Thursday, November 26, 2015

and now, on to happier things.

This is a big one, kids, but only because visiting this place was a big deal for me. (I should probably make it a two-parter, but I'm too lazy.) People, a near-lifelong dream came true for me last month: we went to Athens. It was supposed to be Rome, since Mike and I had been talking about that for a good while, but when the time came to buy plane tickets, the prices were outrageous...and so we expanded our horizons. And I'm so very, very, very glad we did.

We arrived on a Thursday afternoon to sunny skies and warm temperatures, and as we were climbing out of the metro station near our hotel, this was the view.

Ohhhh, Parthenon, I am going to visit the crap out of you.

We decided to spend Thursday afternoon meandering around and checking out a few little miscellaneous places, as we'd slated Friday for the Acropolis and museums, and Saturday would (naturally) involve a food tour. First stop: the tiny, tiny little Byzantine church of Agios Eleftherios. No idea whether it's ever open to the public, but it was certainly closed when we arrived. No matter; the exterior is extraordinary.

It's from the 12th century, people, and it's decorated with Greek, Roman, early Christian, and Byzantine reliefs taken from other buildings. (I overheard a tour guide telling his group that that's why you see pagan symbols on this Christian church. Super interesting.)

Just look.


And now for a little architectural digression. It's my blog, darn it, and I'll make it as long as I want! Ahem. Also spotted while out and about: in the Plaka especially (the old town around the base of the Acropolis), but also Downtown and scattered around, are heaps and heaps of gorgeous late-19th-century Neoclassical buildings in various states of repair. The situation is complicated: these buildings are landmarks, which means that not just any old business can occupy one, and that they're exorbitantly expensive to buy (if they're available at all) and to restore. Which, in turn, means that there are these beautiful buildings all over the place that sit vacant. And while I will admit to a certain level of fascination with crumbling grandeur (it has such a sense of mystery, and makes for tremendous photos!), it's sad to see so many glorious buildings just wasting away. (Outside of the Plaka, modern construction has been mostly allowed to run rampant over the older structures, but I guess one must remember that it's a living city, and that contrast can make you appreciate beauty even more. Both of which are difficult for me. Save the old stuff and the pretty stuff, is what I always want the priority to be, as impractical and/or impossible as that often is.)

But back to the pretties. In particular, the wrought iron brackets holding up the awnings of these buildings were just stunning. Ubiquitous, varied, and gorgeous.

As were the balcony railings, which were fancier than I've seen anywhere else. (Wondered if there might be a particular symbolism amongst recurring subjects, or a particular local workshop that contributed to this design aesthetic, but can't find any info on that. Sigh.) 

Those spiky terra cotta things along the tops of the eaves are called anthemia, or palmettes, and were a common motif in both ancient Egypt and ancient Greece. They came into popularity in Athenian architecture in the mid-19th century and are positively prolific on the Neoclassical structures there.*

Just look at this beauty. Want to hug it and save it and install some sort of socially and environmentally responsible business inside.

But back to the Plaka! In the middle of a huge pedestrian shopping street was another little gem, the church of Panagea Kapnikarea. The building itself dates to the 11th century...

...but--surprisingly--the incredible murals on the inside were painted between 1942 and 1955.

Then, over the flea markety neighborhood of Monastiraki, which is named for the church in the square. This isn't that's an Ottoman mosque built on the same square in 1759. (Talk about layers, upon layers, upon layers of history...!)

Kitteh near the Agora that was begging mercilessly (and effectively) for some of Mike's gyro.

First glimpse of the Ancient Agora, with the Acropolis in the background, as it is nearly everywhere in the Plaka (yesssssss).

Mike found us a rather lovely hotel just around the corner from the Acropolis metro station, and this was the view from their roof terrace. Good grief.

After a quick snack on the rooftop, we headed to dinner at To Mavro Provato, a cozy-but-hip little place that came highly recommended by our friend Marilena and specializes in the small plates that are a tradition in Greece (called mezedes--an Ottoman remnant, probably, but, like tapas, my favorite style of eating, since you get to try so many things!). Mike and I went for something similar to a deconstructed bruschetta (with complimentary ouzo, don't you know); a fava and a spicy feta dip accompanied by some fantastic hot, crispy, fresh bread; fried squash blossoms stuffed with veggies and cheese; beef-and-pork meatballs with mint and onion; and the tenderest lamb, baked in parchment with herbs and cheese. No room for dessert tonight, folks.

