15 May 2019
We had intended to head first to Marathon, then Cape Sounio, then Athens on our way back to the Peleponese, but an enquiry with the Athens campsite changed all that. They were fully booked from 17th and could only fit us in for 2 nights, 15th & 16th. So we were up early (not early enough as the Dutch tour group had used all the hot water) and headed for the capital. We drove higher up Mount Parnassus through a really nice looking town called Arachova which makes its money from skiing, then started the slow descent through towering cliffs.
There was still snow on the high peaks but here the flowers of the broom bushes lined the road like bright yellow ribbons. We passed another goatherd, sitting on a rock, crook propped alongside while he sketched his long-horned flock.
Once down onto the plains we saw fields of solar panels and of wheat and sweetcorn, already being irrigated. We lost count of the tractor shops – Danny would have loved to explore them. Then there was a sudden transition from country to city and we were in the maddness of modern Athens. Thankfully the campsite was not too far in so we weren’t in traffic jams long. The boss told us the reason she couldn’t accomodate us for 3 nights was that she had 22 vans – our friends from Delphi!
Mid-afternoon we headed up along the 12-carriageway madhouse outside the campsite to the bus-stop but weakened when we saw a taxi rank – a good choice given the traffic. At the colonnaded National Archaeological Museum we embarked on a 4-hour exploration of every room in what is a really impressive museum. The very first hall – the Mycenean – confronts you with the gold Mask of Agamemnon, followed by a beautiful golden-horned bulls head and a huge array of gold artefacts ranging from jewellery and goblets to death masks. There was also ivory and bronze, a great helmet made of pieces of boars-tusk, and some really well-preserved frescoes. But the gold really stood-out, shining as if freshly made with wonderful detailing.
Other rooms displayed Neolithic and Cycladic items going back to 5000BC, from pottery to simple gold pieces to figurines, some rather abstract like the famous Man Playing a Lyre.
A huge range of sculptures from across the ages, and some great bronzes. Some of the best pieces were recovered from a shipwreck near Antikythira in the 1920’s – Poseidon, the Little Jockey of Artemission, Antikythira Youth. There were also some very impressive and expressive bronze heads like the Boxer and the Philosopher.
An Egyption room held our interest for a while but at some point sheer volume of pottery, vases and statues started to numb our minds. But we were rewarded for carrying on with a display on the Antikythira Mechanism, a complex mechanism for predicting the movement of the planets, recovered from the shipwreck. Dating from 150BC it was 1500 years ahead of its time.
We finished with a couple of special exhibitions before emerging into the evening just before the 8pm closing time. Our own marathon!
We hailed a cab – there is no Uber in Athens – to another Rough Guide recommendation, a traditional taverna serving home-cooked food. The biggest pork chop you have ever seen cooked over chargoal and a traditional, meltingly tender veal stew, with wine, all for €21 which was fantastic value and made us feel better about our plans for the next night. We finished with a nightcap with views of the Parthenon, glowing gold above the city as if floating.