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

AUGUST 24, 2015
Eric Anderson, MD & Nancy Anderson, RN
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.
 
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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,
 
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Sounion is an hour’s drive east of Athens. Traffic can be heavy. Athenians often come to watch the sunset.
 
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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.
 
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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.


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