Friday began with coffee and cheese pastries at a nearby cafe, and then it was off to the Acropolis. Thankfully, the path upwards is not as steep as I'd heard, and is jam-packed with tremendously interesting things to see.

First, we tromped through the "storage area" full of colossal (no, really, massive) statues and carved stelae from the Roman period, in the 1st century AD... the Theater of Dionysos, which was originally constructed during the 6th century BC, but took its current form in the 3rd century. You know, still BC, though.

Super amazing marble chairs in the theater.

Looking down into the theater from some of the upper seats.

Detail of those amazing carvings on the flat side of the theater floor.

As we continued to head up the side of the Acropolis, we passed--among other things--columns from the temple of Asklepios; remnants from a Roman stoa (colonnaded hall); a covered Byzantine cistern;  pits from a 5th-4th-C. BC bronze foundry; and a bunch more inscribed stelae (this one's from about 150 AD).

And then this came into view. Holy smokes, I didn't even know this was there! Why do you only hear about the Parthenon, when there's this to see, as well??

This outrageously large and beautifully restored amphitheater is what's left of Odeon of Herodes Atticus. It was built shortly after 174 AD, and was originally enclosed. (That blows my mind. This thing is huge!)

Then, finally, up to the Propylaia, the monumental entrance to the top of the Acropolis. Work on this began in about 437 BC (under the direction of Pericles...!!), but it was never finished, due to the onset of the Peloponnesian Wars (again, !!). (Amazing...history...overload...Brain...cannot...cope...)

Et voila. Oh, but what a sad first glimpse of my Parthenon! Another monument that's under perennial restoration and stabilization, naturally... But hey, at least the back side was relatively free and clear of scaffolding!

...thusly. For some reason I don't understand, I don't feel that I was properly awed by this building that I've wanted to visit for the better part of my life, but it certainly wasn't anything less than impressive. 

As is evidenced by the sheer and ridiculous number of photos I took of the thing.

There are a few sculptural elements still in place up on top, which took me by surprise. Constructed between 447 and 432 BC, the Parthenon was a temple dedicated to Athena and originally decorated with an insanely detailed, 1-m-high carved frieze that ran all the way around the roof line, and bookended by massive carved scenes on the pediments on the east and west ends. Most of what remains from the Parthenon's impressive decoration is in the Acropolis Museum, and, of course, the British Museum. (Don't kid yourself, the animosity there is somewhat moderated, but is obviously still very real.)

View to the southeast of the Acropolis, with the Arch of Hadrian and the Temple of Olympian Zeus in the foreground, and the Panathenaic Stadium in the background.**

Next, we turned our attention to the Erectheion, another temple next to the Parthenon. I found it more interesting, architecturally speaking; it's smaller, for sure, but also more graceful and conveys less of an impression of sheer mass. This thing was built between about 420 and 406 BC, begun during a time of peace between Peloponnesian battles, but completed while the city was still at war. 

Porch of the caryatids on the Erectheion. These are copies; the originals are in the Acropolis Museum.

Exterior of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which is still pretty darn impressive. (Those arches further down are the remains of the Stoa of Eumenes, a building from the middle of the 2nd century BC, which was connected to the Odeon during its construction. Soooo many arches.)

We'd originally planned to visit the Acropolis on Friday afternoon, but called an audible for no apparent reason, and headed up mid-morning. Thank goodness, too, because as you can see, it was a wee bit rainy, and it just got rainier and rainier as we headed into the afternoon. By the time we got back to the base of the Acropolis, I was relatively soaked.

These are the things I do for you, dear reader. 

No, I hadn't taken an umbrella that day, as I knew I'd be wielding the camera almost constantly, so I wore my raincoat and quickest-drying pants, and had Mike hold his umbrella over me while I took the photos. Practically speaking, it was ideal, as I can't photograph and hold an umbrella at the same time, but covering the camera with my jacket between shots resulted in my being mostly drenched from the waist down by the time we got to the Acropolis Museum. Which is where we (and bunches of the other bedraggled, drowned-cat tourists that day) went next.

