How to cover two civilisations in three days

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

Share

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...