Boarding the 57-cabin Corinthian II in the port of Piraeus, passengers brought together by the Chamber Music Society, Smithsonian Journeys, and the Archaeological Institute of America embarked Saturday, June 19, on an extraordinary journey exploring music, art, architecture, history, archaeology and mythology. Leaving Athens at sunset, the group – comprising couples, singles and families – began forming friendships over the first of many gourmet meals aboard ship, heading into the night for an early morning arrival at the city of Çanakkale in the Dardanelles strait. ______________________________________________________________ in David’s words… ______________________________________________________________ Wu Han and I would not be exaggerating to describe this trip as incomparable. The expected features of a cruise – service and convenience – were delivered at the highest level, but the program of visits to historical cities and sites, organized by Travel Dynamics, elevated the experience far above a great vacation. I’m sure the entire group would go along with calling this a life-changing week, and I’ll try to present a sampling which is, at best, only the tip of a mountain of discovery, learning, friendship and renewal.
This is the beginning of a multi-post blog. At the end of each post you may click on a link to an extended and annotated Flickr photo journal of each stop on the tour.
JUNE 17-19: ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE FROM ATHENS
Having arrived late Sunday from Japan, and after a whirlwind day in New York on Monday, on Tuesday it was off to the airport again for a flight to Athens through Frankfurt. The stress of the arduous travel was eased by the elegance of the King George Palace Hotel, and the warm welcome from the Travel Dynamics team. Our first glimpse of the Parthenon was from the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, where we also witnessed the hotel’s lavish breakfast and elegant outdoor seating.
The CMS tour began with a visit to the Acropolis, the 500-foot high mountain in the center of the city which hosts some of the world’s most famous structures. On the ascent along the Grand Promenade, one encounters the Theater of Dionysus, the Sanctuary of Asclepios, and the grand Theater of Herodes Atticus, once fully covered by a roof and still used for concerts.
One enters the Acropolis summit through the grand entrance called the Propylaea. After passing through magnificent marble columns, the first sight of the Temple of Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin) is breathtaking.
During the entire tour, we were accompanied by knowledgeable local guides, and divided into small groups of not more than thirty. Wireless headsets were provided which enabled us not to miss a word, despite distance or ambient noise.
Although the Parthenon has been stripped of its once lavish and colorful decorations, it lacks nothing in terms of aesthetic impact. One can stare at it for hours (as we did on two occasions), taking in the numerous details, and marveling at its size.
The Parthenon, along with other principal surviving structures on the Acropolis, was built during the Golden Age of Athens (460-430 B.C.) under the leadership of Pericles.
The Erechtheum, a collection of sacred temples, was built during the same period. Most famous are the collection of five Caryatids that support the weight of the roof. The ones seen here are copies: four of the originals are now in the Acropolis Museum, and the fifth is in the British Museum, as are the Elgin marbles (frieze of the Parthenon), a situation in constant dispute. The new Acropolis Museum has even constructed space for them, affirming the inevitability of their eventual return to Athens.
Passing back through the Propylaea one gets a great view of the Agora, the general meeting place and central market which was the customary hanging-out place for men in ancient times. To its left is the mound from which St. Paul preached, and the hill called the Pnyx, where citizens were called upon to vote on civic questions. Also visible from the hill is the ocean and the port of Piraeaus, from where we would soon depart.
After a stroll through town which included some shopping and a delicious lunch of Greek salad, souvlaki and the famous Athenian iced coffee…
…we stopped by the wonderfully mysterious Tower of the Winds, built in the 2nd century B.C, which used to house a water clock, weather vane, sun dials and other scientific inventions. The outside bears fantastic marble carvings of the eight wind deities.
Next, we visited the National Archeological Museum, one of the world’s great museums. Beautifully organized, the configuration allows one to begin with the earliest part of the collection beginning in the late Neolithic age (4500 B.C.), and move through the great periods and artistic styles of Greek civilization. Most striking from this time is the art of the Cyclades islands, which are located above Crete in the central Aegean. The statues seem almost contemporary in their minimalist interpretations, including small human figures in the shape of violins.
The early part of the collection includes the treasures dug up by amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the 19th century. The amount of, and beauty of the gold work is not to be believed.
The mask of Agammemnon
From there, one proceeds around the museum’s perimeter in a clockwise direction. Statues and sculptures start to become familiar, as we have seen many of them in pictures. The early large-scale representation of the human figure developed with the Daedalic style of the 7th century B.C., whose figures were square, austere and frontal.
Moving on to the famous and dramatic “kouri” figures – always male and with one foot forward – we head towards and through the Golden Age, with its myriad miracles of art and craftsmanship.
The trip through the museum’s four sides ends up with the art of the Roman period, and in the realism and personality of the face of the Emperor Augustus one feels truly to have come a long way since the Bronze Age.
An essential stop on a visit to Athens is the new Acropolis Museum, opened in 2009 and situated right next to the hill. Built over ongoing excavations, the dramatic and beautifully-lit collection of all artifacts found at the Acropolis cannot be photographed, but the building’s unusual configuration can be seen from all angles.
The top floor, which houses the Parthenon hall, a to-scale replica of the Parthenon’s famous frieze, is skewed so as to be exactly parallel with the Parthenon itself, clearly visible through the floor-to-ceiling glass. The effect is stunning and further connects the viewer with the building as it once was.
Back at the hotel, over cocktails, Wu Han gave a stirring welcome to the group and detailed the cruise’s coming musical programs.
Saturday was embarkation day. Making our way to the port of Piraeus, we boarded the ship in time for a magical late afternoon sail-away from the harbor, into the Aegean night.
Click here for more photos of our Athens trip on Flickr.