By the time my wife and I reached the entrance of Acropolis (a flat top hill in the heart of Athens that housed major temples in ancient Greece), it was late in the afternoon and the sun was not as strong as during the middle of the day. As we started climbing up the stairs towards the main area of the temples, a cool breeze was blowing – indicating that spring was not yet over. Moreover, as the entrance was on the western side of the hill, we were walking with our back towards the sun. Despite that, we found the climb physically demanding and remembered our trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia (for seeing the Angkor wats) where climbing the stairs of several temples was quite tough and I had concluded that such trips should be undertaken when one is young and physically fit.
Many of the archaeological sites in Greece, e.g., those on and around the Acropolis in Athens, are basically ruins. But with a bit of help from the descriptions of the guides and those provided in flyers brought out by the government, it is not difficult to create a picture of the real structure in one's mind. For example, the Parthenon a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena looked like a construction site when we visited because it was undergoing restoration. But the fact that its eight giant columns at two ends and 17 on each of the two sides have remained there for more than two thousand years and have withstood ravages of wars and aggressions is indicative of their strength. Some of the decorations on the beams and upper parts of the temple depicting various gods and goddesses, events (e.g., wars) and myths, have also remained although many have been moved to the Acropolis museum (on the southern periphery of the hill) for preservation and display. And the old temple of Athena on the eastern side of the hill has retained its shape quite well (see photo). Likewise, the open-air theatre and the stadium on the southern side have also retained their splendour.
Close to the time for sunset, a smart contingent of the Greek army entered with due seriousness and paraded towards the eastern end of the hill where the national flag was flying. I thought that the armed contingent lowering the flag against the scene of the setting sun accompanied by the sound of bugles would mark a majestic end to the day. Unfortunately, closing time of the site was 8 p.m. which was a few minutes before sunset, and the visitors did not have a chance to watch sunset and the flag lowering event from the hill top.
Along the slope of the northern side of the Acropolis hill is the ancient Agora, the area that housed commercial, political, social and cultural establishments of the time. It is said that that is the area from where scholars like Socrates, Aristotle, et al. used to deliver their lectures and propound their ideas. On a hill top in that area is the small Parthenon a temple of Apollo. We had a view of that area as well as the temple against the setting sun, but the actual visit was postponed till the following day. Although the whole area is basically in ruins, it was possible to have some idea about the market place, and the centres of administrative, political and social activities. The small Parthenon is located on the top of a hill with winding stairs taking one up there. Both my wife and I were able to climb to the hill top and have a view of the temple from all sides. This is about the only temple I have seen in Greece that has at least part of the roof intact.
The Romans had moved their administrative centre to an area to the east of the ancient Agora. However, except for the gate of Athena on the west and the round “tower of winds” on the east, nothing much of that area is visible now. Interestingly, on the northern side of the Roman Agora, a structure known as “Fetiye çami” (or the mosque of the conqueror built around 1456) has remained in pretty good shape. This provides one with a reminder that Greece was part of the Ottoman empire for nearly four hundred years from about mid-15th century. But the mosque was not functional and its doors were locked.
At the end of our tour of the two Agoras, we were quite hungry and thought of lunch. As we took the northern exit of the ancient Agora, we found ourselves on a street called Adrianou, on one side of which were numerous restaurants. Parallel to Adrianou on the northern side is the famous flea market where small shops sell a wide variety of typically Greek products ranging from shoes and other leather products, jewellery, clothing, etc. However, lunch was our priority, and we shopped around a bit (all restaurants display their menus at the entrance) before settling down. After lunch we headed to the hotel for a little break before our planned visit to the Acropolis museum.
One historical site in Athens that is not normally frequented by tourists is the prison of Socrates. This is basically a cave in a small hillock that is located in a park called Filopappou hill (on the southern side of the Acropolis). Even our taxi driver had difficulty finding its entrance. Anyway, with a bit of effort, we were able to reach the place and found the caves with iron gates. One of them is basically like a prison cell while the other extended inwards (we couldn't figure out where). It seems that although ancient Greece is renowned for its democratic institutions, freedom of speech was limited to the extent one agreed with the high establishment. What a similarity with the situation in many parts of the present day world!
Talking about Greek food, we found a remarkable similarity in the menu of various restaurants with of course minor variations. They range from basics like gyros (pronounced as “eero”), souvlaki, kebab, and moussakato giouvetsi(meat baked in a ceramic pot), saganaki, and grilled fish and meat. We had chicken gyros (slices of chicken from the gyrating skewer garnished with cucumber, tomato and lettuce with sauce stuffed into pita bread) for lunch on the first day. And after that we started varying the menu by introducing other items. However, we had to wait till the penultimate day for moussaka because that is almost universally prepared with minced beef and aubergine, and neither my wife nor I take beef.
In order to have Greek food cooked in really traditional style, one has to go to a “tavernas” type restaurant, of which there are many in the Plaka area. I would consider the lamb giouvetsiI at such a restaurant as the best of my meals in Greece. The baked lamb in the ceramic pot had become so soft that it almost melted in the mouth. While the quality and taste of food is important, the location and ambiance can also make a big difference. The dinner we had at a restaurant at Adrianou may not have been the best we had, but the gorgeous view of the well-lit Acropolis and of the full moon added tremendously to the overall ambiance.
Apart from visiting the historical sites and museums and having good food, I enjoyed very much walking through the narrow winding streets of the charming Plaka area, window shopping along the walking street, and wondering around in the crowded square and streets around Monastiraki. Of course, it was not easy to keep my face straight in front of the sales girl who showed us pieces of jewellery whose prices were well above ten thousand Euros (more than ten lakh taka).
To be continued