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Cunard Queen Victoria 2012
A Magical Mystery Tour of the Ancient Wonders of the World - Part 4

Thursday 6 December - Piraeus for Athens, Greece

Our next stop was in Greece, only the second time we had been there. We moored in Piraeus, a major port and city on the Saronic Gulf close to Athens. Piraeus is historic in its own right and was laid out around 450 BC and was already serving as a port. We were warned that it was St Nicholas's Day and most of the shops would be shut in Piraeus because he is the patron saint of the town. We however expected to have a whole day to enjoy the sights in Athens with all aboard at 1730. Unfortunately the port was very busy with ferry traffic and we were held for an hour before being allowed entry so we were over an hour later getting ashore than we had hoped; all aboard was then moved back to 1800.

We had chosen not to take one of the organised trips or the organised bus to Athens, which was expensive and allowed only a very limited time in the City. Instead we decided to again take the Metro, part of the new transport system that had been built for the recent Olympic games in 2004. The port is much larger than one might expect and it took us nearly 20 minutes to walk from the Cruise Terminal along the side of the docks, full of shipping and ferries, to the Metro. It is poorly marked and despite have been there 7 years ago we still ended up in the more prominent railway station next door - embarrassing as we had gained a tail of half a dozen other passengers. There were booklets in English on how to use the Metro and the tickets were very cheap, only Euros 1.40 return for old folks for the forty minute trip to the part of Athens containing the majority of the historic areas, which was much better than the $45 for the coach organised for QV passengers ! We picked up a day pass for metro, trains and buses for 4 euros but, in the event did not use it enough to get good value. An important factor is that the Metro runs every 10 minutes, and does not suffer from traffic jams.

Immediately outside the Metro station at Monastiraki, we found the Library of Hadrian, undergoing extensive excavations and restoration. The main historic sites need a ticket and we bought a book of tickets that had 6 general tickets plus one specific to the Acropolis for Pete (12 Euros or 6 if you are old) and Pauline got in free with her International Student Card - that took some explaining each time because she doesn't look young enough any more, but it worked everywhere!. The Roman emperor built the Library of Hadrian complex in 132 AD. The complex consists of a large, nearly square, walled enclosure, with entrance on the west. The walls were made of Poros limestone and Pentelic marble. The western side had a row of Corinthian columns made from marble in front of the wall. Inside the complex was an open-air courtyard, with a central pool and garden, surrounded by columns made from marble imported from Phrygia. At the eastern end of the colonnade were a series of rooms that housed the "library" where books were stored and served as reading rooms and lecture halls. The Library of Hadrian was far more than a library and provided the people of Athens with a new, multi-purpose, public square and cultural centre that contained a garden, works of art, a library, and lecture halls. Later we found that the Ceramik Museum, entry using the same book of tickets, was at the same site.

Nearby we found the Roman Agora (marketplace) of Athens, most interesting to Pete because it contains the Horologian (Timepiece) of Kyrrhestos that is best known as 'the Tower of Winds' which is the logo of the Royal Meteorological Society of which he is a Fellow. The Astronomer Androkinos Kyrrhestos from Kyrrhos in Macedonia built it in about 50 BC. It is octagonal, stands over 12 metres high and is built of Pentelic marble. Pentelic marble is pure white, fine grained and has a mesmerizing, glistening white crystalline surface looking as delicate as glass - it was used by many of the great sculptors of ancient Greece.

The tower was originally topped by a revolving bronze weather vane depicting Triton, a pointed wand in his hand indicated the direction from which the wind was blowing. To the ancients, the winds had divine powers and on the frieze of each side below the conical rooftop there is a ruling the compass point to which it faces. There were complex sundials on all sides and a sophisticated internal water clock with a supply from the Acropolis above. Unfortunately it was not open for viewing.

The following period brought home the fact that we did not know much about Greece and all the street names were in Greek. In fact the historic area is quite small scale and is dominated by the Acropolis on its rocky summit which is always in sight so we did not have too much problem in finding our way into the original or Ancient Agora (marketplace) which was the heart of ancient Athens, the focus of political, commercial, administrative and social activity, the religious and cultural centre, and the seat of justice. The area was rediscovered when a deep trench cut for the Athens-Piraeus Railway brought to light extensive remains of ancient buildings. It was necessary to demolish around 400 modern buildings covering a total area of ca. 12 hectares in order to uncover the whole area of the Agora.

What first came through to us was its sheer size - it was impressive even with almost all the buildings demolished. The maps showed it had contained many Stoa, a word we did not fully understand at the time but subsequent research has told us that in ancient Greek architecture a stoa was an extended, roofed colonnade on a street or square. Early examples consisted of a simple open-fronted shed or porch with a roof sloping from the back wall to the row of columns along the front. Later stoas were often immense, running to two stories, each with a colonnade of a different order and having a ridged roof supported on internal colonnades; rows of shops or offices lined the back wall, which was sometimes decorated with paintings. Such stoas surrounded the agora or marketplace of every large city and were used for public meetings.

We started with a walk through the Agora Museum sited in the Stoa of Attalos, a sort of huge Greece shopping mall of 150 BC fronted by a double colonnade with shops behind on two floors. It has now been completely reconstructed and repaired and dominates the site.

