topics: tzatziki (food), Greek restaurants, Katerina (Person of the Day), Acropolis/Parthenon, HISTORY, "No Limits World," a quick tour of Athens, Greek-Turkish relations; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: March 13-14, 1998

Food of the Day: tzatziki

We have almost forgotten to explain just what exactly is this "tzatziki" stuff that we have eaten at just about every meal in Greece. What is this culinary delight? Well, little more than a yogurt, cucumber and garlic dip. It is served at room temperature or slightly chilled and is an excellent appetizer.

Person of the Day: Katerina Mourla click to view a photograph

Katerina Mourla click to view a photograph will forever be our Katerina the Great of Athens. What can we say that would ever do justice to the charm, intelligence and magnanimity of this woman who so eagerly and easily took us into her life?

A recent university graduate who studied history, archaeology, and Russian, and now teaches private lessons in Greek, English and sometimes French, Katerina responded enthusiastically to a call Corinne made to her somewhat out of the blue. Well, not completely out of the blue. Bengül, one of our friends from Istanbul had met her through AEGEE and strongly suggested that we call. We did. And just like that, with no more than the name of an acquaintance as recommendation, Katerina became our Athenian champion.

First, without so much as a real interview, she agreed to take two of the team into her own home, which she shares with her parents and brother, then she made calls and succeeded in finding homes for the other two, and then, even though she was not feeling well, she went out of her way time and again to help us find good and inexpensive food, navigate the Athenian transportation tangle, and give us insight into the past history and present culture of both Athens and Greece. We salute her and her family (her truly charming parents and wonderfully understanding brother) for truly making us feel at home during our stay in Athens. Katerina is one of the very good friends that we have made in the Mediterranean who will stay with us in memory and spirit everywhere we go.

Place of the Day: Acropolis of Athens

Atop a dramatic rocky outcropping that rises above the city click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, the Acropolis of Athens is visible from almost every point in the city. click to view a photograph And well it should be. It is the city's center, the focus of the city's history, and, to some, the very reason for the city's existence. Pericles, the force behind what we see in ruins today, used only the best to turn what had been destroyed by the invading Persians into a showcase city of enormous architectural and artistic splendor. It is today considered to be the very best of classical Greece. (For more of the history of Athens (and therefore the Acropolis), see the Athens dispatch from March 10.)

Our visit to the Acropolis was more rapid than we would have liked. At this time of year, the site closes early and, given our morning obligations, we were left with only forty-five minutes to enjoy one of the most important monuments of the Western world.

Today, the top of the Acropolis is more open space than it is monument. In fact, of the many statues and temples that used to cover it, only four real structures remain: the Propylaia, the Temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion, and, of course, the magnificent Parthenon.

The Propylaia is the once-massive and still very impressive entrance to the Acropolis. click to view a photograph Built in the 5th century BC, it has been added to and damaged many times. Still, the heavy, straight-walled building click to view a photograph sets the mood for the magnificent view that follows: that of the Parthenon. click to view a photograph

The Parthenon deserves every bit of praise it has ever been lavished. click to view a photograph The largest temple of its kind ever built, its name in Greek ("parthenona" click to hear an audio clip) means "virgin's apartment." It was constructed both to hold the huge (12 meter tall) statue of the city's namesake patron goddess, Athena Polias (Athena of the City), and to serve as the city's treasury. It was designed by the famous architects Ictinus and Callicrates and built under the watchful eye of Pheidias. Incidentally, at the time, the designer and chief engineer in charge of temple construction was called the architekton, from which our word, "architect" comes.

Although undeniably spectacular click to view a photograph, the Parthenon, at first glance, is smaller than the pictures we have all seen suggest. click to view a photograph However, architektons (architects) are not at all surprised by this. The Parthenon is notorious for the clever steps taken to counteract optical illusions that could make the structure seem imperfect. Many of the lines that we assume are straight - the sides of the columns, the foundation, the roof - are actually curved slightly inward or outward to work against the warping effects of perspective and distance. The perfection of its perceived shape also makes it seem bigger. click to view a photograph But don't get us wrong: it is huge click to view a photograph and impossible to ignore.

While it was too bad that we were there while a huge scaffolding covers much of it both inside and out, we are pleased that work is underway to preserve and rebuild what is there, as well as to protect it from the harmful effects of pollution, acid rain, and endless streams of tourists.

Unfortunately, much of the carved wonders of the Parthenon - the statue of Athena Polias, the frieze which ran completely around the building, 44 statues, and 92 metopes (sculpted sections of frieze) - have been badly damaged or lost. One of the longest and best-preserved sections is known as the Elgin Marbles and now resides in the British Museum in London.

