Ancient Greece Odyssey: A Traveler's Journal
Take a Magical Tour of Ancient Greece...
Myth major seeks armchair travelers, art lovers, and born-again pagans for a ramble through the ruins of ancient Greece.
I visited Greece in spring 2005 for the first time, where I have been going in my imagination for almost 30 years. During that time I had earned a BA and MA in classical studies, but I never quite fit into academia. When I worked on the Perseus Project in 1993, my personal homepage said, "Other scholars beat the ancient world to death, when it's already dead. I want to bring it to life." I still do.
There are red, red poppies growing up through the cracks in the marble monuments of Eleusis, where rites to Demeter and Persephone promised initiates immortality.
In the ruins of Athena's shrine on Mt. Parnassos, where a goddess had a sanctuary guarded by a python long before Apollo slew her serpent and stole her oracle, green snakes still glide in the tall grasses beneath dusky olive trees.
The acoustics at the great theater of Epidauros are still sound enough that if you dare to recite Homer-- "Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles--" your voice will carry clear up the mountainside to the topmost seats.
Listen. Akoue. I'm going to tell you a story.
Students! Are you looking for pictures of Greek gods or answers to common questions about ancient Greece or the Odyssey? Check out my Greece Odyssey FAQ written just for you!
(Photographs, text and artwork on this Greece travel blog © Ellen Brundige.)
The Summons - Introduction to My Greek Odyssey
“So, are you coming to Greece with us?" my friend Lisa asked over lunch in February 2005.
Greece? A few doubletakes later, I found myself sitting crosslegged on the floor of a lecture room at Pacifica, shakily holding a flyer for Greece with Chris Downing. Chris Downing, professor of Greek and Roman myth, author of a more than a dozen books including The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. Chris Downing, who had taught with Z. Budapest and Carol Christ. A crone with a sparkle in her eye and a passion for literature and the soul, who at 74 thinks nothing of walking thirteen miles a day. The trip's suggested reading list included Mary Renault and Euripides and Aristopanes.
The itinerary was a hit parade of many of the places I've studied or helped catalog for the Perseus library: Athens, Eleusis, Delphi, Mycenae, Epidauros, Delos, Naxos, and... last but not least, Santorini. Thera, its proper name. A speck on the map in the middle of the Aegean Sea. It was that name that made me sit on the floor and shake.
Echoes of Atlantis - My Childhood Dreams of Greece
Thera. How long has that island held me in its spell? I remember stumbling across its legend as a child. Before the Trojan war, before Greece was Greek, a thriving people we call Minoans lived on the big island of Crete. They plied the seas with ships, trading with Egypt and Babylon and the Bronze Age peoples living where Greece would one day arise from marble-bedded hills. Minoan art abounded with flowers, colorfully-dressed courtiers, leaping bulls and dolphins, royal gryphons, and the double-bladed axe that was their chief symbol.
Santorini, ancient Thera, was a smaller island north of Crete where the Minoans had settled, mixed with other seafarers, and built a city that seemed to blend the best of many of the oldest civilizations in the world. Their furniture was ornate, their pottery beautiful, and the rooms of their homes were painted with charming vignettes of fishing and sailing and boys' sports and maidens picking flowers. They were a prosperous and flourishing people.
Then, sometime in the 15th century BCE, the island awoke, like Vesuvius looming over Pompeii. Stairs cracked and walls fell. The people struggled to stay, but their rich fertile soil was a volcano's gift-- or rather, a loan. When the caldera gave way, seawater rushed in, met with molten rock and exloded, blowing out the entire middle of the island and leaving only a ragged circle of land which had formerly been shore. It was much like Krakatoa, that awesome cataclysm that robbed the world of one summer in 1883, save for one thing-- Thera's magma chamber was four times larger. Or at least that was the tale told in Atlantis: the Biography of a Legend, a book on the discovery and excavation of Thera's ruined city.
More recent scientific studies have downgraded the severity of the disaster, but as a child I was gripped by the tale's power. I wrote stories and poems about the lost island that fell into the sea. For surely, garbled as it was, this was the root of the Atlantis legend Plato retold a thousand years later.
When you receive a summons like this, you had better answer. It's like the poet's Muse.
Arrival in Athens: The Journey Begins - Travel Diary, 30th April, Kentral Hotel
At the floor-length window of a tiny room, I sit late in the night in the glow of the Acropolis. The fireworks that sprinkled the city are over. Gunfire and the sound of Greek Orthodox hymns have died away. The city is very quiet, although I still hear a few glad voices, the swish of a car below, and the soft squeak of bats.
The Acropolis is golden. The Erechtheion and the Parthenon peek over the top by their head and shoulders. What did they think tonight with the hymns booming out: Christos aneste! "Christ has arisen"? I suppose Athena is glad the fireworks don't come too near; the Parthenon is looking a little worse for wear.
(First picture out hotel window, taken earlier that day)So how was the journey here? Long and far. It began at 3:45 AM two days ago with an hour-long shuttle ride to Los Angeles, then a six-hour flight to New York, then fourteen hours to Athens.
