The Mainland Of Greece – On Arriving In Athens – Greece Travel

There is probably no more exciting voyage, to any educated man, than the approach to Athens from the sea. Every promontory, every island, every bay, has its history. If he knows the map of Greece, he needs- no guide-book or guide to distract him; if he does not, he needs little Greek to ask of any one near him the name of this or that object; and the mere names are sufficient to stir up all his classical recollections. But he must make up his mind not to be shocked at “AEgina” “Phalrum,” and even to be told that he is utterly wrong in his way of pronouncing them.

It was our fortune to come into Greece by night, with a splendid moon shining upon the summer sea. The varied outlines of Suniuni, on the one side, and AEgina on the other, were very clear, but in the deep shadows there was mystery enough to feed the burning impatience of seeing all in the light of common day; and tho we had passed AEgina, and had come over against the rocky Salamis, as yet there was no sign of Peiraeus. Then came the light on Psyttalea, and they told us that the harbor was right opposite. Yet we came nearer and nearer, and no harbor could be seen.

The barren rocks of the coast seemed to form one unbroken line, and nowhere was there a sign of indentation or of break in the land. But suddenly, as we turned from gazing on Psyttalea, where the flower of the Persian nobles had once stood in despair, looking upon their fate gathering about them, the vessel had turned eastward, and discovered to us the crowded lights and thronging ships of the famous harbor. Small it looked, very small, but evidently deep to the water’s edge, for great ships seemed touching the shore; and so narrow is the mouth, that we almost wondered how they had made their entrance in safety. But we saw it some weeks later, with nine men-of-war towering above all its merchant shipping and its steamers, and among them crowds of ferryboats skimming about in the breeze with their wing-like sails. Then we found out that, like the rest of Greece, the Peiraeus was far larger than it looked.

It differed little, alas ! from more vulgar harbors in the noise and confusion of disembarking; in the delays of its custom-house; in the extortion and insolence of its boatmen. It is still, as in Plato’s day, “the haunt of sailors, where good manners are unknown.” But when we had escaped the turmoil, and were seated silently on the way to Athens, almost along the very road of classical days, all our classical notions, which had been scared away by vulgar bargaining and protesting, regained their sway.

We had sailed in through the narrow passage where almost every great Greek that ever lived had some time passed; now we went along the line, hardly less certain, which had seen all these great ones going to and fro between the city and the port. The present road is shaded with great silver poplars, and plane trees, and the moon had set, so that our approach to Athens was even more mysterious than our approach to the Peiraeus. We were, moreover, perplexed at our carriage stopping under some large plane trees, tho we had driven but two miles, and the night was far spent. Our coach-man would listen to no advice or persuasion. We learned afterward that every carriage going to and from the Peireaus stops at this half-way house, that the horses may drink, and the coach-man take “Turkish delight” and water. There is no exception made to this custom, and the traveler is bound to submit. At last we entered the unpretending ill-built streets at the west of Athens.

We rose at the break of dawn to see whether our window would afford any prospect to serve as a requital for angry sleeplessness. And there, right opposite, stood the rock which of all rocks in the world’s history has done most for literature and art—the rock which poets, and orators, and architects, and historians have ever glorified, and can not stay their praise—which is ever new and ever old, ever fresh in its decay, ever perfect in its ruin, ever living in its death-the Acropolis of Athens.

When I saw my dream and longing of many years fulfilled, the first rays of the rising sun had just touched the heights, while the town be-low was still hid in gloom. Rock, and rampart, and ruined Panes—all were colored in uniform tints; the lights were of a deep rich orange, and the shadows of dark crimson, with the deeper lines of purple. There was no variety in color between what nature and what man had set there. No whiteness shone from the marble, no smoothness showed upon the hewn and polished blocks; but the whole mass of orange and crimson stood out together into the pale, pure Attic air. There it stood, surrounded by lanes and hovels, still perpetuating the great old contrast in Greek history, of magnificence and meanness—of loftiness and lowness—as well in outer life as in inward motive. And, as it were in illustration of that art of which it was the most perfect bloom, and which lasted in perfection but a day of history, I saw it again and again, in sunlight and in shade, in daylight and at night, but never again in this perfect and singular beauty.

