Athens: On Colorful Footings

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(What follows is the second in a series of articles on a 2009 adventure through Europe and the Middle East. The previous commentary discussed the vibrancy of Jerusalem).

As my impromptu quest approached the Balkan Peninsula, a foremost sensation arose: supreme serenity, divergent from Jerusalem, palpable nonetheless. Idyllic islands peppering the vast Aegean Sea, wrapped in pine, cedar, and olive. Fishing boats, catamarans, cruise and industrial ships, arriving and departing the port at Piraeus. Arcing toward Athens International Airport, the searing sun overhead glimmered off contemporary towers fraternizing with antiquious remnants, set amidst seven sacred knolls.

 

Paging through a guidebook further exposed modernity commingling with antiquity: the Monastiraki Flea Market and the Central Market, each swarming with life. The once-exuberant Ancient and Roman Agoras, the commanding Roman Stadium, the seemingly incongruous Arch of Hadrian, and the enduring Acropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with the imposing and iconic Parthenon standing dignified atop the city. The Municipal Art Gallery, exhibiting surrealist and impressionist pieces, and the National Archaeological Museum, with a myriad of artifacts spanning regions and eras of ancient Greece. Historic neighborhoods at the foot of the Acropolis: Monastiraki, Thissio, and Plaka, an animated bazaar. Anafiotika, a captivating, diminutive neighborhood with Greek isle ambiance, and Pysrri, a former industrial district, renewed with café’s, restaurants, and bars. Omonia Square, within a busy confluence of avenues, and Syntagma Square, the business district, present a mixture of Athenians and visitors from round the globe. The city bristles with dynamism, yet defies comprehension on initial impression.

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The airport was constructed, and Athens Metro expanded, in preparation for the 2004 Olympics. Alas, on our arrival, the metro line to the airport sat idle. Instead, I loaded my pack onto a bus and examined the route into downtown from a window seat. After Palestine, from the Greek, Palaistine, with its’ diverse assortment of culture and custom, Athens bears a decisively Western impression, albeit with a primordial hint of history drifting through the soothing Mediterranean air. Shoppers navigate archaic lanes filled with trendy fashion and home furnishing stores. Modern hotels, pharmacies, supermarkets, and gas stations contour the roads.

A Tale of Olives

Athens originates with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, inspiration, and civilization. Plato identified her as Neith, an Egyptian deity. Greek devotees traditionally presented an olive branch in honor of Athena. Sources recount that Cecrops, the first king of Attica, preferred the offering of Athena, a local olive tree, to that of Poseidon, a spring of saltwater, and duly christened the fledgling city in her name.

 

Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean basin, and wild species continue to thrive here. Differing accounts place the olive’s domestication on the Greek island of Crete, or in the Levant, with the Canaanites. In Greece, a tradition of grafting valued cuttings onto wild olive trees has developed into an art. This method establishes a productive and yet resilient tree, yielding fruit over hundreds or thousands of years. Throughout the Mediterranean basin, natives point to an olive tree of considerable age. In Lebanon, a tree still stands from 4000 BC. In the Galilee, another endures from 3000 BC, and in Sardinia stands a tree from 2000 BC.

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Today, the olive branch has morphed into a global icon of peace. This trend also extends its’ roots into Greece, where, historically, victors of friendly games or bloody wars were crowned with olive branches. Olive oil served as eternal flame during the original Olympics, while athletes and royalty were anointed with the esteemed oil. The Games launched not far from Athens, in the Peloponnese, and fittingly, when the modern-day Games returned in 1918, Athens accepted the nomination.

An Athenian Golden Age

The 5th Century BC, an era of powerful city-states, the golden age of Athens. The century began ominously, when the mighty Persian Empire invaded Greece in 492 BC. Two years later, Athenians routed the Persian army at Marathon, on the Greek coast. After the battle, a man named Phidippides sprinted 26 miles to the central square in Athens to publicize the victory and perished on the spot. The race, in his memory, the marathon, thus tracks the distance Phidippides covered that fateful day.

 

After defeating the Persian army, Athenians unabashedly relocated the regional treasury from Delos to Athens. Soon after, masons began construction on the Acropolis, and in 438 BC, finished the Parthenon. Democracy took firm hold of the region during this monumental century. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the philosophical triumvirate, called Athens home. So too did Sophocles and Euripides (playwrights), Herodotus and Thucydides (historians), as well as Hippocrates (a renowned physician).

