Experience a traditional Greek wedding and visit the Acropolis in the space of one weekend? Yes please!
The occasion of some friends' wedding prompted me to travel to Athens a couple of weeks ago. A flight late on Friday got me to Vouliagmeni, just south of the city, in the early hours of the morning. On Saturday we set about seeing what Athens had to offer.
First on the list were the remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which date back to the 6th century BC. I find it amazing that these have been stood there for more than 2,500 years without being destroyed by forces natural or man-made. The temple was followed swiftly by the main event – the Acropolis.
There are three hills in Athens, and the Acropolis is the complex of temples and other buildings which stands atop the middle one. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site too, so the Parthenon, is an iconic structure which has also been around for two-and-a-half millennia.
My history with UNESCO sites isn't great: in Budapest the basilica was closed for annual maintenance, in Bruges the main cathedral was entombed in scaffolding, and in Prague they were rebuilding several different parts of the old town. This run continued with the Acropolis, as the western end of the Parthenon is being restored at the moment.
Further investigation revealed that the 'restoration' has been ongoing since 1975, so I guess it could be classed as a long-term project. The eastern end is finished and looks pretty good, but I found it disappointing that a lot of the sculptures at the west end are actually just casts of the originals, which are now held in the museum below the acropolis. On the other hand, a lot of the originals are now also firmly in place in the British Museum (e.g. the Elgin Marbles which we took between 1801 and 1812) so I don't suppose I can complain too much. Well worth a visit, but don't expect a pristine site as there are all kinds of building materials and equipment firmly embedded.
The whole issue of restoration is a contentious one, I guess. These buildings have been standing for 2,500 years but most of the damage has occurred in recent centuries. Sure, Elgin took the marbles but his intentions were good, and the debate on that one rages on two hundred years later. But until the 17th century the Parthenon still had a roof and plenty of internal structures too. In 1687 the Venetians attacked the city, and blew up the Parthenon which was being used as a gunpowder store by the Ottomans. As you'd expect, this caused significant damage! I'd always assumed that the skeletal remains were a result of the age of the structures; knowing that they survived so well for just over 2,000 years makes it even more impressive, but also sad that we've managed to knacker the poor thing so comprehensively in recent times. Anyway, if I'm really that bothered about seeing how it would have looked 'back in the day', I can always visit the full-size replica in Nashville, Tennessee.
From the Acropolis we navigated our way around to the ancient agora. This complex held a number of buildings, and served as a place for people to gather to hear public statements and as a marketplace for vendors to sell their wares. One such building was the Stoa of Attalos, which was reconstructed in the 1950s with funding from the Rockefeller family.
Nearby is the Roman Agora, the grounds of which contain a tower (The Tower of the Winds) with a sun clock. The diagonal lines etched into the sides of the building act like a massive sundial; as it casts a shadow on itself, you can read the time. We didn't really manage to work it out because we didn't know what each of the lines meant, but you can't really argue with the ability of the Romans when it comes to engineering.
We wound our way through narrow old streets, eventually popping out in the main shopping area of the city centre. It was quite a contrast to the quiet backstreets but refreshing to see a bit of the city that wasn't labelled as 'ancient'.
Next stop was a funicular railway which makes the short trip to the summit of the most easterly hill in the city, Mount Lycabettus. The views from the top are pretty spectacular, and it shows the dominant position of the Acropolis spectacularly.
The Chapel of St. George at the top proved quite photogenic, so I made Nick wait in the blazing sunshine while I worried about polarising filters and composition. By 4PM we'd had our fill of wandering around in the sweltering heat, and headed home.
Drinks were followed by a fantastic feast of seafood at a restaurant on the shore (taken at the suitably continental time of 22:30), and then more drinks with Nick until the early hours on his last night as a free man! I should point out at this juncture that I certainly didn't drink anything that was both alcoholic and on fire.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny – perfect wedding weather! While that attitude works in the UK, we were dealing with thirty-five to forty degree heat, so the wedding didn't start until 20:00. The ceremony was Greek Orthodox, and was really nice (as well as an interesting thing to experience). Unlike here, in Greece more people attend the ceremony than the reception afterwards, so I reckon there were probably around 250 people crammed into the church. The ceremony was quite complex, with chanting in ancient Greek, the donning of linked headbands by the bridge and groom, and plenty of kissing of a shiny metal-clad bible by all-and-sundry. Despite the heat the bride and groom both looked awesome, and it was wicked to see them tying the metaphorical knot.
I'm devoutly atheist, but I'll admit to really enjoying the churchy part, which surprised me a bit. As a man, I hesitate to use the word "sweet", but will stick to the more masculine and non-commital "cool". Afterwards we threw rice over the happy couple as they descended the church steps, and then de-camped to the venue for the reception. This was singularly the coolest bar I have ever been to in my life. Right on the seashore atop a little cliff, with a funky little pool, plenty of decking and indoor lounging space, cosy seats and friendly staff who tended the free bar with gusto. With the ceremony not starting until 20:00, we didn't start eating until 23:00, but bizarrely that felt perfectly appropriate. The best man's speech, cutting of the cake and first dance all went swimmingly.
Much merriment and dancing ensued, before a return to the hotel and – predictably enough – more drinks. When the sun rose above the neighbouring buildings and the receptionist pointed out that breakfast would be served in twenty minutes, we decided to call it a night. Unfortunately I only managed to snatch three hours of sleep before I had to leave to catch my flight. However, I didn't suffer too much and a little tiredness is a tiny price to pay for such a fantastic evening (and indeed weekend). Hearty congratulations to Nick and Eleni, and thanks to everyone else who either organised wedding things or just turned up and made the whole thing such fun.