Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An account of my travels in Greece, Part 1: Athens

In September I went to Greece. I went there without flying, travelling to London by a strange combination of boat, car and train, then using the Eurostar and TGV to reach Milan, the Italian train system to reach Bari, and then a ferry boat to reach Patras in Greece. It was all very exciting. Milan was a nice place to spend a day but, as anyone who has visited there will say, the majesty of the Duomo cathedral always seems a bit oversold when you have the Milano Centrale railway station to compare it to. The latter is an astonishing piece of architecture, I think from the Mussolini era. It certainly establishes the notion that the State is big while you are small.

In Greece I was in Athens and some places on the Peloponnese (you know, the bit that is almost an island but is not). Athens was a bit of a pleasant surprise. Before I went there, people kept saying,"I hear Athens is a smelly polluted kip." But the city seemed to lack a polluted atmosphere or any kind of all pervasive pungent aroma. Instead it was a surprisingly pretty place, with lots of great things from antiquity to see. I crossed off a list of key things here - the Acropolis (with the Parthenon and Erechtheum); the ancient Agora, which is basically a park full of evocative bits of rubble but also a nice little temple to Hephaestus; the Temple of Olympian Zeus, one of those temples that was once enormous but is now just a number of huge pillars; the Theatre of Dionysos (Roman theatre built on the site of the theatre where the plays of Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus would have been first staged); etc.

I visited the Acropolis twice. The first time in the early afternoon was very busy, full of visitors wandering around, photographing each other, admiring the buildings and the view. I was fascinated by how people approached Acropolis photography, as they seemed to be mostly trying to take pictures of the buildings without other people in the background. To me that seemed like both a futile effort but also to be misrepresentation of what the crowded hill was actually like. My own pictures deliberately show the site with all its teeming humanity.

One other photographer I was intrigued by was this guy in a black vest who kept trying and failing to get a woman (most likely wife or equivalent) to photograph him just the way he wanted it. She was not attuned to his artistic vision, so I kept hearing him say things like "That's not the picture I want, I'll show you the picture I want". I found it hard not to think of him as a bit of dick, but there was a twinge of recognition for I was once that soldier. But I am older and wiser now and know that if you want to be in photographs you need to take them yourself.

I had quite a few people, members of couples or other groups, asking me to take photos for them. One nice Australian woman offered to return the favour. I declined, but I was reminded of Rob Newman in the Mary Whitehouse Experience, half yearning to go up to happy couples with my camera to say "Excuse me, would you mind taking a picture of me, on my own?"

My second visit to the Acropolis was in the evening of the night before I flew home. That was quieter in terms of visitor numbers, which lent it a different atmosphere. The sky was clearer and the low sun provided us with lengthened shadows. I took in more of the place's ambience and pondered how a flat hilltop with only two ruined buildings (not counting the cluster at the entrance) can feel so otherworldly. And then a bunch of Greek squaddies marched in to take down the flag on the Acropolis' Second World War memorial.

I also wandered around on the hills near the Acropolis, stumbling onto the Pnyx, the hillside where the citizens of Athens met and decided public business, bequeathing democracy to the world. I also found the cell where it is said that Socrates was held before his execution, though the attribution is somewhat fanciful, and a small shrine to Pan that is mentioned by Herodotus (he reports that it was built after a messenger to Sparta met the God on his journey, with Pan complaining to the runner that the people of Athens were not showing him proper respect; Herodotus' account suggests a certain scepticism). The hilly bit of Athens is a strange and oddly otherworldly place, probably the part of Greece where I most imagined I might stumble onto some fauns or maenads, for all that they lie in the heart of the city.

Click here for Part 2 of my account, in which I visit the Italianate town of Nafplio, the unbelievably ancient site of Mycenae, and the famous theatre at Epidauros.

More pictures:


The Acropolis of Athens

Classical Stuff in Athens

All my Greek pictures

An inuit panda production

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