The Temple of Athena Nike is a small but excellent temple hidden in a corner of the Acropolis. click to view a photograph It is only really hidden because it is behind you when you marvel at the Parthenon. And it is excellent because when you have finished taking in the size of the major attraction, you turn around and find yourself presented with magnificence in miniature. Built in the 5th century BC (along with everything else), it once had marvelous relief statues and a frieze (only pieces of which still remain), and was the home of a smaller statue of Athena. Curiously, the temple has been completely dismantled and rebuilt two times!

Last but not least, the Erechtheion click to view a photograph click to view a photograph was the true religious center of the Acropolis and built on the most sacred part (where the god Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and Athena created the first olive tree). The most striking feature of the temple are the six Caryatids, or large columns shaped like women, that hold up the southern part of the Erechtheion. click to view a photograph

Also on the Acropolis is a museum that we did not have time to see after having loitered click to view a photograph click to view a photograph and filmed click to view a photograph click to view a photograph on the eastern lookout in the sun and before magnificent views (including one clear out to the sea) of Athens click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph and the back of the Parthenon. click to view a photograph Nor did not have time to visit the southern slopes of the Acropolis which are home to two theaters (the 17,000-seat Theater of Dionysus click to view a photograph and the smaller, older (restored) Theater of Herodes Atticus click to view a photograph) and some temples. The Theater of Dionysus was the focal point of the Festival of the Great Dionysia begun in the 6th century. People were paid by the government to come from all over and enjoy theatrical performances by some of Athens' greatest writers, like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

Group Dispatch, March 13-14
picture of Ethan

Time is truly fleeting. It is hard to believe that we arrived in Athens more than two full days ago. With the best of intentions we embarked on a quest to gain access to Athenian schools, get some Greek press, see the sites, and make new friends. While we have certainly succeeded in the latter, we have made only very slow progress in all other areas. Basically, we are back in the lands of more clearly defined systems and procedures. As a result, it may no longer be possible to enjoy the impromptu contacts to which we have grown accustomed and which are, frankly, more appropriate to the flexible schedule we have been forced to keep. We will now have to work harder to dig through structures and ranks of bureaucracy whose original nature - to streamline things - long ago turned against itself.

So, with our time in Athens quickly growing short, we gave it one last shot. Ethan returned to the Ministry of Education to get some contact names for the road ahead; Anthony returned to the Ministry of Culture hoping to secure free or reduced-rate access to important sites along our itinerary (or at least in Athens); and Corinne tried calling schools on the list she got yesterday from Vasilis at the Greek office for EuroSymbioses. Padraic, meanwhile, tackled more dispatch writing.

By mid-afternoon, we had all thrown in the towel and met at a bookstore. Ethan had received a few names and numbers, but Anthony (after five hours of waiting) was told nothing could be done for us, and Corinne could only find schools too far distant from central Athens for a visit to be possible at such short notice and despite advance legwork. Yes, we will have to work harder - and with as much advance notice as possible in Europe. Sigh.

At the bookstore, we congregated at a table in the top-floor café and met with Evi Kyttari, a student who writes for "Europolis," the publication that Aegee puts out every three months. She interviewed us about BikeAbout, its past, present and future. We look forward to reading her article in an upcoming issue.

With the sun beginning to set, Corinne returned to her "home" at Haris', and Ethan, Padraic and Anthony set off by Athenian subway to a suburb a short distance to the north. There, they quickly found Dr. Emmanuel Tselikas click to view a photograph waiting for them. Dr. Tselikas, or Uncle Manos, as he asked us to call him, is father of George who contacted us by email when we were in Larisa and is helping us put together what we anticipate will be an amazing time in Epiros (northwest Greece) beginning on the 25th! George put us in touch with his father, and we were only too happy to make another friend.

Uncle Manos welcomed us into his home and regaled us with information about his life, Greece and the Internet. A physician with a special interest in public health, Uncle Manos has traveled extensively, enjoys meeting other people and communication in general. For more about Uncle Manos and our time with him, see tomorrow's Person of the Day.

Sadly, with our allotted time running short, we bid adieu to Uncle Manos and headed back into town. When we connected by phone with Katerina (our Person of the Day), we figured out how and where to meet for dinner. Corinne preferred to stay in and work... at least until the movie "The Piano" distracted her.

For everyone, the busy day came to a gentle close over a Katerina-advised spread of Greek specialties in a pleasant, local taverna (see Tech Fact of the Day).