I suppose there can be no doubt whatever that the ruins on the Acropolis of Athens are the most remarkable in the world. There are ruins far larger, such as the Pyramids, and the remains of Karnak. There are ruins far more perfectly preserved, such as the great Temple at Paestum. There are ruins more picturesque, such as the ivy-clad walls of medieval abbeys beside the rivers in the rich valleys of England. But there is no ruin all the world over which combines so much striking beauty, so distinct a type, so vast a volume of history, so great a pageant of immortal memories. There is, in fact, no building on earth which can sustain the burden of such greatness, and so the first visit to the Acropolis is and must be disappointing.

When the traveler reflects how all the Old World’s culture culminated in Greece—all Greece in Athens—all Athens in its Acropolis—all the Acropolis in the Parthenon—so much crowds upon the mind confusedly that we look for some enduring monument whereupon we can fasten our thoughts, and from which we can pass as from a visible starting-point into all this history and all this greatness. And at first we look in vain. The shattered pillars and the torn pediments will not bear so great a strain; and the traveler feels forced to admit a sense of disappointment, sore against his will. He has come a long journey into the remoter parts of Europe; he has reached at last what his soul had longed for many years in vain; and as is wont to be the case with all great human longings, the truth does not answer to his desire. The pang of disappointment is all the greater when he sees that the tooth of time and the shock of earthquake have done but little harm. It is the hand of man—of reckless foe and ruthless lover—which has .robbed him of his hope.

Nothing is more vexatious than the reflection, how lately these splendid remains have been reduced to their present state. The Parthenon, being used as a Greek church, remained untouched and perfect all through the Middle Ages. Then it became a mosque, and the Erechtheum a seraglio, and in this way survived without damage till 1687, when, in the bombardment by the Venetians under Morosini, a shell dropt into the Parthenon, where the Turks had their powder stored, and blew out the whole center of the. building. Eight or nine pillars at each side have been thrown down, and have left a large gap, which so severs the front and rear of the temple, that from the city be-low they look like the remains of two different buildings. The great drums of these pillars are yet lying there, in their order, just as they fell, and some money and care might set them all up again in their places; yet there is not in Greece the patriotism or even the common sense to enrich the country by this restoration, match-less in its certainty as well as in its splendor.

But the Venetians were not content with their exploit. They were, about this time, when they held possession of most of Greece, emulating the Pisan taste for Greek sculptures; and the four fine lions standing at the gate of the arsenal in Venice still testify to their zeal in carrying home Greek trophies to adorn their capital.

In its great day, and even as Pausanias saw it, the Acropolis was covered with statues, as well as with shrines. It was not merely an Holy of Holies in religion; it was also a palace and museum of art. At every step and turn the traveler met new objects of interest. There were archaic specimens, chiefly interesting to the antiquarian and the devotee; there were the great masterpieces which were the joint admiration of the artist and the vulgar. Even all the sides and slopes of the great rock were honey-combed into sacred grottos, with their altars and their gods, or studded with votive monuments. All these lesser things are fallen away and gone; the sacred caves are filled with rubbish, and desecrated with worse than neglect. The grotto of Pan and Apollo is difficult of access, and when reached, an object of disgust rather than of interest. There are left but the remnants of the surrounding wall, and the ruins of the three principal buildings, which were the envy and wonder of all the civilized world.

The beautiful little temple of Athena Nike, tho outside the Propylaea—thrust out as it were on a sort of great buttress high on the right—must still be called a part, and a very striking part, of the Acropolis. It is only of late years that it’ has been cleared of rubbish and modern stone-work, thus destroying, no doubt, some precious traces of Turkish occupation which the fastidious historian may regret, but realizing to us a beautiful Greek temple of the Ionic Order in some completeness. The peculiarity of this building, which is perched upon a platform of stone, and commands a splendid prospect, is that its tiny peribolus, or sacred enclosure, was surrounded by a parapet of stone slabs covered with exquisite reliefs of winged Victories, in various attitudes. Some of these slabs are now in the Museum of the Acropolis, and are of great interest—apparently less severe than the school of Phidias, and therefore later in date, but still of the best epoch, and of marvelous grace. The position of this temple also is not parallel with the Propylaea, but turned slightly outward, so that the light strikes it at moments when the other building is not illuminated. At the opposite side is a very well-preserved chamber, and a fine colonnade at right angles with the gate, which looks like a guard-room. This is the chamber commonly called the Pinacotheca, where Pausanias saw pictures or frescoes by Polygnotus.