Somehow the night seems darker with deep ocean below rather than solid ground. In the morning, we flew down the coast of Italy. I could clearly make out the long rectangular strips of the iugera, Roman fields kept cultivated to this day. The port of Brundisium settled by ancient Greeks was nestled where it should be upon the heel. There was lingering snow on the the rugged heights of Greece when we crossed over the straits.
In the airport I caught up with some ladies of my tour group. One had booked a ride online with George's Famous Taxi, and he was more prompt than my LA shuttle had been! We decanted at the Central Hotel on Apollonos (Apollo) Street, after a bewildering ride through many narrow alleys. After unwinding in my room, I came down to find Chris Downing welcoming arrivals on a balcony above the lobby. She recommended that I set out and begin my explorations at once.
So, armed with a detailed map, I ambled out into tiny streets, most paved with flagstones and flanked by shops and friendly people. There was an amazing (well, not really) amount of replica Greek art for sale: statues and red-figure vases, even Cycladic figurines, most of which I was more used to seeing from the opposite end of a slide projector.
Google Maps: My Tour of Greece
Odysseus' overseas jaunt took ten years -- twenty if you count his stopover at Troy. Mine was just two weeks, but I had better accommodations.
- Overview of My Greece Trip's Itinerary
Follow me around Greece! I've marked all the sites that we visited and the routes we took on a Google map. Scroll, zoom in and out, or jump to my lenses focusing on different parts of my trip by clicking the colored markers.
My First Day in Athens (Stoa of Attalos)
Travel Diary, 30th April [written the following afternoon]
At length I found my way to the... Stoa of Attalos! Not a name the casual tourist would know, but for me it was strangely surreal, like finding an old school friend having lunch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It was built about 150 BCE by King Attalos II of Pergamon, one of the dynasties founded by the generals of Alexander the Great carving up his empire after his death. By that time, Athens was already considered classic, dwelling on her former glories. Petty tyrants, kings, and emperors would pay homage to her by financing monuments. Hence the stoa, whose long arcade would have housed shops or perhaps an art museum, which is how it functions today. How strange to find it side by side with a modern metro line, the ruined blocks of a Roman forum beside the rails.
The stoa faced onto the Agora, the civic heart of ancient Athens, now a green tumbled wilderness of bushes, flowers, long grass and ruined marble. Alas, this was the day before Orthodox Easter, so I found it closed. I wandered on disappointing various merchants by looking, not buying. I stopped in a random cafe at 3, hungry and tired and confused about time, and had my first Greek salad and lamb, a staple in these parts. Obviously I was an out-of-towner; the rest of the city was fasting for Easter.
I found Raquel, my roommate for this tour, in the room when I returned. At sunset we climbed to the hotel's rooftop for orientation, with the rock of the Acropolis looming up behind us and the Parthenon solid and real on its brow.
Chris began her lectures by speaking of "her" Greece, her lived experience of this place, and how it's new each time. She spoke of hopes and fears of coming to a land steeped in legend, of how we might fear that real Greece might not match the imaginal one. Turning to Greece itself, she spoke of two strata in its culture and history: early Greece, steeped in ritual and cult and reverence for goddesses, and the Greece of classical times, a patriarchal world where mythology and gods were the stuff of literature as much as cult.
First Evening in Athens (Orthodox Easter) - Travel Diary, 30th April [written the following afternoon]
The sunset behind the Acropolis was a stunning backdrop for dinner, although the evening air was biting cold. Some of the group went out into the city to attend late Easter services and drink in the pageantry and the singing. They participated in the local custom of breaking eggs dyed a deep dark red, a tradition to honor rebirth and spring that probably predates the name they call out: Christos aneste! I had wondered why our hotel had left us two eggs in a basket!
I was cold and tired and wary of walking city streets at night, but there on the rooftop we had a view of the whole city laid out before us. Athens is no more level than Rome, so up and down the hills we could see many people processing or holding candles. The soaring choruses of hundreds of voices singing from cathedral and church and square made the city resonate. Chilled and wondering, we stood entranced.
Around midnight, bright fireworks and gunshots went up all over the city, and the many layers of bells ringing and interweaving from all directions brought tears to our eyes. The sound echoed off the cliffs of the Acropolis. There alone, an island of silence in a sea of music and thunder, the shrines and monuments of a different world stood stoically abandoned, their marble columns bathed in golden light from many spotlights that illumined them all night long.
My rambles around Athens: Maps and Info
- MAP: Athenian Landmarks I Visited
Here is a Google satellite and street map of Athens. I've marked our route and all the monuments mentioned on this page to show you where we went!
- Dr. J's Illustrated Acropolis
Photo gallery and lecture notes on several monuments by a professor of classics.
- Hellenic Ministry of Culture: Acropolis Guide
Official guide to Acropolis, including pages on individual monuments and visitors' information.
