The Acropolis, Athens

We developed our visit to Athens by seeing the Acropolis from different angles, from the tops of the nearby hills, and from the base of the hill on different sides. The Parthenon is the big central temple, and the day came when it was time to climb to the top and see it up close for ourselves.

Clockwise from upper left: Acropolis from Acropolis Museum (S); from Filopappou Hill (SW), from Lycabettus Hill (NE); from Monastiraki flea market (N); from Roman agora (N).

We’ve had lovely weather almost the entire length of our visit, and I recommend March as a good time to be in Athens–unless you are planning to swim.

The day we chose to climb up the Acropolis was sunny and warm. By the time we reached the top, I’d shed my gloves, scarf, sweater and tied my jacket around my waist. The Propylaia was the grand entrance to the Acropolis and is still the principal entry point.

Even in March, the Acropolis is popular, and there were hundreds of our fellow visitors. (There is an average of 16,000 visitors every day, all year long.)

On the Acropolis with a few of our fellow travelers.

We picked our way from structure to structure, appreciating the monumental undertaking of piecing ancient temples back together from scraps. The Temple of Athena Nike (below) is a good example. First build around 425 BC, it has been completely dismantled and rebuilt, twice! Remaining carvings are in the National Museum, with replicas displayed on the reconstructed building.

The Erechtheion is not well known to visitors, but has my favorite features of the Acropolis, the Caryatid pillars, six columns in the form of women that hold up the roof of a small side porch. The opposite side of the building has another porch that appears overly tall, as the ground slopes away and the columns fill in the space.

There are two amphitheaters built into the side of the Acropolis. The one below, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, is used for some performances during the summer. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see an opera or concert here?

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is used as a theater today. Filopappous Hill in the background is where the mortar was positioned that blew up the center of the Parthenon in 1687.

The Dionysian Theater is larger, and seated 17,000 people when it was complete. This is where the famous authors of ancient Greece declaimed their work, and the front rows were marble thrones.

Jean-Pierre Eugene Peytier, Mosque in the ruins of the Parthenon, painted 1830s.

The Parthenon is very different from the Temple of Athena Nike. It is huge, and though never moved, it was reused as a Byzantine church, a Roman Catholic cathedral, and a mosque, as well as for gunpowder storage. Contemporary restoration began in 1900-1917, though that restoration was all replaced starting in 1975. Today, restoration continues, and though there is no public information, it appears that full reconstruction of the Parthenon to its original dimensions with all of its original columns is the project’s goal.

Restoration is ongoing, as we could tell from the huge crane, layers of scaffolding, and construction trailers that compete with temples for space on the Acropolis. There are a lot of pieces of columns and blocks still waiting for something to happen.

Our selfie as gods of the Athenian sphere.

The crowds didn’t bother us too much, though we had to wait our turn to take some photos while others posed for their Instagram shots. We had to pay attention to the ground, too, as it’s worn smooth from all the visitors shoes and is not only very uneven, but slippery. The climb to the top isn’t difficult, though it is uphill. There’s a lift, but it is tiny and mostly used by people in wheelchairs.

There are also lovely views out over the city and the hills we’ve climbed during our stay.

L: Looking over the ancient agora and Athens R: Lycabettus Hill from the Acropolis

We left with more questions than when we arrived. It was an excellent field trip.

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The Acropolis Museum, Athens

Some years ago when Greek authorities were trying (again) to convince the British Museum to return the marble sculptures from the roof of the Parthenon (the Elgin Marbles), it was said that should the sculptures be returned, the Greeks didn’t even have a decent place to put them. That stirred people up.

Everything in Athens is built on ruins, these are under the Acropolis Museum

The Acropolis Museum is the Greek response. Completed in 2009, it is a spacious contemporary space tucked in at the foot of the Acropolis. There was a small museum on the Acropolis itself that was chock full of finds from continuing excavation and restoration. The new museum displays many of these items, like votive statues buried to honor Athena, or pottery offered to the various shrines on the Acropolis. As you enter the museum, the main hall is a ramp leading up, lined with cases that show fine examples of pottery, metal work, stone carving, and jewelry. There is information about each type of craft product.