Behold, the original caryatids from the Erectheion! These things are absolutely mesmerizing in person, and there's a super cool video about how they cleaned and restored them with lasers.

There are entire floors in this museum on which one is not allowed to take photos, so I can't share any with you of their absolutely magnificent entrance hall--lined with unbelievable pottery and amphorae and figurines that they've found in the Acropolis excavations--or of the huge hall thereafter, containing sculpture and frieze elements from the temples that existed up there before the Parthenon. (They have a pretty extensive website, though, and you can see a bunch of photos of those collections here; click on the thumbnails on the left side of the page.)

We'd noticed from our hotel terrace that the entire top floor of the museum was lit up at night, and so we kinda knew what was coming our way, but still. The original frieze around the Parthenon was 160m long, and today, just over 130m still exists. Eighty meters of that are at the British Museum (ahem...), and a few other pieces are scattered about in various other museums, but the rest is in the Acropolis Museum, along with plaster replicas of the missing pieces, positioned essentially as they would have been on the Parthenon itself. Whoa.

What we saw the night before...

...and then the real thing! Sorta. Most of these are plaster copies of the sculptures from the east pediment. (Photo of the museum's [somewhat speculative] reconstruction of that here. I couldn't get my own 'cause there were about a jillion tourists standing in front of it. Sigh.)

Hydria bearers from the north frieze. There's a plaster fragment at the far left.

Horsemen from the west frieze. Those tiny pinpoint holes are where metal bridles and reins were once attached. Oh yeah, and did I mention that all of this was originally very colorfully painted

End of the room with the West Pediment (more of that white plaster here***), which is thought to have looked like this:

No tourists in front of this one. Go figure.

While I deeply, deeply loved seeing all of the artifacts from the Acropolis, I'm afraid the Lego model may have stolen just a wee bit of the show.

The legend for the Lego model. Seriously, read this. It is amazing.

The Acropolis Museum itself is built over the excavated remains of an Athens neighborhood that was in use from the 5th century BC through the 9th century AD. These particular bits are from the 7th century AD, and lots more is visible through the glass floor of the ground level of the museum. (It's pretty darn neat.)

We decided then to stop for a snack at Strofi, which, as I apparently cannot resist the opportunity to eat heaps and heaps of Greek food, turned out to be full-on lunch...and was quite tasty, considering its location. (The place would have had an exceptional view of the Acropolis, but, so much rain...) We had ourselves some eggplant saganaki (baked with feta, tomato sauce, and plenty of olive oil);**** a dish of gigantes beans (huge butterbeans baked with greens and more tomato sauce); some meatballs (which Mike seems to love, but I generally find rather meh); and a plate of dolmades, which are essentially identical to the Turkish dolma--grape leaves filled with a mixture of rice, herbs, and usually some bits of meat. Only this time, they were super lemony, and topped with bechamel sauce. (Yummmmm.)

After lunch, as if we hadn't had enough archaeology for the day, we decided to head over to the National Archaeological Museum...which, frankly, is absolutely stunning. 

The first things you see when you walk into the main exhibition hall are two of these massive sandstone funeral stelae from Mycenae. From the 16th century BC. I just can't. I can't even.

Then there's a whole bunch of display cases filled with finds from those same ancient tombs, most of which is pottery and gold. Really finely-wrought pieces from some ridiculously skillful metalsmiths. From the 16th century BC. (Here, one of several life-sized death masks, and a breastplate.)

Thirteenth-century BC wall painting from a Mycenaean citadel.

Tablet with Linear B script, the earliest known form of Greek writing, which came into use about 1500 BC.

Slightly more modern (100 BC) is this marble statue of Aphrodite with Eros and Pan. She's getting ready to hit Pan with her shoe. (SO excellent.)

From about 250 AD, a marble statue of Athena, which the experts surmise is the closest thing they have to a copy of the massive statute of Athena once housed in the Parthenon. Then original was approximately 12 times larger than this and was made of ivory and gold leaf.