We walked through the Middle Stoa which had obviously been an immense building with roof supported on three colonnades of which only a few pillars remain. The Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios was one of Socrates favourite place where he frequently strolled with his disciples including Plato. He drank hemlock at the edge of the Agora when imprisoned and sentenced to death for "introducing new gods and corrupting youth". We found the remains of the complex drainage system interesting and then climbed up to the Temple of Hephaisteion, one of the best preserved of the temples in Athens, sited on a small rise at the end of the Agora. It was then time to return to the starting point and passed other smaller but interesting areas such as the Tholos and Fountain Houses.

We found there was a shortcut up through the other half of the Agora which took us straight to the Beulah Gate to the Acropolis.

Acropolis means 'high place'. In the ancient world the Gods were believed to live in the clouds so temples on high places brought the people closer to their gods. First inhabited in 3500 BC and by 1500 BC it had become the Royal Dwelling. Most of what is visible today was built around 450 BC. It is a prime tourist site so we suggest you get there very early in the main season, we were a little late on our last visit and it was almost impossible to move, especially on the steep entry route. You have to leave big bags at the gate but were happy with our small rucksack. You pass through the Propylea, a colossal entry gate to reach the upper terrace. This time it was cold and out of season so visitors were thin on the ground and we could look at leisure - last time it was only possible to move as the tourists were being herded like sheep leaving gaps where one could walk and catch an occasional glimpse of the sights. As we climbed up into the site we passed Cunard tours going slowly down.

There are a number of separate temples, unfortunately most are undergoing extreme restoration - they are undoing and replacing many earlier restoration attempts using iron which are now doing more damage than good due to corrosion, Many of the temples are wreathed in scaffolding so we could not get good pictures of many of the classic sights. Some highlights are the Erectheon with its six caryatids (maiden pillars), they are now replicas but some of the originals are in the Acropolis Museum that we visited at the end. One is in the British Museum.

The Parthenon (Virgin's Chambers) is perhaps the most famous of all Greece's monuments and considered by many architects to be man's finest structural achievement - the flawless proportions feature an upward slope so the form appears to be a perfect rectangle. The columns are also widened at one end to create the linear illusion. The Parthenon was dedicated to the virgin goddess Athena and built between 470 and 432 BC. The Museum in the site was closed.

The site has super views in all directions and we could see Hadrian's Library and the Roman Agora with the Temple of the Winds.9939 There was also an excellent view of 9941 Hadrian's Gate and the Temple of Olympian Zeus.

We looked down on most of the major historic sites from the various viewing platforms around the Acropolis and decided we would take the route down which led to the grounds round the Theatre of Dionysius rather than back out of the Belauh Gate although that missed the Mount of St Paul. St Paul is said to have preached here on his visit to Athens. The Mount is rocky and the rocks have been polished with an extremely slippery surface even in the dry - Pauline slipped on the smooth rocks last time and slid half way done fortunately without meeting any obstructions and on a well padded part of her anatomy. On the way we down we diverted to pass the top of the Herod Atticus Odeon. We did not have time to do it justice so we continued to the huge Theatre of Dionysus that requires a ticket to enter from below but seems to be included when you reach it from the Parthenon. Dramatic and musical competitions were moved to the Theatre of Dionysus after the wooden benches in the Agora collapsed in 600 BC. The new theatre was on the south slope of the Acropolis next to the temple of Dionysus Eleutherios and was composed of wooden seats surrounding a circular orchestra of beaten earth.

The theatre that has survived to our time was designed between 342 and 326 BC, when Lycurgus commissioned an extensive reconstruction in stone and marble expanding the number of seats to somewhere between 17,000 and 30,000. There were 64 tiers of seats in Piraeus limestone - about 20 survive. The ingenious design of the seats allows a 13-inch trough in which spectators can rest their feet without discomfiting those in the row below. There is also a row of 67 high-backed chairs of Pendelic marble for judges and dignitaries each inscribed with the name of the individual for whom it was reserved The elaborately carved throne in the centre of the first row belonged to the Priest of Dionysus. The Roman Era saw major changes to the structure, such as a marble barrier to protect the audience during gladiatorial exhibitions. At the front of the Roman stage was the Bema of Phaedrus - the reliefs depict stories from the life of Dionysus. The crouching figures in the middle show drunken revelry commonly associated with the worship of Dionysus, god of the vine. In the 4th century AD, Romans put down the marble slabs in the orchestra to make it watertight so that they could perform Naumachia - brutal sea battles in which gladiators in boats hacked at each other until the water ran red with their blood.

We passed the Acropolis Museum on our way to Hadrian's Arch, which was erected in 132 AD as a gate between the ancient city and the Roman city of Athens, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which took one of our remaining tickets to enter. Only a few columns remain but it did not take much imagination to realize that this was a huge building. It was began in the 6th Century BC by Peisistratos but not finished until seven hundred years later by Emperor Hadrian in 131 AD. The Classical Greeks are said to have left it unfinished because they believed it was too big and symbolized the arrogance of people who believed they were equal to the Gods, The Romans knew better. During the Roman rule the general Sulla took two columns to Rome for the Temple of Jupiter that led to the development of the Corinthian style in Rome. Originally there were 104 Corinthian columns of which only 15 remain standing. Hadrian placed a giant gold and ivory status of Zeus inside the temple with an equally large one of himself next to it, unfortunately no remnants remain.

