I’m sitting down to write the morning after arriving in Heraklion, in Crete. The last few days have been exhausting, if fascinating and enjoyable, but I arrived here after the Flight From Hell: Athens airport a confusing bazaar, flight an hour late leaving and stuffed full, the usual people stuffing steamer trunks into the overhead bins, two crying babies — but happily only 50 minutes and the Heraklion airport is a model of fast baggage handling. I checked into the Megaron Hotel on the waterfront (five stars at least!), and had dinner at the restaurant on the rooftop terrace overlooking the harbor as the evening turned gently into night, gathering in lights shining across the water from the docks and the mole.
I slept 11 hours, and the fatigue is still in the bones, so this morning is time off, coffee, catch up on email (mostly desperate, last-minute political ads pleading for my money, which is apparently the last hope for democracy… ) — and catch up as well on my travel diary. So: the amazing, astonishing, brain-overloading archeological museums:
The Acropolis Museum was only a short walk from the hotel, up a pleasant, cobbled pedestrian street with the Acropolis itself rising only a few yards to the right. It is a new museum, brilliantly and logically laid out, well lit and large enough not to feel crowded. There is also an express ticket line for the disabled, into which the warm and friendly staff ushered me when they saw my cane.
Before entering the magnificence of these museums, one caveat: again, the absence of rails on stairs, or markings on obstacles. I fell going up the steps into the Thera/Akrotiri room at the Archeological Museum, and again in the plaza before the museum, where blinded by the light and the white gravel and the white marble, I tripped over an unmarked step. The taxi driver who saw me go down and rushed over to help, said that people were always tripping there. I bounce, and no harm done, but Greece is a bit of a nightmare if one has mobility difficulties. End of complaint section.
It is simply impossible to list all the glories of these museums. If you saw it in your high school history book, or in a book on art or archeology — it’s in the Acropolis Museum, or in the National Archeological Museum. The brain simply swims in it all, and I found myself sometimes almost thinking “I can’t process any more!”
Most of the exhibits in the Acropolis Museum come from one source: the rubble pits where the Athenians dumped the broken and shattered statues and architectural remains that the Persians left behind after sacking Athens in 480 BC.
Rather than attempt to write a guide book — the tome I bought weighs several pounds — let me highlight some of the thoughts that the museums inspired; merging images from both museums. Photography is banned in the archaic wing of the Acropolis Museum, so I have had to rely on public domain sources.
Some of the figures we see are startlingly modern, and I found myself thinking “These far-off people were people, just like us.” Which is true to a great extent:
Both of these statues look immediately real and human. The Kritios Boy, or Ephebe, now united with his head, which was found elsewhere in the rubble, and called by Kenneth Clark “the first beautiful nude in art,” is the first known statue to assume the “contrapposto,” or “counterpoise,” where a figure stands with body weight supported on one leg, with the arms free. A breakthrough that suddenly brings the statue to life, after the stiff, almost Egyptian statues of earlier periods:
But to return: we see these lifelike sculptures and feel at home; then we turn to objects that suddenly startle us with an almost other-world strangeness:
The Acropolis Museum, by Bernard Tschumi and his Greek collaborator Michael Photiades, was completed in 2004. Construction had been halted when excavations for the foundations revealed the complex remains of a busy neighborhood beneath the surface, some of it dating to the 2nd or 3rd century BC. One house included the andron, or the men’s feasting room (the term more literally means “men’s room,” but the term has acquired a somewhat different modern nuance). This house seems to have been continually inhabited, expanded, altered and repaired for around 500 years — another reminder of both the antiquity of Athens but also the fundamental human aspect of the city: Real people live and worked, worried and rejoiced here. We do not know their names, but they lived.
There is simply too much to describe and cover, and I admit that after each museum — I visited one per day — I came away “ruins-saturated” or “statue-soaked,” and in need of a walk and a glass of wine on the hotel’s roof terrace in order to untangle my mind. So just a bit more on the museums:
The Archeological Museum has collected items from smaller museums and collections all over Greece, and it is the largest such collection in the world. It is vast and mind-boggling. The Acropolis Museum is the more modern building, and its collection is restricted to exhibits found on, or immediately around, the Acropolis, as well as a few cases that show tools and how things such as pigments were made.
The Acropolis Museum scores on enlightening feature over the British Museum. In the latter, the original Parthenon friezes are arranged around an inner wall so that you are surrounded by them, looking in. In the Acropolis Museum, they are arranged looking out, around a central wall, thus giving a more realistic impression of how they were arranged when the Parthenon was new, but also giving a vivid impression of the sheer size of the Parthenon, which is huge.
Both museums are wonderfully arranged so that you can move from one era to another in a natural progression. The Archeological Museum begins with the Mycenaean period from circa 1600 to 1100 BC, far earlier than the Athenian culture housed in the Acropolis Museum (though the Acropolis seems to have been inhabited since neolithic times).
The Mycenaean period is named after the palace of Mycenae, storied as the palace of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, who lead the Greeks to Troy and met his grisly end upon his return — killed by Clytemnestra in his bath, in revenge for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to obtain favorable winds to take his fleet to Troy. He was avenged by their son Orestes, who killed his mother Clytemnestra and was pursued by the Eumenides (“the good ones”). We call them the Furies, but the ancient Greeks refused to name them, for fear of invoking them) until Apollo forgave him on the Pnyx, a tributary hill of the Acropolis, of which there will be more later. The House of Atreus, like the life of a policeman in The Pirates of Penzance, was not a happy one!
With that, my (gold) cup runneth over. There is simply too much in these treasuries called museums to explore in these pages. You can explore them far more fully at www.namuseum.gr or at www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en.
Now, back in my hotel room in Heraklion. It’s time to emerge, look for some light lunch, let the maids do the room, and head for the Knosos Museum. Coming soon: the Acropolis.
— By Nathaniel Brown
Nat Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the US Cross-Country team in 1989. He was the first American to take over technical services for a foreign team (Slovenia) and worked also for Germany and Sweden. He coached at 3 Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for 9 years and Cross-Country Skier for 2. He has written three books on skiing and training; the latest was The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation (Mountaineers Books) which has gone through two editions and a Russian translation. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service until retirement.