 

Athens’ golden era began to crumble at the end of the century, during the Peloponnesian Wars, when Sparta skillfully defeated Athens and ascended to control the local seas. The wars also fostered the Plague of Athens, decimating the population by one-third. The Roman Empire conquered the region in the 2nd Century BC, and today, Roman ruins exist alongside Greek monuments. Athens then tumbled into obscurity for nearly two millennia, subjugated by northern and central European clans, and finally, in 1458, by the powerful Ottoman Empire.

Modernity Arrives

By 1832, the city contained no more than 5000 residents. Two years later, Greeks designated Athens the capital of their neophyte state, and in 1837, constructed the University of Athens, a byline connecting two cultures: golden Greece and this modern version. Schools of theology, philosophy, law, economics, science, and education, once again, offer Socratic instruction. The Propylaea, a building designed to emulate the historic entrance to the Acropolis, where visitors now enter that site, stands prominently, serving as ceremony hall and rectory.

 

Nearby, the National Archaeological Museum, founded in 1889, preserves relics from the regions’ colorful past. Vivid statues, expertly sculpted reliefs, gleaming jewelry, and a stunning Egyptian collection greet visitors. The museum incorporates an open-air café in the center of the property. Situated a level below the first floor, it peers into the afternoon sky. Throughout the enclosed square, displays from the museum mingle with lush vegetation. For those seeking coffee and a reprieve from the masses above, an ever-welcoming environment awaits.

 

Athens, like many modern metropoli, ballooned in the 20th Century. In 1921, a war with Turkey uprooted more than a million Christian Greeks living in Turkey, many who settled in Athens. Immigrants helped expand the city’s population and boundaries. More than a third of Greek nationals, 4 million, now reside in the metro region. Walking Athens and its neighborhoods today provides an indispensable glimpse into the life of Greece’s most heralded municipality. Modernity dominates, and urban sprawl swells, but the remnants of a previous era, a golden era, live on.

Lasting Impressions

My final night, wandering to and fro, I chanced upon the Exarcheia Neighborhood, an enclave with anarchic traditions, quaint café’s, dingy bars, and crowded comic book shops. Intuition guided me down a few steps to a used bookstore in a decrepit, yet well-kept basement. Here, I studied the sometimes archaic, often eccentric material. After an hour of browsing, and a few intriguing discussions with the shopkeeper, I selected an esoteric text, A Walk With the Gods. Not until a mountainous Peloponnesian train-ride from Diakopto to Kalavyrta, and a hike to Mega Spilaio, a cliff-hanging monastery, could I properly reflect upon the book, and this, my first taste of Athens.

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Jerusalem: the Lion of this Kingdom

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                                                                                                              –by Matthew Riter

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In May of 2009, my mother and I traversed France over 10 days.  On our final day, at a Paris hotel, I perused cheap flights on the Internet, chancing upon a low-cost Belgian airline, Jetairfly, with one-way flights from Liege, Belgium, to Tel Aviv, for 99 euros.  In Jerusalem, my nephew, Guy, and his mother, Miri, agreed to shelter me from the incoming cultural storm.  My nerves tingled as I considered the implications: Judea, Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and Mount of Olives; wading in the Jordan River, floating in the Dead Sea; entering a sanctified land, an ancient realm; the backbone, heart, and soul of Western civilization; the impetus, departure point, and destination of innumerable spiritual pilgrimages; the land of Jewish temples, Christian crusades, and Arab conquest.  These are the sage-covered, olive-filled, Judean Mountains that a multitude of faiths cling to with bandaged hands.  The allure of the people, their shared history and culture, and the landscape of the Levant, would surely foster mindfulness.

After escorting mother to the airport, I caught a Thalys high-speed train to Liege, a university town in the rolling, wooded hills of eastern Belgium, with the Meuse River meandering through.  Boarding the plane the next day, I encountered men, women, and children, leaning over seats, standing in aisles, talking, laughing, eating, and drinking.  The atmosphere persisted, except for takeoff and landing, when the crowd went wild (I later learned Israeli’s do that on every touchdown through the air).  I found myself between a 24-year-old Russian Jew from Tel Aviv, and a middle-aged, Jewish homemaker from the coast of Belgium.  The Russian had spent the previous three years in peripatetic travels, a common rite of passage for young Israelis fresh out of the army.  For the homemaker, frequent flights to Israel provide an opportunity to visit family and friends.  The two freely offered advice and piqued my curiosity with anecdotes of the approaching Holy Land.

