I’m back from what I realise is my tenth trip to Europe. The previous nine:
1990: London (job interview at King’s College London)
1997: Rome/Vatican City/Naples/Pompeii/Capri/Amalfi Coast (ISIL conference)
2003: Paris (vacation)
2004: Copenhagen (Copenhagen Polis Centre conference)
2004: London (vacation)
2005: Paris (vacation)
2006: Prague [with connection in Zurich] (PCPE conference)
2006: Edinburgh/Kirkcaldy/Highlands/Loch Ness (vacation)
2007: Kraków [with connection in Munich] (IVR conference)
The plane took me over Corsica (second time I’ve seen its spiky surface from the air, the first being on my return flight from Rome in ’97), the boot-tip of Italy, and the dragon-claw talons of the Peloponnese. (Anaxagoras had theorised that the sun was a burning rock about the size of the Peloponnese; this was widely regarded at the time as an absurd overestimate (as well as theologically impertinent), though I believe it is now thought to fall somewhat short of the sun’s actual dimensions.) Delta’s in-flight magazine had an article about the Sloss Refinery, which I visited in Birmingham AL in ’99 or so. After we landed (I knew I wasn’t in the U.S. when I saw people smoking in the airport; also Greek escalators are much faster than their American counterparts) I took the metro into Athens; my hotel, the Fivos (which is what modern Greek has done to “Phoebus”), was almost next door to the Monastiraki metro stop.
The Fivos was a bit of a dump, but cheap, and the location was unbeatable – right on the edge of the Plaka, with the Acropolis in the background. (The official conference hotel, the Dorian Inn, was nicer than the Fivos but in a seedier location, by Omonoia Square – okay by day, but dodgy at night; I saw at least one fight.) My room was on what Europeans call the fifth floor and Americans the sixth; I didn’t relish hauling my bulk up six flights every day. Still, at the beginning of the week I had to rest on each floor, while by the end of the week I only had to rest once, halfway; so if I had stayed longer it might have done me a world of good. Either that or killed me. (I haven’t been in the Hotel Attalos, but perhaps for future reference it would be the best compromise – next to the Fivos, but with an elevator!)
One guest told me that a year or two earlier a woman had gotten locked into her room at the Fivos and so had tied bedsheets together and tried to climb out the window, but had fallen. (I did not learn her fate.) The kicker is: there was a phone in the room, but she hadn’t thought to try it.
[Touristic informations: Here are some of the negative sides of Greece:
Greek plumbing pipes are for some reason too narrow to accommodate toilet paper without clogging, so instead of flushing your used paper down the toilet you have to put it in the wastebin next to the toilet. Yuck. (In related news, the smell of sewage often pervades the streets.)
In addition to the unofficial thieves on the metro (one conference participant told me that his money belt was cut off him during his ride in from the airport) there are also official thieves: those who forget to validate their ticket in addition to buying it must, if caught, pay a fine of up to sixty times the price of the ticket. (For the 6-euro ride from the airport to central Athens that would amount to €360, or about $570. This rather disproportionate penalty seems like a clever way to exploit clueless tourists who think having paid for their ticket is enough. (Fortunately I was a clueful tourist.)
The process of changing currency is for some reason more labourious and time-consuming in Greece than in any other European country I’ve visited; if you’re in a hurry you’re out of luck.
Beggars (or, what comes to the same thing, people trying to sell you worthless junk) are more numerous and more insistent than in any other country I’ve visited.
As in most European countries, hotels in Greece do not provide washcloths; instead they give you a big towel and a little one. I assume that the smaller towel is meant to be used as a washcloth, but it’s rather cumbersome. Hence you may prefer to bring your own washcloth as I did. (Of course, again as in most of Europe, the showers have no shower curtain. With practice you will get slowly better at not flooding the bathroom.)]
On arrival I was mightily jet-lagged, but I knew that if I let myself go to bed straightaway, I’d be off-clock henceforth, so I forced myself to go out in search of the site of Plato’s Academy, since it’s a bit off the beaten path and so probably wouldn’t be convenient to visit later,.
