Holiday weekend in ATHENS
The 5,OOO-year-old Greek capital would be a superbly exciting city even if it didn't have a magnificent past
WHENEVER IN THE PAST I was asked in which city of the world I would like to spend a year’s vacation (in case I won the Irish sweepstake) I always chose without hesitation Paris. But after a weekend in Athens I ve changed my mind.
Until the day I arrived with my husband at the 5.OOO-year-old Greek capital I used to think of Athens as a remote Balkan city with historic ruins and museums and not much else. I he surprises started after we descended from the jet that brought us over from Istanbul. I he multitude of planes arriving and departing and waiting in line lor take-off was startling. Somehow one tends to associate Athens with the Acropolis and not with one of the busier airports on the Continent. It happens to have both; much of the traffic from Europe to the Middle and Far East goes through Athens.
We boarded a bus and by the time we reached Constitution Square in the heart of the city we knew that we had arrived at a place that would be most exciting even if it didn’t have a past. It is the harmonious blending of the newest in Europe with the oldest in Europe that gives this city its particular taste. It is the twenty-five-century-old marble temples towering over the tall white houses, so new that the paint has hardly dried on them; it is the very fashionably dressed people in the late-model cars who talk about the warriors of Marathon as if they’d had coffee with them the previous night; it is the ancient open-air theatre where after more than 2,000
years the plays of the classic Greek masters—performed in very much the same way—are still a box-office hit. Athens is the city of Pericles but it is also the capital of a government that sees to it that most of the funds available are used on building. Ten years ago, we were told, Athens was a poor inconspicuous town; today it is a booming Western metropolis.
We deposited our trunks in the Hotel Ambassador, which looks the same as any other first-class (not de luxe) hotel on the Continent and costs $7.80 with breakfast for two, and rushed out to join the Greeks in their all-day-long promenade. Athens and its port of Piraeus have almost two million inhabitants and all of them seem to be out in the streets constantly. The visitor gets the impression that half the population is paid lor pacing the streets while the job of the other half is to sit in sidewalk cafés. Both are traditional occupations. The ancient Greeks, too, used to gather on the streets or sit in shady gardens discussing politics, philosophy and art. I don’t know what the present Greeks discuss for no matter how many languages you speak it is impossible to understand a word of Greek. It was all Greek to me, anyway.
We had a late lunch on the terrace of the fashionable Café Floca and were disappointed that they didn’t serve any national dishes. After we’d become familiar with the Greek cuisine we were disappointed if we couldn’t get anything but national dishes. Greece has many attractions to offer but good food is not one of them.
It wasn’t a peaceful lunch. Small boys and old men oiTered us their merchandise in an endless procession. Sponges and pistachio nuts were placed on the table. One boy held a silver picture of a saint in one hand and a naughty nude in the other; when we refused both, he insisted on cleaning our shoes. Meanwhile Carlo, our photographer from Rome, arrived—looking, I thought, exactly like a Roman emperor, even though he wore a checkered sports shirt.
CONTINUED ON PAGE 43
continued from page 24
it’s hard to find your way about; the map calls a street Churchill, but to Greeks it’s Stadiou
We set out to visit the old town called Plaka and hailed a cab. There are swarms of cabs in Athens; the only trouble is that very few drivers understand English. To make it worse, they pretend they do. We used our hands and feet and said, old town, and Plaka, Plaka; our driver smiled pleasantly and delivered us to a big green park surrounded by brand-new houses.
"Plaka?” we asked suspiciously.
"Parka.” he said with a victorious grin. We tried a little more pantomime and then decided to walk.
It isn't easy to find your way in Athens. The historians claim that the written Greek language has hardly changed during the centuries and if Plato were to visit Athens today he could read and understand everything. This might be a great help for Plato but a western tourist who hasn't studied ancient Greek feels completely lost among the mysterious symbols. A map of the town doesn’t help much because on the map the street names are written in English and French and don't resemble at all their counterparts on the house walls. To add to the confusion many streets have two names. Thus what the Greeks call Stadiou appears on the map as Churchill street and it’s no use to ask them where Place de la Concorde is because they know' it only as Omonia. As a result of all this we ended up on the marketplace instead of the old town.
