It's 6:45 a.m., 40 minutes past sunrise, and the sun has reached a substantial height above the horizon. By all rights it should now be shining with full intensity. But it isn't. You can stare directly at it, and the shutterbugs onboard have lined up along the rail with their telephoto lenses to get shots of the big dirty yellow ball suspended over Greece's rocky coastline. From having lived for decades in Los Angeles, I recognize the condition: It's smog. The ongoing, relentless heat and lack of wind have created an ugly brown pall of polluted air that hangs unmoving over the city of Athens. Today promises to be as climatologically brutal as yesterday and the day before. Everyone is cautioned to wear hats, and double up on the water and sunscreen.
My plans for the day are to take the ship's tour that includes a visit to the Acropolis and Archeological Museum. This is a four-hour, or half-day, excursion, which, since we call at Piraeus at 7 a.m., would be referred to in classic cruise parlance as a "morning tour." But -- and this is due to my own carelessness when booking -- the tour I have selected departs at 11 a.m. This is a horrible time of day for a half-day tour departure. It's too early to have lunch before the tour, and it concludes too late to have lunch ashore and still get back to the ship. So, I reluctantly had to kiss my plans for a fresh seafood lunch at the little harbor, Mikrolimanon, goodbye.
I assume that the reason half-day tour departures are staggered throughout the day is due to the logistical problems of moving 3,000 people from meeting place to gangway to pier to motorcoach, all at the same time. If that is the case, then it is another check in the "Small" column in the "Big vs. Small" debate. There are excellent reasons for passengers of all tastes in exploration to do the half-day tours first thing in the morning. For one thing, it allows a combination of a guided introduction to the city visited, during which it's possible to pick out the aspect or aspects that most appeal to the visitor, and a return for a closer look of the favorite sites after the tour (while still comfortably making it back to the ship in time). As for me, my passion is to enjoy local lunches as often as possible when traveling abroad.
My typical pattern of exploration would put me on the half-day morning tour (in cities I had not previously visited), and when the tour bus began its return to the ship I would ask the guide for a recommendation for lunch relatively close to the ship, a request they were normally only too glad to provide, given that it showed an interest in their country's cuisine, and by extension, culture. Since their recommended restaurants would be near the ship, it was a snap to drop us off on the way back, and equally simple for us to affordably taxi back to the ship. That is how I originally became acquainted with future favorites such as Siete Portes (for fabulous paella in Barcelona), La Grand' Voile (for authentic French/Creole cuisine overlooking the ocean in Fort-de-France, Martinique), and yes, my first introduction to the swimming-a-minute-ago seafood in Mikroliminon. Sprinkling the half-day tours throughout the day takes away that exploratory option.
After boarding our bus we were introduced to our guide, Maria, who was long on knowledge but a bit short on people skills. She had little patience with answering guests' questions, often snapping off answers before fully understanding the query. A woman sitting across the aisle from me asked Maria, as we plowed through the prodigious smog, about the fuel source of Athens' extensive public transportation system -- petroleum, alternative fuels, electricity, etc. "Everything's gasoline," answered Maria. When she returned to her position at the front of the bus, I quietly turned to the woman across the aisle and pointed out a multi-car tram next to us and a line of buses ahead of us, all deriving power from overhead electrical lines.
As we progressed toward the Acropolis -- appearing as a distant smudge in the haze -- we looped back to the seacoast, which now included beaches and yacht harbors, an area referred to as the "Attica Riviera." Maria was kind enough to point out Mikroliminon, as we passed, suggesting it as a great place for lunch on a subsequent visit.
In 45 minutes we were in the massive traffic jam at the entrance to the parking lots for the Acropolis. The walk up to the lowest level of the Acropolis was long, steep, and with the sun reflected off the slick marble paving, extremely hot. Those stone blocks underfoot have been worn smooth by generations of footfalls, and even my Nike cross-trainers' ribbed rubber bottoms sometimes failed to make traction.
The first thing you notice when approaching the ruins atop the Acropolis is that there's almost more modern scaffolding than ancient edifice. This is evidence of ongoing renovations and repairs begun in 1983. It is an ironic commentary on our time that the Parthenon, which was built from scratch 2,500 years ago without machinery in a mere nine years, has been under renovation in our high-tech age of sophisticated tools for nearly a quarter century!
From the level we were on, the first ruins visible were the Roman era fortifications and the Odeon (amphitheater) of Herod Atticus, dating from 160 A.D. In the distance, in the opposite direction, on a hill somewhat lower than the Acropolis, we could see the Temple of Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire and metalworking, notable in that it is one of the few monumental buildings of that antiquity that still has portions of the original wooden roof.
Continuing upward brought us to the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Propylea, the massive ceremonial gate leading to the top of the Acropolis. Once through the Propylea we were brought to the forecourt of the most famous ancient temple of the Acropolis -- if not the whole world -- the Parthenon. The Parthenon was "home on earth" for the goddess Athena, for whom the city of Athens was named. Greek mythology holds that both Athena and Poseidon competed for the favor of the Athenians, each offering incentives and protection to the city in the event of their selection as patron. The Athenians chose Athena, but they wisely hedged their bets. Across from the Parthenon, they built an additional (though somewhat smaller) temple dedicated to Poseidon to assuage him from taking out jealous retribution as a result of their rejection. That temple, the Erechtheum, is notable for the statues of women carved from marble as supports for the roof in lieu of conventional columns.
Perhaps Poseidon did exact his revenge, as the Parthenon has had its share of bad luck over the centuries. Its central feature was a huge 30-ft. statue of Athena fashioned of gold and ivory. Of this statue there is no trace remaining, and its whereabouts are a mystery, though one theory espouses that it was being transported by sea to Constantinople when the ship was sunk in a storm -- which means that it would still be somewhere at the bottom of the Aegean.
Then, in the 17th century the Acropolis and Parthenon figured prominently in the war between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Venice. The Turks held defensive positions atop the Acropolis, and used the Parthenon -- which was, at that time, in a far more complete condition than today -- to stockpile ammunition. A shell launched by the Venetians struck the Parthenon, exploded the powder magazine, and the result is the damaged state of the ruins at present.
Behind the Parthenon is a small museum, and though most of the displays are replicas and castings made from the original statues and artifacts, the quality of the pieces is excellent, and the little museum has the added plus of not suffering the crowding of the National Archeological Museum in downtown Athens -- our next stop.
At the entrance to the museum we were packed in like sardines, as guides for four buses went about the business of acquiring enough tickets for all of us. We then were led on a short guided tour of Greek history as chronicled in statues and other artifacts unearthed in various excavations, beginning with the late Bronze Age Mycenaeans, and continuing through the Roman Era.
Returning to the ship (after all purchasing ice cream bars from a sidewalk kiosk), I managed to work in a short nap before the show in the Victoriana, a performance by an eclectic Irish singer named Sinead Blanchfield. After the show I (somewhat tiredly) enjoyed a dinner of sauteed red snapper. Anticipating an early morning tomorrow -- with a tour of Olympia from the port of Katakalon scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. -- I decided to retire early.