Arriving on the landing of the second floor, you are surrounded by statuary, and there is a lot to see. The highlight for me was the caryatid statues, pillars in the shape of women, that held up the porch of one of the important buildings on the Acropolis, the Erechtheion. The figures are indoors now, and copies have taken their place as porch supports.

The highlight of the museum is intended to be the third/top floor, where the surviving sculptures from the roof of the Parthenon are positioned at eye level. You can see all the detail of the pieces, AND you can see the spaces that are available for the pieces still in London, should a deal ever be struck to return them to Athens. No one can say there isn’t an appropriate place waiting for the fragments of sculpture to be returned.

There is lots more to this story. During the early 1800s, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was a diplomatic representative of Britain to the Ottoman Empire, and at the time, the Ottomans controlled Greece. As part of his diplomatic mission, Bruce commissioned drawings of ancient monuments and artifacts in Greece with the goal of making Greek culture more widely appreciated back in Britain. The sculptures called The Elgin Marbles were collected by employees of Bruce from the ruins of the Parthenon.

Original pieces of this frieze are the darker tan color, the paler sculpture is a reproduction. As pieces are found or repatriated, they are added. Sketches made in the 1600s were used to create what is missing.

Have you noticed that the sculptures are all in pieces, sometimes small ones? Explosions from gunpowder stored in different structures on the Acropolis demolished the Propylaea in 1656, and the main structure of the Parthenon under shelling in 1687. When the earl’s artist and laborers began to copy remains on the Acropolis around 1800 (more than 100 years later) they found pieces of sculpture on the ground and began to collect them. The ambitions of the group shifted from copying to recovery, and surviving pieces were collected, taken down from the surviving sections of the roof, and shipped to England. Elgin was eventually investigated for taking the remains illegally. He claimed possession of a firman, or permit, to collect what his people could find. He was cleared of charges in England, and the collection was purchased for the nation in 1816. They’ve been in the British Museum ever since.

That is just the short version of the tale. Shipwreck lost the collection, divers recovered it after three years; Elgin and his wife were crossing France on their return to England when war broke out and he was held prisoner, eventually released with a promise to return to France if required. Elgin’s pregnant wife was allowed to return to England before him, and he got home to find her having an affair with a good friend. He sued both of them, for divorce and monetary damages (and won). He remarried and had an additional seven children, but ended his days back in France, where he moved to escape his creditors. He took a bath on the sale of the marbles, getting paid only half of what it actually cost him to move the sculptures to England. (Does this sound like a curse to you?)

Wikipedia has a lot of detail, and there is controversy among scholars around the world on whether the acquisition of the sculptures was legal in the first place.

In recent years, the repatriation of important works of art to their countries of origin has happened with increasing frequency, but in the case of the Elgin Marbles, the UK is a holdout.

Recently, Pope Francis decided the Vatican would return the three chunks of the Parthenon frieze that were in its museum. The pieces are not that large, but the precedent is important.

Another tiny piece of the sculpture was returned to Greece from Sicily in 2022. The fragment was originally obtained by the collector and British consul to Sicily in 1809, Robert Fagan, who bequeathed it to his wife. She sold it to the Royal Museum of the University of Palermo, an entity from which the Regional Archaeological Museum was formed and from where the piece was returned.

And so it goes. The Acropolis Museum stands ready to receive its ancient patrimony, if and when ongoing secret negotiations between Greece and the UK lead to an agreement. The museum is well worth a visit, and there could be a great adventure novel written about the sculptures.

Filopappou Hill

An advantage of spending an entire month in Athens is being able to take walks without feeling our time will vanish. Yes, we’re visiting archaeological sites and museums, but we took another walk up a hill, this time overlooking the Acropolis from the south. Filopappou Hill is a park with a few ancient monuments on it. The entrance is across from the tour bus entrance to the Acropolis. Paths crisscross the slopes, and it’s an easy walk to the top.

Just a few steps into the park we heard birdsong and spent a few minutes birdwatching. We’d even brought our binoculars. A Great Tit, Coal Tit, and a Chiffchaff (gotta love bird names), and we went back to strolling. Tiny wildflowers are in bloom, white stars, yellow cups, and very small deep red poppies.

