Glorious Greece: Historians' Fascination and Lord Byron's Obsession

Even at a time of great challenges, visitors cannot help but marvel at the glorious history of Greece and its capital, Athens.

Maid of Athens, ere we part, Give, oh, give me back my heart!

Lord Byron

Byron’s life began in England in 1788 and ended in his beloved Greece in 1824. His span was short — but he crammed many lifetimes into it and, as historians say, much bisexual depravity into its “dissipation.” A lionized poet, one of the greatest in English literature, he traveled enthusiastically and was especially captivated by Greece. When we stayed at Brown’s Hotel in London we discovered it was started by Lord Byron’s former valet and, to make it successful, Queen Victoria chose to be its first customer for afternoon tea! We later saw the plaque in Chillon Castle on Lake Lucerne commemorating Byron’s visit in 1816. He famously spent a night there in the dungeon with his fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and wrote his celebrated poem about the Prisoner of Chillon the next year. But the most surprising evidence we saw of Byron’s monomaniacal travels was the graffiti – his name – he had the impertinence to carve on the 440 BC marble column at Cape Sounion.

A long devotee of Greece who had spent many happy days in Athens, Byron tried to help Greece in its struggle for independence against the Ottoman Empire. He gave 4,000 pounds sterling in 1823 (now worth about $262,000) to refit the Greek Navy and to receive command of a Greek army unit. But he developed a respiratory infection during a cold, damp April in 1824. The doctors bled him. It is thought he developed sepsis from the dirty instruments and shortly afterwards, forever the romantic, he died aged 36.

Cape Sounion

A more famous death is associated with this forlorn point of land. Cape Sounion figures in Greek mythology: it where Aegeus, king of Athens, fell to his death watching for his son’s ship returning from Crete. If his son, Theseus, had succeeded in killing the Minotaur, he had promised to replace his ship’s black sails with white — but he forgot and when the king failed to see white sails on the returning ship he leaped to his death into the sea that now bears his name. Sounion became the last spot Greek mariners saw when they sailed into the Aegean sea,

Sounion is an hour’s drive east of Athens. Traffic can be heavy. Athenians often come to watch the sunset.

Parthenon. By day and night. Old Town Athens: the Plaka.

Athens, even with its traffic and noise, is mystical. Few European cities can match its history. The Acropolis dominates the skyline. Several Greek cities have an acropolis but only one has the revered Parthenon atop its hill. Despite the outrage that the Scottish Lord Elgin took some of the marble friezes from the monument off to the British Museum, the reality was that Athens had been captured by the Turks. They had a camp on the Acropolis and were burning pieces of marble to keep warm when Elgin came by and gave them money for some of the marbles. Had he not, none would have escaped the passages of time — or fire.

What has escaped the passage of time is the old town itself, the Plaka.

The Plaka offers both genuine evidence of Ancient Greece and the availability of T-Shirts for sale which, for some, may be the heart of true tourism. The icons at the top of the door of the 11th century Kapnikarea Church pictured here show its dedication to the Virgin Mary. The church sits right in the middle of busy Ermou Street and remind us that Athens beyond its own history was later “an outpost of the Byzantine empire for almost a thousand years.”

The Plaka is the Old Town, an area that was gentrified in the 1970s to reduce the amount of noisy music which was thought to be a way of getting rid of undesirables. It did work and we think of that sometimes as we stand at street corners here in the USA when huge SUVs pass us with music to shake the dead blaring from open windows.

The Plaka stretches across the northern and eastern slopes of the Acropolis. Websites like Athens Guide describe it as once the “neighborhood of the Gods,” but local guide Matt Barrett (whom we will mention again in our following article on Greek island cruises and his helpful Plaka website is here) says, “As for the tourist shops they are crammed full of stuff, some of it junk but plenty of interesting items ... most of the shops have pretty much the same stuff for pretty much the same prices...” TIME magazine, interestingly, recommends Byzantino Jewelry.

If you feel like walking more, it’s less than a mile to the Agora, Athens’ old market place, and although you will not be buffeted by a crowd you can see how agoraphobia got its name. Once you are there your choice might be the 30-minute walk to the Benaki Museum and its close neighbor the Athens War Museum, but remember Athens museums are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. The restaurant at the Benaki is closed on those days, too.

The War Museum has a huge display of the weapons of war. We stop at a display of armored gauntlets and wonder if the missing fingers were lost from the hand or merely from the piece of armor.

Top, the Acropolis. View of the highest point in Athens, Mt Lycabettus. A local youth stands atop the mount. Church of St. George.

Lycabettus Hill stands 745 feet above Athens but if you don’t want to climb it, look for the funicular train that goes up every few minutes from the top of Ploutarchou Street in Kolonaki. At the uppermost spot you get a marvelous panorama of the city and can admire the Church of Agios Giogos, St. George and, if it’s open at the time of your visit, a really upscale (”with prices to match the altitude” says a guide book) dinner in the Horizon Café on the mountain top. Christopher Wordsworth, nephew of the famous poet, was himself a poet but also a Greece scholar (he edited the 1856 version of the Greek New Testament and spent much of his time in Athens verifying that Lycabettus was the famed mountain mentioned but not identified in Plato’s descriptions. English poets! Byron and Wordsworth were truly scholars as well as poets.

It’s less than a mile and a half northwest down from Lycabettus to the National Archaeological Museum, for many the greatest highlight of a visit to Athens. Greece’s first museum was founded on Aegina in 1829, a reminder of how recently this country was itself founded and how a romantic as contemporary as Lord Byron could believe he had a role to play in creating this country. Historians say that the only long-established countries in Europe are Britain and France; all others are recent patchworks from sovereign states. The Athens museum was founded itself in 1893 although, marvelously, most of its exhibits are, of course, much, much older.

It would not surprise us if Google programmers found Greek national websites as European banks find Greek politicians. It has been our experience that many Greece websites are disappointingly clunky, with URL links broken and the site exhibiting cluttered characteristics once thought to be cool. But the country is broke and, like California, doesn’t have the money to fix its infrastructure. The best way to read about Greek attractions and museums and their exhibits is to access private commercial, not bureaucratic government, websites and get your information there. For example, http://www.namuseum.gr/wellcome-en.html is quite a challenge even with Google’s translator at work whereas checking out Famous Greek Sculptures as a commercial search result may be more than helpful and be more productive. Interested in all Greek sculptures? Click here on Mark Cartwright’s page.

The bronze 460 BC Deus is either Zeus or Poseidon, probably the former because the God Zeus was usually portrayed hurling thunderbolts whereas Poseidon usually fighting underhand with a trident. The Jockey of Artemision was found at the site of the same shipwreck: the first parts in 1926 and the rest a decade later. The horse is 9.5 feet high, dwarfing the jockey who is only 2.76 feet tall and thought to be about ten years old. Insert is no longer thought to be the Death Mask of Agamemnon, discussed in Part 1 of our Greece story.

The Zeus statue was found in fisherman’s nets in 1926 off the coast of Cape Artemision on Northern Euboea, Greece’s second-largest island after Crete. It was part of a shipwreck probably from Roman boats transporting looted Greece artifacts to Rome. Further evaluation of the shipwreck, unfortunately was cancelled when one of the drivers died on the wreck. The main components of the Jockey of Artemision were found at different times at the same site of the shipwreck.

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel and cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.