Sunday, 16th December 2012 (3rd Sunday in Advent)
Free day in Athens
For all photos for 16th December, click here to view them on my dropbox site. If you don’t have Dropbox, use this link to sign up and you and I will both get a bonus amount of free storage space.
Today had always been planned as a free day – rather generously, I thought, as we could have left today with our itinerary completed. But had we done so, all we would have seen of this great and ancient city would have been Mars Hill, the Acropolis and Titania Hotel. (Actually from the roof of the Titania, we could see a lot of Athens, but as the lady remarked to her friend upon seeing the ocean for the first time, “And think – that’s only the top of it!”). The free day was to allow us to become a little better acquainted with what this city had to offer. Sophia had left us a list of places worth visiting – about half a dozen museums of different kinds, and a number of archaeological sites.
I determined last night that my itinerary would be: Mass at St Dionysius’ at 7:30am, then the National Historical Museum at 8:30am, followed by the Byzantine Museum, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Theatre of Dionisos, the Ancient Agora (as distinct from the Roman one) and the Museum of the Acropolis. We had to be back at the hotel at 6pm for mass and final debriefing meeting before dinner. I had also originally thought to go to the National Archeological Museum, but that was a bit of a walk in the wrong direction from everything else. I had also determined to do this walk on my own, for a number of reasons. The first is that I move at a faster pace in general to others when exploring a city for the first time. I like to stay on the move, do a quick reconnoiter, take as many pictures as I can to examine in detail later, stop for food only when I am hungry, stop for rest only when I am tired, and change my itinerary without notice should something more interesting turn up. The second is that I didn’t want to have to negotiate what I wanted to do with anyone else. But the third is something that has been the case on this whole trip. It is sad to say, but true, that I have not actually developed any real friendship or partnership with any of the other tour members. I have gotten on with all them more or less well, but I have not had an actual “friend” or “buddy”. I have missed that. I could think of any number of people whose company I would have loved to have had – chief among them my wife Cathy – and whose presence would have enhanced every shared experience, but that has not been the character of this trip, and perhaps my greatest regret concerning it.
I had a choice of four masses at the Catholic Cathedral of St Dionysius the Areopagite (my thoughts and prayers naturally turned to my boss and local ordinary, Archbishop Denis Hart, for whom one could say this is his “name church”): 7:30 and 9:30 Greek, 11am Latin, and 6pm English. The final one was out as we would be celebrating our last group mass, the Latin was tempting, and the 9:30am would have eaten into my itinerary, so I chose to go to the 7:30am – which meant an early start without breakfast. the Cathedral is undergoing repairs at the moment (with funding from the local government as far as I could tell from the sign out the front), so its exterior aspect was not very photogenic. It is in the same street as the hotel – “just go out the door and turn left”, Sophia had directed. It is in the same street as the National Library, the Academy (as the University is appropriately and historically named), and other major public buildings, so the street scape as a whole is rather pleasant in terms of Hellenic architecture. The Academy has statues of Plato and Socrates out the front and owls on the pediments of the building (symbolising wisdom?), as well as Athena and Hermes(?) on very high pedestals.
In style St Dionysius’ church is indistinguishable from any Roman Italianate church built on the basilica pattern. The congregation of about 100 was fairly young and almost entirely Filipino and other assorted Asian people – migrant workers, I assumed. There were no beggars out the front of the church at this hour (I am told that later in the day there were many) – perhaps because the professional beggars knew that these people had little to offer them. The service was led by a priest and an adult server vested in an alb (both with beards in the Greek style), and by a male cantor. The cantor read the first reading and the psalm, and the server read the epistle (which made me wonder if he was not perhaps a seminarian). There was no accompanying music, and the mass was largely spoken, but the cantor led us in singing the Kyrie in Greek (naturally), as well as the Gospel Acclamation and Agnus Dei (also in Greek). He also sung a Greek solo chant at the communion (not a hymn), and closed the mass with a couple of verses of what I recognised as “O Come Divine Messiah” – although I did not recognise the language this was sung in. The priest used the third Eucharistic prayer. I thought this was appropriate, as it is based on the Anaphora of St Basil as far as I know, and would originally have been in Greek anyway. I would have been very interested had the Roman Canon been used (Eucharistic Prayer 1). A reader may be able to tell me if the original Roman Canon – going right back to the earliest centuries – had been in Greek rather than Latin, or whether it had been composed originally in Latin in the first place. The Gospel reading was, of course, in Greek, but not in the original New Testament Greek as I thought might have been the case (I had the Universalis app on my iphone to guide me which gives the original Greek text for the Gospel). During the sermon, which was “all Greek to me”, I had time to look at the material I had picked up in the church as I came in. Interesting among these was the pamphlet for the Year of Faith, which gave both the Nicene and the Apostles Creed in Greek. I noticed that the Filioque was not included – either on this pamphlet or in the liturgy itself. The other interesting document was a pamphlet addressing the Greek government’s refusal to recognise the Catholic Church with legal status, grouping it among the “foreign dogmas” of all non-Orthodox Christian churches in Greece. This pamphlet rather pointedly listed all the recognitions, favours and kindnesses shown to the Greek Orthodox Church in other Western countries belonging to the European Union, and pointed out that the Greek Government’s reasons for refusing to recognise the Catholic Church in Greece are parallel to the Turkish Government’s rational for refusing to recognise the status of the Greek Church in Turkey.
