DAWN FRASER KAWAHARA / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Athens archway, Temple of Zeus
Ancient charms abound in Athens
A brief trip provides examples of how historic myth entwines with modernity
When my travel partner and I first gawk at the Acropolis shining like a lit-up wedding cake above the city, I feel like a kite tugging at its string. This icon of ancient Athens is real to us now, no longer a postcard or an image in a history or guide book, or movie.
If you go ...
Getting there: Athens, Greece, can be reached from Honolulu via connections from Northwest, US Airways and Lufthansa flights (connects in Seattle/Frankfurt and Amsterdam); Hawaiian, United, Olympic, British Airways and Northwest and Continental (connect in London/Seattle, London/Brussels); and KLM legs (connect in Amsterdam).
Getting around: Major car rental companies maintain fleets (Hertz, Avis and more); however, within traffic-clogged Athens and with driving European style (on the "wrong" side of the street), public transportation might be your best option for getting around. Buses, including express runs, touring hop-on/hop-off buses, and the metro linking the airport with major parts of the city are easy and economical to use. A car rental might be considered for driving to one of the rural areas of interest, e.g., the Pelopponese sights of antiquity.
Athens, a port city (Piraeus Harbor), is famous for ferries and sailboat transport between islands. You can rent a sailboat for a sailing vacation, with or without captain and/or supplies. Mediterranean cruises (such as ours, with Oceania's Nautica) also embark from Piraeus.
Where to stay: Accommodations are available at all levels. Hotels in Athens are pricey, often at more than $250 per night. Small family-owned hotels and the Greek equivalent of B&Bs are plentiful and affordable.
Paperwork: You do not need a visa to enter Greece or any of the European Union nations traveling as a tourist.
Money: The local currency is the euro.
Activities: Buying a Museum Pass is one way to save on individual fees at several sightseeing spots.
Night life abounds in the Plaka, the old Turkish district where most tourists stay. It is home to cafes known for traditional music and dance, and folk-dance shows, and the metro lines link one with a funicular hilltop view of the city, Greek Orthodox monasteries and other sights of interest.
Day trips to other sights of interest can be arranged through tour bus companies. Longer tours by land or sea can be arranged with rental car agencies or boat/ferry concessions (from Piraeus Harbor).
Value-added tax (VAT): All transactions within hotels, restaurants and bars are subject to 10 percent tax, included in published prices.
Language: Athenians and (beyond Athens) Greeks speak their own language, but English is taught as a second language, so communication is generally easy. Within the city and historic sites, public signs are written in Greek and English. Double-check directions from private citizens, especially around the harbor, where there are many quays, some for ferries, some for sailing vessels and some for cruise ships.
Information: Greek National Tourism Organization (www.gnto.gr), Lonely Planet, Fodor's and assorted guidebooks on Greece and the Mediterranean.
We have arrived in Athens on a Saturday morning, before the sun and after 24 hours of "cocooning" on planes between Lihue, Honolulu and London. The thought of unfolding adventure buoys us. With 2 1/2 days to spend in the city named for the goddess Athena before boarding a small cruise ship, we don't want to waste a minute.
Adrenaline takes the two of us striding along the marble walkways of Eolou Street. We climb steadily upward. Stopping before the Four Brothers Taverna, the zoomed-in view of the Acropolis can't be more spectacular. Before the street twists up steeply, we gaze upon the Agora, the marketplace built after Roman occupation. Before us rises the Tower of the Winds, a giant weather vane. Across stepped courtyards stands a domed basilica, dark blocks of stone within the complex offset by an tree laden with bright oranges. The late May sun rises, ablaze. The city comes to life.
Feeling winded on the incline, weariness and hunger attack. My husband agrees we should finish this pilgrimage to the top later. We set off in search of the bread ring seller we saw earlier and, because the banks are not yet open, an ATM.
At the airport we'd exchanged $100 for first needs and intentionally skipped the infamous taxi rip-offs. The express bus was economical (7 euros each, about $11) and easy to find. Our stop was city center at Syntagma (Constitution) Square, with its parliament building, the former palace, within walking distance of our hotel. We couldn't check in until 9 a.m., but we wanted to find it and store our luggage.