The peak of the hill holds the Monument of Filopappos, the remains of a monument to a Roman consul built about 500 years after the Parthenon. Not much remains. From the top, there is a walk down a spur of the hill to the south with a view over the sea in the distance.

The park extends quite a bit further to the south and west, but we decided to stick with the hill and went to overlook the Acropolis. Every step provides a slightly different view. We walked back and forth taking photos.

View of the Acropolis, with Lycabettus Hill in the distance (to the right of the Parthenon)

Filopappou is much closer to the Acropolis than Lycabettos, my previous hill, which we could see on the opposite side of the Acropolis. The view of the ruins is even more spectacular at this closer spot.

There are some decorative patterns set in the path up the hill. The materials include pieces of marble, worked and unworked, along with local stone. It’s interesting to walk along and look for reused pieces, and for the different patterns.

At the end of our walk, we stopped at Dionysus Zonar’s. There is a Zonar’s cafe nearer our house that was recommended to us. This is the Acropolis version. We sat outdoors with a view over the Acropolis and had drinks and shared a club sandwich. My passionfruit spritz was delicious. No one seems to mind when we share an item to eat, and it keeps us from taking home leftovers most of the time. The restaurant was nearly empty at 1 pm. If tour groups don’t stop here, the crowds won’t build up until later in the spring. (Fine with us.)

Getting Around

We took a taxi to the starting point, partly because it’s a bit of a walk from the nearest Metro station (Akropolis) to the starting point by the bus parking and we wanted to put our energy into the walk, not the to and fro. I’m very happy with the taxi app our Airbnb host recommended, FreeNow. Taxis arrive right away and there’s no need to load a credit card, as the drivers will take cash. The furthest from us a taxi has arrived is across the street. With Uber in the US, I’ve had to walk a block or two to my meeting point (getting charged for being late).

FreeNow helped us get home, too. When we emerged from our stop at Zonar’s, there was a line of cabs along the sidewalk, but when we spoke to a driver, he spun us a story about how there might be a demonstration (we knew there was not), and he’d have to make a big circle, thus the price would be 15 E. Apparently, drivers wait for tourists from the Acropolis, alarm them with tales of strikes and police action, and charge double. We thanked the guy, tried a second driver in line with the same results, then used the app, got picked up in two minutes, and paid 8 E for the same trip (gave him 10 E, just because). I recommend the FreeNow app for Athens.

A Walk Up Lycabettus Hill

It was a sunny day and Jonathan was resting his knees, so I went for a stroll up Lycabettus, the hill we can see from our terrace. Our view is blocked in part by a large communications antenna, but on the walk over, I could see the hill very clearly. It’s the highest point in Athens, about 900 ft above sea level, and offers views in all directions over the city.

Paths wind up the broad base of the hill, and as soon as you leave the sidewalk, it looks like a country trail. The path loops upward, providing lots of places to appreciate the view and catch my breath.

A series of stairs leads you to the cafe that overlooks the Acropolis. It’s a beautiful spot and on the day I visited there were very few people there. Another set of stairs continues to the top of the hill and the Chapel of St. George. Visitors can enter and have a look around under the watchful eye of a caretaker. He’s probably keeping an eye on the large silver icon of St. George and the Dragon.

The view from the top of the hill is the big payoff. The breathtaking view of the Acropolis extends all the way to the sea and the Peloponnese beyond. In the late afternoon sun, I could even see the roof of the Niarchos Cultural Center shimmering in the distance. (It’s a distinctive building in Piraeus, miles away.) The Acropolis is such an imposing monument; it made me think about what life must have been like in Athens at the peak of the Greek Empire, so long ago.

The glory of Athens

If you can get enough of looking over the ruins from above, the rest of Athens is spread out around the hill. Miles of buildings stretch into the distance, broken only by the occasional grove of trees. High hills in the distance remind me of Greece’s history of independent city-states protected by the mountains around them.

I spent some time looking at spectacular Athens, enjoying the day.

The walk was uphill, but it was not difficult. I took about a half hour each way going up and down, varying my route to see more of the surroundings. It is also easy to visit the hilltop without a hike. The Lycabettus Hill funicular will take you to the top in just a few minutes from Kolonaki. I plan to make a second visit that way, just to see the view on the ride up!