As we entered we enquired about the large police presence and road closures and discovered there were large demonstrations planned in the Parliament area - our next stop. The advice was that even Metro stations would be closing by 1400 - the time of the demonstration. The demonstrations marked the anniversary of the shooting of a 16 year old by the police 4 years ago and were expected to be lively so we decided prudence was the better part of valour and took a Metro from the nearby Akropoli station to change at Omonia onto the line to Piraeus. It went straight through several stations which were closed as they were near the demonstration area but fortunately did stop at Omonia where we changed and got back to Piraeus much earlier than we had planned but having completed all the main sights we had wanted to see. In the event all the passengers made it back on board although some tours got caught in the traffic jams and were very late returning.

Friday 7 December - Katakolon for Olympia, Greece

The route from Athens to Katakolon overnight was around the southern point of Greece; it is possible for small boats to take the short cut through the Corinth canal but although that had been the original route plotted on our marine chart we knew that the QV was far too big to pass through the canal. The canal is just 76 feet wide, 26 feet deep and 4 miles long. On our previous cruise there was a trip to visit the ancient city of Corinth and have a short boat trip through the canal, but unfortunately this was not available, presumably because head office thought there was no point once they had routed the ship through it!

Cruise ships go to Katakolon because it is the perfect place for tours to the ancient city of Olympia which is only 25 miles away, local transport seemed plentiful and was advertising trips at at 10 euros return although it must be remembered it was out of season. Olympia was one of the chief religious centres of ancient times, and also played host every four years to the Olympic Games. The first Games took place in 776 BC and continued until AD 393. The modern Games recommenced, in Athens, in 1896. We decided we would spend the day in Katakolon and not visit Olympia. If we visit Katakolon again then we would look for the tourist train, a proper privately operated train, which runs to Olympia, and cost 10 euros return.

The QV was followed into the harbour by Costa Magica and so the small town was overwhelmed by some 3,500 passengers and crew. Katakolon is a seaside town with public transport links to Pyrgos, 11 kms away, and then onwards to Olympia. We had been warned that Katakolon was a very small port with some 600 inhabitants and just one small street with a few souvenir shops and restaurants. In fact it seemed much larger, with a pretty modern church, a museum, and a lot of typical Greek souvenir shops mixed between a few nice clothing, arts and crafts and jewellery shops. Replica Burberry and Gucci bags rubbed shoulders with fine local leatherwork. The single street was overflowing with shops and shoppers, with a small fun tourist train and an even smaller tourist donkey cart. However all the shops we saw were targeted at tourists and we did not see any bakeries, hardware shops or even a small supermarket for the local people.

The Greek Orthodox church, built in 1988, opened as we waited and was one of most richly decorated small churches we have ever seen and should not be missed. We could not get many details as the priest spoke and understood absolutely no English. At the end of the souvenir road there was the museum of the Inventions of the Ancient Greeks. This small privately owned museum contained approximately 200 examples of important ancient Greek technologies and we spent over an hour admiring the inventions. These ranged from measuring time using sundials and hydraulic clocks, the Antikythera calculating mechanism, a precursor of the steam engine, cranes and winches for moving large blocks of stone, and military and naval technology. The inventions were by famous men of those times including Archimedes, Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras. The exhibits were all made by the owner of the museum, Konstantinos Kotsanas, during 22 years of research and were of exceptional quality. There were Android based pads you could borrow to listen to information on all the exhibits as well as the excellent explanatory text. We were very impressed and purchased his book to look at the projects when we get back home although they said most of it is on the web (www.kotsanas.com).

Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th December - Days at Sea on Route to Malaga

Saturday was a quiet day used mainly to catch up with our write up of the holiday so far.

In the evening we decided to sample the delights of 'Alternate Dining' in the Lido. This year there were three options Bamboo, which was Pan-Asian drawing on the influences of Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and China, Coriander which is Indian, and Prime which was Steak and Seafood based. They are served to a limited number of guests and you need to reserve in advance and there is a small supplement of $10. They run on a three day cycle and we chose Bamboo. It was excellent, especially when accompanied by their selection of 4 Sakes and we will let the pictures speak for themselves.

Sunday ought to have been the high light of the trip for a lucky few - a special gourmet Food and Wine Pairing Dinner laid on in Todd English by the Executive Chef and Chief Sommelier. It was not cheap but had wines which we could never afford to buy by the bottle including a Robert Mondavi Opus One 2006 and a Château d'Yquem Sauternes 1999 and a Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru 1994 not to speak of a Dom Perignon 2002 Vintage champaign see above for the menu. Unfortunately it was cancelled - we heard several conflicting reasons but the bottom line seemed to be that it would have offered too good a value to the small number who could benefit.

The voyage continues with Malaga and the days at sea 

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