Adventures in Attica – (Athens Travel Journal – Day One)

8th May 2014

Having arrived at the airport the previous evening, I found I could barely sleep. My room is comfy but I’m too excited. I’m finally in Greece again.

I have an 8am pick up with PK Travel for their ‘Coastal Tour.’ Usually the cost is shared between a group of 3/4 people (ie who can fit in the car along with the driver) but I am of course by myself. It makes the trip pricey, but it is the easiest way (as I can’t drive,) to visit the sites that I so desperately want to see. I have chosen a budget hotel in a rough area of town in order to afford my two days with PK, I’m hoping it will be worth it.

My driver is Dmitiri, he is a friendly and chatty guy. He’s not a guide (hiring a guide costs extra and I don’t have nearly enough,) but promises to point out little things along our journey that I may find interesting.

First stop on the trip is Lake Marathon. Beautiful, but I’m too excited about getting to the ancient sites to want to spend more than five minutes appreciating the lovely view. We stop for pictures at one end of the road that runs along the top of the dam.

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Next up is the site of the Marathon Trophy.

IMG_6002A ten metre Ionic column was erected on the site of the 490BC battle fought against a Persian invasion force. The column currently on the site is a replica. The original exists in fragments in the Marathon Museum, which I’ll see later. It was made of Pentelic marble. The marble from Mount Pentelikon is beautifully creamy white. It was (and is being) used for the buildings on the Acropolis in Athens. I like that the Marathon Trophy is Pentelic as the mountain overlooks the battlefield. It’s a peaceful spot and Dmitri and I are the only people here.

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The plain of Marathon

We’re not heading tot he Marathon museum straight away though, we’re heading to Rhamnous next. As we approach I congratulate myself for not attempting to reach the site alone, it is incredibly remote. Purchasing my ticket, I am informed that only the sanctuary is open today, the ruins of the town are closed. I’m disappointed, but apparently this is not unusual. Time to stifle a sigh and head up the sacred road, flanked by tombs, up to the sanctuary.

Rhamnous was famous in antiquity for the Temple of Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution.

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The sacred road

There are actually two temples, the older was dedicated jointly to Nemesis and Themis, “she of good counsel.” The older temple dates to the early 5th century BC.

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The older, smaller temple is on the left.

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Looking through the doors of the older temple

The cult statue inside the cella of the older temple was of Themis. She embodied the natural order and that is why she was so frequently paired with Nemesis, who would mete out punishments on mortals arrogant enough to try and upset the balance.

The larger temple was started a few decades afterwards but was never truly finished. Some of the decorative work was halted during the Peloponnesian War.

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Temple of Nemesis

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You can see where the fluting of the columns was begun, but never finished.

The cult statue in the later temple is of Nemesis and carved from a single huge block of Parian marble. The story goes that the Persian invaders had brought the stone with them with the intention of carving a huge victory trophy. Their hubris was punished by Nemesis, of course, and their victory never came. The famous Greek sculptor Pheidias or his student Agorakritos then used the stone to honour the goddess and adorn the new temple at Rhamnous.

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The deme of Rhamnous (from a distance!) with Euboea visible across the water

Rhamnous itself was one of the 139 demes of Attica that fell under the control of Athens. I glimpse as much as I can of the town of Rhamnous from the sanctuary platform before grudgingly heading back through the tombs and back to the car park where Dmitri is waiting.

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4th century BC tomb

It’s time to head back towards Marathon to visit the archaeological museum there.

The museum houses some lovely funerary monuments and some sculptures founds at a sanctuary founded by the Romans but dedicated to Egyptian gods at nearby Brexiza. It also houses the top of the original Marathon Trophy.

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From the temple at Brexiza

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Detail from the funerary monument of a woman

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The original Marathon Trophy

Outside the museum is the Tomb of the Plataeans who fought alongside the Athenians at Marathon, but far larger is the tomb of the Athenians themselves, which is where Dmitri is taking me next.