Markets in Athens

Our central location is good for provisioning. Less than ten minutes walk north is Kallidromiou Street, site of the Saturday Farmers Market. The market sells only fruits, vegetables, and fish, a nice change from “farmers markets” that emphasize tshirts and jewelry. The produce is beautiful. We returned home vowing to take the shopping trolley with us next time. We were laden with a whole red snapper, mushrooms, eggplant, onions, potatoes, oranges, arugula that will need a lot of washing (!), and fresh flowers. We looked in a neat storefront and found a small deli that stocks wonderful Greek products. We bought delicious cheeses, including goat cheese made on a Greek island, and peanut butter made in Thessalonika. Next week, Jonathan will buy blood oranges to make beautiful marmalade. We just couldn’t carry one more thing.

The Kallidromiou Farmers Market is held on Saturdays.

Having seen our neighborhood market, we had to visit the main Varvakios Market that stocks the entire city. For a moment, the market reminded me of Peru, with whole carcasses hung up on display, and the fish zone a bit squishy underfoot from dripping fish. So many squid, fish with sharp teeth, eels, shrimp and crawfish, and fish from tiny anchovies that you would fry by the handful to giant tuna ready to cut steaks. So many octopi! We thought we’d sit down for a fish lunch, but no luck. The restaurants serve fried things. Finally, we found Igeios, a small restaurant down a corridor, and were able to enjoy our fish, salad, and bread. The central market is so big that we walked past all kinds of meat and fish before we finally stumbled on the fruit and vegetable sellers.

The Athens Central Market, or Varvakios Market is open M-S, closed Sunday.

Compared to these huge markets, the regular supermarkets are small, with a limited selection, but useful for necessities like cleaning supplies. We are well stocked and looking forward to return visits to the farmers market.

We next visited the Sunday Monastiraki flea market. Emerging from the Metro, we looked around until we saw the big banner “Flea Market”, then headed down the street. Though there are stores that sell used goods and antiques all along both sides that are open every day, on Sundays sellers set up tables everywhere and fill every possible space with items for sale. We took quite a while making our way as far as Avissinias Square, and then found that the vendors continued even further for several blocks, merging with the flea market around the Theseio Metro stop.

Scroll through the slide show above to see more of the flea market.

We paused for a delicious cappuchino at a lovely restaurant. I love tropical birds, so we sat by the chairs upholstered in cockatoo print fabric. When we moved on toward the metro and home, I stopped to look at a teapot, as our apartment doesn’t have one. I ended up getting a perfectly nice teapot for 4 E. On the way home, the lid seemed to be clanking a lot in the bag, but when I looked, the pot was not rattling. Finally, I looked inside, and found a tiny metal table favor of some sort that was making the noise. My free find! Maybe it will become dollhouse furniture for my granddaughter?

Our market experiences have been very good, and we will continue to stock up as we go along.

Exarchia, an Athens neighborhood

Our apartment is not far from Exarchia Square, the center of the neighborhood of the same name. We didn’t select our apartment because it is here, though we wanted to be centrally located. Now that we’re in this zone of Athens, we are discovering our surroundings have quite a story.

The first thing you notice here is the graffiti. There is graffiti from the ground up farther than a person can climb, jump, or paint from a stepladder. Early in the day, the graffiti is most noticeable because it covers the metal shutters that are pulled down over the doors of most businesses. As businesses open and roll their shutters up during the morning, less graffiti is visible, though there’s plenty left. At first we were shocked. Our apartment is in a nice building, and next door is a pleasant cafe. Still, every wall is graffitied and the result is a bit oppressive.

We walk past buildings with extensive murals that seem to be an effort to deter graffiti painters with a pre-emptive strike. In some places it seems to work.