After the mass, I had some time to look around and to light my customary three candles. There is a very nice large marble font in the baptistery, a painting of St Paul among the Areopagites, and a large painting of St Denis above the altar. The dome of the apse is decorated with a picture that appears to be the apotheosis of St Denis – I was not sure what to make of this. I then left the church and walked the short distance to the Historical Museum. It was closed, despite the fact that the sign out the front said it would be open on Sundays at 8:30am (with free entry on this day). Examination of the much smaller notice on the door said that the opening time was 9am, and instead of waiting around, I decided to head for the Byzantine Museum some distance away, as it would be sure to be open by the time I arrived there. I walked up past the House of Parliament (known in Greek as the Syntagma), where I passed a florist and stopped to take a picture with the intention of surreptitiously including in the photo the large number of riot police that were gathered on the street (wearing body armour and carrying helmets). The florist came out and wished me good morning and asked where I was from. When I said Melbourne in Australia – he responded “Yes, I know it well, I used to live in Caulfield for a long time”! I walked on up the street, passing many embassies, including those of Egypt, Portugal and Azerbaijan. I also noted as I passed the National Gardens and the Benaki Museum – also both on Sophia’s list of places that could be visited – and decided that I would see these on the way back.
The Byzantine Museum was open when I arrived. There were very few people here – most of those standing around I took to be plain clothes employees and guards. The buildings and central garden of the Museum are very pleasant, and I determined to have breakfast afterwards in the cafe on the other side of the broad courtyard. The cost for entry was four euros. I could have spent all day quite happily in this museum. It has many collections and many useful explanations of the history and culture of the Eastern Roman Empire. I studied Byzantine History at University, and have had a particular interest in the Byzantine ruins everywhere we have travelled on this trip. The collection of icons alone are worth examining closely. Not surprisingly most of the exhibits are to do with the history of the church in the Empire. There was one interesting exhibit detailing the way in which many temples, including the Parthenon, were converted into churches rather than being destroyed. This in part explains the modern Greek Christian mentality which sees no decisive break between the pagan past and mythology and their own Christian faith. Mindful of my full itinerary for the day, I spent just a little over an hour in the museum taking lots of photos (see the link above).
Coming out of the museum, the cafe was just on my right, and I realised I was terribly hungry. I entered in and ordered a baguette and a coffee – I was the only patron, and decided to sit out in the courtyard. given that it was about 7pm at home, I thought I would use up some of the credit on my TravelSIM phone and ring my family. We had a long chat – and I realised that it would probably be the last call that I would have with them before leaving tomorrow. After the phone call and the brunch, while sitting there in the beautiful fresh air and sunshine, I decided that the day was just to wonderful to waste hanging around inside museums. I therefore gave the Benaki Museum a miss, and went into the National Gardens to sit and enjoy what Sophia called “one of the only green areas of the entire city”. There are no lawns in this garden, but winding paths through lush plantings of trees and bushes. There are little features, such as a small animal zoo for children with goats, rabbits, ducks and chooks, and many people jogging or walking their dogs. I walked a fair way into the gardens, and then came to an entrance on the eastern side. I had just turned around to try to get my bearings, when I heard a stamping noise behind me. Turning, I saw outside the gate on the other side of the street, a sentry guard in traditional Greek dress: hat with a long tassel, a tunic like a short surplice, a kilt-like skirt, white stockings up to the knees, and big shoes with enormous pom-poms on them. He was now standing stock still, after the manner of the guards at Buckingham Palace, be there was no doubt that the stamping noise came from here. As I was photographing him, I noticed just the barest hint of a smile on his face. As I was watching, a soldier in regular fatigues came and straightened out the tassel on the guard’s hat and the folds of his sleeve. It was the most disconcertingly intimate action to observe on man attending to the dress of another man as if he were a shop window mannequin. It occurred to me that if this was a guard, he must be guarding something, if only ceremonially. I looked through the wrought iron fence behind him and saw quite a extravagant mansion with beautiful gardens. I looked this up on my “city maps 2 go” app, and learned that it was the Maximos Mansion – the “seat” of the prime minister (although the information hastened to add that the Prime Minister doesn’t actually live there – it is rather a centre for various government offices).
