Friday, October 22, 2010

Greece: Athens

Ah, today was the day! After flying 12 hours just to get to Greece then spending the first three days on boats and buses this was the first morning without wake-up calls at sunrise. And it was the day of perhaps the greatest anticipation as much of this day would be spent winding our way to and visiting on top of the Acropolis of Athens itself. Nothing symbolizes all that is Greece or Athens itself than this flat-topped rock rising some 500 feet above the city with history dating back to the Bronze Age. First, though, would come a busy yet casual morning of walking around the city before winding up at the Acropolis itself.

The old Royal Palace was closest to our hotel so we started there to see the yellow and white building now serving as Parliament House for the national government. Honestly, it's not much to look, a big, square three-layer cake with a few neoclassic columns at ground level. The main point of interest, however, is the two-man honor guard, the "Evzones" at the base of the west entrance standing watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

I always wonder how each ceremonial guard comes up with the elaborate dance of respect that is the march, change of position and change of guard. The Greek guard is no slouch on the world stage, starting with the kilt-like uniform known as the "fustanella" which features the kilted overcoat, ivory leggings with knee-bands, a red beret with a long sash hanging from the right side and what look like red rubber shoes with a tuft-ball at the toe. Top all of this with a bayoneted rifle and the high-kicking, full arm-swinging march that meets in the middle with a tapping of the toes at the center of the monument. These young men believe in their role of honor and sense of duty as much as any honor guard I've seen at Arlington National Cemetery. We watched in silent respect and moved on.

A quick walk by the original Olympic Stadium first built in 566 BC then re-cased in marble two hundred years later and renovated twice more before the revival of the games in 1896. Used again for the 2004 games it is a massive structure in the elongated "U" style that once held 80,000 spectators and easily evoked visions of the heyday in classical architecture all around the city. Reinforcing that image was a stroll past Hadrian's Gate, a Roman Arch built by the globe-trotting conqueror most famous for his wall near the Scottish border in England. This 60-foot tall arch spanned a main road leading towards our next destination, the complex featuring the Temple of Olympian Zeus at what was then and remains today the heart of ground-level Athens.

The beast is big, that's the only way I can describe it. This colossal set of columns really demonstrated not merely architectural ingenuity for its time but sheer power and authority as well. It is arguably not hyperbole to imagine this building as the St. Peter's of its day. Like more than a few later cathedrals the story goes it took over 630 years to complete and, longer than a football field, was in fact the largest temple in Greece during the Roman years. By the time it was finished as a place of worship, however, the temple had a relatively short shelf-life before falling in to disuse, disrepair and abandonment. Ultimately it became a quarry for building supplies on other projects around the city but enough remains for anyone to see that this was one big building at the center of a major spiritual culture.

And this before we looked over our shoulders and saw the Acropolis less than a mile away and waiting.

Gotta go!

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