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Hanging Out With Plato

Athens, Greece

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.

AcropolisYou 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.

Urban AthensAthens 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.

PantheonModern 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!

Old Athens
Old AthensAthens’ 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.

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