[Touristic informations: How to find Plato’s Academy. Most guidebooks don’t mention it, and most maps of Athens stop just short of it, but take a look at the northwest corner of your map. You may see something labeled “Akadimias Platonos,” but most likely this is not what you want. (“Akadimias Platonos” is the name of a square by St. George’s church, southeast of the Academy proper, as well as the name of the neighbourhood as a whole.) But you should see streets named Alexandreias and Monastiriou; your map will probably stop just short of where they intersect, but that’s where the Academy archeological site is. (Note that it goes back farther than initially appears, continuing on the far side of Kratylou Street.) Although the archeological site is called “Akadimias Platonos,” strictly speaking it’s the entire Grove of Academe, and I don’t think they have any clear idea of where Plato’s school in particular was located within it.]
It was, incidentally, fairly simple to find my way around. With a knowledge of classical Greek it’s pretty easy to read signs in modern Greek; the language seems to have changed less in the last 3000 years than English has in the last 500. (The modern word for “thank you,” by the way, is “eucharisto”! – though it’s pronounced “efharisto.”) In any case, most signs are in both Greek and English.
After seeing the Academy I headed back to my hotel and hit the sack. (I suppose I must have gotten some dinner first, but I don’t recall.)
I’d arranged to meet up with my friend Jon Mahoney (also in town for the AtInER conference) first thing Sunday morning to get up to the Acropolis before the crowds hit. In this we succeeded, seeing the Parthenon, the Theatre of Dionysos (where the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes were first performed, and where Socrates rose in the audience to let visitors to Athens compare his phiz with the Socrates mask in The Clouds), and the Erechtheion. (The first waves of coach tours were starting to arrive just as we left.) Alas, we didn’t make it over to the Pnyx (site of the old democratic assembly), the Areopagus (where St. Paul and Athena once stood, presumably not at the same time), or the Philopappou Hill (site of a largely conjectural “Socrates’ prison”) – hopefully next time!
Then we walked through the Agora, where Socrates once practised his irony (which was kind of like a gadfly in your chardonnay) (sorry), and saw the Hephaestion and a small museum in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos. After a rest and some iced coffee in a café beside the Agora, we visited the Kerameikos, an ancient Athenian graveyard with some remnants of the old wall.
I was reminded of Thucydides’ remark that future generations, seeing the ruins of Athens and Sparta, would tend to overestimate the prominence of the former and underestimate that of the latter, given the disparity in public monuments between the two cities.
When tourists visit ruins they often suppose that they have been worn slowly away over time by the elements. Actually, in the vast majority of cases the bulk of the damage occurred at specific times as the result of specific human decisions. In most cases the buildings were simply mined for raw materials to build new buildings (it’s a lot easier to haul marble from the building down the street than to haul it all the way from the quarry, and likewise to start with marble that’s already been worked up); temples of one religion were particularly likely to be looted to build temples of a rival religion. In the case of the Parthenon, most of the damage occurred in one instant in 1687, not in this case to build anything new but because the Turks were using it as an ammunition depot which the Venetians consequently shelled. (The Parthenon was originally built “by Pericles” – i.e., by people to whom Pericles gave orders – in order to replace an earlier temple that had been destroyed during the Persian occupation of Athens.)
That afternoon we took a coach tour ourselves, along the coast past topless beaches and through Halimous/Alimos/Kalamaki (birthplace of Thucydides) to the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, where King Aegeus of legend died from confusing the signifier with the signified. Byron supposedly carved his name into the temple somewhere, but I didn’t see it. In addition to being the southernmost point of Attika, Sounion now replaces Kraków as my own easternmost point reached (my southernmost, westernmost, and northernmost points are Key West, Vancouver, and Inverness, respectively – at least on land, since I’ve also flown over Iceland). The view from here is, famously, breathtaking.
That evening we had dinner at Thanasis, a small restaurant in the Plaka, because Jon had been told by an Athenian native that they had the best chicken skewers. On this more anon.