So I reentered the gardens and sat down in a pleasant place and lit my pipe. This is wonderful, I thought. I am thoroughly enjoying myself. So far I had simply followed my instincts and used my eyes as a compass and I had found some wonderful places that seemed to speak to me of the heart of Athens. I had not made any silly choices or decisions either…
Then I heard some band music in the distance. It appeared to be getting louder. I got up from my seat, and looked up the street to see a military brass band in the distance leading a whole brigade of the same traditionally dressed guards as the one I had already encountered. I rushed up the street to try to get closer – this was not only a photo opportunity – it was a video event! I was too late, however, they veered left off the street into what appeared to me to be an entrance to the gardens. So I reentered the gardens and tried to catch up with them inside – only to discover that they had in fact entered a military compound in the northwest corner of the gardens, quite separate and surrounded by a high wall. I could hear the music and the stamping and marching going on on the other side of the wall and was frustrated by the fact that I could not see this extravagant display of military silliness. I stood up on a garden bench, to try to get a view, and turned to find myself face to face with a young Greek youth with a face full of excitement. He said something to me, and I apologised for having no Greek, and then he ran off around the corner. Okay, I thought, he seems to know where he is going, so I followed him. There was now a small crowd gathered at the gates to the entrance of the compound. I arrived just as the band was, well, disbanding, but in time to see some wonderful goose-stepping from the small troop of guards. Then the gates opened, and the little crowd surged forward into the compound. Oh well, I thought, I’ll tag along and see what there is to see. But I had hardly gone very far when I noticed the gates were being closed behind us – somehow I must have become involved with a private party. I slipped back out the gates just in time to find myself back outside on the empty street – empty except for the same young youth whom I had followed here. He was beaming – he had obviously had his treat for the day. And so had I, I thought.
I walked around toward the front of the gardens again (noticing the sign on the gate of the compound which read “Basilissis Sophias”), and walked back down toward the Syntagma. It was just before noon, and out in front of me, once again, goose-stepped a small brigade of three more of the traditional guards. They were being escorted by a regular soldier and heading for the Syntagma. Aha! The changing of the guard! A crowd had already gathered there to, and this time I caught the whole bizarre ceremony – it was like watching a liturgical ceremony performed by clockwork ballet dancers. I walked on into the Syntagma Square, where there was lots of music and events going on, including a skating rink. In one corner, a Father Christmas was posing for photographs. He saw me watching him with the people, and waved for me to come over and have my picture taken with him. I shook my head – “Warum nicht?”, he enquired. “I don’t need a picture with Saint Nicholas”, I answered. “Nein, Ich bin nicht Santa Claus,” he continued in German, “Santa Claus ist in Deutschland – heir ich bin Santa Basileos.” A curious fact, but true. Still, I didn’t accept his invitation to have my picture taken, not even with St Basil! In a way, I regret it. It would have been a most unusual souvenir.
I walked on, following my nose, and came to a church. There was a tour group outside getting a little lecture from their guide about the church, but not in English. This church is easily distinguished by the separate bell tower. According to my “city maps 2 go” app, the church is called “Hagia Triada” and there was an added note in brackets “Rosike Ecclesia” (Russian?). The door was opened, so I went inside. It was after noon, so the liturgy had already concluded, but I found that I had stepped in on a private baptism. I was just in time to see the little naked baby, all shiny from the anointing oil, dunked three times in the large font in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, before being placed in the large white clothes waiting in the arms of its mother and grandmothers. What a joyful moment! but I was intruding, so I didn’t remain long.
