How to cover two civilisations in three days

I promised to take James, our ancient historian, to the Acropolis before he finished his degree
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The Independent Online

Three times ancient Greece has loomed large in my life. First, for O-level where every lesson began with our history teacher, ancient Mrs Owens, laboriously drawing a map of the Peloponnese, home of Agamemnon and Leonidas, on the blackboard with a scratchy piece of chalk. Still, she must have been an inspiration because, three years later, I hitchhiked to Greece with a friend to see the Parthenon, Thermopylae and Epidaurus for myself.

Three times ancient Greece has loomed large in my life. First, for O-level where every lesson began with our history teacher, ancient Mrs Owens, laboriously drawing a map of the Peloponnese, home of Agamemnon and Leonidas, on the blackboard with a scratchy piece of chalk. Still, she must have been an inspiration because, three years later, I hitchhiked to Greece with a friend to see the Parthenon, Thermopylae and Epidaurus for myself.

The driver who gave us a lift back to Athens from Delphi asked if we knew anyone in London who might want to work as an au pair in his family and teach his kids English. I will, said my friend Jill who wasn't planning to go to university. Hang on, I interrupted. I can't hitchhike home on my own. Of course you can, Susan. Don't be a wimp, she said.

Decades later, the horrors of that journey back to England, compared to which Euripides sounds like The Simpsons, still haunts me with the Golden Age of Thermistocles, Pericles, Thucydides and Plato illogically mixed up in the nightmare. With any luck, these past four days in Greece have exorcised all that baggage for ever.

Three years ago, I promised to take James, the ancient historian of the family, to the Acropolis before he finished his degree. His finals are next month, so unless I agreed to Plan B, ie buying a road map, hiring a motorbike and doing it ourselves, I'd have to shift. You can get guided "Glories of Ancient Greece" coach tours, but they take a week minimum and cost around £800 excluding airfare. And in any case, I was bluntly informed, a week on a bus with a whole lot of wrinklies didn't sound like much fun. Come on Mum, cheap hotels, a map and a bike - you know it makes sense.

As a last resort, I rang the British School in Athens. As a matter of fact, said its director Dr James Whitley, a group of classics teachers from the UK was coming out on a study tour after Easter. We could come to the opening lecture and evening reception and see if any of the excursions might be of interest to us.

Dr Whitley's opening address was a revelation. I was going to say an eye-opener, but the gist of his text was pretty much the opposite. If we wanted to get true value from a study of Ancient Greek art and artefacts, he said, we should leave aesthetics out of it and avoid using the plethora of abstract terms such as poetic realism and mellifluous lyricism that people so often use to describe classical statues, friezes and pots.

Forget how beautiful the object may or may not be, urged Dr Whitley. We don't have the same aesthetic criteria as the Ancient Greeks anyway. Just ask why it's there and what it's for. He then proceeded to use a whole lot of terms like methodological philistinism and social agencies which sounded pretty abstract to me, but then I am not a student of antiquity, aesthetic or otherwise.

There were predictably passionate pro-aesthetic responses from the audience, but if J Keats himself had put up his hand and pleaded that a thing of beauty was surely a joy for ever, Dr Whitley's iron resolution would not have been shaken.

I admire his stand. History of art has become so woolly, so dumbed down, so much the domain of yahs and hoorays that if the baby does have to be thrown out with the bath water at this critical point, at least we start with a clean bath.

We spent our first day with the teachers. Our Greek guide, tall, cigar-smoking, big shades and a hand-knitted waistcoat, looked more like a mafioso than someone who's been supervising the Parthenon renovations for the past 20 years.

Our group had its own resident guides, Professor Nick Fisher and Dr Gillian Shepherd from Cardiff and Birmingham University respectively, both dauntingly knowledgeable but friendly and good fun. They'd make a great television double act and not before time. I'm fed up with celebrity historians - give us new blood and some decent ancient historians, please.

If we waited a bit before going into the Erechtheion, we'd miss three huge parties of school children, suggested Dr Shepherd. Good thinking; let's avoid the children at all costs, agreed the teachers.

The next day we took the bus to Nafplio in the Peloponnese, first capital of liberated Greece and often described as the most elegant town on the mainland, thanks to the Venetian occupation. That's not why we went. It was the only place we could hire a motorbike. When you've got only three days to cover two civilisations, it makes sense.

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