I’ve been traveling quite a bit these last 15 years or so … as some of you may have noticed, and yet there always remained a long list of places to which I hadn’t been. Of course, one could argue that the number of places I have not visited is infinite. (That’s not actually true: if we limit ourselves to the planet Earth, and to the landmasses of the planet Earth—since visiting every bit of ocean would be tedious, to say the least—then we are dealing with roughly 148 million square kilometers of land. If a “place” is assumed to take up at least 10 square meters, that means that there are roughly 14 billion places on the planet, which, for our purposes, is close enough to infinite.) I have, all the same, visited a good number of the more widely acknowledged “interesting” places on the planet. In a nutshell, there aren’t all that many places left that provoke the reaction “You mean you’ve never been to ________!” But there are a few. I call these my YMYNBT places.
I had a YMYNBT list. Not a formal one, mind you—I’d hate to be one of those people who visit places just to say they’ve been there. But, after a while, you do kind of keep track. The one big, enormous, whopping place on the top of that list was Greece.
Yes, I had never been to Greece.
Furthermore, as may also have been noticed by the more attentive of my readers, I am rather (passionately) interested in history, including the history of ancient civilizations, and, let’s face it, a hell of a lot of European history starts with Greece. So, when I recently had the opportunity to go to Athens, I jumped on it.
Once in Athens, you shouldn’t go to the Acropolis right away. You should make your way toward it, engaging in some historical foreplay before the main event. First, you should go to the Temple of Zeus, which, unfortunately, now consists only of the temple’s base and 15 stupendous columns, each 17 meters high. One other column was blown down by a gale in the 19th century and lies like a giant sliced hot dog across what would have been the temple’s interior. I suppose it could be a disappointment, but think of it as that first kiss after dinner.
Then you head to the Agora, the Greek equivalent of the Roman forum. The classical Agora of Athens dates pretty much to the foundation of the city. It was here that Athenians voted; it was here that they discussed; it was here that Socrates corrupted the youth of Athens; it was here that Plato bothered everyone with the inconvenient truths of 24 hundred years ago. You need some imagination to see beyond what might look like a dusty space full of crumbled rocks, but my imagination has been running rampant with images of the ancient world for quite some time and needed little prodding to imagine men and women in white chitons strolling arm in arm, fearfully discussing the evil empire to the east (it was already Iran, even back then).
It takes less imagination to appreciate the Temple of Hephaestus, which dominates the Agora. It is one of the best-preserved ancient Greek temples. From here, you have a magnificent view of the Acropolis, just a few hundred meters away … but not yet—you can consider this the passionate embrace in the hallway outside her door. First, go check out the Roman forum, notable (according to the guidebooks) for the Tower of the Winds, by which the Greeks of the Roman period checked out both the time and the weather, and likewise notable (according to me) for the large public latrine, with its banks of toilets—essentially, long slabs of marble with numerous holes in them, underneath which flowed running water in a continual flush. Oh, those tidy Romans.
Now she opens the door, fumbling with her keys, and you enter her apartment.
You approach the Acropolis via a shady path, olive trees all around. The olive trees hide the Propylaia, the monumental building that served as a gateway to the sacred rock, until you’re pretty much there. (She’s gone inside to get into something more comfortable, then suddenly appears nude in front of you … and here I’ll drop the metaphor out of gentlemanly discretion, although you’re free to engage in a little fantasizing along the same lines between now and the end of the dispatch.)
That’s it. I’m going to stop describing the Acropolis. I know that some are disappointed when they see it: “It’s just a bunch of ruins,” I’ve heard them say. Shame on them. Have they no imaginations? In its time, the Acropolis was the center of Greek civilization, and therefore of Western civilization. It was a crowning achievement of the ancient world. If you go, read all about it beforehand. Read about the chryselephantine statue of Athena, the ultimate masterpiece of Pheidias, and perhaps the greatest sculpture in history, which stood in the inner sanctum of the Parthenon. Stand there and imagine … imagine. Then be sure to refocus your eyes on the present, and become incensed at the stupidity of mankind: in 1687, the Ottomans used the Parthenon as an ammunition dump (!?), and, during one of the countless wars men have waged over the ages, the site was bombarded and the Parthenon blew up, leaving it the ruin that it is today. Oh, the wonders men can perform, and the stupidity to which they are prone.
That’s enough of that, though. Experience it all for yourself, but study it first. What you won’t be able to study beforehand is the presence of Zvouros and his companions. The Parthenon is their territory, and they defend it well.
Zvouros is one of the six or seven cats who live among the ruins. He’s a big black-and-white cat and is apparently the ringleader—the top cat, if you know what I mean. I ran across Zvouros when he was confronting a dog. (Note that Athens is full of dogs. You run across them all over, and they’re generally lying around, breathing real fast.) This dog had climbed up onto some of the rubble and was kind of checking Zvouros out, but Zvouros would have none of it. He stood his ground magnificently, didn’t even deign to hiss at the dog, just bristled up to about twice his natural size and stared at the offending canine, with the columns of the Parthenon backing him up. The dog couldn’t take the moral pressure and slinked off toward the Temple of Nike.
I have three cats, but it must be said that none of them is as majestic, as classical, as Zvouros. Plus, none of them has anywhere near his balls. (To tell the truth, none of them have any balls at all, if you get my drift.)
I learned Zvouros’s name from a couple of the guards who sit in their little booths and make sure no one tags the place, or whatever. According to them, the dogs come and go; they are “visitors,” generally begging for food from the tourists. (Shortly thereafter, I saw one dog, who had evidently long practiced his pitiful/friendly look in some doggy mirror, scrounging a good long pat on the head and some scraps of food from three elderly American tourists.) The cats, however, live there, and don’t you forget it. The guards feed them.
“So the Parthenon is their territory,” I said.
“No, the Parthenon belongs to Greece,” they replied, rather incensed, and pointed out that there were things a lot more important than cats for me to write about. I looked around, noticed that from there I could see, far below, the Theater of Dionysus—essentially, the world’s first theater, where Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and others first presented their plays. I looked at the Parthenon towering above, pictured the Erechtheion right behind it, marveled at the industry of mankind, and figured they were right.
But if you take a long look at Zvouros, who sits like a sphinx among the columns, it’s easy to imagine that he disagrees.