Omens no longer needed to be taken as we were not testing our strength and wits among the foothills of the mountain. The goats of Parnassos were, therefore, safe. This post will deal with our last few days in Athens– the Delphian museum, and its other sites, and the exploring of Athens. Pausanias had a different use here: not so much as a guide in our journeys, but needed to give extra detail on various aspects in Delphi, and Athens.
A quick note to conclude our time in Delphi then. We went on from the sanctuary itself to pause by the sacred spring where ambassadors to the oracle cleansed themselves before being received. Its present usage, however, was based around providing bus drivers water with which they could clean their buses. The spring’s waters that once cleaned Athenians, Massilians, Ephesians, Spartans, and Corinthians was now washing the dirt off the tourist vehicles of Americans and Japanese. This was saddening in one way, and we still drank from it (Pausanias recommended its ‘sweet’ waters), at least it still ran, was not dirtied at source, and had a practical function. The gymnasium was closed off and lay yellowing under the sun, but the Athena Pronoia site was stunning with its three standing columns. This is what Pausanias has to say on the matter:
“As you come into the city is a series of temples. The first was in ruins, the next empty of statues and offerings, the third had a few portraits of Roman kings, the fourth is called the Temple of Foresight [or Athena Pronoia]”
This is interesting as it shows that Pausanias approached Delphi along the same route as we originally did (from Athens), and that even in his day the dedicators and names of some of the temples were still unknown (or unworthy of comment). The museum of Delphi is very much a must see location for any traveller, and its interesting collection was increasing in stature (in our eyes at least), by the constant references to Pausanias. Our experience there was only somewhat marred due to the large number of tour groups; a sight rarer in Delphi’s less well known attractions. But the Charioteer statue, and the friezes of various treasuries stood serene above it all– constantly challenging new interpretations and views. We visited the museum in the morning of the day after our sight-seeing of Delphi’s archaeology, and with rain misting the mountains, and then pounding down on our heads we headed for the 16.00pm bus back into Athens.
The bus swayed through Arachova-Levadeia-some hotel location-and various stops in Athens, and is only remarkable for the fact that it was quite crowded, and I occasionally feared for our survival. The bus driver was attempting to hold a conversation with a bloke half-way down the bus for most of the journey, and his eyes were not what they were. He looked through his wing screen mirrors with glasses, but had no trouble with driving the rest of the journey without. Very strange, but we did arrive in one piece.
At the station we decided to walk the remaining distance through outer Athens, it was now 7.00pm, to the youth hostel which was strategically placed in the very heart of the city. It was an hour’s march, and an extremely worthwhile one. Not only did it open our eyes’ to an Athen’s untouched by tourism, but also showed us that Greeks enjoy a natter, sitting and chatting in groups, young and old, on every street. This could be quite alarming for the lone voyager and yet it presented an insight again into the slightly informal nature of Greek society. Athens has grown exponentially though in the last hundred years or so, and the predominant grey look, and heavy traffic of its outer regions divorce it from the crystalline white of the Parthenon and its past. Indeed the centre is ringed by quite a major road from the out-lying regions which gives a further feel of separation. In the darkness we reached the Student and Traveller’s Inn for a whistle-stop day’s tour of the city (not in our original plans), which would be useful to see how Pausanias reacted to such a famous landscape for Greek history. Pausanias starts his account with:
“When you are inside the city you come to a building for the arrangement of sacred processions”
Again Pausanias is not exactly forthcoming on the atmosphere of the city, or other sites apart from monuments, but at least he is true to his principles of documenting the Hellenistic glory of the country.
The next day (the 8th), began early as we set off to investigate that most important site of democracy: the Hill of the Pnyx. The natural stone of the hill had had very little shaping done to it even in the height of Athenian democracy. The speaker’s platform was the only significant feature, and its stepped nature belies the fact that archers (who were also non-Athenians), sat below the orator to enforce decisions and order in the assembly (made up by all citizens who could attend). Both when sitting just above the speaker’s platform, and when standing next to Meton’s heliotropian (the oldest known astronomical instrument), we were afforded stunning views of the Acropolis.
Outlined on their rock stood the Parthenon, the shrine of wingless victory, and the Erechtheion. It is easy to see why the first human settlers in Athens chose this hill as their base– it is the most impressive geographical structure around. As Pausanias says:
“The Acropolis has one way in; it offers no other, the whole acropolis is sheer and strong-walled”
Pausanias was as struck by its beauty as we were, and dealt with its architecture, and paintings (now sadly lost to the modern audience), at length. He calls some of its features ‘incomparable’ even. As we watched the midday sun light up the marble arches of the Acropolis I took the decision that it would become for the focal point for our exploration of Athens– to be walked around, but to be in some way untouchable. As for Parnassos we would not go up to it or climb it, but see how the rest of (in this case), the city revolved around it. With this in mind we worked through Pausanias’ description and stories related to it, and bemoaned the fate of the gigantic statue of Athena:
“The statue is made of ivory and gold. She has a sphinx on the middle of her helmet, and griffins worked on either side of it”
It is now lost to history. Pausanias also described the Athenians as the most devout of the Greeks– an interesting statement. We wondered how he was quantifying and measuring belief and faith, but we did tend to agree. Our agreement stemming from the fact that religious festivals (of which the Athenians had many), probably helped strengthen societal bonds, alike to a big events like the Olympic opening ceremonies, and increased pride in the state (an important result as democratic Athens was constantly surrounded by it undemocratic and aggressive neighbours).
