Sunrise Among the Gods
It’s the last day of my Byzantine Odyssey, a 15-day journey into antiquity, which began in Venice and will end about two hours from now at the Athens International Airport. Greece has been No. 1 on my wish list for 20 years, and I refuse to waste one precious second of it. Even if I have to get up at 4 a.m. Which I did. By sunrise, my taxi driver, Loukos, and I are cruising along the southeastern coast of the Saronic Gulf, one of the most spectacular drives on the Greek mainland. We ignore the cutoff to the airport and head to the ancient temple of Poseidon.
I realize that only a handful of columns are all that remain of this marble temple on a 200-foot cliff top at Sounion, but it’s been standing there since 400-something B.C. Poseidon, Ruler of the Sea, was a wrathful god, father of the Cyclops (for those interested in Greek mythology), and this temple was a stopping point in Homer’s Odyssey. It feels significant that on my first night in Athens, I watched the sun set over the ruins at the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the supreme god in all of Greek mythology, and on my last, I shall see the sun rise over the Temple of Poseidon, second only to Zeus himself. I’ve been bouncing in and out of centuries so much, between B.C. and A.D., that it’s hard sometimes to separate history and lore, much less what epoch I’m in.
A few days ago, I stood in the very spot where, 2,400 years before me, the massive bronze feet of Helios, the sun god, stood guard over the harbor of Rhodes. The 140-foot-tall Colossus of Rhodes was said to have straddled the harbor, intimidating would-be invaders. It certainly made an impression on that first-century scholar, Pliny the Elder. He reputedly marveled that the thumb of the Colossus alone was so big that few people could wrap their arms around it. The snaky coastline of Rhodes, with its turquoise waters, rocky cliffs and olive groves, is much like today’s drive from Athens to Sounion, though this one is heavier on the quaint harbors and tavernas. I’m feeling very much at home here.
Three days ago, my luxury ship, Crystal Serenity, sailed out of the Port of Piraeus, leaving me on my own in Athens for my final adventure. Some of my shipboard friends checked into their hotels, ready to nap till time to dress for dinner on terraces with views of the Acropolis. But not me. I want to be there, feel the ancient dust under my feet. Which is actually all I can afford to do, as I blew the last of my budget about halfway through the Greek Isles.
This poses no problem, since some of Athens’ most inspiring attractions look pretty close together, and they’re free.
First on my agenda is the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior on the forecourt of the National Parliament House. It’s Sunday, so instead of their usual khakis, the Evzones will be wearing their formal dress costumes—white linen pleated skirts, white angel-wing blouses and ornate vests, heavy on the gold embroidery and fringe. Unlike those stiff-upper-lip palace guards in London, these soldiers, with the balance of Olympian gymnasts, are all about pom-poms and ceremony. Still, guarding the tomb is serious business: A tourist straying too close may be startled by the sharp thump of a bayonet on the marble near his feet.
The Parliament House presides over the social center of the old town, Syntagma Square, where you’ll find the city’s most prestigious hotels. Beside it runs Vassilissis Sophias Avenue, home of the famed Benaki and other museums, leading to the glam Kolonaki shopping district. And rising above that is the highest point in Athens, Lycabettus Hill.
Behind Syntagma Square—though out of sight—is the ancient Plaka district. Tucked into the shadow of the Acropolis, this terraced residential neighborhood of adorable shops and ouzeries shares space with random crumbling columns, churches and other remains of antiquity. Easy walking, right? And plenty of time to catch a couple more changings of the guard. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
The thing about Athens is no matter where you start, the place you want to get to is up. Athens is all about hills, cobblestones and cracked, uneven steps. I’m not entirely blaming Crystal Cruises for feeding and pampering me into my current soft state. Still, after trekking one-and-a-quarter near-vertical miles from the Parliament House to the top of Lycabettus Hill, it’s a good thing that the panoramic views are astounding.
At the summit sit the tiny, whitewashed Chapel of St. George and a dining terrace popular with the locals for romantic dates. Absolutely, positively worth the effort. Next time, though, I’ll take a taxi till the road ends and walk the rest of the way up. There’s a funicular (cable car) too, but it’s enclosed and offers no view.
In the last 36 hours, I’ve worn out a pair of sandals and discovered muscles I never knew existed. I’ve dined primarily on mezes (the Greek version of tapas), fruit and pistachios from the street vendors. I saved my very last euros for this lovely coastal excursion, and my remaining coins went to a beautiful little gypsy boy who played the accordion for me.
I didn’t sample the signature Mandarin Napoleon Select cocktail at the famed Alexander’s Bar at Hotel Grande Bretagne, and I didn’t get to the sensational, brand-new Acropolis Museum. But I have stood before the temples of Athena (the Parthenon), Zeus and Poseidon. I have no regrets.
STAYING IN STYLE
Hotel Grande Bretagne. With its stunning views of the antiquities of Athens—the Acropolis, the National Parliament and Lycabettus Hill—this 150-year-old grande dame of Greek hotels on Syntagma Square is posh and polished. The smart place to see and be seen is Alexander’s Bar, with its massive tapestry of Alexander the Great. Its rooftop garden is the best place in all of Athens to dine with a night view of the Acropolis. www.grandebretagne.gr.
Cape Sounio Beach Resort. Sleek and sensuous, this honeymoon-perfect, five-star resort is a marriage of ancient Greece and 21st century hospitality. It lies at the edge of the Aegean Sea, at the foot of the Temple of Poseidon. The 75-acre spa/yachting resort is a 30-minute drive to the center of Athens. www.capesounio.com.
RHODES: ROSE OF THE AEGEAN
A pure and mystical light plays over the island of Rhodes. Skies are bluer; sunrises more golden. It’s no surprise, then, that this island was dedicated to Apollo, the mythological god of light. Eons before that, the ancients worshipped Helios, the sun god. His bronze image, the Colossus of Rhodes, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It lasted only 54 years, felled by an earthquake. Greek architects are talking about a new and different Colossus to be built here. For now, two tall pedestals at the site honor the delicate Platoni (Aegean deer) that have roamed the island since the Neolithic Age.
Walled City. The walled city of Rhodes, at the island’s northern tip, is an imposing, well-preserved medieval fortress, with 11 gates and a moat (now dry). Where the Knights of the Order of St. John once walked, Rhodians go about today’s business of fishing, seafaring and tourism. Colorful textiles, sponges and olive products are displayed prettily along the cobblestoned lanes. Brash profusions of bougainvillea insinuate their tendrils into the cracks of stone walls and spill over ancient ruins.
Village of Archangelos. An hour’s drive south along the spectacular coastal road, tucked into fig, citrus and olive orchards, is the hillside village of Archangelos. Life here revolves around the making of fine pottery, rugs and goatskin boots. At its heart, beyond the noisy tavernas, broken sidewalks and random rusted trucks, is the magnificent Church of the Archangel Michael. In its embrace are clusters of pristine white houses behind colorful gates. The town’s widows, always dressed in black, do small services for the church and are cared for by the village. Many villagers still wear traditional 18th century dress and follow old customs.
Travel editor Karen T. Bartlett travels the globe to bring back fresh views on the most-loved places on earth, and to discover rich new destinations for the readers of Gulfshore Life. Last summer, she explored the exotic cities and isles of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean seas aboard Crystal Cruise's flagship, Crystal Serenity. This is the fourth and final chapter of her 2010 Byzantine Odyssey series.