Athens – Travel

Across the Ionian Sea from Syracuse is a voyage of two days. Balmy and pleasant in winter is this sea; twice, in January and February, I crossed it, and again in April. Sometimes with long slow ground swell, some-times flat calm, but seldom stormy and bitter. The favorite route to Athens is around Lacedxmon (Morea). You pass the island of Cerigo, and back there are bold headlands and deep gulfs and a mountainous hinterland. Sparta lies in those hills, the Curse of Greece, the apotheosis of Mars, destruction, ruin, stupid tyranny. Here we had, in the Greek Confederacy, the two opposites of human endeavor; the stern military lust for power, the yearning for beauty, art, thought. Of course the man of the sword conquered, temporarily; he always does, but it is the man of the mind who endures ! It has always been so, in this our human world, and always will be.

Let us hope that you will be so fortunate as to see Athens first as the steamer approaches the Piraeus from the east. There rises the Acropolis, mellowed by distance to something of its former glory, symbol of the highest point the world has ever reached in ideals of beauty. For Athens was then a shining glory of marble, the heart of all that culture that flourished on every shore of the Mediterranean. Inside its walls rose the priceless temples, the bewildering army of incomparable statues, the colonnaded streets, the open-air theaters, the pylons and altar fires; and there lived that amazing people who set for us the canons of art and literature, that dictum of divine simplicity contained in the Greek saying, “Nothing too much 1″ that is so very hard to live up to.

“Nothing too much!” As you gaze at the chaste features of the Venus of Milo, you detect a faint expression of delicate disdain that seems forever saying, “Much too much I” as her criticism to all our endeavors and our even yet barbaric struggles to achieve things beautiful, still so far below the Greek ideal that she represents.

From the steamer deck we can reconstruct something of the scene that those bare Attic mountains once looked down upon. The Long Walls came down here, in diverging lines, from the stone egg of towers and battlements that was thrown around the base of the Acropolis. One wall reached the sea at Phalerum, which stood on that point that juts out towards us. The other ran back of the Piraeus, to the bay of that name.. Between them were farms and villas, a granary, watered by the Ilissus, which flowed from the Acropolis itself. The Piraeus was almost as big as Athens itself, a place of markets and merchants, and vast stores of in-coming and outgoing wealth. The triremes docked in Zeal Bay, into which crowded little harbor our steamer is now working gingerly. Tramps and shipping almost fill it, as it is, for they take up much more room than did the triremes.

But we anchor, and are Vesieged by modern Greek boatmen all clamoring for custom. I generally pick out one with a Cook’s or American Express badge on his cap. He, at least, is responsible to some one, but they are all thieves and liars. The charge ashore is fifteen drachmas; one gets mulcted twenty-five or fifty, depending upon the imagination of the boat-man. There is no excuse for it, except the fact that you are a tourist and therefore good plucking. The formalities at the duane consist in surrendering your passport and receiving in its place a white button with a Greek letter on it. This you present upon your return and are handed back your passport.

The cruising steamers stop here sometimes twenty-four hours, but I should say that one day is enough to see everything. It is essential to annex a guide if you are landing from a regular steamer and going ashore on your own. He takes you through certain mysteries needful to arrive at Athens, pays everything and everybody, spatters Greek at the ticket men and tram conductors, and arranges your itinerary so as to cover everything without counter-marching.

The one we had, a man named Siderato, who spoke a wonderful but intelligible English, charged three dollars for a party of four people. First you board a tram running along the water front to the electric-railway station to Athens. Next the electric train, strikingly like our familiar subway when it runs above ground. Six miles of rather discouraged farm land, that was once populous suburban Athens inside the Long Walls.

We descend at the Thesium, the second station this side of Athens, for that lands its at once in the heart of things. Up stone steps, and here we are, right on the ruins of the ancient city, acres of foundations traversed by a modern road, and the temple of the Theseion rising directly in front of us. It is gray, old, and inexpressibly sad; its columns cracked, its interior bare and desolate. Beyond it rises yet more poignant desolation, the bare rocks of the Acropolis covered with broken fragments and the ragged edges of foundations, the gaunt bones of the Parthenon crowning all the great tragedy. But beautiful, even in death. Here once stood the shining glory of marble, a sight that must have so delighted the eyes of the Athenians every morning that they grudged the time for sleep.

Why, we ask ourselves piteously, was it necessary that it should have come to this? Why was this city not preserved for all time, a monument and an ideal for all the world to aim at? The Romans did preserve it, with the utmost piety, for Athens was their pet city and no young Roman patrician had completed his education until he had seen Athens and sat at the feet of the masters there. It was left for seven centuries of barbarians, too stupid to know what they were doing, to reduce this city to the bare foundations that we see now. During the times of the Turks most of it went into their lime kilns to make mortar for their forts.

