the Parthenon. In fact, if you pick up a free tourist map of the Athens Public Transport system from the airport, you'll find that the back features an essay describing Lord Elgin sawing up the marble, and using a crowbar to lever the frieze away from the building.

It is also impossible to judge if the marble has ended up better preserved in London than it would have been in Athens. Elgin took the marbles away in 1801, and it wasn't until the formation of the Greek nation state some 31 years later that Athenians regained total ownership of their monuments.

Had they been left intact, the frieze would have had to deal with a century of Athens' air pollution, two now discredited restorations of the Parthenon, and the building of the barely sub-surface level Athens Metro at the foot of the Acropolis just metres from the Ancient Agora site in the 1890s.


The remaining decorations on the Parthenon have now also been removed and replaced by casts, with the originals residing in an Athens museum. Many people thought the ideal time for Britain to return, or at least 'loan' back the marbles would have been in time for the 2004 Olympics. That opportunity has passed, and so, for the forseeable future, it looks like to get a complete picture of the Parthenon, you'll still need to visit London and Athens.


And track down an 1842 photograph by Joly de Lotbinière which shows the building as a mosque...but that's a whole other story.

Posts about Athens on 'A lemon tree of our own' within the last month


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