Shortly past midnight, we touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport.  Outside, the air felt hot and heavy, even at this hour.  Shalom, and welcome to Israel.  I hopped on board a 15-passenger shared taxi, known as a sherut, energized as a 5 year-old on Christmas Eve, bound for Jerusalem.  We crossed plains lined with orange groves, skirting the Latrun Monastery, where monks have taken a vow of silence, but nonetheless sell wine produced with grapes grown in their vineyards.  The last 10 miles, we meandered through Judean foothills, surrounded by soaring cypress, olive groves, and dry desert shrubbery.  Arab and Jewish villages overlook the freeway and rusted-out military vehicles, remnants from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, seek repose along sections of the road.  As we entered Jerusalem, the lights revealed a city built of stone, cleverly carved into the surrounding hillsides.

Since the early 20th century, municipal laws have required all buildings to be faced with Jerusalem stone, ensuring an enduring aesthetic appeal to the city.  Today, modern stone towers dot the skyline.  Yet, unlike towers of glass and steel, they do not detract from the city’s historicity or authenticity.  Jerusalem stone gives the city a candid charisma and a golden hue, with the scorching Mediterranean sun reflecting off sturdy stone structures.

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Like the serpentine road snaking its way from the beaches of Tel Aviv into the Judean Mountains, Jerusalem is mystical, mythical, medieval even, considering all the stone structures that abound.  Jerusalem, from the Hebrew, Yerushalayim, etymologically, “City of Peace.”  It has been continuously inhabited since at least 4000 BC.  The city appears in Egyptian records in the 18th and 19th centuries BC, known variously as Rušalimum or Urušalimum.  Its footprint and inhabitants have shifted over the centuries.  Jews settled the City of David, the oldest district in the present city, in the 4th century BC.

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Today, the metropolis includes West Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, and the Old City.  West Jerusalem sprung up during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as waves of Jewish immigrants arrived.  East Jerusalem, predominately Arab, is home to over 200,000 Palestinians, and developed alongside, but not necessarily with, West Jerusalem.  The Old City, including Armenian, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Quarters, has wearily held its ground since the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, built the present walls around it in the 16th century.  Israel destroyed a fifth neighborhood, the Moroccan Quarter, in 1967. Over 800,000 people now call Jerusalem home, forming the largest city in Israel.

I drifted into the city on a dry, warm Monday morning in mid-May.  After a short night’s rest, I wandered toward the Ben Yehuda District, the heart of West Jerusalem.  Now, the sun bounced off nearby limestone buildings, threatening to steal my sight.  I found an outdoor café, and sat, sipping coffee, shading my eyes, and watching passersby.  Afterward, I honed in on Guy and Miri’s apartment, on the fabled Ethiopia Street, a few short blocks uphill from the Ben Yehuda District.

Ethiopia Street comprises a twisting block-long alley, with cars parked on the west, a limestone wall on the east, and pedestrians dodging light, but tight traffic traveling at variable speeds.  Horse hitches line the limestone blocks, remnants from the 19th century.  Eliezer Ben Yehuda, namesake of the district I’d just had coffee in, and who fortified Modern Hebrew, lived on the lane in the late 19th century, perhaps daily negotiating the same route I’d just taken.  In the 1880’s, Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II constructed the Tewahedo Orthodox Church (pictured below).

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Early in my stay, Miri introduced me to the Mahane Yehuda Market, the bustling shouk of West Jerusalem, where local police and Israeli army stand guard at each entrance. On several outings, we dined at the diminutive cafés (seating anywhere from 6 to 12 people) serving up hot Israeli dishes (influences from France, Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and Middle East).  At one café, I dined on stuffed grape leaves, filled with rice, ground lamb, and Indian spices.  At another, I sampled Hungarian goulash; a stewed beef dish in a thickened tomato sauce, seasoned with copious amounts of paprika and turmeric.  Fresh pitas, hummus, and pickled vegetables served as appetizers.

Throughout the city, the extraordinary energy of the people and each individual nuance leaves a lasting impression.  The music from Arab shops swells, a hollow Middle Eastern melancholy.  Jewish street musicians deftly entertain passersby with drums, keyboards, stringed instruments, or spirited singing.  Chanting and bells reverberate from churches.  Minarets call Muslims to prayer.  Rabbis chatter to themselves.  The people, forever pacing, talking on cell phones, or to each other, in Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, English, Spanish, French, Russian, Ge’ez.  These are the residents and tourists of Jerusalem, engaging life from the center stage.  Dressed in the garb of their ancestors, treading enigmatic environs, emanating a blinding light.  This is Jerusalem, a city infused with enduring myth and living legend.  And it’s Israel, bounded by Mediterranean, Dead, and Red Seas; its neighbors a mix of reticent friendliness and marked hostility: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.  Israel’s 20th century birthing pains included wars with each country.  Jerusalem now aches with old age, wooden floorboards creaking like the brittle bones of an octogenarian.  Stone structures abound, the city seems sculpted from solid rock, a perpetual project over thousands of years.