Now we enter narrow streets fringed with apartment buildings, sidewalk cafes and the Greek equivalent of a 7-Eleven, neon signs lighting an iced soda chest outside the door. We pass the shuttered Museum of Ancient Music and a furrier. We admire a Greek Orthodox church, twin lions flanking its steps. Walking downhill, we enter into the world of commerce. Furs, fashion, shoes and upscale furnishings are aspects of Athens that draw shoppers, but let's not forget flowers.
The sunflower man sells from his buckets of golden blooms near the bread ring man and other vendors near Ermou Street, blocked from vehicular traffic (except motorbikes). The flower market in the square across from our hotel had already caught our eye, as do the lavender blooms of jacaranda trees. I queue up for the local fast breakfast, a fresh-baked bread ring with or without sesame seeds or sugar and cinnamon, and strong coffee. Two large sesame bread rings cost 2 euros (about $3). I don't want coffee now. My brain and body crave sleep.
We munch while strolling and come upon the Byzantine Church of Kapnikarea and its mosaics, sunk like a giant broccoli clump in the middle of the cobbles. The light's good for photographing this site of the Monastiraki (Monastery) District where we are staying.
Back to the Hotel Tempi on Eolou after our first circle, it's approaching 27 hours since we left home. I make the effort to photograph the now bright-blooming flower market before we enter our lobby nook and obtain our keys from the owner-manager, Mr. Kanakis, who made it easy to reserve via the Internet. My husband valiantly drags both suitcases upstairs. Further exploration must wait until we've napped on the low, white beds in our spartanly furnished, air-conditioned balcony room, complete with bathroom cubicle and shower at less than half the price of most large Athens hotels.
DAWN FRASER KAWAHARA / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Restoration and cleaning are under way at the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to Athena Nike, the goddess for whom Athens is named. The visual "floating" effect of the columns is the result of a slight slant in the architectural planning, instead of a 90-degree placement.
We'd jumped at a two-for-one opportunity to ply the seas between Greece and Italy aboard the Oceania line's Nautica, our first ocean cruise. Without extending in our ship's ports, we'd have missed the major bookends, Athens and Rome. I felt certain that my departed Latin and antiquities teacher, as well as my dear, Old World scholar grandfather and uncle would haunt me if I missed climbing the Acropolis and visiting Rome's famed monuments.
By early afternoon, refreshed, we walk to the city tour bus stop on Athinas Street that allows you to hop on and off until the last bus at 6:30 p.m. The city's workaday life is perfect for people watching. We get oriented to various landmarks, museums and the National Gardens, hoping to visit them on Monday, and disembark in the Plaka, the old Turkish district where most tourists stay and shops and cafes have mushroomed. We stroll to the Temple of Zeus and the enclave of Saint Catarina Byzantine church, adorned with frescoes and flanked by ruins.
Modern Athenians prove friendly as outer-islanders. In spite of the language barrier, we easily strike up conversations. Smiles and gestures fill in the blanks. We stop outside a church to watch a wedding in progress, and a crone places my husband's hand in mine, pointing through the window, then to her wedding band while rattling in Greek. Her sign language before she melts back into the crowd tells us her husband is gone; we should be holding fast to each other while we're able.
The sinking sun gilds pillars to dull gold as we return to climb the Acropolis. The city's dominant landmark serves as a constant reminder that whatever human trials befell Athens, it remains as the birthplace of Western civilization. Within its fortress complex, besides the main temples dedicated to Athena Nike, lie the Erechtheion; Theater of Dionysos; Asclepion and Stoa of Eumenes, built around a sacred spring and connected with healing; Theatre of Herodes Atticus; grotto Chapel of our Lady of the Cavern; and Acropolis Museum. Each view presents a photo opportunity. Tickets purchased at 12 euros each also admit one to the Agora and other museum sites. The proceeds fund continuing restoration and preservation. Our leisurely, hand-in-hand (!) stroll home includes a sidewalk cafe dinner feast of gyros, souvlaki and Greek salad and wine.