The conference was supposed to be at the University of Athens, but this had to be changed at the last minute because of student riots – about what I have trouble determining – with the result that we had only one room, so we couldn’t have concurrent sessions. The consequence was that sessions were greatly compressed and there was little time for discussion. But aside from that (and also aside from constant rewriting of the program throughout the conference, and a general all-pervading disorganisation) it was a good conference. (One participant knew me from my Aquinas-as-tabloid-journalist parody from grad school, and another from my 2002 debate at Hamilton College.)
After lunch, Jon and I visited the National Archeological Museum, where I saw, inter alia, the so-called “death mask of Agamemnon” (which is neither a death mask nor of Agamemenon) and the original statue of Zeus-or-Poseidon whose image graces my home page. (After leaving the museum I learned, frustratingly, that the Antikythera Mechanism (whose image graces my former blog’s archive page) was also on display at the museum and I’d somehow missed it – argh!)
Back at the conference I was conscripted to chair the last two sessions (or sort-of chair, since my chairing determinations were regularly overridden by one of the conference organisers in the audience). Then off to Stamatopoulos Tavern in the Plaka for “Greek Night” (dinner and Greek dancing entertainment).
In the morning Jon and I visited the remains of the Olympeion (an enormous temple of Zeus next to the Acropolis – culprits behind its ruined condition include Romans, Germanic invaders, Christians looting it to build churches, Turks looting it to build mosques, and finally an actual act of nature, a storm in 1852 that knocked over one of the 60-foot columns, breaking it into neat segments); then back to the conference. There inter alia I met Nicole Hassoun, who’ll be one of the commentators at next December’s Molinari Society symposium. Readers of this blog will be interested in her argument that libertarianism entails the welfare state. (My chief criticism: an institution cannot satisfy a precondition for its legitimacy by working to bring about that condition, since a precondition is by definition something that must already be satisfied before the institution can legitimately do anything at all.)
One paper from the afternoon that might interest my blog’s readership: Jeremy Wisnewski argued that the “ticking time-bomb” scenario often used to justify torture ignores the fact, familiar to anyone who reads government torture manuals, that torture, to be successful, usually requires an open-ended time period to break down the victim’s psychological resistance, and that people can almost always resist torture if there’s a known short-term period for which they have to hold out – so that the one scenario in which torture is thought to be most justified is the one scenario in which torture is actually least likely to work. (I’m not sure this counts as a philosophical argument – and I’m not all that confident that I would be particularly good at holding out in even a fixed-time scenario; but it was interesting.)
Then the conference wound up with dinner at the Hellenic American Union halfway up Mount Lykavittos (long walk but great view!).
A note I’ll stick in here for lack of any better place: Some years back Athens solved its stray dog problem by declaring all the stray dogs to be city property. The city gives them all collars and tags, and takes responsibility for vaccinating them, and feeding any who need it. The result is that Athenian dogs behave differently from dogs I’ve seen anywhere else; their behaviour is neither “domesticated,” nor “stray,” nor “wild.” They move about the city, not in packs, but singly or in pairs; or they sleep on the sidewalk, unperturbed at people walking past or over them. They show no fear or hostility toward humans (apart from one incident I witnessed when a dog suddenly took a dislike to one of the passers-by and chased him down the street), but they also don’t fawn on them for food or affection. (Very different from the ingratiating packs of stray dogs I met in Italy.) They may join a group of human pedestrians for a while, but if so they do it with an aloof air of pretended indifference that seems more feline than canine. They stroll with assured self-confidence, like independent citizens, and are more competent at crossing busy streets than any dogs I’ve ever seen.
The next day Jon headed out on a bus tour to Delphi (he’d done the conference tour the previous year) while I went on the tour included in the conference. First we went by bus to Plato’s Academy; if I’d known this was on the itinerary I probably wouldn’t have gone the first day, but it was just as well that I did, since this time a) we only stayed briefly, and b) the guide didn’t know how to find the site so I had to guide the bus!
