March 25, 2005

Oliver Ames goes to Greece, part 4: What's up, Acropolis?

(To blog readers: My son is traveling to Greece in April with a group from Massachusetts’ Oliver Ames [OA] High School [see March 5 post]. To give students and parents a glimpse of some of the places on the group’s itinerary and to provide links to sites the travelers may find helpful, I’m devoting 10 consecutive daily posts from March 22 through March 31 to places on the kids’ Greek itinerary. [I can’t think of a better place than Greece to hang, really or virtually, but if you’d like to go elsewhere, cruise the archives to visit scores of other great places, from Jamaica to Jordan, Malta to Mexico.] Wherever you end up, Kalo taxidi! Have a good trip.)

Acro – upper. Polis – city. Athens’ Acropolis, the soaring limestone hill crowned by the still majestic Parthenon, is a place you have to see with your own eyes. Countless people have seen it before you, and thousands of photographs have been made of it, but when your turn comes to look upon this powerful high place, it knows it’s being seen again for the first time, and it delivers its millionth debut with quiet strength and grace.

Walk quietly among its stones and columns, consider its seminal role in the development of democracy and civil freedoms, and accord it respect and awe. The lady may be old – in this case, she’s in ruins – but she’s beautiful, and full of stories. All you have to do is look and listen. To Athens' rocks.

The Acropolis and the area that surrounds it hold countless sights and treasures. The Parthenon, while missing more than a few of its “marbles” – massive pieces of the structure spirited from Greece by Britain’s Lord Elgin in 1801 after a sweetheart deal with the occupying Turks, housed ever since in London’s British Museum, and pursued for centuries by the Greeks, who’d like them back – is just one of the wonders of the Acropolis. (Called the Elgin Marbles for centuries, the massive sculptures and pieces of the Parthenon's main frieze are, in a nod to political and cultural correctness, increasingly referred to as the Parthenon Marbles to signify both their provenance and the place to which many hope they will return.)

Athens offers much to the visitor, and while on the Acropolis, be sure to see:

*** The Beule Gate – You’ll enter the Acropolis from here, after climbing a long series of steps from the street below. As you walk beneath the gate, consider that it’s 1,738 years old – and built from destroyed Dorian buildings older than that. If stones could talk…

*** The Propylaia – The monumental entranceway just inside the gate, incorporating the Temple of Athena Nike. Stand before the Propylaia and look up. Its massive size and position at the edge of the Acropolis hillside induce both wonder and vertigo. The Nike temple is crisp, efficient, compact and elegant. Nike is the ancient Greek goddess of victory. The sneaker people didn’t invent the name. They borrowed it. In the land that birthed the Olympics and the marathon and raised sport to an art form, Nike’s been putting wings on feet for thousands of years.

*** The Erechtheion – Look for six chicks holding a whole porch up on their heads. The stone ladies are caryatids, architectural support columns sculpted into human shapes, usually female. The Erectheion’s Porch of the Caryatids shows that women have been carrying their share of the load since ancient times.

*** The Acropolis Museum – No groans. If the word “museum” describes a place you’d rather pass on given the choice, hang on. It’s the word that’s the problem, and it shouldn't be. “Museum” derives from the Muses, nine Greek goddesses who breathed life into poetry, music, drama, science. Inspiration. The Muses also lend their name to the words “music” and “mosaic,” things of beauty created by men to adorn and celebrate life. A museum is a place with beautiful or interesting things to look at. The Acropolis Museum is a quick take on art, history, commerce, politics -- well worth a few minutes of musing. Enjoyable and easy to digest (cool, too – you’ll welcome the temporary relief from the hot Acropolis sun). Go in one side and come out the other enriched.

*** The theaters – There’d be no Oscars without the Greeks. They invented theater . (Giving the world democracy wasn’t enough.) As you stand on the Acropolis, look down at the Odeon and the Theatre of Dionysus. Imagine the citizenry of ancient Athens gathered on a hot night, dark waters of the Saronic Gulf sparkling in the distance, hooting at the biting wit of an Aristophanes comedy or wringing their hands over the tribulations of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Audiences gather in these ancient stone seats still today for plays and concerts.

*** The slopes – The Acropolis is a hill. Hills have slopes, and these slopes have treasures. Plaka, an ancient neighborhood under the Acropolis, is history layered on history. I remember standing in an old Plaka street built into the Acropolis’ slope and taking in six ages of history and architecture in a single sweep of my eyes: the Parthenon of ancient Greece; the Agora, a market and public gathering place built by the Romans; a Byzantine church; Venetian houses, restored and refurbished; the ruins of a mosque built by the Turks during the Ottoman occupation; high-rise concrete apartment buildings of modern Athens. Six distinct epochs of history in one eyeful. Not far from Plaka is the old neighborhood of Monastiraki, where you'll find more locals than tourists (who are in Plaka). A walk around the bottom perimeter of the Acropolis’ slopes yields hints and pieces of antiquity hiding under trees, behind bushes. Patches of ancient Roman mosaic floors. If you peer beyond the fences that separate the Acropolis hill from the city’s street level, you may spy remnants of hand-laid stone floors that Roman patricians, merchants and civic leaders walked on two thousand years ago. Hidden in the gray-green oak scrub, forgotten, except by you.

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