Hanging Out With Plato
Athens, the birthplace of western civilization, is a central hub
for Mediterranean cruises. If the city is on your itinerary your ship will dock
at the ancient port of Piraeus, and there will probably be a coach laid on to
take you into the center of town.
can’t get away from the past in Athens. Centuries before Christ, when the land
we now call Greece was a collection of city states, it was one of the two most
powerful. It was one of the world’s earliest prototype democracies. Only free
men could vote, and women and slaves were permanently disenfranchised – though
it has to be understood that by the standards of its day that limited form of
popular government was radically liberal. Political freedom led to intellectual
freedom, and ancient Athens was a powerhouse of academic activity. All of
western culture is underpinned by ideas that were developed here.
Athens began to decline after a series of wars with the Persians
and the city of Sparta – the other Greek superpower of the day. Eventually it
was conquered by the Romans. The Romans became the Byzantines, who in turn were
conquered by the Ottoman Turks. They ran Greece until the 1820s, when a popular
revolution overthrew Turkish rule and the modern Greek state was born. Athens
became its capital, and returned to political self-determination after a hiatus
of two thousand years.
is a thoroughly modern city now, though you will find reminders of the past all
around you. The most obvious and striking of these are on the Acropolis, the
ancient hill that looms over the city. You could quite easily spend a whole day
looking around the Acropolis, which has many buildings and ruins to explore.
The most famous, of course, is the Parthenon. This temple, the defining symbol
of Athens, is a masterpiece of ancient architecture. To look at it up close is
to stare back in history.
Modern Athenians are justly proud of their ancient city, and
there are an enormous number of museums, sights and guided tours on offer. You
should have few problems finding a guide who speaks English as a first language
– Athens is full of students and academics from English-speaking countries
visiting the city on a long-term basis to complete some academic work. Many of
these individuals ‘moonlight’ as guides for visiting tourists, so you can
benefit from someone who speaks and understands your language perfectly and
also has an intimate knowledge of local history. Many cruise lines organize
guided tours for their guests, which may run in conjunction with lectures
aboard ship for those really interested in the history of the ancients.
day Athens is rather different from its august ancestor. If you are asthmatic
make sure you have your medication with you, because the city suffers from
smog. Things are much, much better than they were a decade or so ago, as the
Greek government has gone to great lengths to reduce the amount of automobile
pollution in the city – it was damaging ancient monuments and driving away
tourists. You should be aware, though, that the heat can still become very
intense, especially if you’re wandering around outside looking at monuments.
You don’t want to spoil your holiday with a case of heatstroke. So make sure
you wear a broad-brimmed hat and drink plenty of water. It’s also a good idea
to stay out of the heat of the midday sun. Long-sleeved, long-legged, baggy
clothes can be more effective in keeping you cool than shorts and t-shirts. If
you are going to expose large amounts of skin, be sure to be liberal when
you’re applying the sun screen, and use a high-factor, high-quality product. If
you follow all these precautions, you should be fine – you’ll be free to wander
the city’s streets and marvel at the local workers in their thick, dark suits!
immediate recent history is a little more embarrassing than its glorious
classical past. The city was hugely proud to be invited to host the 2004
Olympics. The original Olympic Games were held in ancient Greece, and when the
event was revived in the early twentieth century, Greece was the first modern
host country. There was much talk of the Olympics ‘coming home’. Well, they
came home all right, but home wasn’t quite ready for them. The Greek builders
went hugely over time and budget completing the necessary sports facilities –
the finishing touches were still being added to various parts of the complex
during the opening ceremony of the Games. Because of this rushed job, the whole
event was plagued by technical problems, The problems have now been fixed,
though, leaving Athens with world-class sporting facilities which are regularly
used. If you like watching athletics or water sports a couple of days in Athens
should give you a chance to indulge your interest.
The city’s economy is no longer based on war and mathematics.
These days, it’s mostly based on tourism. So enjoy the sights, marvel at the
buildings, and, as your cruise ship slips its moorings, remember this is the
city where western civilization really began – you have, in a sense, been
making a trip home.