Then we drove to Marathon, site of a major victory of the Athenians over the Persians back in the day. I’m not sure how far up the coast of Marathon we went, so judging from the map I might have gone farther east than Sounion, but I don’t think so.
First we tried to get in to see the tomb of the Athenian hoplites, but the guide had forgotten to bring the certificate that would get us in free, so we left. Then we were each given a choice between going to the beach and going to the Marathon Archeological Museum; I chose the latter, but the driver had mistakenly thought we were going to the Museum of the Marathon Run and took us in the wrong direction, so by the time the guide and the driver had gotten this sorted out between them we only had half an hour at the right museum (in beautiful countryside). But on the bright side, the guide knew the people at the museum and had them call the people at the tomb of the hoplites, so we were finally able to get into that on the way back.
Then we had an enormous lunch at a restaurant up in the hills. On the way back into Athens, we stopped at the site of Aristotle’s Lyceum, next to the Byzantine Museum; officially it’s not open to the public yet, but in typical Athenian fashion it was standing open and unguarded, so we trooped in, took our pics, and trooped out again before anybody could stop us. Then I met Jon for dinner in the Plaka; the next day he left for a week in Crete.
Now came the second portion of the conference tour, a one-day cruise in the Saronic Gulf. A bus took us down to the Peiraieus (and I now have a new appreciation of the magnitude of Socrates’ “stroll” from the Agora down to the Peiraieus at the beginning of the Republic) where we embarked on a boat. The boat had about a half-hour tape of Greek music on continuous loop throughout the day; it was quite nice – the first two or three times through.
The Aegean is absolutely littered with islands, one peeking out from behind another in every direction; it must have made things easy on the early Greek mariners, never being too far out of sight of a landmark. First we sailed past Aegina (“the eyesore of the Peiraieus,” Pericles called it, but he was speaking politically, not aesthetically) to Poros. The word poros means an opening, a way out or through (as in pores; and Aristotle’s term for philosophical puzzlement is aporia, being unable to find a poros), and it’s obvious why Poros is so named, because the apparent harbour into which you sail turns out to be not a harbour after all but instead a narrow strait. Poros was quite pretty but we only had about half an hour there.
Next we stopped at Hydra/Idra, where Leonard Cohen wrote Bird on the Wire. This was my favourite of the three islands we visited; indeed I would rather have skipped Poros and spent more time here, exploring the beautiful path that runs along the coast. We had about an hour and a half on Hydra, which had the greatest scenic views of anywhere in the whole trip.
Finally we sailed back to Aegina, legendary home of the Myrmidons (not those ones, these ones) and current home to Europe’s foremost pistachio farms. We had about two hours here, and I took a Panoramic Tour by bus around the island, seeing a Byzantine church (why do nearly all Byzantine churches look so much alike? it makes them treacherous as landmarks) and Nikos Kazantzakis’s house, as well as a famous hill in the village of Palaiokhora/Paleohora (“old place” – some imaginative naming there) where the locals built 365 chapels to protect them from pirates (unfortunately only about 30 still remain; perhaps the pirates got the rest?). From the hills we got a great view of Salamis (site of another Athenian victory over the Persians) and, beyond it, of the Peiraieus (I wonder whether the ancient inhabitants considered it the eyesore of Aegina?). We were also plied with ouzo and “specialities”; the latter turned out to be some especially nasty and intractable seafood. (The ouzo was in fact desperately needed in order to wash down the “specialities.”) In retrospect I think I should have instead taken the Classical Tour, which substituted an archeological site (the Temple of Aphaia) for the meal.
On our way back from Aegina, seagulls followed our boat, hanging as though in slow motion before us; a few were brave enough to take bread crusts from passengers’ hands. The Parthenon is still visible in the distance as one sails into the Peiraieus.
On Friday I headed to the top of Mount Lukabettos/Lykavittos/Likavitos (“where wolves walk” – the name beats Palaiochora!), which, being the highest point in Athens, has the best views of the city.