Second Day in Athens (Agora, Propylaia) -1st May, Kentral Hotel
On Sunday we explored on our own. Squares were filled with people breaking their Easter fast on roast lamb spitted over open coals just as Homer described. There was music and dancing everywhere. At length we came to the Stoa of Attalos, by now an old friend, but the gates to the Agora were again closed. So we ambled beside its ruins sunk below street level, great open expanses of blocks and marble overgrown by tall grass and flowers and bushes, submerged islands of the past lying tantalizingly on the far side of fences and locked gates. Over the Agora in the distance the Acropolis loomed. When we came far enough around to look up at its western face, I had a surprise-- empty scaffolding enclosing the spot where the pretty little Temple of Athena Nike usually stands, perched on a high bastion on the righthand side of the great entrance to the Acropolis, the Propylaia.
Well, I knew what should be there, so only a little disappointed we kept edging around the Agora until we'd climbed the long Pnyx hill, past the wonderfully-preserved Temple of Hephaistos, past the grotto where Pan, they say, used to pipe to the nymphs, past the Kallirhoe spring and up to the olive-clad foot of the Acropolis, the Propylaia just above us.
Propylaia, the gateway to the Acropolis
Turning back to face the city and the Agora, we climbed out onto a knee of the Acropolis that has its own famous name, the Areopagus (Mars Hill). There, long before democracy, the Athenian elders met to discuss city affairs. Centuries later, Paul preached his sermons there to dubious merchants from the Agora below. I shed my shoes and we climbed up onto Athenian limestone polished by thousands of years of passage. Below the city spread out before us. Dancing swallows rode the blustery fresh wind, and we drank in the pure Greek sun and sky. Chris was up there too with her granddaughter. We shared the view and some talk, but I was off in my own world watching swooping swallows and thinking of Thera's flaking plaster walls.
Poll: Have You Visited Greece? - For Other Travelers
Have you ever been to Greece?
Second Day in Athens (Agora, Taos Indians) - Travel Diary, 1st May, Kentral Hotel
Panorama of Agora and Athens from Areopagus Hill
Temple of Hephaistos, left; Stoa of Attalos, Right
Distant left: Marble Quarry for Parthenon, still in use
Descending the heights, we cut through the edge of the Agora, where a few ruins were still open to visitors, including the foundations of a temple to Hekate. There I got my first taste of what was to become a familiar sight of which I never tired: red, red poppies overrunning the old stones, wild barley grasses rustling in the wind. Just past the temple was an orange grove fragrant with hanging jasmine, a feast for the nose.
Agora / Temple of Hecate foundations
Past that came an unlikely feast for the ears. Coming down to the ruins of a Roman forum, we were drawn by the sound of pipes, flutes and drums, which in fact we had been hearing here and there all afternoon. Now we discovered the source. Native American musicians from Taos, not far from Raquel's home, were giving an impromptu outdoor concert before the ancient Roman library of the emperor Hadrian, a grecophile who would probably have appreciated their music! Greeks danced to the unlikely music of a continent away. Old and new, far and near were blended together by Andean pan-pipes.
Native American musicians in front of Library of Hadrian.
For a late lunch we had Greek salad at an outdoor cafe and that ubiquitous iced chocolate drink that became a staple of my daily wanderings.
Finally we returned to the hotel, where I had a chance to bring my diary up-to-date.
In the evening, Chris gave us the second of her many brilliant 2-hour lectures, this one on Greek religion. I'm not going to reprint her words here, but much of what she said is found in her excellent books on Greek goddesses and gods, written not just for scholars but for the thoughtful public.
Sneak peek at Things to Come - Ancient Greece Odyssey: Glimpses
Here's a sneak preview of some places we'll be visiting in future chapters.
The Journey Continues...
And that's just my second full day in Athens! Now it's time to head for the Parthenon in Ancient Greece Odyssey: Acropolis of Athens!
Learn Common Greetings in Modern Greek! - Free Lessons for People Traveling to Greece
- My Greece Timeline
Easy-to-read timeline of ancient Greek history written for Ancient Greece Odyssey.
- Theoi Project
Excellent guide to Greek divinities (gods and daimones) including regional variants, cults and translations of ancient sources describing them.
- An Overview of Classical Greek History
Free e-text version of classicist Tom Martin's Overview of Classical Greek History, which I helped edit/hyperlink in the early days of the web.
- Romanus_Too's Flickr Gallery
Here are some really beautiful photos of Athens by someone who had a better camera and more photographic skill than I!
If I Had to Recommend One Book on Greek Art...
How classical vases and sculpture depict Greek gods, goddesses, and individual myths, and tell us something about the Greeks themselves.
This site is dedicated with love and thanks to my mentor, Dr. Chris Downing, who led me and the rest of our group on this magical journey and spent hours each day sharing her scholar's knowledge.
Leave a friendly note if you enjoyed this page, or pass it on!
P.S. An extra "thank you" to Vivia, who wrote this:"You have a very nice camera! IT WAS A BIGG HELP IN MY SOCIAL STUDIES PROJECT!! Lol, anyway, Im only 6th grade, but I think Im gonna get an a off of this. But don't worry, no palgerism was committed, I gave you some credit for the pics!! Lol, good work, and keep at it."
~ ViviaVivia: I hope you got an A! Two thumbs up for giving credit and not plagiarizing!
© 2007 Ellen Brundige