ATHENS, Greece - What a perfect ending to a perfect cruise. Here I am on my last night in Greece, having dinner almost in the shadow of the Acropolis.
Dining at Restaurant Atticos, I’m enjoying Greek salad, tender roast beef and potatoes, eggplant, fresh olives, chunks of cheese, olive oil and crispy bread. Other dishes are being passed around the table but I already know what I like, finished off with sweet baklava. And I am certainly going to miss this fresh tasty Greek cuisine.
Since disembarking from the Louis Cristal this morning, we have been touring Athens before checking into the lovely Intercontinental Hotel. I had spent one night before the cruise at the hotel and was looking forward to staying there again before a very early-morning flight back to Indianapolis.
That is one tip I would give any cruiser – always try to stay one night before a cruise in the homeport and one night after, especially on an international cruise. It makes it so much easier to catch a good flight and it is nice to sort of wind down after flying in and before flying out. Flying in a day early also helps ensure that you will be aboard when the ship sets sail.
I had never been to Athens before. In fact, I had never been to Greece before my Louis Cristal cruise so I wanted to see some of the places I had read about – the Acropolis, the Parthenon and the new Acropolis Museum. This last night dinner was the ideal way to celebrate the end of an awesome adventure.
For our Athens tour, guide Roula explained that the word “acropolis” means “the highest point in the city.” The famous landmark was constructed in the 5th century BC and it demonstrates the Greek’s great expertise in architecture.
“There was no heavy equipment back then, no computers or other things architects have today,” she said. “No slaves were used to construct the Acropolis. It was our honor to Athena to do it.”
The Acropolis was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. In bestowing the honor, UNESCO noted that “the Acropolis, the site of four of the greatest masterpieces of classical Greek art – the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Erechtheum and the Temple of Athena Nike – can be seen as symbolizing the idea of world heritage.”
“The Acropolis is a symbol of democracy and the Greek civilization,” Roula said. “It also symbolizes the beginning of Western civilization.”
The Parthenon was dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the patron goddess of the city of Athens and the goddess of wisdom. “Zeus suffered from headaches so he asked Hephaestus, the Greek god of blacksmiths, to help him,” Roula began relating the story of the birth of Athena. “Hephaestus opened Zeus’ skull without hurting him and out sprang Athena full grown and in a suit of armor.”
Zeus gave his daughter the gift of wisdom and the owl became Athena’s symbol, Roula said. “The ancient Greeks believed that the owl was wise, that it knew everything,” she said. “You can now see the owl on the Greek Euro coin.”
Remember the cats I told you that have free run in the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus on a Louis Cristal cruise stop? Well, at the Acropolis it is big beautiful dogs. I saw only about six – very independent and aloof - but they definitely have made themselves at home. Napping in the Acropolis ruins, the dogs are fed and cared for local vets and perform a very useful task, our guide said.
“They have never ever bothered tourists. They are very friendly,” she said. “But at night when the Acropolis is closed, they protect it. They know who should be here and who shouldn’t. “
Thieves and vagrants have tried to enter the ruins at night to look for valuables to steal and the dogs then become quite aggressive. Like my home buddy Pepper, the dogs know they have a job and they perform it well.
After walking around Athens for a bit – including a stop at a jewelry store that Roula recommends, where she got the jewelry she is wearing (sounds like a walking billboard, huh?) – we went to the new $175 million Acropolis Museum, opened to the public in June 2009 and now one of Athens’ most popular attractions.
A strikingly modern building with glass galore, the Acropolis Museum sits on an archaeological site only about a quarter mile from the Acropolis. Glass floors in the entryway and the museum let you see the excavations below. A wall of windows inside the museum offers spectacular views of the Acropolis. Fascinating architectural touches.
The top floor of the Acropolis Museum spotlights the Parthenon, along with its missing marble pieces. Called the Elgin Marbles, the famous Parthenon treasures were removed by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century and sold to the British Museum.
Carted out by boatloads, the ancient sculptures include about half of the sculpted frieze that once ran around all of the Parthenon building, plus 17 life-sized marble figures from the gable ends and 15 of the sculpted panels originally displayed above the building’s columns.
Two differing tales surround the missing marbles. The Greeks say the artifacts were looted. The British Museum maintains the pieces were moved there for safekeeping. Even before the priceless artifacts went on display in London, their removal from Greece was controversial. The British poet Lord Byron criticized Elgin in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” about how the Greek antiquities had been “defac’d by British hands.”
In fact, the Acropolis Museum notes that more than half of the Parthenon sculptures are in the British Museum in London. “Their return to Athens, for their display in the Acropolis Museum together with other originals, is a cultural issue awaiting to be settled,” the museum notes.
Maybe someday, I will have the pleasure of returning to Greece. Maybe someday the missing sculptures will be there in the Acropolis Museum, along with other treasures as yet undiscovered.
“We believe there are many other treasures buried beneath the modern city,” Roula said.
That is one of the major joys of travel – seeing new places, as well as revisiting favorites. Greece is now on my list of favorite destinations to visit again.