The market is a labyrinth of streets (part of them covered) where thousands of chickens hang beside piles of cotton and silk, and heaps of fruit and vegetables are followed by huge wardrobes and racks of shoes. Several meat merchants seem to follow' the "before and after” advertising line and hang paintings of sheep and oxen in green pastures above the cut-up lamb and beef parts. Others prefer a photograph of Brigitte Bardot.
.After the market we inspected a few stores with national costumes and handwoven skirls and rushed back to the hotel for a shower before the Wine Festival.
Athens is a city of many churches and many black-robed, bearded popes. But it is also a pagan city where mythology is constantly quoted and though some of the Olympian gods have been reduced to advertising (a raincoat manufacturer for
instance uses Apollo, god of the sun. on his labels), in a way they are still worshipped. Wine is the sacred drink that the god Dionysos bestowed on the humans and every fall festivals are held to celebrate it. According to an English-speaking Greek we met at the festival this tradition goes back to the sixth century BC. During the ancient celebrations men in goatskins sang, danced and mimed out scenes from the life of Dionysos and it was from these festivities that the theatre developed. (Tragoidiu means song of the goat.)
The festival was held on gaily decorated grounds with trees and valleys and little rock gardens. We paid 15 drachmas (50 cents) a person and obtained a glass and a bottle that could be filled at any filling station as many times as we wished. The filling stations were pavilions with dozens of barrels. Each pavilion featured wines from a different province and the girls who filled the bottles were dressed in the national costume of that province. At several points of the garden there were little fountains where you could rinse the glasses before you tasted a different kind of wine. We tasted about two dozen of them, then filled our bottles and retired to one of the two restaurants to see groups of dancers perform Greek classic and national dances. After a meal of breaded fish and shishkebab. both drowned in olive oil. w'e mingled with the dancing and singing people and to help them celebrate their Dionysos we tasted a few more wines. Sleep came easily that night.
The next day we started by visiting museums. This is a most rewarding pastime in Greece not only because of the beauty and the fantastic age of the displayed pieces of art but also because one can find such unlikely objects as 3.600year-old chignon covers and gold rings for pony tails, or bronze ballots and a marble allotment machine, used for selecting government officials twenty-five hundred years ago. We decided to have lunch in Piraeus, the harbor, and found a cab driver who could speak Italian with Carlo and who. by racing through bicyclists and red lights (most Greek cab drivers seem to have been trained in hot-rod races), delivered us to a small picturesque seafood restaurant.
Facing the incredibly blue sea with countless sailboats and little groups of Greeks motoring out to visit the U. S. licet in port we had shrimps in a spicy oily sauce, huge broiled lobsters that were first shown to us while still kicking, salad, a bottle of white wine and Turkish coffee. The bill was $28. Had we been Greeks it would probably have cost half; many small restaurants, we were told later, had different prices for tourists and local guests. On second thought the owner must have decided that he had charged too much and offered us some Greek brandy
called Metaxa on the house. He suggested we drink it with orange juice.
“If you mix Metaxa with juice or CocaCola you can drink twenty glasses and nothing!'' he said, but we didn’t try it. And then it was time to visit the Acropolis.
I shall not endeavor to describe the sacred rock with the marble remnants of a glorious age. No poet could ever capture the gigantic yet graceful beauty of the temple of the goddess Athena, the Parthenon, and no architect could imitate its lines though it is said that some tried
so hard that they went insane. It was built with the greatest cunning; every rule of symmetry was broken to make it look symmetrical.
I would have liked to stare at it for hours but Carlo shoved me into the Archeological Museum where he insisted on photographing me in front of a sea monster that had three men’s heads with beautifully groomed blue beards. This caused quite a commotion since no one is allowed to take pictures of the art objects in human company. But Carlo didn’t give up. He pushed me from one room
into the other while the guards blew their whistles and followed us. Finally Carlo managed to get a shot of me with Hercules fighting a hydra in the background after which the guards almost mobbed us. It was most embarrassing but Carlo was so big and determined that I didn’t dare to disobey. However, when he suggested that I climb up on one of the temples and join the ranks of the marble maidens holding the roof on their heads I refused.
