Andy & Kate’s Grecian Odyssey – Acropolis Now!

Much to my shame, I realised as we were planning this trip over the summer that my knowledge of Greece comes from the following really rather limited sources:

Asterix – the books [1]
300 – the film
Rumbustious legends involving Zeus having sex with girls disguised as a bull/white swan/whatever
Shirley Valentine – the film

Thus, while Kate was charting a route around the Peloponnese for us, I wasn’t really much help, as comments such as ‘Can we see where Getafix added the blue dye to the magic potion so the Romans would get disqualified from the Ancient Olympics for taking banned substances?’ were met with a slightly frosty look.

However, despite my best efforts at disruption, a route was planned, hotels were booked, and following a quick bout of post-IBC swine flu, we headed off to Athens as a first stop. Come what may, I figured I had to know a little bit more about the country when I got back than I did before I went. It wouldn’t be that hard...

Pretty much the first thing I did find out was that Kate had used me as a drugs mule on the way out. Rifling through the Lonely Planet on the rooftop terrace of the Acropolis View Hotel (which does exactly what it says on the tin) while working out what to see first, I came across the bit that said Codeine is banned in Greece and you can get in fairly brisk amounts of trouble for carrying it around.

“Did you bring those Co-Codamol pills in case your back starts hurting?” I asked innocently

“No,” she replied, “you did. They’re in your rucksack.”

She swears that she didn’t know too...

Anyway, we decided to celebrate my non-arrest and cavity search at the border by heading up to the Acropolis the day after and having a look around. So did several thousand other people at exactly the same time. The word ‘Acropolis’ comes from the Ancient Greek, ‘acro’ meaning ‘many and ‘polis’ meaning ‘idiots’ [2] and the site was absolutely rammed. It’s on every nation’s Europe in 7 Days itinerary and there’s a constant stream of coaches turning up at the base of the site, disgorging their slightly befuddled occupants, and then retiring for a quick cigarette [3] while their camera-wielding passengers get herded in round the monuments and ruins and then herded out again.

Is it worth the experience? I’m not sure. Managed to trot back there again towards the end of the holiday and went in with about 15 minutes of opening time left when there were much less people and it still didn’t have an aura about it. Maybe that’s because of its history. The Parthenon – the Temple of Athena built by Pericles and one of the most famous buildings in the world – has been variously used as an ammo dump, blown up, eaten alive by acid rain, and had some of its most sumptuous treasures nicked by the British. As a result, it resembles more of a World Heritage Building Site than anything while the Greek authorities pursue a fairly aggressive intervention and rebuild it, using new marble where the old bits have been subject to a little bit too much gunpowder, acid or avaricious Brit nobility. In fact, there’s a lot of this going on round the country, with the result that some ancient monuments almost look as if Frankenstein actually retrained as an architect: a horde of crazed Igors going round cementing old bits of marble together with new ones and not always worrying too much about the concrete in-between.

It’s beautiful up there in its own way, especially as you look down on the multitude of white buildings of modern Athens lapping up against the surrounding hills like a frozen sea, but there are places in Greece that have a far far better sense of the historical and yes, even the sacred.

And that’s even on its own slopes as we move away from The Acropolis and things get much saner very quickly. Walk around the Ancient Agora and there’s almost no-one about; sit on one of the marble seats of the Theatre of Dionysus, looking at the stage in front of you where Aristophanes first debuted Lysistrata and The Wasps, and Aeschylus first depicted Agamemnon's dysfunctional family ties, and you can almost have the place to yourself; head to the National Archeological Museum and you’ll find crowds, but now most of them have been siphoned off to the new Acropolis Museum the footfalls are a lot sparser than they could have been.

Which was a good job too as Kate became glued to the Antikythera Mechanism in quite an impressive way. Plenty about it all on the web, but suffice to say for the moment that:

“it’s an ancient mechanical calculator (also described as the first known mechanical computer) designed to calculate astronomical positions. It was recovered in 1901 from the Antikythera wreck but its complexity and significance were not understood until decades later. It is now thought to have been built about 150–100 BC. Technological artefacts of similar complexity did not reappear until a thousand years later.”

So there. In fact, she ended up performing a circular dance around it with another Antikythera-obsessive, both fairly crazed with excitement as they gestured and pointed out significant aspects of it to their other halves. Who made it? Why and where? How did the knowledge get lost? And, more importantly, would it help you buy a train ticket up to Meteora?

Okay, perhaps not the latter, but while buying said tickety may sound like a trivial thing, it turned out to be a task that Hercules would have had more than one problem with. Go to station, get sent to ticket office in other part of city, wait in queue, get told when it’s your turn that there will now be a ten minute break for some reason, wait for ten minutes, wait for another ten, and another, start ruminating that if this is how bad it is to get a ticket what might it be like to travel on the trains themselves, phone up Hertz and start your car hire three days early.

Time for one last meal before we went though, down in a lovely part of the city where most of the shops sell religious paraphernalia for the Greek Orthodox Church. Which, given that the average Orthodox village church makes a Catholic cathedral look like a Wesleyan chapel, is a fairly serious amount of bling. Given the fact also that Kate is by now making great strides with the Greek language (while I’m still at the smiling sweetly and saying thank you in English a lot stage) the waiter turns to me and says “You should marry her.”

Now, it’s funny that you should say that...

[1] Asterix is actually the foundation of all my knowledge of the Ancient World. Sadly...
[2] This is a lie. But it might as well not be...
[3] Well, not the coach, but the driver will. Greece has elevated competitive smoking to an artform and no opportunity for a crafty fag can be missed