December 29, 2009

Athens and the Island of Aegina

My next stop was in Athens, the capital of Greece. The feel of this city, which is home to about half the country's population (~5 million), is an interesting mix of antiquity and post-modern urban life. It is a monstrous city! I was blessed enough to stay with my friends in a beautiful picturesque suburb village about a 30 minute metro ride outside of the city's center, near the airport--Paiania. The Metro system in Athens gave me a wonderful and efficient experience. It was amazing to me (and I hope soon to the entire world) that during the construction of this public transit system, archeological discoveries were made and they are well-preserved, please click here. This is just one example that shows the capability of the country of Greece in preserving and revering its own treasures from antiquity. I am referring to the long-awaited return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. My friends and I took a day trip to spend it in the city visiting the New Acropolis Museum, and the Acropolis itself. I think this part of Athens is the most beautiful, and it sparks much reflection for me, as Thessaloniki did simply because it too is a holy place. The Parthenon itself used to be an ancient temple dedicated to the mythological goddess Athena, and even a mosque, but more importantly, it was also consecrated and used as an Orthodox Church, dedicated to the Mother of God. We also had great views of Mars Hill (Areos Pagos, Άρεος Πάγως), the hill on which Saint Paul preached to the Athenians, as well as Lycabetos Hill, where there is a Chapel dedicated to Saint George. Our trip atop the Acropolis concluded with a guard of soldiers marching up to the flag pole and ceremoniously lowering the Greek flag, chanting the national anthem. It was simply awesome.
Later that week, I took a solitary adventure on my own into the city to visit the Byzantine and Christian Museum and the National Gardens (I always need a nature walk!), all within walking distance of the Parliament Building, where I did the typical touristy things of picture-taking of the guards as well as a random demonstration that blocked traffic on the major road right in front. Strikes are a favorite past time in Europe it seems. There were more holy places I had wanted to visit, but alas, I ran out of time. Perhaps on the next trip, as the Lord wills. On October 31, instead of even remembering that it was Halloween, my friends and I took a ferry boat ride to the island of Aegina, located in the Saronic Gulf, located west of Athens. We set out for a pilgrimmage to the resting place of Saint Nektarios of Aegina, Bishop of Pentapolis and wonder-worker, a beloved 20th Century saint of the Orthodox Church. It was a most beautiful island, and the monastery which he founded has possibly one of the largest churches in Europe. It was a great blessing to see the fruit of his labors, his own cell with all of his things still in it, as well as to venerate his tomb which holds his miraculous relics. This was yet another reminder to me about how important it is for all Orthodox Christians to go on pilgrimmages to places where the saints used to live. This is a way for us to get to know them even more personally in addition to learning and reading about their lives. Venerating their relics and visiting their 'stomping grounds' and their humble abodes is an even more tangible and concrete way for us to come closer to them. We need to be friends with our saints, because they have become the friends of God. Later, we experienced warm, traditional Greek hospitality at a family's home on the island. My friends were well-acquainted with a lovely priest, Father Emmanuel and his family of 10 children, and his Presvytera (his wife) made a beautiful meal for us, and we enjoyed fellowship with them. It was so refreshing to see a family in the 21st century who still lives simply and traditionally, like in the old days, a life dedicated to Christ. Father Emmanuel is a fisherman by trade and he has written books on historical figures of 19th century Greece. In fact, when we later attended Vespers with him at his Church (which was built in 1806), he told us about how that very same Church was the parish of John Capodistrias, a famous Greek hero and leader of Greece after the Revolution of 1821. I really loved how my trip has been such a great balance of going on a spiritual pilgrimmage, learning the history of my heritage, having lots of fun with good friends and meeting people overflowing with love and hospitality. On the hour boat-ride back, we played make-shift Mancala games with pistachio shells. :)

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