Grass and weed had grown all over the sanctuary of Dionysus. A brown-eyed vagrant in his tabby coat surveyed a group of varied jacketed brigands from a stone podium. The audience sat, perhaps spellbound by some speech that was Greek to me. They sat enthralled till they found an unsuspecting passer-by in me and rushed to tackle me. Well, I had called out to them.
Dionysus was the God of wine and patron of drama; his sanctuary held the amphitheatre dedicated to him. By six hundred B.C, the theatre was functional and it held thousands of people. The original wooden benches had been changed into stone ones by the Romans. The backdrop of the Cyclopean walls highlighted the fact that the amphitheatre was the birthplace of Greek tragedies.
The whole complex used to be abuzz during the festival of Dionysia. The first winner of performance had got a goat as prize. The reward could suggest the origin of the term ‘Tragedy’ which means “goat’s song.”
With time, the nearby Odeon of Herodes Atticus that is on the southern slope of the Acropolis hill became the centre of performing arts. Till date it hosts numerous events.
Odeon of Heredon Atticus
Besides the theatre, the ancient Athenians loved their Agora. Too bad that the Agora of Athens was under renovation. So instead of exploring the former city centre, we decided to explore the nearby neighbourhood of Plaka. We sauntered among numerous narrow alleyways running up and then down the gradient. Cobblestones paved our paths through houses that could have been centuries old. Due to its proximity to the Acropolis, Plaka is known as the ‘Neighbourhood of the Gods’. Well, I did not see any benevolent Gods, but I did see many purring cats. Continue reading
The overcast sky was bound to fulfil the forecast of a rainy afternoon. To avoid being drenched, we left for the Acropolis early in the winter morning. We walked past the foothills staring at the Cyclopean walls through tree canopies growing adjacent to the hill. It was believed that only the mighty Cyclops could carry massive boulders that seemed to have been set without any mortar.
Steps Leading to Propylaea
Athens took the name of the Goddess, and she was venerated as Athena Polias or Athena of the city. She was deified in the Parthenon as Athena Parthenos, the Virgin Goddess. She had many talents and was also the Goddess of wisdom and creativity, so it was not surprising that on the South-Western slope of Acropolis lay the Odeon of Herodes Atticus that to date is a centre for performing arts. The open air theatre is the main venue for the annual Athens Festival.
Swaying olive trees lined the stone pathway up to the western side, through Propylaea or the entrance to the Acropolis. By the time, we walked through a large marble gateway; a light drizzle welcomed us and paused.
Parthenon has been voted the most beautiful building in the world by Business Insider. Interestingly, it was never the main temple of Athena. The main temple for the cult of Athena was at the northern end of the Acropolis in a temple called Erectheum. It was said to be the spot where Athena had struck her spear and created the first olive tree for her people.
Parthenon once held a statue of Athena Parthenos and functioned mainly as a treasury. Later during the Byzantine rule in the sixth century, the temple became a church dedicated to Mother Mary. By the 15th century, Ottomans turned it into a mosque. And during the Great Turkish War in the 17th century, the building was used as a gunpowder magazine. It was then when the building blew up during the Venetian siege.
From the eastern end of the citadel, a Greek flag fluttered in the wind that could have knocked us off our footing. With frigid faces, we looked down at the square roads cutting through the terracotta-roofed houses creating neat sections of Athens. Beyond the hill, to the east was the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the southeast was the New Acropolis Museum. Continue reading
Syntagma Square(Metro is on the Left)
That winter afternoon in January 2017 was no reflection of the probably heated day in September 1843, when King George I had faced a military uprising and had conceded the nation’s first constitution. We looked around to see the fountain in the Syntagma or Constitution Square. People were flitting in and out of the metro station that lay beside the marble steps at the far end of the square. The flight of stairs climbed to a street and beyond that was the Greek Parliament House.
‘Follow Ermou street opposite the Syntagma Square,’ had said my wide-eyed Greek colleague, ‘you will reach Monastiraki.’
It was late in the afternoon, so we headed straight for the recommended street, towards the flea market and the eateries. Walking through the signs of lifestyle brands we passed by a street vendor selling chestnuts. The scent of Greek coffee emanated from a push cart not far from another seller offering pastries and bread.
Amidst the curtain of people and outstretched leaves of potted olive bushes lining the street, I noticed a dome ahead on the street. It was a medieval church; a home to calmness amidst the chaos of the bazaar. Later, I found out that the Church of Panaghia Kapnikaria that was built around 11th century over the ruins of an ancient temple, dedicated either to Demeter or Athena.
The Byzantine-styled church was to be pulled down during the construction of the Ermou street in 1834, but it was saved thanks to the rallying by King Ludwig of Bavaria. He was the father of Modern Greece’s first king after the nation gained independence from the Ottoman rule in 1832.
A trip to Rome is said to be incomplete without tossing change into the Trevi Fountain. Sounds wishful! Not really on a winter’s day, when the coin is most likely to bounce off the frozen surface and strike some bystander in the eye.
So, on my last trip to Rome, fountains were out of the question. Instead, I chose to fight the cold and march to a place frequented by every Roman who lived a couple of millennia ago, the Flavian Amphitheatre or the Colosseum.
