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20 jul
Athens was ablaze
in the summer heat - not just the above 100f temperatures, but wildfires around the city were decimating forests. On the evening of our arrival, we stumbled on a free open air concert in Syntagma Square. A young man, distributing literature in yet another language we couldn't read, explained that it was a benefit to save the forests. Local bands played a variety of Greek pop music into the night to a young crowd.

In the morning we hopped the metro and climbed the hill to the Acropolis to find that it was closed Saturday and Sunday because the workers are on strike. Mirka, our friendly Slovakian hotel barmaid, later told us they are always on strike weekends, but we should have no trouble during the week. We taxied to the bus station and caught a two and a half hour ride to Delphi for the afternoon. The ancient city was built on the side of Mt. Parnassos facing a deep green valley. Enough of the foundations, columns, steps, and structures still remain to get a feel for its size. There must have been many people who lived there to fill its wide amphitheatre for cultural events and gatherings. The Sanctuary of Apollo, the site of the Oracle of Delphi, is down the hill; three columns have been reconstructed on the round base. Standing in its shadow, I found my imagination running wild, evoking images of animal sacrifice and prophecy, pilgrims and offerings, as Adam regaled me with stories of Greek mythology in the land of Apollo and Zeus, Athena and Medusa. The sun peaked out dramatically from between the columns - a good omen, we felt as if we had received the oracle's blessing for the remainder of our journey.

Athens is clogged with people, unattractive buildings, traffic and noise. It does, however, have lots of fascinating markets, beehives of activity: the fish market on Athinas Street several days a week, vegetable markets full of olives and fresh produce, the rambling flea market in the Plaka district. Greek food was the best of this trip: moussaka, dolmades, eggplant, seafood, everything topped with creamy feta cheese and tart olives. Gyros on the street, purchased from a restaurant window, made it easy to eat and run. Mellow, red wines from the southern European vineyards of Greece and Italy were a perfect complement to a cool late evening dinner.

It was time to leave the cities, slow down and unwind. Speed Runner2, a high speed catamaran, dropped us off at the island of Sifnos, in the Cyclades, and we were suddenly in another world. Rising green and brown terraced hills sprinkled with whitewashed buildings floated in the most intense blue I have ever seen. The clean white little houses trimmed in the same deep blue, churches perched on hilltops, bells in their high arches, and quiet breezes captivated me completely. Sifnos is known as the potter's island, an avid interest of mine, having been a potter in an earlier day. A plump red clay pot sat in an upper corner of many of the buildings, whimsical or earthy, bestowing a personality to the site. We swam three of Sifnos' beaches, followed stone paths to churches and monasteries on rocky cliffs with waves crashing around them, sampled fishing villages, and browsed pottery workshops. Goats grazed and sheep huddled under trees to escape the hot sun as we hiked up to the church at the highest point - an old acropolis archaeological dig and view of the whole island, misty islands visible along the horizon.

The Acropolis was indeed open when we returned to Athens. Amid hundreds of tourists, we paid homage to the Parthenon, Agora marketplace, theatre of Dionysus, Temple of Zeus and surrounding ruins - my favorite was the Caryatids, where women form the columns on one side. Truly a place for the gods, it must have been a magnificent city. You needed a bit of imagination to envision the temples of old as living places, extrapolating from just one or a handful of standing columns, but a last morning visit to the National Archeological Museum completed the puzzle pieces - I could picture the graceful friezes along their length and imposing statues that filled them. Clustered displays in the museum showed the growth in complexity and variation of design of Greek pottery through the centuries. In the prehistoric section, the oldest artifacts dated to 6800BC.

Another lively concert was going on in Syntagma Square our last night. Exhibits about the plight of Cyprus refugees were on display in front of the Parliament building and people waved flags. I can't say we understood the messages, but got the general idea and enjoyed the music. Adam flew back to the states the next day, while I returned to Prague to repack and follow him home a few days later.


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