Exarchia Square has been the center of counter-culture groups, students, and generally left-leaning people for some time. The current conservative government does not like this neighborhood at all. I wondered why the garden in the center of the square was blocked off with sheets of metal fencing. I figured it was being refurbished. Not at all! The garden is being cut down in order to build a Metro station, despite an alternative open area without mature plantings being available nearby. Local sentiment is that the neighborhood is being punished for its political leanings. When a demonstration against the Metro was held in August, police were stationed on the corners of the square. They are still there every day and night, eight or more riot police, dressed in camo, armed, some with riot shields leaning on their legs. It is intimidating, and it is supposed to be. I didn’t get very good photos because I didn’t want to be noticed taking them.

Here’s an article about the situation:

In An Iconic Athens Square, A Fight for the City’s Future

On Sunday, there was a large demonstration in downtown’s main Syntagma Square demanding the Greek government accept some responsibility for the fatal train crash last week. We did not know about it and our plans took us elsewhere, but as we were returning, we ran into the tail of the demonstration ending at Omonia Square. We emerged from the subway to see black-clad demonstrators parading toward the square, some carrying long sticks that they pounded on the ground to punctuate their chant. We headed away from the action toward home, but had to pass a line of police who seemed to be monitoring the end of the march. They were wearing full gas masks, and there was a faint tang of tear gas in the air. It made me blink, though nothing worse, but encouraged us to keep moving. At the same time, we passed couples and families out for a Sunday stroll. It was strange indeed, suggesting Athens has been living with protest for quite some time.

As we suspected, when we rode the Metro a couple of stops to Akropolis the next day, we found a neighborhood largely graffiti-free. The authorities appear to spend their energy keeping the touristy areas clean, rather than concerning themselves with a zone that is full of residential buildings, coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and small shops, not to mention the supposedly leftist residents.

Though there are green spaces to walk to, Athens doesn’t boast a lot of parks. Exarchia Square is tiny for all the uproar it has generated. Other nearby squares would barely be considered parklets in the US. Omonia, the large square nearby with our closest Metro stop, consists of a fountain ringed by a strip of grass. There’s not anyplace to walk, other than the usually crowded sidewalk.

The dearth of parks is perhaps made up for by the number of coffee houses and cafes. Every block has a cafe of some sort, from dark wood facades with elegant tables and chairs, to a cafe constructed entirely from Coca Cola crates. Everyone seems to have a regular hangout. When the Lonely Planet guidebook said that Greeks aren’t much for breakfast unless you mean coffee and a cigarette, I laughed, thinking that had to be out of date. It’s not.

For those of us who don’t survive on Turkish coffee or cold brew, Greek pastries full of nuts and soaked in honey are everywhere, too, and delicious. My breakfasts may not be especially healthful, but they are deeply satisfying (I do also eat some of the delicious Greek yogurt; I’m not living exclusively on sugar.)

Exarchia may be a neighborhood filled with turmoil, but in between events, there are plenty of corners where you can sit at a table, sip a coffee and nibble a delicious pastry. Just make sure to head home if someone wearing a gas mask walks by.

Mar. 6, Melina Mercouri Day

I am old enough to remember Melina Mercouri, famous Greek actress. She is best known to Americans as the star of Never on Sunday, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1960. Mercouri is remembered for her political activism and as the first female Minister of Culture and Sport, a post she held for eight years.

In her honor, March 6 is now Melina Mercouri Day, celebrated as a free day at all public museums and monuments in Greece. School groups visit the Acropolis, the Acropolis Museum, the National Museum. There are students and families visiting at every cultural site, on this day. We saw a lot of them.

Not knowing anything about the significance of March 6 in Greece, we set out on the lovely sunny morning for our first visit to the Acropolis. The subway seemed full, and we saw classes of students waiting on the platform. No matter, we forged on to the Akropoli stop and found the ticket line for the Acropolis. It was huge. We looked across at the line for the Acropolis Museum, also very long. A dejected tour guide sitting on the curb looked up and said, “It’s free today. Melina Mercouri Day,” then turned back to her cigarette.

In honor of the hundreds of people enjoying free entrance to the Acropolis, we decided to visit tomorrow, to avoid the crowds. We ambled back along the streets toward home, taking a detour to visit the Athens Central Market, the Varvakios Market. We stopped for lunch at Igeios, a small restaurant without a menu, a taverna where you look at what they have cooking, make your selection and out it comes. We noticed that many people were in and out in about ten minutes, downing a big bowl of soup and heading out the door. We shared a baked fish and a Greek salad that was plenty for both of us.

