Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Wonders of Athens - Eastern Mediterranean Cruise – Celebrity Solstice

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 – Piraeus (Athens), Greece – 84F- Sunny

Piraeus is the port city for Athens, Greece and one of the largest ports in Europe. The port is big enough to run a shuttle bus between the two main terminals. Athens is only seven miles from Piraeus but in traffic it could take an hour to get there (train and taxis are the best way to get around). Athens (plus Piraeus) is home to 4.5 million people – spread out along a massive plain on the Aegean Sea.

Piraeus, Greece

Piraeus Port, Greece

Docked along with us is “The Explorer – Semester at Sea” ship and numerous ferries and hydrofoils that move people from nearby islands and cities to Athens.

The popularity of Athens has basically filled up the excursions but an early visit to the Excursion Desk gets us on the “Athens Sightseeing and Acropolis” Tour. It’s an early morning tour because most people want to visit the Acropolis before it gets too hot.

The bus ride takes us through Athens (nice, new buildings) and drivers appear to be heading traffic signals. Our ship dispatched seven buses on this tour. There may be more than 30 buses at the site combined with folks arranging their own tour – bottom line – there are a ton of visitors here today. This will become as issue later – read on.

The Acropolis, which dates back to the 5th century BC (the Golden Age of Greek civilization), was a religious meeting place until the end of the Byzantine Period. It is considered one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. The hilltop site is not visible until you arrive at the entrance to the site and gaze up from the pedestrian walkway at the base. From there you can see the Parthenon and the original wall that protected the hilltop.

parthenon from pedestrian walk

The Acropolis (with Parthenon) from the pedestrian walkway

The trees in the area are mostly olive trees (and once again we find out that black olives are green olives marinated in olive oil and/or salt solution).

Another very interesting factoid: The term “OK” is from the Greek - “Ola Kala”, which means, well, everything’s OK.

There are about 200 steps to reach the entrance of the Acropolis; a few steps into the journey one finds the Dionysos and Odeon Theater stages

dionysos and odeon theaters base of acrop

Dionysos and Odeon Theater

At the entrance to the Acropolis, one can see the ancient city of Agora. Agora was a major marketplace and business center for Athens from the 6th Century BC to the 6th Century AD. The Agora complex contains the best preserved ancient temple in Greece – the Temple of Hephaestus

The agora with temple of hephaestus

Temple of Hephaestus

as well as the Odeon of Agrippa,an ancient theater.

the Odeon of agrippa

The Odeon of Agrippa

The Monument at the entrance of the Acropolis is called The Propylaea. At this point, you are climbing up a serpentine set of marble stairs (or rocks) with a thousand of your new closest friends; there are also people trying to get down from the site. It makes for some interesting footwork. To the left of the Propylaea is the Temple of Athena Nike (the Goddess of Victory and overpriced athletic shoes).

Propylaea - entrance to acrop

The Propylaea (center) and Temple of Athena Nike (left)

Once you are through the entrance, you are on the Acropolis. As you will see further on, the Acropolis is not the highest point in Athens but the highest point of the ancient city-state. The most striking structure is the Parthenon (70 by 40 meters) - essentially the symbol of Greece. To make the structure less imposing, the designers of the Parthenon put the columns in at a slight inward angle. How that reduces the “heaviness” of the building is unclear. The structure is under repair with a crane and scaffolding present on the Southeast side


Parthenon – South and East Sides

parthenon north side

Parthenon – North Side

parthenon and ht et

E and me at the Parthenon (I am wearing my “Whisper Set”

Another structure on the Acropolis is the Erechtheion, a temple on the edge of the hilltop.

Erechtheion front

The Erechtheion

What makes this structure more interesting is the presence of four dancing women – the Caryatids - as columns (one of their legs is just off the ground – that’s the way they danced in ancient Greece). By the way, these statues are cement casts – five of the original statues are in the Acropolis Museum and the sixth is in the British Museum.

dancing statues - erechtheion

Dancing Girl Columns of the Erechtheion

The view of Athens from the Acropolis is spectacular

athens to the west
Athens (to the West) from the Acropolis

I was able to spot a very nice restaurant at the foot of the Acropolis

restaurant base of acropolis

where I bet the views are spectacular.

