DAY 12 — ATHENS, GREECE
Room service was not available this morning as we were up early to disembark the Aegean Odyssey for our hotel in Athens. So much for my regular three croissants and coffee on my balcony!
Many of the passengers expressed regret with our departure as we all have grown accustomed to our shipboard routines and each other. About a third of the passengers leave the ship today for a two-day post cruise visit to Athens, while the rest (mostly the Australians) continue on to Istanbul. Due to the small size of the Aegean Odyssey and the intimacy of its public spaces, passengers met each other frequently and got to know one another. Friendships were formed, and as we waited to be called for our ground transportation many passengers exchanged e-mail addresses and took photographs together of new friends.
A look at my fellow passengers
I had my favorites on board as well. There were Sam and Pam, a couple from Australia that I shared the smoking deck with throughout the cruise. Sam was an avocado grower from Sydney who kept us enthralled with stories of the rats and snakes that visited his plantings along with his political views.Then there were Judy and Marilyn, two very charming widows from the Sydney area that I had dinner with several evenings in the Marco Polo restaurant. They both had amusing and upbeat personalities and were a pleasure to spend time with. One talked with Marilyn and listened to Judy. Judy’s words! (She will be reading this)
There was Rosemary, an ESL teacher from outside San Francisco; Rita from Minnesota; and a couple from San Diego treating their 12-year-old granddaughter to her first international trip; and a young woman traveling with her mother, celebrating her new doctorate in biology, and many more. We spent many hours dining together, sharing shore excursions and listening to the many interesting lectures on board. A very pleasant group of people.
I also had the opportunity to meet Todd Nielsen, travel director for the Archeological Institute of America Tours, established 30 years ago in Boston (www.aiatours.org). He has used the Aegean Odyssey for programs in other regions of the world in the past with great success and was on board working out logistics for a future offering on the Dalmatian coast. AIA offers about 30 tours per year around the globe.Todd got the travel bug early in life and had visited very continent by time he was 35 while managing the travel program for the Natural History Museum of New York. Todd’s wife, Patricia Dooley, is a sinologist (she studies the Chinese language) and works closely with him. He resides with his wife and teenage son in Walpole, NH.
We disembark and head into Athens
Disembarkation was easy and orderly. Our suitcases went directly to our hotel while we moved on directly to a half day tour of Athens. After nearly two weeks of the bays and small picturesque villages of the Dalmatian coast, Athens is a bit of a shock.
A city of five million, greater Athens is a noisy, busy city crammed with Athenians and tourists alike. Yellow cabs are wherever one looks, along with single and double-decker tour buses making their rounds. Yet Athens is also one of the world’s oldest cities, as its recorded history spans around 3,400 years.
Classical Athens was a powerful city-state. A center for the arts, learning and philosophy, home of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, it is widely referred to as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy. Today’s Athens is a cosmopolitan metropolis and is central to economic, financial, industrial, political and cultural life in Greece.
We quickly began to appreciate the history of Athens as our tour took us to the most famous building in the city, the Parthenon on the Acropolis with its sweeping views of Athens, widely considered a key landmark of early Western Civilization. Commissioned by Pericles in the 5th century BC, the site is dominated by the majestic Parthenon: a building that embodies the stunning achievements of the Athenian “Golden Age”.Surrounding the great temple are the other architectural masterpieces of the citadel: the Propylaia (monumental gateway), the Erechtheion with its beautiful Karayatid Porch and the Temple of Athena Nike (Winged Victory). Below the temple complex is the theater of Dionysos where the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were first performed.
Our tour included entrance to the new long-anticipated $200-million, 226,000-square-foot Acropolis Museum. In the dramatic Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis, ascending floors of glass literally “float” you above the excavations for an extraordinary perspective of the layers of Greek history that lie below.
The collections of the museum are exhibited on three levels while a fourth middle level houses the auxiliary spaces such as the museum shop and cafe. Highlights of the Acropolis Museum include statues from the Archaic period and the impressive Parthenon Hall which celebrates the famous temple on the peak of the Athens Acropolis. Other exhibits include the archeological remains from the ancient city which were revealed by excavations on the site of the museum itself.
The museum is impressive; and our guide, as usual, was well informed.
The elegant Grand Bretagne is well locatedAfter our tour, we checked into our hotel, the exquisite 320-room Grand Bretagne Hotel on Syntagma Square. The property is ideally located in the center of Athens, across from the city’s Parliament building and within walking distance to many attractions including the National Gardens and the Old Pláka district.
The hotel is stunning. The lobby is pillared above marble- and custom-carpeted floors and furnished in beautiful antiques. The opulent décor continues into the tranquil oasis in the heart of the Winter Garden Restaurant where I had the second best spaghetti carbonara I have ever eaten (the best was in Rome). The entire staff is elegantly uniformed and quick to see to one’s needs.
Gorgeous stained glass enhances the atrium ceiling providing natural light, graceful columns accentuate the room’s height, and the intricate marble floor has handsome detailing. The opulence of the setting is offset by a palette of creams and gold.
The hotel corridors are no less well designed, as are the accommodations. My room was ornately furnished with two bedside tables, wall sconces, a desk, a plasma television enclosed in an antique chest with a refrigerator. A great deal of closet space is offered, one with a self-programmable safe.
Gorgeous mahogany doors led to a large black-and-cream marble bath with deep tub and walk-in shower. A lighted make up mirror is attached to the wall near the sink and a hair dryer and towel rack with large soft towels are offered. Amenities are Gilchrist & Soames of London, and include shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, bath gel, sewing kit and shower cap.
On the hotel’s top floor is the GB Roof Garden Restaurant. The view from this bar and restaurant is breathtaking, where many tables have uninterrupted views of the Acropolis. They fill up quickly so reservations are recommended as the Roof Garden is a favorite with hotel guests and Athenians alike.