Walking through the seeming ice free streets was easy, but a random ice-filled crack on the pavement nearly slid me off balance. Cold apart, the crack and crevice speckled streets could have been any other part of South Asia, for most of the traders and tourist guides and artists seemed to be from the sub-continent, mainly from Bangladesh.
The Flavian Amphitheatre was called so because it was commissioned by the Flavian dynasty emperors who came after Emperor Nero. But the name apparently came from a statue of Nero that stood in the vicinity. The Statue was inspired by the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Expectedly, Nero posed in the similar stance and semblance of Helios, the sun God. Later, the infamous emperor’s successors moved the Colossal statue next to the Amphitheatre.
Shoes by the Danube with the Chain Bridge in the Background
My feet were cold for my canvas shoes and layers of cotton socks felt porous like a sieve. I had forgotten to pack my cap for the trip, so my ears ached. I brisk walked past the Chain Bridge hurriedly hoping hopelessly that my pace would warm me up. It was not an ideal pre-sunrise walk, yet I had braved the December river breeze and kept walking towards the Shoes by the Danube Bank installation.
The evening before, my stroll from Pest towards the Buda hill had been possible because of the chain bridge, but in 1820, Count István Széchenyi was unable to cross the river to attend his father’s funeral. The Count’s desperation triggered his plan of connecting the two towns with Hungary’s first permanent bridge that opened in 1849. And twenty-four years later, the towns merged to form Budapest.
The bridge is iconic for not only it united east and west but also it cut across the class barrier; everyone including nobility was once charged a toll to use it. So, it was not surprising that numerous anecdotes have sprung up. For instance, the lions of the bridge are said to have no tongue. The architect jumped off the bridge in shame because of the flawed beasts hence becoming the first person to jump from the bridge. Then some say that the tunnel at the end of the bridge in Adam Clarke square which is of the same length as that of the bridge was to house the chain bridge during rains.
The Buda castle stands on the castle hill and can be reached by three options: firstly, like an average tourist who takes a minute and a half long funicular ride, for which, the queueing time for the tickets was longer than the journey itself. Secondly, as an impatient tourist who falls in the tourist trap of the Bangladeshi tour operators and pays 4 Euros for a few minutes of shuttle ride. Thirdly as a regular local, who scaled the slope for free. My choice was obvious.
The uphill pathway was dotted with shortcuts, yet I was nearly breathless at the top of the hill also called Danube terrace; partly because of the trek but mainly for the view from the terrace. The Danube terrace provides a clear view of the river and the Pest: the parliament house, St. Stephen Basilica, and much more. Later in the evening, I visited the Christmas market in St. Stephen Square ( read here- https://biswadarshan.com/2017/01/21/markets-in-budapest/ )
Vats of Mulled wine
The Bronze Policeman
Need I say anything?
Draft of citrus and cloves slapped my cold-numbed face; mulled wine and punch simmered in drum-like vats in one of the stalls at a Christmas market in Budapest. It was a week after the 25th, yet could there be a better break after a day’s walk in sub-zero temperatures?
Moments ago, we had been welcomed by a plump bronze policeman with belly and mustache polished by continual meddling hands of lens-happy tourists. From there, arcs of lights had led us to the St. Stephen’s Basilica Square that sparkled like jewels studded garish wonderland.
At the entry of Saint Stepen Square, a sign read ‘Langosh’ and my friend’s words repeated in my mind, ‘It is just like bhatura,’ she had said. But the bread’s similarity with deep fried Indian bread ended there, for sour cream and cheese were the recommended traditional Hungarian toppings. Being a nonconformist, I also had some chicken and bell peppers on top of it and paid thrice more than what it cost in a non-touristic area.
In the market, many stalls sold pork knuckles, stuffed cabbage, roast turkey, grilled chicken, goulash, chimney bread, roasted chestnuts and many more delicacies. Besides food stands, some bars offered mulled wine and other drinks. Many booths sold souvenirs like Christmas cribs, paintings, packs of paprika, pepper paste and other things. Continue reading
Amidst the clamour of shlokas from the speakers placed next to the Maha Bodhi tree, I sat with closed eyes trying to meditate at 5:30 A.M. I wondered whether Gautama would have become Buddha in the cacophony, perhaps yes. I tightened my hoodie and tried to focus. A dog sauntered towards me and smelled the air near my shoulder. Then it walked up to a monk and sniffed him. What happened next surprised me.
The original Bodhi tree was destroyed by the queen of Ashoka, who was jealous towards it because of her husband’s attachment to it. The current tree is the direct descendant of the original Bodhi brought from Sri-Lanka. Immediately, to the east of the Bodhi tree was the Maha Bodhi temple. The temple was originally built by Ashoka, but the current temple is the oldest brick structure built in the 5th to 6th century by the Gupta Dynasty.
It was the Maha Bodhi tree under which Buddha had discovered Vipassana; he learned of the real nature of things or Dhamma. Hence, I chose Dhamma Bodhi Centre, about 5 kilometres from the Maha Bodhi Temple, to learn Vipassana.