The Acropolis also affords an excellent view of the highest spot in Athens (yes, it is not the Acropolis) – the 912 foot high Mount Lycabettus with the small chapel of St. George (19th Century) at its summit.

mt lycabettus - chapel of st george
Chapel of St. George – Mount Lycabettus

We were allotted about an hour to spend on our own at the Acropolis. At the 30 minute point, I started my descent, which apparently coincided with everyone’s plan. It was shoulder to shoulder all the way to the entrance and down the serpentine steps. It took the entire 30 minutes to make it down – I got to my bus just in time. However, many of my fellow passengers were still trying to get down.

All loaded, we next stopped at the Panathinaikon, the site of the first Modern Olympiad in 1896. Over a hundred years old, the stadium, which can hold nearly 75,000 people, is in great shape. It is not longer used for athletic events – good thing since there is no shade whatsoever in this stadium (I don’t know they dealt with that in 1896).

panathinaikon - 1986 first olympic stadium


During our ride back to the port, we saw the Temple of Zeus (photo from the bus); I took this picture because the Roman Emperor Hadrian

temple of zeus

Temple of Zeus from a speeding bus

helped the Greeks finish this temple leading to the construction of Hadrian’s Arch as a gift for his assistance (according to our guide). Even so, the arch was built by Hadrian, himself, in the 2nd Century AD.

Hadrian's arch

Hadrian’s Arch (no - it’s not leaning)

The bus also took us past the Parliament Building where the courtyard hold the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The soldiers on duty here wear the traditional Greek attire complete with short pleated skirts.

parliament - tomb of unknown soldier

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

And the Athens Hellenic Academy, the most beautiful example of Neoclassic Architecture in Athens

athens academy - athena and apollo

Athens Hellenic Academy

On the two main columns are Apollo (right), with his musical instrument and Athena, with her weapons ready to protect Athens.

Some passengers were dropped off at the Constitution Square (opposite the Parliament Building) to do some sightseeing and shopping in Athens. We went back to the ship, had lunch, and tried in vain to find an internet cafe. We went to the other terminal because we were told they had free Wi-Fi; I was able to connect to their system but could not get online.

The sailaway from Piraeus was spectacular with the city of Athens crawling up the sides of the hills just like some kind of white groundcover.

sailaway athens

Goodbye, Athens

Tonight’s Show featured the results of the best singer contest. This was won by the performer from Mexico (he had 40 plus relatives cheering him on).

Wednesday, July 15, 2009 – At Sea – Mediterranean Sea – 80s – Sunny

Time change today – I thought it was tomorrow so I arrived at the buffet an hour before it opened. I worked a bit on my talk for today and waited for the place to open.

My talk, “DNA Testing: Solving History’s Mysteries” was at 1:30 PM in Celebrity Central. I had the best turnout yet – at least 60 people – and the talk, which felt fast to me, came off well. There were no questions at the end so either I did a good job or people were too tired to ask questions. I don’t believe this talk generates too many questions.

This is the second formal night and we had dinner in the Dining Room.

Showtime: Tonight’s Show is “Solstice: The Show”, a Cirque du Soleil type of show featuring flying, acrobatics, juggling, and new age music and graphics. The Stars of Solstice are cross-trained at aerialists and did some amazing stunts. I found the “hula hoop” girl the most interesting – her ability to keep about 25 hoops going at once was amazing.

Following the show, we went out on deck as the ship went through the Straits of Messina (followed closely by the Celebrity Summit). The Straits are very picturesque as are we in our formal attire.

Formal Night - Straits of Messina

I also had a chance to chat with some of the people who attended my presentations – the feedback was all positive.

While going through the shops on board (the clerks are known as “retail therapists” on the Solstice), we ran into Karen Grainger. After saying hello, she indicated that she had attended and enjoyed my talk earlier today. We wound up spending about a half hour with Karen (she’s from Canada) – a very nice person indeed.

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