The next day, Saturday, our scopes were set high and we did a lot to make up for lost time. Through George (see above), we had made contact with a magazine called "No Limits World" which was interested in meeting us. Focusing on outdoor activities and adventure sports, "No Limits World" had just yesterday unveiled its premier issue. A colorful, photo-filled, well-designed magazine, it is sure to be a smash success both in Greece and elsewhere through counterpart publications all being released under the same name. We met with Konstantinos (Kostas) and Diane, and a photographer named Dimitris. After a photo shoot (with our bikes) on top of some rocks near - and with a beautiful view out to - the Acropolis click to view a photograph click to view a photograph (see Place of the Day), we stopped at a nearby café and enjoyed a conversation/interview over orange juice and frappés. click to view a photograph

At 2 p.m., with only 45 minutes of opening time left, the four BikeAbouters raced to the top of the Acropolis and finally took in the majesty of the Parthenon and surrounding ruins. There was no doubt at all as to why this location is yet another UNESCO-recognized World Heritage site visit the World Heritage Site page. For more about the Acropolis, see the Place of the Day.

By 3 we were starving, so we went to a restaurant (called the Minotaur click to view a photograph) that Anthony had been drooling about since our arrival in Greece. (That was more than a week ago and we were getting concerned he might dehydrate...) Two plates piled high with yummy pork chops and french fries finally put his tongue back in his mouth. Of course, there were salads too so Corinne was not at a total loss.

A short while later, we met our good friend Katerina (see Person of the Day) for an eagerly awaited walk through a section of town that she had been emphatic about wanting to show us. She warned us right from the start that there were some very narrow streets through which we might not be able to bring the bikes (still with us from the morning photo session). We confidently said we could take them pretty much anywhere. Well, we did, but we should have listened. click to view a photograph

As a cheery fivesome, we stomped our way up the northern lower slopes of the Acropolis and got a dose of history along the way.

First we walked past the completely ruined ruins of the ancient Agora, or marketplace, of Athens, which was also the city's meeting place during ancient times. We have already learned from Katerina that today people meet to discuss business and politics in more "normal" places, like cafés, public and private meeting halls, and clubs, but it was still interesting to see the place where people like Sophocles and the Saint Paul appeared on a daily basis to teach and learn with others. From street level, we could see the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos click to view a photograph and the very well preserved Temple of Haphaestus click to view a photograph that we had identified first from above.

From here we continued out progress uphill, back toward the northern slopes of the Acropolis and a neighborhood now called Anafiotika. Apparently, in the early 19th century, just after independence, in order to rebuild Athens, the local Athenians brought in workers from the Cycladic Island of Anafi. Prohibited from building their own homes in the city, they found their way to this place and constructed a small village that seems like it could actually be in one of the Greek islands we will unfortunately not be able to visit. click to view a photograph But we did enjoy this small taste of it, especially as we lugged our bikes up and down some very narrow whitewashed steps/streets. click to view a photograph

From a lookout point below the Acropolis but above the city, we also talked quite frankly about the Greek versus Turkish perspective of history in the region and how it continues to impact politics today. click to view a photograph Although we don't all agree on the details, the four BikeAbouters do feel that stereotypes - and probably education and the media - in both Greece and Turkey have had a heavy hand in perpetuating the suspicions that continue to exist today. Turks grow up expecting Greece to invade their country just as much as Greeks expect the Turks to launch an offensive. There certainly is plenty of saber rattling. And a long history of aggression on both sides that continues today with random and isolated territorial infringements.

But the question we always ask is: Do people really think that, in this day and age, a large-scale attack from either country is likely? Especially with Greece as a member of the European Union and Turkey continuing its drive to be admitted to the same. Could an attack really happen? More often than not, the answer we get is still yes. Perhaps we are being na´ve when we think that this is really culturally imbued alarmism talking, and not a realistic appraisal of the situation. Even Katerina had to admit how hard it is to look past all that you have been taught and everything you have heard after so many years. click to view a photograph

While we were chatting at our lookout appreciating the view, a gentleman named Bob joined the conversation. Hailing from Washington DC, he had plenty to say and listen to as our path took us back down the hill into Plaka and our conversation jumped back and forth between ancient Greek culture, modern Greece, and American politics. A quick stroll through Plaka, the oldest part of Athens that used to be the Turkish quarter and was practically all that existed when Athens was made the capital of independent Greece (it is now the most heavily touristed quarter, packed with cafés, tourist shops and tavernas - see Tech Fact of the Day), brought us to Monastirakiou, the heart of the market district. Katerina pointed out how this formerly run-down district was attracting the attention of many new shop owners turning this area of once-grungy warehouses into chic cafés and restaurants.

We settled into one of the more modest of these new places and enjoyed a frappé or tea with some sweets. We also listened to local music and discussed the special progression of numbers - called the harmonic progression - which relates to musical intervals and was discovered by another famous ancient Greek person, Pythagoras.

By sunset, we were all pretty nackered, so we hopped on our bikes and made the ride through weekend city traffic to our separate homes where we all continued to try to catch up on old dispatches.

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