romantic notions in the agora

temple of hephaestus - side view

In the middle of Athens, nestled under the Acropolis, is the ancient agora, once the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of the city. Later, it would also serve as a marketplace, where merchants would set up their stalls in the colonnades of long, covered buildings called stoa.  (The Romans would go on to call this conglomeration a forum; we would call it a mall.) A large open area surrounded by buildings of various functions, the agora was a daily part of public life in Athens, whether you were coming to shop, pay homage to a particular god, visit the law courts, use the library, or even go swimming in the great bathhouse. Laying mostly in ruins today, the agora has the feel of an overgrown park or an English country estate. (I can’t help but think of Richard Payne Knight, Uvedale Price and the Romantic notions of picturesque landscape architecture, constructed in imitation of wild nature, which was once in fashion and still survives in the gardens at many a stately British home.) Yet on the top of Agoraios Kolonas hill, keeping watch on the northwest side of the square is perched the Temple of Hephaestus, a well-preserved temple that remains largely as it was built. Like a Parthenon in miniature, it presents a serene sense of what this all must have looked like in the full-flower of antiquity.

temple of hephaestus - looking over the agora

temple of hephaestus

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walking with giants

Staffa is another of the uninhabited Treshnish islands. Like Lunga it is home to hundreds of seabirds, yet it’s better known for the magnificent basalt columns which at first glance seem to rise out of the sea like pilings. The effect is almost overwhelming at An Uamh Binn, or Fingal’s Cave as it is more commonly known, which is formed completely out of hexagonally jointed basalt. In the 8,000 years humans have inhabited Mull it is safe to say that Staffa’s columns and caves have been viewed as something special, possibly sacred or mythical in origin. According to one legend, the Gaelic giant, Fingal, got into a quarrel with the Ulster giant, Finn McCool. (Over a lady giant, no doubt.) In order to fight each other they built a causeway between Ireland and Scotland. When the causeway was destroyed only the two ends remained – one at Staffa and the other at the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim. (Having visited the Giant’s Causeway several times, it is remarkable to see how both locations share an almost identical geology.) The truth of the matter, however, is much less colorful: as Britain and North America were being pulled apart by continental drift, huge amounts of magma rose up through the Earth’s crust, erupting as lava and volcanic ash on the surface. As the 1,200 degree molten rock cooled, it hardened, shrank, and fractured into a regular series of stone pillars. The caves came into existence as waves crashed against the soft layer of ash underneath the columns, slowly eroding into the formation we see today. Of the five sea caves on the island Fingal’s is by far the largest. It came to the attention of the wider world at the end of the 18th century as the Romantic Movement was spreading across Europe. With its emphasis on wilderness and natural splendor the island quickly became one of the must-see sights on the Highland Tour. Part of the cave’s appeal lies in the  remarkable symmetry of the cavern –  fractured columns form a crude walkway just above the high water mark, allowing easy exploration of the interior. Equally beguiling are the strange colors and sounds inside what is, in effect, a natural cathedral. If you’ve heard of Fingal’s Cave before reading this, it’s likely due to Felix Mendelssohn, who composed his concert overture, The Hebrides, following a visit to the island in 1829. His inspiration came from standing in the cave and listening to the roar of the waves.

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