Moving from the Pnyx, its history, and its views we set off to the market-place of Athens (the Agora). This would have been the beating heart of the ancient city. Patrolling right around it, we noticed again that the Parthenon was always ‘there’, and enjoyed the amount of material remaining. The statuary, temple of Hephaestus, and Royal Stoa all stood out very clearly. What was less impressive, and would probably have angered Pausanias, that lover of Hellenism, was the train track running right past the Royal Stoa. Surely this was a place not to build a train line in? It had even covered the Altar of the Twelve Gods (the point from which all distances were measured in Athens). I would tend to disagree with the cheery sign next to the train line which announced that the Altar stood completely untouched underneath the moving trains, but possibly I am being too wary of the preservation value that train networks have. The amount of graffiti in the Agora and its tree-covered state (that both would have been there 2000 years ago is a moot question (I suspect only the former)), were also interesting.
We then moved onto the Kerameikos– the graveyard of Athens, and where many state burials occurred. Here all the war dead, and notable politicians were laid to rest. Pericles and Demosthenes gave their funerary speeches here. It is now also famous for the number of funerary monuments to the rich nobility of Athens. Their white marble tombs (or their replicas), jostle for space and place the surrounding state-sponsored tombs in shade. They are very lovely, but they do somewhat detract from the impression that all male citizens were equal in Athenian democracy. It is, however, still a peaceful area unlike the Agora (though this was probably never quiet).
We then decided to turn towards the modern Athenian flea market. This could be surprising for some (it is not the most archaeologically significant structure), but we wanted to experience the closest modern-day example of the Agora that we could find. And by Zeus we found it! If you turn from the main tourist track you come through the side streets to the antique dealers, and they know how to deliver a pitch. Another interesting point is that some of them were passionately Egyptian, something we can compare to ancient Athens where foreigners had businesses throughout the city. Metics (as the Athenians called them), held an important place in the city’s economy, and these antique dealers seem to hold the same.
Our adventures had led us to the night-tinged hour of 6.00pm, and so we departed for the youth hostel. As we returned we passed by the Roman Agora, Hadrian’s arch, and Lysikrates monument. What was significant about all of them was the fact that all aligned themselves in some respect to the Acropolis. The monument, for example, seemed to have been designed in such a way that when looking up at it you could see the Acropolis too. Each was also an integral part of the city, a constant reminder for each of its inhabitants of Athen’s legacy. Pausanias has little to say on any of these, they were not built during high points of Greek culture. As we turned down into a square by a Lysikrates’ memorial we came across an older man who engaged me in a discussion on the merits of Barcelona’s football style compared to say Liverpool. It eventually transpired that this man was himself once a professional footballer, having won a significant cup in a US ‘soccer’ competition. About himself he said that he was a strong striker, not afraid of the challenge. While I can not deny him this, it again became obvious that history is in the fabric of Greece whether it is modern (say this man’s achievements or the political posters wallpapering every surface), or the ancient. Greece is not unique in this, but the openness of its inhabitants help make this extra clear.
Finally we arrived (exhausted by the amount we had to take in today), at our accommodation. We weren’t completely done, and soon departed again to watch a tango group dance beneath the super moon and the Acropolis. In the moonlight everything became purer, and the clean surfaces reminded us powerfully of the glory and magnificence of Greece. Pausanias had finished his journey as he reached the bounds of Phokis with a story about an architect whose eye-sight was cured. And so as we stood on the edge of the Acropolis park, with our eyes sharper in the moonlight, it became the time to leave him, the Greeks, and my brave comrades behind, and depart to Britain.
My British travels will take me from Cirencester to Leicester along the Fosse Way in the following way:
Day 1: (the 11th) Cirencester to Bourton-on-the-Water (passing Chedworth Roman villa)
Day 2: Bourton-on-the-Water to Bishops Tachbrook (walking through Dorn and Ettington)
Day 3: Bishops Tachbrook into Ullesthorpe (Chesterton-on-Fosse and High Cross having been viewed.
Day 4: Ullesthorpe to Leicester
Finally it remains for me to say that our romp through Athens is not the most descriptive you could find, books and articles deal more fully with each aspect of it, but it does include our immediate impressions of the modern day remains and the people who interact with. In this light I include my comrades’ final day remarks:
Joe: “It was nice seeing the old and new Athens next to each other- the shops, especially the flea market, after looking at the Agora, the graffiti and activism after seeing the Pnyx”
David: “Just looking at the streets of Athens makes it clear that Greece is not in good shape. The ubiquitous ‘to let’ signs reveal an economy still yet to recover, while anarchist, fascist, communist, and other extreme political graffiti show a society deeply riddled with anger and discontent”