Build & Rebuild
Old & New
24th to 26th October, 2019

I'd heard that Athens was a dump. A litter-strewn and smoggy rat-race of a city, clogged with traffic and far too many people. I'd also heard it was the seat of antiquity, a place from whence the civilisation of humankind rose from a primordial soup to spread across the globe. Judging from the current state of the globe, that clearly went very well. It seemed, in the brief time we saw it, that Athens was both an origin of humanity, and a grubby metropolis.
“From above, Athens looked like a concrete puddle, spread thinly over a wide plain,
lapping disinterestingly against the surrounding foothills."
Because we care
We'd originally planned to spend longer in Greece. In the end, Croatia and Montenegro got the higher priority. However, Athens was our stepping-off point for Jordan, so we had to go there anyway, if only for a day. We'd found a hotel within walking distance of the Acropolis, and didn't plan to do anything more than going there.

From above, Athens looked like a concrete puddle, spread thinly over a wide plain and lapping disinterestingly against the surrounding foothills. The trip from the airport to the city centre was long, and hot. The bus stopped well short of its destination, the streets ahead closed off.

As we reoriented ourselves and started walking, we found the swelling sound of an angry crowd the reason for the closure. Apparently the protest, right in front of parliament, was in reaction to State censorship in the universities. Police from that same State were in evidence, lining the streets in their riot gear, blue buses parked across the roads in a barricade against the crowd. We couldn't see the protesters, but we could hear them. The armoured row of riot cops on our side of the buses were ready to go. A solitary cop carrying a gas canister walked the line, spraying it under the bus barricade at intervals. We got a whiff as we went past and it caught in our throats, stripping them open. So nice to know the Greek police care for the sinus health of the citizens they're protecting. Stopping nasal congestion and such.
Once down in the subway, we were able to block the sound of the angry crowd and imagine it wasn't happening. We stopped at Omonia Square, ringed with corrugated siding and aimless pedestrians. A bit of jiggery-pokery found us at the hotel, a beacon of cleared pavement amongst the sea of litter that seemed to pile up against anything stationary. The hotel itself was pretty good and, after settling in, we took a stroll. It turned out to be nicely-suited for a day of exploring. Our dinner wasn't flash, just some tasty rolls from a street vendor. We crossed Athinas on our way back, and could see the Acropolis in the distance, lit from below. Athinas was comfortably crowded with street stalls and people minding their own business.

The next morning was cool when we set off. We'd planned to get to the Acropolis ahead of the crowds and the heat. The hill rose above us as we passed Hadrian's Library (seems he got everywhere - Hadrians Wall, Hadrian's Gate, and now here's his bloody library) until we climbed high enough to realise it wasn't the right way. We headed left across the face of the hill, down narrow stairs and past a friendly old guy who said hello, and a cat, which ignored us.
Once through the main gate, the climb up past the amphitheater reminded me where we were. This place was damned old. Countless people had walked, worked, and died here. The imprint of their humanity was palpable.

Call me a pleb but, while I'm glad we visited the Parthenon, it wasn't a highlight for me. The patchwork repairs to the columns were incredibly well done, but seemed to push the building beyond its years. Like a once-beautiful model who'd had too many facelifts. For some reason, it didn't get under my skin. I'll no doubt be criticised for saying so. However, I've noticed that the desire to get "likes" seems to prohibit any commentary on anything less appealing. As in saying, "well, that was a bit crap".

As an example, good friends of ours have recently finished the most incredible journey of their own. It was a difficult task, done under immense pressure to a horrendous timeline, with an unrelenting social media presence. But they had to show the eternal positive, continually posting how amazing it was, and how much fun it was, and that it was such a cool thing to be doing. All those things were true, but there was no bandwidth allowed for the fact that it was also freaking hard.

Are we so simplistic and well-protected from things we choose to not "like", that the thought of another side to any story is unbearable? Here we were, at the Acropolis and I was thinking, "it's really just another big pile of rocks". Tourists poured over it all, taking many pictures with themselves in prominence, and I contemplated the impermanence of it all.

With all those repairs, I hope they're using a good glue
We had a look around, then bailed to Filopappou Hill. We'd spied it from the Parthenon, and wondered if there might be a better view of the ruins from there. Aside from sparse pines and the campsite of three homeless guys, it was quiet and almost empty. From the top we could see back to the Parthenon, with the concrete tide of Athens spreading out in all directions.

We used our vantage point to plan a route along the paved pedestrian ways, past the museum and to Hadrian's Arch (that bugger really did want to make his mark) then across to the Tower of Winds and the Agora.

Looking at the Temple of Olympian Zeus and back up to Areopagus Hill, I wondered if history had been written out of sync. It was as if the Middle Ages actually happened before Ancient Greece. The ability of the people who created these places far outweighed the times that came after. I was reminded of Rome and the Forum that had been built, buried and then partially torn down. Both civilisations had grown and then imploded, followed by centuries of darkness and conflict. I mean, the Parthenon was completed around 432BC, but when Athens was declared the capital of Greece in the eighteen hundreds, there were only about five thousand people living there. It had been fought over by the Venetians, Ottomans and anyone else who had a big enough army to get involved. We seem to have a complete inability as a species to say, "Hey, this is nice. Let's look after it."
The streets were busy but not packed, and we made our way from the temple to a square for some lunch. Who knew a salad could be so delicious? A couple of boys circuited amongst the diners, playing music for coins. They played well, and looked about ten years old, but seemed to carry the expressions of much older men.

On our stroll the previous evening, we'd seen an ice cream bar where you could order your own concoction they would create in front of you, on a chilled plate. Too good to miss, we ordered one and shared it. I think A might have snuck a bit more than me.

We found the high point of our visit at Ancient Agora, late in the afternoon. The whole complex sat in a wide bowl, with trees lining broad avenues, giving shade to old stones and pathways. It was warm, and quiet. A few people walked along, but Agora was otherwise empty. The temple of Hephaestus had been built the same time as the Parthenon but was still intact, giving a clear idea of how things would have looked.

The replica Stoa, built in ? was getting ready to close for the day, but we were allowed to sneak in for a quick look. The setting sun shone through open walls to highlight the busts of men long dead and glow on the broad, wooden floors.
Outside the Agora, we walked through a market that sold all sorts of stuff that was open for inspection by the passing throng. I think it was at that point that I came to understand the other side of Athens a little better. Past or present, maybe it's not about the city, but about its people.
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