The Acropolis is now a kind of park protected by a barbed-wire fence. You follow the road a short distance and enter the gate. You climb the steps where the feet of Pericles and Phidias and Plato have trod. The vast ruins of what is left are quite near and above, now.. You pass piles of rubbish on. the site of that temple where St. Paul preached to the Athenians of their Unknown God, and then ascend the steps of the Propylae and through the massive portals that led to the heroic siatue of Minerva, “Athene,” Phidias’ masterpiece. The little temple of Nike, built by Mithridates to commemorate the victory of Marathon; the Erechtheum with its caryatides; and then you stand facing the Parthenon, overcome by emotion. The perfect building of the ages! Even now, bereft of its statues, its roof fallen in, half its columns gone, its serene beauty steals over the spirit, whispering that Greece is immortal and will yet conquer the world.

It is a place for reveries, the Acropolis. You muse on the site of the Belvedere, look out over all modern Athens and the ruins of the Roman town below, trace the far distances to the plains of Marathon. A veritable spell overtakes you. Mighty is the power of the mind! Men once reached perfection here, and men can yet attain !

We wander downhill to the museum, containing originals of Phidias and plaster casts of all that has been taken away to a safer place than Athens. We visit the theater, hewn out of the rocky side of the Acropolis, where first: the dramas of AEschylus and Sophocles and Euripides were given to the world. Marble seats, with the names of Athenians forgotten carved on them, rise in circular tiers. The columns and their very plinths are gone long since into the lime kilns, but we can see where they stood and reconstruct it in the mind’s eye. Beyond it is the court of AEsculapius, first of physicians. The healing spring by which he worked his wonders still runs, for Nature is eternal. It is now a Christian chapel, but the Nazarene has not taken away the stone steps to the spring used once by all Athens!

I understand that a recent city regulation now imposes a tax of five dollars for seeing the Acropolis. It was not so in 1925, but, if used for much needed restoration work we should cheerfully pay.

A short walk farther around the Acropolis brings us to the Roman town. Here is “much too much,” at once, the distressing Arch of Hadrian, example of what the man of war can perpetrate when he turns his hand to art. The temple of Jupiter is, however, fine and classic, its Corinthian columns imposing. We owe to a poet, Lord Byron, what is left of them, for the Turkish agha was burning them, one by one, to make lime, when Byron stopped it by a vigorous letter to Constantinople.

Beyond the Roman ruins are the fine modern Zapata College of Athens and the stadium where the Olympic games are now held. Our fellow passenger with the latest American newspaper in hand now looks interested, for he knows of eyery American team that participated here. All this huge stadium was built by the munificence of one patriotic Greek, whose statue stands in the esplanade before it. Here we have the epitome of the whole modern attitude; one man, with the old Greek fire burning within him, does it—if anything at all is done. Naturally, the result is nothing, compared to what a whole people like the Athenians could do when they set about building something!

A walk up the parkway past the president’s mansion and across the public gardens brings us direct into modern Athens. We enter a square with the Old Palace and the New facing it, and busy Stadium Street, modern as Paris, running out with it. A short distance down it is University Place, with the really fine modern University built in the classic style, but with that pinched penuriousness of column and pediment so characteristic of all modern architecture. We aim for Greek grandeur, but: have not the heart to go through with it.

And on the corner facing the University is a smart coffeehouse where we do well to order coffee and Syrian patisserie, for it is noon and we have seen much. Once full fed, the keen edge of interest and imagination is gone, so the afternoon might as well be devoted to modern Athens and its buildings, shopping for Greek bags, visiting a Greek church or two—most interesting if your first contact with the Orthodox Church and its icons—and buying photo-graphs.

That word “icon,” by the way, refers to a diverting theological war between Rome and Constantinople as to whether or not all the statues in the churches should be destroyed. Constantinople held that they should, and the ‘iconoclasts (image breakers) did a thorough job in the East, abolishing thousands of ancient Greek masterpieces in the general destruction. Rome held to the statues, and backed it up by excommunicating the whole Greek Church, thus separating the two great branches of Christendom so thoroughly that to this day their priests cannot meet without broken heads and bloody tonsures. What the world got out of the dispute was the loss of nearly every statue worth having, for nearly all the “images” were old Greek statues commandeered for theological uses. And the Greek Church finally had to compromise on allowing pictures; whence the “icon” that the poor peasant kisses reverently as his first act on entering a church.

And so back to the Piraeus by the electric railway, for it is five o’clock and the steamer sails at seven. The currency that you will use ashore here, I may mention, is the Greek drachma, worth about two cents when we were there. There are money changers all along the water front of the Piraeus and they give good rates.