We stopped at the supermarket (Bazaar is a chain in Athens), and picked a few things, then headed home. It was already after 3 pm, and we were ready to stop walking. We celebrated Melina Mercouri Day a little differently than others might have, but we’ll remember it.

More on Melina Mercouri Day

Wikipedia biography of Melina Mercouri

Athens O’clock–We arrive!

Our plane for Greece right before boarding

We arrived in Athens after as seamless a journey as possible. It’s a long way from Eureka, and we were glad to have made the hop from the Arcata-Eureka airport to San Francisco on the day before our flight. Our long leg went from San Francisco to Frankfurt, Germany, when I stopped looking at the time, as it didn’t seem to mean much. After whizzing through passport control in Frankfurt, we waited for about an hour and then boarded for Athens. Upon arrival, we collected our bags and walked through an unmanned Customs post. Welcome to Athens. Despite the smooth trip, it still took about 20 hours, from 2:40 pm in San Francisco to 4:30 pm the next day in Athens!

There is a taxi stand at the Eletherio Venizelos Airport, and we made our first minor error there. Always confirm the price before you put the first suitcase in the car! We were very tired, and happy to be on the last leg of our voyage, so we loaded up and got in and then pestered the driver about price. It’s a flat rate, and we’d already been advised not to chip in for tolls or suitcases or anything extra. Still, we paid 45 E rather than the 40 E we heard was the going rate. When I asked “When did the rate go up?” our driver chuckled. Still, we were in a cab on our way to our Airbnb, and it was worth almost anything to be done traveling. We counted ourselves lucky.

One of the difficult points of traveling from the US to Europe is getting communications set up at arrival. There is a moment when your new phone chip hasn’t been activated (or purchased!). If you use your US phone, the international plan has to appear on your phone and function. We decided to get Jonathan a data plan through our US provider, US Mobile, so we’d have a US number this month. I am getting a Greek SIM card, but I don’t have it yet. Arriving at our Airbnb, we had a familiar problem. We’d agreed to contact our host with WhatsApp, but Jonathan’s data plan didn’t seem to work yet. There we were on the doorstep of our building, with instructions to ring the 6th floor apartment, but there were four buzzers. Just as we were about to begin ringing all our neighbors in search of our host, the buzzer woke up and a voice said, “Hello?” It was our host, wondering whether we were arriving.

We rode the tiny elevator to the 6th floor. We got the grand tour, instructions on heat & AC, stove & oven, keys & doors, trash disposal, and shopping. We can always text our host questions now that we are logged in to the apartment’s wifi. All is well. We sat to decompress while I drank tea. We nibbled a few things and went to bed.

I woke up feeling much better, ready to take a shower, make coffee, and get the new day going. As I began to throw off the covers, Jonathan murmured, “You’re not getting up, are you? It’s 11 o’clock.” I’d only been asleep for two hours. I was startled, but after pondering the flexibility of time for a minute, I turned over and went back to sleep.

The next day, we set out to equip our new home with food before we fell asleep from jet lag. I began to notice our interesting decor from our host’s travels in Afghanistan, Iran, and North Africa. It is wonderful to have such lovely lamps and rugs and furniture around us. When you get a good Airbnb like this one, you get to experience a different environment–we’re borrowing this exotic setting for a while, and enjoying it very much.

We are going to Greece! Πάμε Ελλάδα!

I’ve been using Duolingo to learn a bit of Greek. It’s been fun to learn the letters and how to read the words. I am SO SLOW at reading, though, I don’t think I will be able to do more than say please, thank you, and where’s the bathroom.

I have learned a number of interesting words that are the same in English and in Greek, like “toast”, “avocado”, “coffee”, and “drama”. Who knows when they might come in handy?

On the bright side, friends who’ve been to Greece point out that most people there speak English, and it is not difficult to communicate. We have an Airbnb in Athens for the month of March and are looking forward to visiting the Parthenon and lots of other ruins. We plan to spend the final portion of our visit on an archaeological tour of the Peloponnese, visiting Sparta and other landmarks of ancient Greece.