Still wandering along, I came to a market/fair type event, with merry go rounds and what not. The stalls were selling all kinds of things, but of a generally high quality. Having too many euros in my pocket, I bought a few more Christmas gifts, before moving on to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, entry to which is included in the same ticket as one uses for the Acropolis. The temple precinct is an area about the size of a soccer field (perhaps a bit bigger?). The Acropolis looms large above it to the south, on which side may also be found the Arch of Hadrian, and to the east and west there are some more minor ruins (including those of a very old – 5th Century? – Basilica, which I had read about in the Byzantine Museum this morning). But the area around the remains of the temple are open and broad – and practically empty. It was an oasis of space and quite after the crowds on the streets. I sat down for a while in one corner in the shade, where I could take in both the monumental edifice before me and the Parthenon perched on the hill behind it. I was carrying my shopping with me and it was beginning to become warm, so I needed some rest. A cat sauntered up, and jumped up to sit beside me on the bench. I said hullo, but I don’t think it spoke English. I did here a young family nearby speaking English, however, and with a decidedly antipodean accent. “Hullo,” I called, “where are you from?” “Brisbane,” came the answer. “Thought so. Melbourne for me.” And then, to the small boy, “Have you been up there?”, pointing to the Acropolis. “Oh yes,” he grinned. I’m afraid after that he would find the Temple of Zeus a bit boring.
I decided finally to go back to the hotel and off-load my shopping and a layer of clothing before heading on to the Agora and the Acropolis Museum (passing an excavation of Roman Baths in the street, as you do in Athens). As it was, it was at this point that my day changed from being quite magical to a bit of a slog. The detour via the Hotel put me behind time, and so I missed the 3pm closing of the Agora. In addition, it was warm and a bit of a walk to get there, so I was even more footsore and tired than before. The streets around the Ancient Agora are filled with people – and there is a “flea market” (as Sophia called it) there as well. The stalls here were less classy than the one’s at the fair and more a down-market “Trash and Treasure”. Some of the types hanging around here gave me reason to look to my valuables – and to my person also. But the cafes and bars were all full to overflowing – not with tourists as far as I could see but with locals. I was tempted to stop and order a beer and a bit to eat, but, being annoyed with myself for missing the entrance to the Agora, I was focused on seeing as much as I could of the old Athenian rocks as possible. I did get into the “Library of Hadrian”, which was just closing, but the chap at the entrance let me in for free to have a quick look around. Sites about which I know nothing make very little sense on the first encounter, but I took lots of pictures and also photographed the explanation signs for later reading. There were the ruins of a large cross-shaped church on this site. Then I walked up passed the Roman Agora, and walked right around the perimeter of the Ancient Agora in the hope of getting better pictures. I did manage to do so, on the high side between the Agora and the Acropolis, before coming around again to the Roman Agora. A couple of other things in this area – an old 18th Century mosque now used as a folk art museum, and, within the confines of the Agora, the Church of the Holy Apostles – built in the 10th Century and still standing complete and intact.
Now I was back in the retail area – a small street of shops. I noticed one, specialising in replica armour, swords and helmets – selling some items I was interested in, and was about to step in the door, when Fr Peter emerged from the very shop. Despite us all having basically the same choice of places to go and see today, he was the first of the tour group that I had encountered on my wanderings. He too had missed the Agora, and I pointed to him the directions to walk around it.
Now I was really tired, and decided to head for home again. I arrived back with blisters on my feet at about 4pm. I bought myself some internet time, did a bit of banking and picture uploading, and then went up on to the roof to smoke my pipe and watch the lights come on at the Acropolis.
It had been a wonderful day (if a little frustrating the way it ended – but that’s what happens when you just walk out of your hotel door and turn left…), and a good ending for this pilgrimage in the steps of Jesus and St Paul. Tonight we will celebrate our last mass together, and then have a time of debriefing on the experience of the last five weeks. Tomorrow we have a plane to catch.
I began this journey a month ago the same way I began my walk this morning – I went out the front door and turned left. Like Bilbo Baggins on his great adventure, I have seen that the road indeed goes “on and on”, but now I have been there and it is time to go back again. The return journey will take the best part of two days (by the calendar, if not by the stop watch), but we have been away so long – the longest I have ever been apart from my family – and now it is definitely time to go home.
I wish to thank the Catholic Theological College for offering this study tour, the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission for sponsoring me to undertake it, Rosemary Canavan and Tony Dean for being out tour leaders, all my fellow travellers – and above all you, dear reader, for sharing the journey with me on these pages.