[Touristic informations: Lykavittos is a steep and daunting climb – unless you do it the easy way. How to get up Lykavittos the easy way: first, take bus #060 from the left/north side of the National Archeological Museum (they leave on the hour, perhaps on the half-hour as well) up to the base of the funicular. It’s not obvious near the top which stop is the right one for the funicular, but point to the funicular on your map and the bus driver will tell you where get off (in one sense or another of that phrase). Then climb a flight of about 70 steps (I didn’t promise it would be completely easy) to the funicular and take it the rest of the way to the top (at which there are, sorry, a few more stairs – but the view is worth it).]
On the walk back down I was prompted to wonder why we can walk a foot away from dog poop without any fear of stepping in it, but can’t walk a foot away from a cliff edge without fear of stepping off it. I suppose it’s because fear is determined not just by the likelihood but also by the severity of the undesired outcome; but from the inside it certainly feels like a judgment of greater likelihood.
I then walked through Exarkheia/Exarhia, which is supposed to be the “anarchist” neighbourhood of Athens; I don’t know much about Greek anarchism (at least subsequent to Diogenes of Oinoanda), but the shops did seem marginally more bohemian and the appearance of the residents exhibited a mild hippie or punk or goth sensibility (though far less so than in, say, the Little Five Points area of Atlanta). Surely there’s more to it than this?
After a walk through Areos Park, I headed down to Syntagma Square, where – judging from the increased security around Parliament and the neighbouring Hotel Grande Bretagne (no, I don’t know why an Athenian hotel has a British name in French), as well as the flurry of French flags around Parliament – I guessed, correctly, that Sarko was favouring the Hellenic Republic with a visit.
At a kiosk I saw a fridge magnet with a quote from Aristotle on it: “One shallow [sic] does not make a spring.” I was tempted to get it, but not quite tempted enough.
I watched the changing of the guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This turned out to be the most idiotic statist ritual I have ever witnessed; it makes its British counterpart look like an entirely reasonable enterprise in comparison. All I could think of was John Cleese and the Ministry of Silly Walks. (In a related story, I had been struck, on my trip to Poland last year, at seeing only two Polish flags on the entire trip – a pleasant contrast with America’s obsessive flagolatry. Well, the bad news is that Greece seems more like America in this respect – the Greek flag is everywhere. On the brighter side, the Greek flag is much prettier than either the American or the Polish one.)
Then, after a stroll through the nearby National Gardens (incidentally much prettier than the Areos Park; don’t waste time in the latter if you can get to the former), it was time for dinner. Now every night that we had eaten in the Plaka (more than once at Thanasis) this John-Turturro-looking guy in charge of the restaurant next door to Thanasis (the Phagopoteion Mpaïraktaris on Mitropoleos Street; phagopoteion means eat-and-drinkery, and this one advertises itself as apo to 1879) would keep heckling us, saying “How come you never eat at my restaurant?” So this night I finally decided to eat at Mpaïraktaris, much to the Turturroid’s gratification; turns out they have a better menu selection than Thanasis, their chicken skewers are at least as good as those at Thanasis, and you can order ouzo by the glass and not just by the bottle.
On Saturday I headed back to the U.S., having shot 30 rolls of film. (Yes, I really need to get a digital camera.) Next time in Greece I hope to get to Delphi or Eleusis, or maybe take this tour.
I ran into Walter Block on the shuttle from Atlanta to Auburn. (Turns out he’s also a Ruwart fan.)
I see that southern Greece has since suffered a serious earthquake. This reminds me that one night on the trip I woke up in my room thinking I’d felt an earthquake, but I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t dreamed it.
In my absence I successfully taped the May 30th epiode of Galactica, but was unsuccessful in taping the June 6th episode – which the Sci-fi Channel, according to its online schedule, is apparently not going to re-air any time in the next couple of months. Aaaarrgghhhhh!!!!! Aaaarrgghhhhh!!!!! Aaaarrgghhhhh!!!!!