We had one last look at the ruins and saw the evening creep up on them and transform them into a fairytale fortress, and then we left to discover the old town at last. This time we found it but there wasn't much to be seen there except for the narrow streets and the huge wine barrels in front of the restaurants and the small houses that are supposed to be very old but thanks to the fresh paint on them look just as new and clean as the big houses. Athens, I think, is the cleanest town in the world. In all the time we spent there we didn’t see one piece of garbage on the street. Once my husband threw away a cigarette butt but after walking a few steps on the immaculate pavement he felt so embarrassed that he went back to pick it up. Wherever you
turn you see someone sweeping the sidewalk or painting a wall or polishing watermelons and eggplants.
The old town is famous for its tabernas. These are small restaurants frequented mainly by the local populace. They are very informal and gay. One or more musicians play the guitar or the houzonki (a similar stringed instrument) and the people cat and drink and sing and argue and feel happy. We selected the Taverna Baechos, which featured three indoor premises and also tables in the backyard and on the rooftop. It was decorated with canary cages, sabres, old top hats, stuffed birds, Turkish slippers, brides’ wreaths, panties and brassières, open umbrellas and German beer jugs. Part of the decor was nailed to the walls while the other part dangled from ropes above the heads of the patrons.
We had a real Greek meal. It consisted of dolmas, spicy rice wrapped in grape leaves and cooked in oil; kalamaraika, or fried baby squid; and a desert called kataifi that looked like shredded wheat stuffed with nuts and swimming in a terribly sweet syrup. The waiter insisted that with kalamaraika one must have resin wine, a Greek speciality. Some people actually manage to drink it, but we didn’t. All these exciting names cost $10 for the three of us. They weren’t worth more; but the atmosphere was unforgettable.
It was still early and I suggested that we have a look at the performance of Electra in the ancient Dionysos theatre. The semi-circular theatre clinging to the slope of the Acropolis was worth seeing and so was the chorus with its almost ballet-like movements but since we didn't understand a word of the play we couldn’t stick it out to the end. We left after the first act and spent the rest of the evening walking, the boys admiring the beautiful
ladies on the streets and I admiring the beautiful ladies’ apparel in the store windows.
Sunday morning my husband decided to sleep in. but the cruel Carlo dragged me out of the hotel to see some more sights and visit Athens’ Flea Market. We inspected the Arch of Hadrian, which used to be part of a wall the Roman emperor built around Athens. Hadrian was a great builder and he added a completely new part to Athens. For this, however, he wanted to take credit and therefore he put two inscriptions on the arch. On the side facing the old town you can read (if you can read Greek): “This is Athens the former city of Theseus.” The inscription on the other side reads: “This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus.” We saw some more ruins and a small Byzantine church with relics that some people value highly, but after the lively art of the ancient Greeks I found the static saints with their expressionless faces an anticlimax.
No visit to Athens could be complete without a look at the guards in front of the Royal Palace. They wear little red hats with long black strings like a horse tail, embroidered black vests with a blue collar, white pleated skirts, white stockings with pomponned black garters and even bigger pompons on their shoes. Carlo was so enchanted by the sight of a tall Greek with a dark mustache in that attire that he took out all his three cameras and fed them with one roll of film after the other. The guard hated every minute of it. Finally he stamped his feet furiously, and we ran.
Guards seem to be the only Greeks who don’t like to be photographed: everyone else loves it. The minute you open a camera people gather around you anxious to pose. They will do anything to have their picture taken: kneel, bend, rearrange their store, or leave their customers. In the Flea Market, where broken angels, gilded picture frames, swords, shields, ikons, candelabra, brass samovars, old magazines and sewing machines crowd the sidewalks and the stores, life stopped completely when Carlo with his dangling cameras arrived. Thinking that he wanted to get rid of the stock on his shoulder, some people immediately started to finger the “merchandise” and bid for it. But most of them knew better. They stopped doing whatever they had been doing and put on their most amiable smile, hoping for a picture. While Carlo entertained them in Italian I almost bought a 300year-old vase for a “just-for-you” bargain price but transportation difficulties made me change my mind. It must have weighed thirty pounds.
