We awake and return to the pedestrian path. This time we turn to the right, visiting the Dionysian theater before ascending past its temples and sanctuaries. Bernie stops to pose near the statue of Menander outside the theater, then has his picture taken sitting in the stands of the theater itself.
The path takes us past a ‘choregic monument’ which, we learn, is a memorial marking the winning of a type of artistic competition. The stones of this monument were cannibalized to build the Acropolis entry gate we will soon walk through. We walk beside the ruins of the Stoa of Eumenes, and along the Peripatos, a walkway that leads along most of this side of the Acropolis.
A workman is smoothing marble blocks in the Asclepeion, sanctuary of Asclepios and his daughter Hygeia, and we pass a square foundation which is tentatively labeled as a temple to Themis. Byzantine cisterns, ancient Bronze foundry, and then… We find ourselves above the Herodion. Scaffolding and signs warning of rock slides and earthquake damage clarify why the theater was blocked from access. Turning the corner, we enter the Acropolis monument area.
We ascend the Propylaia – a massive gate, whose sole purpose seems to be to impress upon us the importance of the place we are entering. Perhaps in ancient times it was also a fortification – it crosses the entry on the only side of the Acropolis that is not a cliff – but today, it merely reminds us how small we are – in the works of man, in the span of time… Atop the gate sits the 2,500 year old temple of Athena Nike.
When we finally climb high enough and make our way forward to the clifftop, there is a moment of recognition – we are on historic ground. To our left, the Erectheion. To our right ahead, the Parthenon. At our immediate right, the ruins of Artemis Bruaronia. Immediately left, the rubble that used to house the statue of Athena Promachos, whose bronze helmet and spear tip were used as a navigational beacon all the way out to Sounio – two-and-a-half millennia of history, still standing before us despite the best efforts of generations to pillage and destroy it.
As we walk along the back of the Parthenon – the side facing our hotel – we look down over the Dionysian theater. In the distance, the Temple of Zeus towers over Athens, and we see Hadrian’s Arch and the Panathenaikos in a line, also clearly visible. On this side of the Acropolis is a series of signs showing the restoration of the Parthenon, and displaying pictures – historical, recreations, current. We stop for a moment to watch the workmen begin the process of raising a marble block into place – it is slow and painstaking. There is a ‘quarry site’ below, where marble blocks are stored, and we see the winches that raise them up the hill to ore carts, a short train track to the base of the building, and another winch to lift them to building height. Looking up, we see the flat face of the Parthenon, bolt-holes marking where sections of frieze used to be attached. At the roofline, we see one lone carving remaining in place, and wonder whether it will be removed, preserved, or added to, in time…
One of the advantages of the Acropolis was its natural springs. They were used in the temple construction, and in times of war they could provide precious water to the fortified area of the city. In the shade of an olive tree, there is a water fountain, presumably fed by these springs. We stop to drink, even though we are not thirsty. How often does one have the opportunity to drink from a sacred spring, after all? The endless cats are present here at the top of the city as well, and when I say hello to one, it stops to speak to me. I stop to pet it in return.
We continue on to a flagpole set in one corner of the plateau. Its history is more recent, but worthy of mention. The pole is set on an observation platform, which bears a plaque commemorating a modern Greek hero. When the Nazis seized Greece, they insisted that the Greek flag be replaced by the Nazi ensign. The Evzone (soldier from the presidential detail) on duty is said to have lowered the flag – then wrapped himself in it and leapt to his death. His clear message to the Nazis embodied the spirit of Greece and he is revered as a martyr.
We turn toward the Erectheion, and in the distance see the Temple of Hephaistos. We have spotted it repeatedly in our travels around the city, but never manage to visit it. From here, I think, it is seen to best advantage.
Inside the Erectheion is said to be the spot where Poseidon tapped the ground with his trident to loose the spring of salt water. His gift lost to Athena’s olive tree, making her patron of the city. Between the Erectheion and the path along the Parthenon lie the remains of the “old temple of Athena.”
We have circled the plateau and it is time to make our way down again. Looking downward, we see a multitude of tourists swarming a rock with a stairway cut into it: the place where the Apostle Paul is said to have addressed the Athenians.
On the path below the Propylaia, my knee gives way and I fall, landing hard on my hands. For the rest of our trip through Greece, I will continue to climb up and down hills, and groan at the endless stairways – but Bernie will be constantly at my side, always with a hand or an arm to steady me. I am reminded of my good fortune in having such a caring partner in my life.
We return to the Agora, and this time we go inside to see the areas we did not visit earlier. As it turns out, 10km of hills was a bit much for my knee – wandering Athens’ hills afterward is a measured thing for me. I decided to sit and wait while Bernie and Margy explore the second floor of the Stoa of Atticus. (Darn that VA doctor, who keeps being proven right about the knee. But I am happy to say I only let it keep me from doing two things in Greece, and only one of them is something I consider myself to have ‘missed.’). Before they leave me to go up the stairs, Bernie pauses to pose next to part of a huge statue of Apollo. They go upstairs – and I duck through an arch to see what lies beside the building.
Sitting outside in the Ancient Agora of Athens I wonder briefly: if the chattering of tourists were to stop, could I hear the echo of Plato, of Aristotle, of Socrates? (A friend assures me that the laws of physics say yes – we just need instrumentation strong enough to detect it.)
We walk past Hadrian’s Library again, and Bernie stops us. Yet another t-shirt shop – no, wait! This one sells Greek military and police clothing and uniforms. He picks up polo shirts for himself and our friend next door. We declare this the best souvenir find in town, as the salesman reminds him (for the third time) that he can not wear those while he is in Greece…
In the afternoon, we take the long bus ride to Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon. In a reversal from Athens, Poseidon is the main god here, and there is a minor shrine to Athena. The temple lies at the southern tip of Attica, in a strategically important area of the Aegean. It was a watchpost in ancient days. We pass the island that is the traditional birthplace of Artemis – strangely, not the same island that is the traditional birthplace of her twin brother.
Few came up the hill to visit Sounio in its heyday – it was designed to be seen from the sea. Up close, it is strangely short for a Greek temple; it looks much taller from sea level. Our tour guide explains that since it was designed to be impressive from below, it wasn’t necessary to build it tall – and the frequent earthquakes made construction a challenge. The walls are built from varying materials designed to make them light and flexible so they would not tumble in a quake.
I walk around the temple, taking picture after picture as the sun sinks below the horizon, amazed at the differences in the color of the stone from second to second. The tour guide points out the vast differences in the columns – the windward ones have been worn smooth with blowing sand, while the more protected ones still have strong features.
In earlier centuries, this was the traditional place that young noblemen ended their “Grand Tour.” When Lord Byron visited, he observed the old custom of ships carving their names in the rock. He put his own spin on it, carving his own name – in cursive, no less, which must have taken days. Successive visitors followed in his footsteps, and up close the stone is a mass off ancient graffiti.
We drive home along the Aegean shore in the darkness, returning for our last night at the Herodion. We have dinner at another of the restaurants along the pedestrian way – once again selecting a place that seemed to be always full of locals. When the waiter sees me taking a photo of the sign, he rushes over with a business card: Taverna Plakiotissa. After yet another wonderful dinner (somehow, I managed not to gain weight on this trip…?), we return to our last night at Herodion.