Last month I finally visited the sites that have filled my imagination for as long as I can remember; the Acropolis, the Erectheon, the theatre of Dionysus, Delphi! These real-life locations were the fabled locations of many of the myths and battles between the Olympian deities that have inspired me. In more grounded terms, they are also the literal foundations on which the ideas of Western art, literature, science and civilisation formed and continue to influence our culture today.
As I was travelling with people who were not quite as enthusiastic about Classics as I am... we chose to spend our first day was spent exploring the New Acropolis Museum. I thought this might help to establish some history and context and avoid anyone feeling as though they were merely looking at some broken rocks on top of a big rock. It was actually the most fantastic introduction to the ancient history of the city; having expected to spend a couple of hours there and go for lunch we ended up staying for most of the day and ate at the museum (slightly pricey but very tasty) before diving back in. Photography is not allowed in most of the museum so above are two pieces that I thought were worth risking shooting from the hip for. On the left are offerings to Asclepius, parts of the body that have been healed by the god were given in thanks. On the right is a piece made striking by accidental processes over the passing of time - it is easy to forget how ornately decorated these pieces were, not only painted but often draped with real garments and with real metal jewellery and other decorations added - this woman originally had bronze eyelashes but as they corroded they streaked her face with mascara-like stains.
The sculpture gallery is flooded with natural light and filled with so many Archaic to Classical sculptures it is impossible to take everything in. Alongside many of the pieces were copies made to demonstrate certain techniques such as painting or weaving that matches the clothes carved from stone. The brutal concrete columns were an clean modern backdrop to the sculptures but it was only when we went upstairs that we realised that the museum was built to mimic the Parthenon with the columns correctly spaced and each section laid out in order with gaps left for the parts being kept at the British Museum.
The next day we made the steep ascent up to the Acropolis, approaching from the south slope and visiting the Theatre of Dionysus where many of the most famous dramas from Sophocles' Oedipus to Aristophanes' Lysistrata were originally performed. Above is the later, Roman, Odeon of Herodes Atticus which seated around 5000 was originally fully roofed with wood. We finally made it to the Parthenon in the late afternoon when the sun threw brilliant shadows across the whole site.
One of the top things on the Acropolis - lots of cats. This is the Purrthenon. Not sorry.
It is hard to imagine how chaotic it must have been during the Panathenaea when a huge procession reached its climax with a hecatomb (sacrifice of one hundred oxen) and the presentation of new robes to Pallas Athena. In Christian-influenced culture we expect a hush of religious awe but it must have been loud, crowded and the ground must have been covered with hawkers' blankets and cow-dung.
The conservations are ongoing on the site and it is amazing to see the attempts at sympathetic reconstruction. Many of the original carvings are too delicate to be left exposed and there are areas that were damaged or destroyed as the building was used as a church, mosque, arsenal or firing range. The replacement parts are made from a material of another colour so the damage is clear but the impact remains. The most impressive structure, after the Parthenon, is the Erechtheion. This is the mythical site of the dispute between Athena and Poseidon over who would become the patron saint of the city. This building housed the gifts of the two gods; a spring of salt water from Poseidon and an olive tree from Athena. It also has some of the most distinctive architecture with the famous Caryatids looking out over the city (the originals now being restored in the museum after Lord Elgin took one and made the whole section unstable) and being built on the edge of the Acropolis the foundations on one side are three metres higher than the other!
Day three we had a day trip to Delphi. This was more or less the centre of the Ancient Greek world as leaders from every city-state sent envoys to consult the oracle. Obviously, the city with the best offerings had top priority and obviously the Athenians were always up for a chance to show off and so the Treasury of the Athenians is one of the most impressive on the site. Unfortunately it was rebuilt before the modern rules of restoration came into place (you have to have at least 60% of the original material) so this could be more of a reconstruction than a restoration but it helps to give an impression when quite a lot of Delphi does look rather like a pile of unnaturally shaped rocks. To the right of the treasury is a polygonal masonry wall covered in thousands of manumission contracts of slaves (mostly female) who were dedicated to Apollo at the sanctuary.
From further up the slope you can look down on the Temple of Apollo and see the layout of the columns and walls almost as clearly as a blueprint. It was in a chamber in this Temple, or possibly below it, where the Pythia (Apollo's Oracle) would give her prophesies, usually incoherent rambling like speaking in tongues which had to be translated by older male interpreters who may or may not have taken bribes. As we were part of a tour group (do not recommend - hire a car!) we were rushed through the Delphi Museum but I did glance at two of the sculptures I studied at collage. One was The Bronze Charioteer (470 BCE) who commemorates the victory of a Sicilian tyrant whose team (chariot racing was too dangerous for rulers) won the Delphic games. He is considered to be in the severe style where a neutral expression was intended to denote a calm modesty rather than a lack of skill by the sculptor, in fact the feet have very detailed realism so the rigid appearance is simply a stylistic choice. Kleobis and Biton (580 BCE) are in the Archaic style, the older, more heavily stylised and Egyptian influenced design the Greeks initially adopted. They represent filial duty as, according to Herodotus, when their mother wanted to attend a festival of Hera and the oxen fell ill the brothers harnessed themselves and ran all the way. When they arrived they fell asleep in the temple and never woke up and where honoured as blessed men.
We stopped in Arachova which was lovely and has a pretty clock tower. Apparently it is also a ski resort so all of the shops were selling sheepskin slippers and fur hats alongside icecream and cheese.
We didn't have a bad meal during our whole time in Athens (well except that one when we accidentally had a bit too much wine and then got lost and... well it wasn't event that bad.) I love cheese, honey, wine, olives, rice and grilled meat - almost all of our meals had all of these things in various combinations. We decided our favourite place was Chez Violette which is French but we only ordered Greek food, it was in an atmospheric garden near the university and had things like enamel plates and lanterns that were just the right level of hipster.
Our last two days were spent exploring the sites below the Acropolis and visiting the Archaeological Museum. The museum is overwhelmingly huge and disorientating and definitely too much if you're tired or prone to losing people. My favourite site after the Acropolis was the Hephaisteion. Hephaestus was the patron god of metalworkers and also plays a supporting role in some of the juiciest scandals in Greek myth (search Aphrodite and Aries) but apart from that, this temple is one of the best preserved despite being built before the Parthenon and contains the inner walls as well as the columns which completely changes the pergola-like feel you get from looking at ruins were only the columns remain standing. These were solid and dominating buildings! The temple is also associated with Athena Ergane who was the patron of crafts and so it was an important sacred site for the many artists of Athens.
Anyway, thats enough of that before I get carried away with metopes and myths. Above are my Classics exploring essentials, plus trusty Converse for hiking up and down endless steps!