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The tumulus (tomb) is the small hill in the centre of the plain

Completely devoid of other tourists, the Tumulus of the 192 Athenians who fell at Marathon is a beautiful site. Spring poppies dot the plain and with the only sound being grass rustling in the breeze it is hard to picture a decisive battle occurring here. Greek forces under the command of Militiades were able to defeat a Persian army whose strength more than doubled their own. Aeschylus, who would go on to be a celebrated tragic playwright, was so proud of fighting in the battle that he mentioned it on his funerary monument and didn’t mention his award-winning plays at all.

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Next up on the tour is a cycladic cemetery that was inexplicably closed. Dmitri even phoned up some people to try and work out what was happening, no dice. I’m not as disappointed as at Rhamnous and we can, at least, peek through the windows of the building that house the cemetery site.

Time for lunch. Dmitri wisely chooses a lovely spot by the sea in Rafina and we both enjoy a couple of gyros wraps.

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A perfect place for lunch…

Next stop is a brief pause at Vravrona, a place that was known as Brauron in antiquity. It’s not on the PK Travel itinerary but I asked if it was possible to add a short visit when I booked and Dmitri, by now well aware of my obsession with ancient sites, is more than happy to make a quick detour. The site is closed to the public as it is receiving some much needed TLC, and it is easy enough to see the main attraction from the roadside.

Brauron was famous for the sanctuary and temple of Artemis, goddess of the hunt.

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We’ve nearly finished our trip across Attica and have one temple left to visit.

We head south and my ears prick up as Dmitri comments that we are driving though Lavrio, known as Laurium in antiquity. I get incredibly excited, Laurium was the site of a huge silver mine. Themistocles convinced the Athenians after Marathon to use the huge income from the silver mines to build a fleet of 200 triremes and turn Athens into a formidable naval power. It took some convincing, but the fleet was built. Nearly a decade afterwards when the Persians were once again threatening to invade, the Oracle at Delphi ambiguously warned the Athenians that “only the wooden walls shall not fall.” It was the naval battle of Salamis that turned the war in the favour of the Greeks, proving that Themistocles was right about his “wooden wall” of warships.

Mined by tens of thousands of slaves, being sent to the mines meant a short, hard life and a painful death.

Eventually we arrive at one of the most picturesque temples I have ever had the joy of exploring.

The Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion is regularly featured on postcards and on the front of guide books, arriving at site it really isn’t hard to see why.

In myth, the Athenian king Aegeus sent his son Theseus to Crete as part of the tribute of seven youths and seven maidens that were to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Having already sent dozens of young men and women to their deaths in previous years, Aegeus planned for Theseus to defeat the Minotaur, ending the sacrifices. If he were successful, Theseus would display white sails on his ship upon his return. If Theseus was killed in the attempt, the crew were to bring back his remains and sail with black flags.

King Aegeus waited for the return of his son at Cape Sounion. Theseus, safely returning as a hero, forgot about the coded messages of the coloured sails and hoisted the black sails on his ship. Watching from the coast, Aegeus was heartbroken when he saw the tiny black sails in the distance and threw himself into the sea.

His suicide lent his name to the sea which is of course named the Aegean and his son Theseus became King of Athens.

200 feet above sea level, there has been a temple on the site since the archaic period. the current temple dates from around 440 BC.

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The temple was dedicated to Poseidon, god of the sea. Sailors would frequently make animal sacrifices at the temple here in order to placate Poseidon and avoid being shipwrecked.

Many visitors over the centuries have scratched their names into the stones, including Lord Byron, so it is easy to understand why the temple itself is barriered off from some distance. It is a beautiful place though (and easily the busiest tourist attraction I have seen all day, I had been wondering where everyobody was!) and a highlight of the tour.

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I leave, reluctantly, as it time to head back towards Athens.

Dmitri is kind enough to stop for a quick photo of the temple from sea level:

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I ask Dmitri to drop me of at the base of Filopappou Hill rather than my hotel when we get back to Athens. I plan to climb up to the top and get a gorgeous view of the Acropolis in the fading sunlight. Once known as the Hill of the Muses, it is topped by the tomb of Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos, a prince from Commagene who died in 116 AD.

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The Acropolis, seen from the Hill of the Muses

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The Philopappos Monument

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