DAWN FRASER KAWAHARA /
SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Writer Dawn Fraser Kawahara poses with twin lion sculptures outside a Greek Orthodox Church.
Exploring ancient Delphi
Early next morning, we head back to Syntagma Square to rendezvous with our Sunday tour to Delphi, named for the dolphin originally, and designated as the omphalos (navel), or center of the Grecian world. Our guide Hara (Joy), a natural teacher and storyteller as well as an archaeologist, captures our interest as the driver negotiates the modern bus through city warrens to the throughway, finished in the nick of time before the Olympics.
Sloped vistas of rock-strewn land scroll by as we gain altitude during the three-hour trip. Before our first rest stop, we enjoyed Hara's Hellenic history and mythology brush-up course encapsulating stories dating back 4,000 years before Christ, reaching past Crete, the volcanic explosions of Santorini, and Phoenician voyaging to the beginning of Mediterranean civilization in the Cyclades (Circle) Islands. The group is sobered when Hara explains that the stone cairns along the roadside memorialize Greek resistors shot during World War II.
The sky shines an incredible blue -- as blue as Hawaii skies -- as we negotiate the hillsides approaching Mount Parnassus, "Home of the Gods." I am magnetized by my first glimpse of Delphi's columns and walls nestled against the steep embankment, transported to the times of Zeus and Hera and their Roman counterparts, of Diana the Huntress and her twin, and Apollo, who gave over his rule to Dionysos for three months when love, wine, revelry and theater took precedence.
We walk the Sacred Way uphill past the ruins of the Roman agora, hugging the shade of olive trees and ancient columns as we pass foundations of treasuries that held the wealth of once powerful city-states. The scent of grasses and wildflowers mingles with stone dust. Here, a reproduction of the omphalos, the council house, the Sybilla rock and, further on, a giant stone block inscribed with musical notation.
Farther up, the stunning remains of the Temple of Apollo, where the golden statue of the sun god had stood lit by an "eternal" flame. This was where the fabled Oracle channeled predictions from the gods after breathing vapors from a chasm. This was where the wisdom of the Greek philosophers -- "Know Thyself" and "Nothing in Excess" -- was carved into the architrave.
The view is down to the far, blue expanse of the Gulf of Corinth, where the first Delphi was established and where dolphins, the sacred animal, still play. Tucked in a cleft beneath us lie the remains of the stadium and the Sanctuary of Athena. Not far from here bubbles the Castalian spring, where ancient pilgrims cleansed themselves before consulting the Oracle.
After a visit to the museum up top, we photograph more plinths and various views of hills enfolding us; not a bad view anywhere. We linger at this Theater of Dionysos, an echo of the larger one seen during our ascent of the Acropolis in Athens.
Back on the air-conditioned bus en route to modern Delphi and a taverna lunch in a cliffside aerie, I gaze over orchards and fields toward the blue haze of the gulf. If the ancients had not designated Delphi as a site of the gods, an entrepreneur of each subsequent age, no doubt, would have developed a site to attract visitors to this naturally lovely place. No wonder, I realize, that the most ancient of all peoples of the area dedicated the first Delphi to the earth goddess Gaia.
DAWN FRASER KAWAHARA / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
The Theatre of Dionysos is one of the many ancient sites that can be viewed on the hill of the Acropolis, the heart of Athens.
A gift of peace from an olive tree
Mythology tells us that Athena, in a contest to name the city, produced the hardy olive tree, symbolizing peace and prosperity. She won over Poseidon and his gift, a horse.
Peace canceled out war when the Gods of Olympus deemed Athena's gift to the citizens more valuable than the arts of war personified by Poseidon's horse.
We could learn from the past, to repeat words often said but sadly ignored.
Dawn Fraser Kawahara is a traveler who lives with her best friendhusband, Delano Kawahara, among birds and books on Kauai, where they co-own TropicBird Press and publish books about and linked to Kauai.