Fragment of the Antikythera Mechanism. I'm a bit of a fan, and had no idea this was in the National Archaeological Museum, and so I got all excited to see it. Essentially, it's a crazy-complex mechanical device, found on a shipwreck, and created before 205 BC (!). As best they can figure, it tracked the cycles of pretty much everything visible within the solar system. It's considered the world's first computer, and as the Smithsonian says, "Nothing else like this has ever been discovered from antiquity. Nothing as sophisticated, or even close, appears again for more than a thousand years." SO NEAT.

Back to something decidedly lower-tech, but really beautiful: a wine vessel from 480 BC depicting Theseus wrestling the Minotaur.

One of the most stunning artifacts in the museum was this huge funeral amphora, which would have been about a head shorter than me, had it been flat on the ground. The details here are insane. Even more interesting is that this is one of about 50 similar vessels that can all be attributed to the workshop of one "Dipylon Master," a painter active between 760 and 750 BC. Amazing. His (or her...?) work is so distinctive that it can all be traced to one person, 2700 years ago.

Dinner that night (yes, we ate more, if you can believe it) was at O Nikiforos, a Cretan tavern serving up some serious home-style food. We tried out some sarikopita, which are tubes of pastry filled with cheese, wound into a spiral, and then deep-fried (hence the name "turban" pie); a plate of snails prepared Cretan-style, with vinegar, oregano, and rosemary; and the best dolmas/dolmades I've ever had, which were tiny and lemony and sooooooo flavorful (and potentially vegetarian, but that is unconfirmed). Yum, yum, yum.

Sarikopita and dolmades.

Dolmades--worth showing twice!!--and a massive plate of snails. Tasty, but unfinishable, as there were just so many.

Saturday began with our favorite form of tourism: a food tour! Our favorite company offers two tours in Athens, and we opted for the Downtown tour, since we figured the Plaka area (old town) would be crawling with tourists. (Rest assured, we will go back someday and try out the other.) We met up with our guide Constantine and found out that the rest of the group were friends of his--he'd given the couple a tour as their wedding present!--and set off for our first stop, the Stani dairy cafe. Dairy bars like this used to be all over the city--at their peak, there were over 1600!--but have disappeared over the years, and this is the only one left. We got to sample their spanakopita (spinach and cheese pie); moustalevria, which is a seasonal fall treat made from boiling wine-juice-leftovers into a sort of thick pudding; galatoboureko, a custard-like dessert in a honey pastry crust (and the only dessert of this style that's Greek in origin, rather than Turkish); and, of course, some sheep's yogurt with honey and walnuts.

Savory pies at Stani.

Next stop, loukoumades at Ktistaki. Loukoumades are similar to donuts in concept, and are absolutely wondrous: crunchy on the outside, soft and doughnutty next, and then--miraculously--a sugar syrup center. This is culinary magic, and it's served in of those utterly under-the-radar places that no one unfamiliar with it would ever, ever have found. Awesome.

The dough is baked briefly, fried fresh on demand, and then dunked immediately into the sugar syrup. How that equals crispy-on-the-outside-with-donut-and-liquid-center, I don't know.

Then, to one of my top two favorite stops on the tour: the Zafolia dairy shop, a family business since 1916. We got to sample two kinds of feta--one soft, and not exported, and the other the familiar variety--as well as a bit of kasseri, a delicious cheese made with mostly sheep's milk, with just a touch of goat's. (I hear that Zafolia's butter is outstanding as well, but had enough pride not to ask for a sample of straight butter. Just barely, though.)

Be still my heart. I almost cried in this shop, eating this cheese.

And then, to the market. Ohhhhhh, but I love a good covered market in which people can shop every day (ahem again, Zürich). We tromped through the meat and fish markets--they sell literally every part of the animal in the meat area, and the seafood variety and freshness is jaw-dropping!--and then stopped at tiny cafe in the center for some snacks and tsipouro (a clear distilled liquor that just wasn't fizzy or sour or fruity enough for me...sorry, Greece, I am not man enough to appreciate your hooch).

The meat market, heh.

Soooo many tentacles in the seafood market! I want to eat you all, little squiggly friends!