No facet of Jerusalem caught my eyes, ears, and nose as much as the labyrinth, the maze that is the Old City.  In every direction, stand a myriad of merchants, selling clothes, religious paraphernalia, sweets, meats, fish, fruit, vegetables, olives, nuts, or spices.  Others run machine shops, jewelry shops, Internet cafés, or antique stores.  Roman ruins abound.  A cacophony of sights, sounds, and smells tempt, tease, and torture the senses.  The shops measure a maximum of 30 feet deep and 10 feet wide, miniscule to my Western eyes.  Sandwiched in between, fighting for space, are churches, mosques, and synagogues.  The children and their laughter carom through the streets, yet some, even at 10 or 12, are working, pushing unbalanced, dilapidated carts of halva, dried fruit, or Challah bread through narrow alleys, wheels on carts bouncing up and down stone steps.

Inspired by intricacies, I purposefully lose my bearings, as if wandering the Old City offers the singular method to experience it.  I meander along pathways leading through quaint neighborhoods, yet seeming to lead nowhere in particular, having been supplemented as centuries passed.  Dead ends are common.  The stone paths wind, ever upward, downward, over rooftops, into courtyards, or backyards, and then down again, reaching alleys lined with merchants, covered in 5000 years’ worth of wear and tear, etched from the souls of mankind’s most magnificent milestones.  I discover a route out of the maze, but invariably return to the Old City, pulled by its relentless ethereal energy.

Its monuments are imprinted in my mind’s eye: the Temple Mount, Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jaffa Gate, Zion Gate, Lion’s Gate, Herod’s Gate, Damascus Gate, Dung Gate, and Golden Gate; the Kidron Valley, Hinnom Valley, Tyropoeon Valley, and Golgotha, where tradition maintains the Romans crucified Jesus.  Each resident with his own panache, often adorned with a cloak, robe, or suit; perhaps wearing a turban, top hat, kippah, kufiyah, hijab, or veil.  Young Arab men sporting crew-cuts; Orthodox priests dressed in full cloak with ponytail and bushy beard; Ashkenazi Rabbis seeming to defy death.  Young Jewish boys dressed in 19th century, Eastern European attire with yarmulke and side curls.  Muslim women veiled from head to toe, peering into the world.  Monks, priests, and holy men stroll these streets, as their forefathers did so many moons before.  Jerusalem has no bounds, forever leaning toward the Heavens.

Looking back, I wonder how my first experience in Jerusalem changed me.  The antiquity of the city repeatedly strikes a chord of deep interest.  The determination of its multi-faceted residents fascinates me.  So too, each culture resonates to a varying degree.  I showed up with paltry knowledge of Jerusalem and its inhabitants, and more questions than answers grew inside me.  One summation: the place brings seekers and seeks bringers.

The night before leaving, as happens, I booked a flight from Tel Aviv to Athens, Greece, with El Al, Israel’s national airline.  And so it was, 6 weeks after arriving, I waited at Ben-Gurion Airport, ready to continue the adventure.  Athens also captured my attention, but that’s a story for another day.  Suffice to say, the crowd went wild on that touchdown too.  Yet, the Levant and its cornerstone, Jerusalem, the golden, righteous, city of stone, eternally tattooed my psyche.

Denver: Road Trip with a Friend

Wednesday

Radisson Denver Southeast

15,000 Club Carlson points

Upgraded to business room on top floor with view of lake, mountains, and double rainbow

 

Thursday

Radisson Denver Southeast

FREE (last night of any award stay is free – benefit ended June 1, 2015)

 

Friday

Hilton Garden Inn Denver Tech Center

$81 (Best Rate Guarantee – received $50 American Express gift card)

Top floor + Breakfast in Restaurant

 

Saturday

Element by Westin – Lone Tree, CO

$82 (Best Rate Guarantee – received 2000 Starpoints)

Modern, Funky, Sustainable

 

Sunday

Residence Inn Denver Tech Center

Category 4 Marriott Free Night Certificate

Garden Level with Fireplace

 

Monday

Comfort Inn – Denver

FREE – Friend’s Best Rate Guarantee

 

Tuesday

Quality Inn Denver Tech Center

FREE – Best Rate Guarantee

 

Wednesday

Candlewood Suites Denver Tech Center Meridian

$40 + 5,000 IHG points

Top Floor + Free Laundry

 