On our way to the hotel to dig out my husband we suddenly found ourselves on a little square in front of a local called the Byron Bar. This I couldn’t miss and so we had an ouzo with feta opposite the few pieces of stone that remained from the Franciscan convent where Byron had written some of his poems on Greece. Ouzo is the popular Greek short drink; it has an anise flavor and it is quite strong. They usually serve it with little pieces of ewe’s-milk cheese, feta. I told Carlo I’d had enough of sights and would like to retire to a beach. We picked up my rosy, relaxed husband and took a cab to Astir Beach in Glyphada. It wasn’t an ordinary cab. There is a bus-like cab service in Athens to certain points in and around the town. The drivers have a regular route but no fixed stops. They can pick up customers anywhere along the line if there is room in the cab and will let them out wherever they want to get off. It is a little more expensive than the bus but considerably cheaper than a private cab. We shared our taxi with three Greek young-
sters who each had two paper bags. From one they picked out pistachio nuts, and into the other they deposited the shells. They wouldn’t have thought of throwing them out the window.
Glyphada, a twenty-minute ride from Athens, is supposed to be the most beautiful summer resort around the capital. Rich Greeks have been building villas around its beaches for some time but it was only recently that an enterprising man decided to fill a former olive grove with American-style bungalow cabins. It proved to be a wonderful business. We had
lunch with friends of ours from England who spent their holidays in one of the bungalows. These bungalows look exactly like their North American brothers and yet the place doesn't have an American atmosphere. It is all Greek and quite luxurious.
Lunch was a luxurious affair, too, though we had it in the garden in our swimsuits; the graceful elegant waiters carrying their silver trays through the violets and reds and yellows of subtropical plants gave it an aura of distinction. With half a bottle of white demestica in
my head I rushed down to the beach and buried myself in the sand. I gazed at the light green water and the mountains on the other side of the bay and the lonesome cypress trees that looked like exclamation marks on the blue paper of the sky. And then I fell asleep.
A giggling noise woke me. It came from the direction of my husband, who was reading the Athens News. There are two English dailies printed in Athens and Athenians also have a choice of several imported Western papers. We always bought the Athens News, mainly because
it brought us up to date on cases like the one of the bridegroom whom the brothers of the bride kidnapped before he entered the church because they didn’t approve of the match. Then there was another man who pleaded self-defense and claimed he had to defend his honor when the police arrested him for killing a man who used to be engaged to his sister but married someone else. The cause of my husband’s merriment was a brief note about two prisoners who tried to commit suicide in Patras prison — one because his wife was to leave for abroad and the other in sympathy.
We stayed on the beach until the sun walked out on us: then we drove back to town. Dusk. 1 found, makes Greece extremely romantic especially in the country where the leaves of the trees seem to hide playful nymphs anti satyrs and the always present cypresses become hooded conspirators climbing up on the mountains to a secret meeting on the top.
The main feature of our evening and perhaps the most impressive experience in all our stay was the Sound and l ight spectacle below the Acropolis. It is a nightly show arranged by a French society in a French. Knglish and Greek version. The viewers sit on a Hat open space that
used to be the assembly place of the ancient Greeks and is in fact the birthplace of democracy. In the background, with the help of approximately 1,000 kilowatts of light, the Acropolis comes to life while different voices from microphones hidden in every direction tell the story of the Persian Wars.
The whole thing is so vivid that even though one doesn't see anything but the changing light-effects one does see it all. There is Themistocles, the Athenian statesman, urging the people to concentrate on building ships: there is the hissing of the crowd that refuses the good advice: there is the sound of the hoofs of the Persian horses coming closer and closer and when they reach the rock everything goes up in flames. Long minutes of darkness and silence follow, and then there is Pericles, the able head of the state, with his plans of rebuilding it all and from the darkness the white marble temples emerge one by one. . . . After it was over we remained silent and motionless and it was quite an effort to return to the tw-entieth century.
Actually during the three days we spent in Athens I never managed to live in the twentieth century only. The past hangs so heavily over the city that it is impossible to rid oneself of it even for an hour. And though the friendly gay Greeks have lost their classic profile through mixing with Romans and Turks and Slavs it is impossible to look at them without realizing that they are the successors of Sophocles and Socrates and Plato.
We left with a very heavy heart and solemnly promised ourselves to come back again. Athens has everything one can ask for: a glorious past, a glorious present, and a glorious climate. ★