These crabs had blue claws and were still quite alive and snappy. (I guess that's how you know they're fresh...)

Sorry, out of focus...but that's a plate of wee pork sausages, fried cheese, pickled peppers, and little patties of ground lamb, with bonus tsipouro in background.

Next, coffee and syrupy conserves (made by boiling fruits and veggies and rose petals and the like with a lot of sugar) at Mokka. Customarily, the fruit from the conserves is eaten along with the coffee to cut its strong flavor.

Those little silver plates on the right are the syrups (we sampled rose and sour cherry), and they boil the coffee (which is very similar to Turkish coffee) in those little copper pots by shoving them down into a small pit of heated sand. 


Then, we trekked through the fruits-and-veg portion of the market, where the prices are astoundingly low (as they tend to be in genuine working markets where people shop everyday, and where the tourists aren't).

I actually tried some olives and didn't hate them. Especially the ones brined with lemon, and the ones with bits of orange peel stuck in the middle. Surprisingly un-terrible!

Next, over to what I'm sure was Mike's favorite part of the tour: Karamanlidika, an Armenian shop-and-restaurant where we shared a meat and cheese plate featuring pastirma (dried meat cured in a thick crust of herbs and salt--YUM!) in both beef and camel varieties; some slices of something closely akin to American-style pastrami (also YUM); a local salami; some thinly-sliced cured beef tongue (shockingly delicious and non-creepy); and a couple of cheeses, names forgotten, but one of which was actually aged in the skin of the goat from which it came. (Tasty, but quite an intense and tangy flavor.) And also, some little fried meat pies filled with pasturma and tomatoes, served with a yogurt dip, which together may be ONE OF THE BEST THINGS I'VE EVER EATEN. (The others in our group laughed and laughed at the look on my face, but I think I won them over with my ridiculous American enthusiasm for their food.)

Heaven on earth: the meats and cheeses counter at Karamanlidika.

The surprising little alleyway oasis behind Karamanlidika where we ate.

Behold, the pastirma meat pies. My mouth is actually watering as I type.

Gorgeous meats-n-cheeses plate with little garlic toasts.

I know, I know, it seems like a LOT of food, and it was, but maybe we've finally learned to pace ourselves on these things, 'cause we weren't in any pain yet. Next stop: souvlaki (meats grilled on sticks, served in flatbread) at Kostas. Another family-run joint since 1950, and the best flatbread sandwich ever.

They only do take-out, so you eat on the street. And that's plain yogurt with parsley instead of tzatziki, so that the garlic doesn't overwhelm the flavor of that divine grilled pork.

Last stop, and my other favorite: To Triantafilo tis Nostimias ("Rose of Deliciousness"), this crazy hole-in-the-wall seafood tavern tucked away inside a dark, and rather uninspiring, shopping arcade. Outside = sketchy, inside = warm, adorable little restaurant, and another one you'd never, ever find, if left to your own devices...but probably the best unpretentious seafood meal I've had in my life.

Here, the empty plate formerly holding raw anchovies marinated in vinegar, pepper, and parsley; fried cod with skordalia (garlic mashed potatoes); baked feta topped with tomatoes, oregano, olive oil, and spicy peppers; a whole grilled squid; and a couple of "married sardines," which are butterflied, topped with herbs, then sandwiched together and grilled. Not pictured here are the extraordinary fava dip, zucchini dill croquettes with cheese filling (TOO GOOD!), and halva with nuts and lemon that we also ate.

Mike eating mystery meat from Random Shop Proprietor, with George from our tour.

And with that, we were finally finished eating. For the afternoon, anyway. We said goodbye to our new Greek friends (they were so straightforward and inclusive and, yes, cynical, but rightfully so, and enthusiastic about all the food, which meant the world to Constantine--he'd chosen the right places to impress the locals!) and headed off to check out the Ancient Agora, the area at the northern foot of the Acropolis. Which was used for various residential and civic uses for around 5000 years. (Yes, that number is correct.) It's absolutely huge, as one might surmise.

Passed this on the way: the monument to Lysicrates (first prize for the wealthy patron of a winning music/dance performance in 335-4 BC), with bonus Acropolis and sacred cave in the background. 

