A few weeks before my husband and I left for Greece, we learned that Context Travel had begun service in Athens. Another Chicago Splash Magazine journalist has sung Context’s praises (see article) since her return from Florence, Italy last spring. After our Athen’s tour, we agree that Context Travel is amazing and the tour helped us form a “context” for the other places we visited. I can’t imagine how the one full day we spent in Athens could have been more meaningful, and our Context experience was what made it so.
Our docent, Fotini Tyrovouzi, is an archaeologist who, for many years, was a staff archaeologist at the Acropolis. She has lived in the US and Germany and speaks Greek, English, Italian and more. She was very skilled in telescoping her broad knowledge to help us feel and understand what life was like in ancient Athens. The day of our visit was extremely hot and she was sensitive to this, suggesting that we rest in the shade and have lots of water while continuing to impart the sense of life in ancient times.
We began in the Kerameikos archaeological sites, an area that had only been uncovered recently after the site was discovered during road construction. We explored outside and then went in to the beautiful, small museum to see the evidence of the main cemetery located here until the city was destroyed in 86 BC. In the 12th century BC potters made funerary urns and grave decorations in this location. Pilgrims who participated in the Panathenaic procession followed the sacred way just where we were. There were monuments that told the story of those who had been buried there, a young man on horse (a knight), preparing a spear to fell the enemy and many more beautiful and powerful monuments. There were also red-and-black-figured pottery whose stories were reveled to us by Fotini. She did a wonderful job of giving us the sense of what Athenians of the 5th century BC probably experienced as they walked from Plato’s school through gates located on the grounds of the Kerameikos where we were standing, to the large urns containing water to wash, and then through these grounds and on to the Agora (the marketplace) to sell their wares.
Greek Mythology was very important to the ancient Greeks and although not factual, the characters do, quite accurately, reflect human emotions and dilemmas. We were told that Athena, Goddess of Athens offered Athens olive trees in a contest with Poseidon who offered Athens water. Regardless of the winner, Athens has been blessed by olive oil for thousands of years, and also with water and sea power. Water, however, was precious, and often hidden and guarded by the Greeks whose different groups battled one another. While evidence of Roman plumbing is everywhere, the Romans being unified and all- powerful, the Greek water pipes are much harder to find. Large urns of water were available to visitors as they entered the area where we were standing. Water was very important to this society, and very valuable.
The pieces in the museum were found in the grounds outside. We began to observe the lions and snakes that symbolized protection, and the bull that symbolizes fertility. We were impressed with the beauty of the items displayed. The museum was small and compelling and we soon moved back into the heat and to the Agora (the marketplace).
On our way, we visited the Hephaistion, which is the best-preserved ancient Greek temple in the world, having retained all of its columns and pediments intact. And then we moved to the Agora, taking time to also visit the small museum located here that houses the artifacts found on the surrounding grounds. Once again, Fotini shared with us stories in the vases and other items. In regard to the marketplace, we learned that the marketplace was an opportunity for socializing in a very social society. In fact, if one refrained from social interaction, discussion and community problem solving, that person was known as an “idiot”. It was not good to withdraw from social interaction.
At this point we parted company but Fotini advised us to rest until the heat reduced later in the day. She suggested that we visit the Acropolis Museum, which was open until 8pm and go to the Parthenon at the Acropolis itself early the next day before we departed. This was good advice and we followed it. We felt very fortunate that we had the chance to more or less “osmose” the information that Fotini had spent years learning.
Context is an amazing concept. “Our customers have been asking us to expand to Athens for several years,” states Paul Bennett, co-founder of Context. “It’s a pretty logical extension of our programs in Rome, Naples, and Istanbul where we employ more than 30 ancient historians and archaeologists and have, for years, offered some of the most immersive experiences for people who love classical history.”
Initial offerings include two substantial walks on antiquities: the Acropolis Seminar and Daily Life in Ancient Athens. The former focuses on the role of religion and the Acropolis in ancient Athens and covers both the Acropolis itself and the newly opened Acropolis Museum. The latter visits the Agora and Kerameikos archaeological sites and focuses on issues of daily life in ancient Athens, including commerce, politics, housing, language, and the arts. Each walk is held as a seminar, with emphasis on dialogue, conversation, and interactive learning.
As with its programs elsewhere, Context will cap its group walks in Athens at six participants, the lowest group size in the walking tour industry. Lasting three hours on average and led by Ph.D.-level scholars and specialists, walks will interest independent travelers who want to acquire a deeper understanding and appreciation for Athens and its history.
These walks will be offered both privately on request and as regularly scheduled group walks. Private walks will cost between €270 and €330 for the group, while group walks will cost between €65 and €70 per person.
More information can be found on the company’s website, at:
At Fotini’s suggestion we visited the Acropolis Museum which opened in June of 2009 in the afternoon. Approaching it, one can look down to see the continuing excavation of important artifacts from the past. Entering the building, one is struck by its beauty and power. We watched a film telling about the history of the Parthenon, and looked at the displays, and the information we learned in the morning became more and more familiar to us. Who can resist a museum café? Not us. We found the frappe and sweets a wonderful treat. The large patio adjoining the café offered fantastic views both of the Parthenon and the city.
At lunch, we tried to find Daphne’s Restaurant but could not. Then, walking to our hotel-there it was. What a lovely restaurant with truly delicious food beautifully presented. The desserts were noteworthy; baklava, and galaktoboureko and Mastiha flavored ice cream (delicious). Baklava and galaktoboureko were the best we had tasted but what was Mastiha? A product, I learned, is found only in certain areas of the Greek island of Chios. Mastiha is used as a spice in sweets and cooking, as a flavoring for liqueurs, and in soap making, cosmetics, and toothpaste, among others. I was so fascinated by it that I visited the Mastiha shop at the Athens airport.
Sitting on the patio under a grape arbor with a cool breeze, enjoying our food, we chatted with Johnelle and Gary Snyder from Florida. They shared with us that they had been at Daphne’s (www.daphnesrestaurant.gr) eight years ago when a plastic sheet covered one of the patio walls while excavation for artifacts was taking place. They also shared the experience of arriving in Athens at that time at the old airport and then leaving from the new one. We later explored more of the restaurant and saw a collage of some of its famous visitors, and headed to our hotel.
Awakening early on our last day in Athens, we headed for the Acropolis to see the Parthenon, dedicated to goddess Athena. It was inaugurated at the Panathenatic Festival of 438 BC and is famed for its perfect proportions. It is the masterpiece of Doric architecture. Not far away was the Erechtheion the prime example of a graceful Ionic approach. The Caryatid maidens are casts, the originals being in the new Acropolis Museum. I appreciated the advice offered by Fotini. It was cooler, I had more energy and the tours were just beginning as I reached the Parthenon. Looking down I saw the Odeon, which dates to AD 160 and currently seats 5000 for various events. I was moved on the way up when I saw the Theater of Dionysus where in the sixth century BC dramas such as Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and Euripides’s Medea were performed. It was hard to believe I was really here.
We needed to leave because we had a plane to catch. After gathering our bags we walked to the Metro, which took us inexpensively and efficiently to the airport. We said “Goodbye” to Athens but not to Greece. Our experiences continued in Rhodes, Symi and Santorini (as you can see in an additional article) continued with benefit from Context.
Photos: Leon Keer