Thursday

Candlewood Suites Denver Tech Center Meridian

$40 + 5,000 IHG points

 

Friday

Hilton Garden Inn Denver South Meridian

$84 (Best Rate Guarantee – received $50 American Express gift card)

Top-Notch Breakfast

 

Saturday

Best Western Plus Denver International Airport

$106 (Best Rate Guarantee – Friend received $100 Best Western gift card)

Upgraded

 

Sunday

Holiday Inn & Suites Denver International Airport

FREE (Best Rate Guarantee)

Upgraded

 

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(View from room – Radisson Denver Southeast)

My Favorite Cities

• Jerusalem – layers, energy, spirituality
• Amsterdam – bicycles, canals, cafés
• New York City – culture, arts, diversity
• Athens, Greece – history, monuments, markets
• San Francisco – cable cars, piers, redwoods

What’s your favorite city?

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(Western Wall – Jerusalem)

Arizona Bound: Dancing in the Desert

Friday

Denver – Comfort Suites DTC

FREE – Best Rate Guarantee

 

Saturday

Albuquerque – Hampton Inn University Midtown

$119 (Best Rate Guarantee – will receive $50 American Express gift card)

 

Sunday

Scottsdale – The Phoenician

SPG Category 5 Free Night Certificate + $32 Resort Fee

Upgraded to Casita

 

Monday – Friday (12 nights)

Phoenix – Marriott Canyon Villas

Thanks to Family

 

Saturday

Pueblo, CO – Courtyard by Marriott Downtown

Family Again

Phoenician

(The Phoenician – Scottsdale, AZ)

Win a $25 Amazon Gift Card

Welcome Million Mile Secrets Readers!

Follow my blog for a chance to win a $25 Amazon gift card. Enter a valid e-mail address at the top-right corner of www.matthewriter.wordpress.com. One new subscriber will be randomly selected on Friday, April 3, 2015.

Bucket List

  • Machu Picchu, Peru – remnants of a lost civilization
  • Brazil – Rio, futbol, beaches, rainforests, shamans
  • Nepal – Himalayas, trekking, tigers, monkeys, Buddhist temples
  • India – Varanasi, the River Ganges, Hinduism, spice plantations, Indian cuisine, Rama Empire
  • Maldives – Indian Ocean island paradise
  • Ethiopia – Rastafari, Haile Selassie, Judaism, the source of the Nile, Menelik and the Ark of the Covenant
  • South Africa – lions, leopards, elephants
  • New Zealand – mountains, rivers, hobbits

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(Machu Picchu – National Geographic photo)

What tops your list?

Colorado Condo and Denver Best Rate Guarantees

Saturday – Sunday – Monday

Tannenbaum by the River – Breckenridge, CO

$40 (thanks to friends)

Condo with deck overlooking stream

 

Tuesday

Holiday Inn Express Denver Tech Center

FREE (Best Rate Guarantee)

 

Wednesday

Sleep Inn Denver Tech Center

FREE (Best Rate Guarantee)

 

Thursday

Best Western Plus Denver Tech Center

$87 (Best Rate Guarantee – received $100 Best Western Travel Card)

 

Friday

Aloft Denver International Airport

$85 (Best Rate Guarantee = 2000 Starpoints) (500 Starpoints for booking with app)

Top floor, corner room

 

Saturday

Hilton Garden Inn Denver Tech Center

$82 – $50 Gift Card (from prior BRG) = $32 (BRG – received $50 American Express Gift Card)

Breakfast voucher with Gold Status – breakfast until noon!

 

Sunday

Radisson Denver Southeast

15,000 Club Carlson points

 

Monday

Radisson Denver Southeast

FREE (last night of any award stay is free)

Denver, Colorado: A Winter Foray with Best Rate Guarantees

Friday

Aloft Denver International Airport

$76 (Best Rate Guarantee: matched rate + 2000 SPG points) (counts toward Free Night Promotion)

Modern, funky, friendly

 

Saturday

Hilton Garden Inn Denver Tech Center

$97 – $50 Gift Card (from previous BRG) = $47 (Best Rate Guarantee: matched rate + $50 American Express Gift Card)

Cooked to order breakfast

 

Sunday

Aloft Denver International Airport

$2 (Best Rate Guarantee: mistake rate + 2000 SPG points) (counts toward Free Night Promotion – this stay netted a Category 5 Free Night Certificate)

 

Monday

Holiday Inn Express & Suites Denver East – Peoria Street

FREE – Best Rate Guarantee

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(Aloft – Denver International Airport)