The Agora! Giants and Tritons, originally from an odeion (musical performance space, like the one on the Acropolis) built sometime shortly after 150 AD.

For me, the main event: the Temple of Hephaestus, from about 460-415 BC, and supposedly the "best preserved of its kind in the Greek world." (Thanks, temple signage!)

It still has some impressive friezes in place; this one depicts a battle between centaurs and men (which was apparently a popular subject amongst frieze carvers of the day).

Here's what the Agora and the Temple of Hephaestus look like from the Acropolis.

We also stopped in to check out this little 1,000-year-old Byzantine church, the only medieval monument remaining in the Agora.

Saw this guy--I think it's a rose-ringed parakeet, but way bigger than your average household parakeet--squawking about all sorts.

After we left the Agora, we took off at lightning speed to find a sports bar showing the Rugby World Cup--the New Zealand/South Africa semifinal was on!--and had a lovely time amongst a bunch of friendly expats with amazing accents, then had a snack at our hotel and called it a night. 

As we had a late flight on Sunday, we had a bit of time on our hands, and so went to check out the Temple of Zeus, which we'd seen both on various walking jaunts around the city, and from the Acropolis. Plus it was a 5-minute walk from our hotel, so why not?

TOTALLY WORTH SEEING. These columns are absolutely massive, and the entire footprint of this temple is 110m long by 44m wide.

Construction on the Temple of Zeus began in about the 4th century BC, but with various stops and restarts, wasn't completed until 131-ish AD. By none other than the emperor Hadrian himself.

He's got his own gate on the site, as well, which was built and paid for by city residents who appreciated his civic works in Athens. Also from about 131-132 AD.

Temple kitteh! There are lots of stray cats and dogs in Athens, but they all seem to be relatively mellow and decently fed. (There were also two sleepy doggies around the back side of the ticket gate who had houses and food bowls of their own.)

After another "snack" of more gigantes and eggplant saganaki, plus a final plate of souvlaki for Mike, we headed off to the airport (in an über driven by a very nice man who was learning English, and was anxious to practice it with us!) and made our way home. In retrospect, Athens presented a bit of a conundrum for me, spiritually: the touristy areas are obviously where the money is, and are well cared-for, but the downtown area is positively tragic. It so obviously used to be a commercial hub, but now seems like it's mostly empty, run-down, buildings, covered in graffiti, and is reputedly dangerous at night. Everyone we met in Athens was so lovely, and the history and culture and food so vibrant...I just wish someone could wave a magic economy wand and set everything straight for them. (Especially the younger generation, like the people we met on our food tour: thanks to the sins of their predecessors, they have a rough road, for certain.) Even with their economic difficulties, though, the graciousness and spirit and warmth of those people (who, by the way, mostly speak excellent English, have menus in English, and are really nice about it!) is genuinely something special.

My only really selfish regret is that we didn't manage to hear any live Greek music; otherwise, we couldn't have asked for a better first visit. I say "first" because I absolutely loved the place and its people and food, and will definitely, definitely return.

Next up: the Foo Fighters stiff us again. But at least we got to go to Spain.

*Also, there was a ginormous anthemion atop the Parthenon:

Do you think one could reasonably call it the akroterion anthemion? I really hope so...

**We didn't stop in to see the stadium, but it's rather interesting as well: it was constructed on the site of an ancient stadium built to host athletic games in the 4th century BC; fell into terrible disrepair over the centuries, but was reconstructed to host the first modern Olympic games, in 1896; and is the only stadium in the world made entirely of marble. (And is, of course, the finishing point of the Athens marathon, which begins in--where else--Marathon.)

***Ok, you know what? No more tiptoeing around it...I'm on board. The British Museum has a spectacular collection, and has kept those sculptures nice 'n safe for 200 years, but it just seems wrong to have the Acropolis Museum missing most of its star attractions. It's probably time the Elgin marbles (whose seizure and export were of questionable legality, to begin with) were repatriated.

****In an attempt to avoid redundancy, just assume that everything not fried came in plenty of olive oil. Really good olive oil. Which is really, really affordable there. SO JEALOUS.

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