Friday, July 17, 2009

Athens, belatedly, and Madrid

Hi! I never got around to writing about Athens.

I had heard that Athens was really only worth spending a day or so in, and indeed I ended up only spending a day or so there (about a day and a half, really, and actually a lot of that was in my hotel room). This is probably overly dismissive, but you can definitely see some very cool things in one day in Athens.

I arrived in Athens via overnight ferry from Rhodes. This was actually quite nice. I shelled out a little extra money so that I had a bed in a shared cabin - it was somewhere between a floating hostel and going on a cruise with a couple of complete strangers! But it was fairly quiet and though I didn't fall asleep immediately, once I did I slept like a baby - right through my iPod alarm. Oops!

The ferry arrived around 6AM, then I got lost trying to find the metro station, and wandered around for what felt like hours but was probably about 20 minutes, and eventually I found a tram stop and a nice woman waiting for the tram told me to get on and ride it to the metro station. Though of course I did not have a ticket, since this tram stop did not sell tickets. But I didn't get caught, so there. I buy a bus and subway pass at home every month and usually don't get nearly my money's worth out of it, so I will absolve myself of that particular sin. If they had put up a sign that said where the metro station was, I wouldn't have had to fare-jump their tram, so there!

My hotel in Athens was in Omonia, which is apparently kind of a sketchy red-light district. I figured I would be tired and going to bed early anyhow, so who cared if there were drug deals and prostitution going on outside in the middle of the night - I intended to be in bed by about 10PM. In the morning, it was a little on the gritty side but nothing to send me screaming. And the hotel itself did not seem prostitute-infested (it was a Best Western, for what that's worth).

Once I was checked in to my hotel, I went to the Acropolis. This was pretty good! I considered hiring a guide for a tour, but they seemed to vary dramatically in quality, so I ended up just eavesdropping on other people's guides. I really only needed to spend an hour or so here, which was good - by 10:30AM or so it was crowded to the point of uncomfortableness. When they tell you to get to the Acropolis early, they mean it!

Here's the amphitheater at the Acropolis, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. This is where such exciting events as "Yanni: Live at the Acropolis" and the 1973 Miss Universe Pageant were held. Seriously, though, it's lovely. And the seats have cushions!

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This is before it got crowded:

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The Parthenon - seriously impressive:

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Even with the scaffolding and hordes of tourists:

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I also visited a few other ancient sites - with your 12 euro Acropolis ticket, you also get admission to six other ancient sites in Athens (I only made it to three). Here's a photo of a frieze in the Ancient Agora:

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I also visited two museums, the Cycladic Art Museum, which was not a big museum but had some lovely art from the prehistoric Cyclades. The people of the Cyclades (islands which include modern-day Santorini and Naxos) made these ritual figurines that I found incredibly appealing.

This is a very large version of the classic figurine (maybe four or five feet tall, near life-size):

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They carved these figures over and over. To me they look quite modern, but maybe I just misunderstand the prehistoric Cycladeans. I thought the figures were absolutely lovely, and considered buying one of the reproductions in the gift shop but they were pretty pricey.

And here's a less-typical figure they call "The Cup-Bearer" - I love this guy:

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Later in the afternoon, I went to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, which was delightful! I spent a couple of hours in the prehistorical section - featuring more Cycladic art, Neolithic art, and gorgeous Mycenean gold, before I realized that there must be a lot more to the museum that I hadn't seen yet. Between my feet being exhausted and the museum getting ready to close, I was only able to spend an hour or so in the rest of the museum, but I wasn't all that upset - for whatever reason, the prehistoric stuff is closer to my heart than the classical Greek and Roman stuff. Maybe I need to re-read my Odyssey.

One funny thing happened when I was in the Archaeological Museum - in a room of Neolithic pottery, an American tourist was asking the guard what was the oldest thing in the room, and the guard helpfully pointed out a jar dating to 6000 BCE. Then she kept asking the guard, "Why does this label say 14056 then?" and the guard didn't seem to understand and I was right there so I explained that the 14056 was an inventory number or something, and didn't actually mean anything.

Then we got in a discussion about human evolution in which I had to explain that Lucy the fossil was actually millions of years old, not thousands like this pottery, and that the people who made this pottery were genetically almost the same as us and if you gave them a bath and a haircut and taught them modern language and culture, you'd hardly be able to tell them apart from any other person, but Lucy was a creepy little ape-lady who wouldn't pass for human with any amount of shaving and instruction. And then she said she wasn't sure if she believed in all that, and I said I was on vacation from my work in a museum anyhow and we both moved on.

It was a lovely museum and I would love to visit it again someday. And on the way home, I saw a political demonstration (nonviolent), for the PASOK party. There was a lot of political advertising up all over Athens and Rhodes, as the European elections were being held that weekend I think. Video of political leaders speaking languages I don't understand always seems sinister to me - something about the motions and cadences of a crowd-pleasing oration deprived of their meaning turns me right off. Oliver Sacks wrote about a group of aphasics (people who do not understand speech) laughing uproariously at Ronald Reagan's speeches, but to me political speech devoid of content is more creepy than hilarious. (This is all terribly unfair of me, I know!)

I flew home through Madrid and stayed one night there, but I didn't take any photos. I visited the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia which I loved! Their showpiece is Picasso's famous Guernica, but they don't just show you Guernica - they also have loads of sketches and studies Picasso did in planning the painting, and actual photographs of the canvas at various points in the painting process. Excellent exhibit.

I also spent a good twenty minutes watching the Buster Keaton film "One Week" at the Reina Sofia. It was hilarious! I laughed out loud more than once. Honestly, I think I kind of missed the point of the exhibition it was part of, but whatever, it was a pleasure to sit in a dark room and watch that movie.

After the museum I had a fried calamari sandwich and a beer at a sandwich/tapas place near the museum. Delicious! And I got an olive and a mussel on a tiny plate to tide me over while they made my sandwich. The next morning before my flight I had churros and coffee for breakfast. I definitely want to get back to Madrid. Churros for breakfast!

All in all it was a great trip. It will be a while before I can get away for that long again, and I don't really have any vacation plans on the horizon, which is odd for me (I'd been planning on going to Turkey for about two years!), but we'll see what comes next. I've been doing a lot of staycationing - visiting tourist areas in and near my own city - and I've enjoyed it lots.