The Acropolis in Athens must certainly be on most people’s list of places they want to visit. It has been on my list since grade school, so it was a thrill to go there during our recent cruise. At the time of our visit, Athens was a worrisome place. The city is a teeming metropolis of more than three million people and there were demonstrations outside our hotel on Syntagma Square (also called Parliament Square) which caused the management to lower metal screens to protect the windows. The changing of the guard in front of the Parliament building went on schedule , but we had to walk past a cordon of police buses and armed military to get to our hotel.
Visiting the Acropolis was as if none of this was happening. We got off our tour bus across from the entrance and began the long walk up the paths cut into the steep, rocky base of hill. Even though we were “off-season”, there were thousands of other tourists making the same pilgrimage, some racing up the steep stairs while others like me took it more slowly. Marble steps and paths were polished smooth, and one could only reflect on the thousands of years and millions of footprints that produced the patina. Even at that, there were flowers pushing up through the cracks.
As we climbed higher and higher, we could see some of the great landmarks. First was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The ruins of this enormous theater, built in the second century are set against the Athens skyline. At one time this was one of the largest covered theaters in the world. Now it is an open air setting where Athens frequently stages modern musical and theatrical productions.
Beyond was a wonderful view of the Olympieion, an enormous temple to Zeus begun in the sixth century BCE but not completed until the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian more than 600 years later. Only a few columns remain standing, but it is clear how huge it once was.
We reached the steps of the Propylaea. This served as the ancient entrance to the complex on the Acropolis. Apparently the purpose of the structure was to serve as a barrier to individuals who were not qualified to visit the holy sites.
Off to the left we saw the Temple of Athena Nike with its beautiful columns and lovely symmetry.
Then the centerpiece of the Acropolis: the Parthenon. Construction equipment, scaffolds, and cranes were all over the place obscuring views that were not already obscured by tourists. Even at that, the building is an impressive sight and the ruins are beautiful. The building has been much abused over the centuries. The famous statuary of the friezes was taken by the Scottish Lord Elgin and now resides in the British Museum. The building has been a Christian church, a Muslim mosque, and a Turkish munitions warehouse at which time it was it was destroyed by the Venetians. It is truly amazing that such a lovely ruin has survived so much abuse and neglect.
The Erechtheion sits off to the side with its famous Porch of the Caryatids. The pillars supporting the roof of the porch are marble maidens – both sculptural and engineering marvels in that their thin necks provide support for the heavy marble roof. Unfortunately, Lord Elgin took one of the maidens for his estate, and one was seriously damaged, but the others have been moved to the Museum of the Acropolis. Still the replicas capture the marvel of the originals.
Too soon our visit to the Acropolis ended and we rushed back to the bus. It is clear that one could spend a lifetime visiting and studying this magic place.
When I think of Greece I think of baklava even though it is apparently originally a Turkish creation. That should not be too surprising since the histories and traditions of Greece and Anatolia have been intertwined for thousands of years (Think Trojan War.) In Greece, baklava is a traditional Easter confection, and apparently it is often made with 40 leaves of phyllo to honor the 40 days of Lent.
In this version, I have used only one of the two packages of dough that come in a one-pound box. There are 20 leaves in the package, so if you are able to fold them over on themselves, you will have the 40 requisite layers. I used an 8 x 8 inch pan, so that wouldn’t quite work, but I think you’ll find it close enough for an amateur try at the real thing.
- 2 sticks (½ pound) unsalted butter
- 3 cups mixed walnuts and unsalted pistachios, toasted in a dry sauté pan and coarsely chopped
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon powdered lemon peel
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1/3 cup honey (preferably orange blossom)
- peel from 1 orange without pith
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons orange liqueur
- ¼ teaspoon orange flower water
- ½ pound (one packet from one pound box) frozen phyllo dough, wrapped but thawed for 2 hours
- Prepare clarified butter by melting in an ovenproof measuring cup in the microwave. Skim off foam and pour off carefully without the solids that settle to the bottom. You should have about 180 mL. Set aside
- Combine the chopped nuts, sugar, powdered lemon rind, and cinnamon in a small bowl. Set aside.
- In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, water, orange peel, and lemon juice. Bring to the boil and then reduce heat to the simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the liqueur and orange flower water. Strain and set aside. Reheat when ready to pour over the baked baklava
- On a clean, dry work surface, open the package of phyllo dough.The leaves will probably measure about 9 x 15 inches. Spread out, cover with a sheet of plastic film, and a damp kitchen towel to prevent it from drying out while you work. Work as quickly as you can.
- With a pastry brush, paint the bottom and sides of an 8 x 8 inch baking pan. Then take one leaf of dough and fit in the bottom, folding over as much as you can. Brush on some of the clarified butter. Repeat with 4 additional leaves of dough.Then sprinkle the top with 1/3 of the nut mixture.
- Repeat the layering process twice more. You should have three layers of dough and nuts.
- Top with the remaining leaves of dough, buttering each one as you go. That should use up all of the phyllo.
- Score the finished stack into 1½ to 2 inch diamonds with a sharp knife. It is important to do this before you bake the baklava; otherwise the pastry will shatter when you cut it.
- Bake in the middle of an oven preheated to 325°F for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 300°F and bake for 6o minutes more.
- Meanwhile, reheat the flavored syrup.
- When the top of the baklava is a golden brown, remove from the oven and cover with the syrup while it is still warm.
- Let cool completely for at least 4 hours so that the syrup is completely absorbed.
- Serve by cutting through each score.