Along the way, I expect to do some beachcombing. The shore of the Mediterranean has been home to human settlement for a very long time, and people have been losing things in it for that entire span. I hope to find some interesting beach glass.

Let me know if you have suggestions of what to see and do, especially in Athens!

Our Athens apartment

Eureka, a land made of water

Eureka is known for Humboldt Bay, yet the entrance to the huge, shallow bay was so narrow that it was not recognized by Spanish and Russian explorers sailing up and down the Pacific coast of North America in the era of European exploration.

Looking out to the Pacific over the channel that connects Humboldt Bay to the ocean.

The channel between land and sea was discovered by Josiah Gregg and companions, traveling from newly discovered gold fields inland, looking for a likely port. Between early November 1849 and Jan 1850, the explorers made their way on horseback from the mountains to the coast, emerging at what is now Trinidad. The group arrived on Humboldt Bay in December, after a difficult time making their way south along the coast, and there they identified the channel connecting the bay and the sea. Along the way, the explorers gave the rivers the names we use today (Little, Mad, Elk, Eel, Van Duzen). Eventually quarreling, half the group followed the Eel River to the east and home, while Gregg and the others continued south along the coast. Gregg’s group eventually turned back, but weakened by starvation, he died along the way. The surviving explorers shared the bay’s location, and the first American ship entered Humboldt bay just months later.

Since those early days, travel has followed waterways. The main highway into the area, Rte. 101, was completed in 1923. It follows the South Fork of the Eel River, just as the survivors of Josiah Gregg’s expedition did in 1850. It was a very long drive from San Francisco to Eureka until the Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1937.

In the Eureka area, Myrtle Ave. and the Old Arcata Road run along the base of the hills at the edge of the coastal plain, for a good reason. Initially, all the level land around Humboldt Bay, from Arcata to Loleta, was tidal marsh. Rivers emptied into the ocean, but not until they’d looped back and forth across the low land at the edge of the bay, a mirage of land perched on the water.

Myrtle Ave., sandwiched between a creek and the foothills.

Nothing was solid, yet an attraction of Humboldt Bay was the open land around it. First settled as a port for gold miners, and then the lumber industry, businesses needed docks, wharves, and warehouses. Land was created by dredging and filling in the marshy shore, turning the watery plain into dry land.

Cattle grazing on drained and filled pasture, formerly coastal wetland. Myrtle Ave. runs along the back of the field at the base of the hills.

The isolation of the region from the rest of the country, and the cost of importing food by ship, fostered both cattle ranching and farming. Many people who moved west during the gold rush found a better life farming or ranching than working in mines. Almost all the level land around the bay was drained and dry by the mid-20th century. As access to the area increased, more and more drained land was used for housing rather than fields and pastures.

Climate change is also making people rethink the boundary between land and water. After many years of drought or near-drought, winter 2022-2023 brought heavy rain, and though all that rain heads to the ocean, it doesn’t get there right away. Any remnant of low-lying land becomes a shallow pool, harking back to the pre-European swampy channels that made up the coastal margin.

County planners are working to convince farmers and ranchers that more draining will not fix a problem that has no solution, but change proceeds slowly. In 2022, a parcel of about 95 acres of cattle pasture adjacent to the coast was given to the county. The animals were moved, and heavy machinery carved channels along low spots. Two culverts through the old railroad embankment reconnected the ocean with the channels. We happened to go for a walk in this area the week before the transformation began, and we’ve been amazed by the rapid change from cattle pasture to tidal flats. We’ve driven by recently when the entire area looked like a lake, though when the tide is out, the area has large grassy hillocks. Shore birds congregate in the shallow water. This is not the only place where the conversion of pasture and farmland back to tidal marsh has taken place, though this is one where the change is intentional. Patches of land around the bay have been converted as one group or another converts drained land back into marsh, the wave of the future.

As more rain falls, and as sea level rises, watery change will affect more land, whether it is prepared to become tidal basin or not. Hwy 101 turns north directly across marshland between Eureka to Arcata, and now the road occasionally floods. Myrtle Avenue and the Old Arcata Road, long ago superseded by Hwy 101, may become important all over again, as everything between the hills and the ocean may one day be reclaimed by the sea.

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