I have a long list of places I’d like to see before I pass from this mortal soil. The order changes occasionally, with new ones being added to the list on a regular basis. That’s only to be expected. The older I get, the more I learn; the more I learn, the more I want to see. For some reason, though, neither Greece nor Athens have ever appeared on that list. The whole Greek island thing passed me by after I had my first (and last) sun holiday in Spain back in 1984. Athens for me has always been epitomised by the Acropolis and the Agora – and I’m not much of a one for seriously old ruins.
But if you decide to check with your astrologist to see where your soul would be best positioned on your birthday so that the next six months would go well, and he says Athens, Greece, then you go. So I went. And I learned.
The juxtaposition of old and new in the city of Athens is both confusing and comforting. Wandering though the city centre was like walking through any main European city centre, with many of the usual international chains firmly ensconced on the high street. The parliament is positively plain, when compared the Hungarian one. And the changing of the guard wasn’t quite as impressive as Buckingham Palace. But stop! This is where I realised that I was tired and in need of a major attitude adjustment. When I start comparing cities, I stop seeing what’s there for what it is. It’s a bad habit, one that I usually have under control. It only surfaces when I’m overworked and my brain loses what little capacity it has to see things without tagging them comparatively for convenience. So I set out to consciously notice.
First off, in Athens store security guards wear bullet-proof vests. That’s something I’ve not seen before. It has to be out of necessity as wearing steel plates in temperatures that regularly hit the high thirties can’t be fun. In the city, both the centre and the suburbs, police trucks park in squares and at intersections, each of which is a mobile riot unit. There’s a heavy police presence, particularly around major international hotels. I’m still not sure if this provided some degree of comfort or just made me a little more insecure. I had thought that the riots of 2010-2012 were pretty much over, but apparently not. When we counted the ninth truck to pass in as many minutes, we asked a waitress what was going on. She shrugged, smiled, and said ‘It’s Athens’.
I was soon distracted though by the many gorgeous churches around the city. It would seem that no expense was spared. All are beautiful; some are jawdroppingly so. And the number of priests and nuns walking purposefully through the streets led me to believe that religion is pretty strong in the city, a religion lived rather than one simply talked about. I will admit to being quite fascinated by the black-robed bearded priests and the look they all have in common, worn almost like a badge of office. I’d quite like to have chat with one of them. For every grand place of worship, there is a small, simple church that is equally holy. It would be worth walking the city with a man (or woman) of the cloth, just to get their perspective. (Note to self.)
I lit my fair share of candles, said my prayers, and went in search of the old town (or I would have done had I known there was one).
On our way back from the Acropolis, we ended up in a maze of narrow, paved streets which seemed centuries removed from the bland modernity of the city centre. Graffiti takes no prisoners in this town; just about every wall has some sort of acknowledgement that someone saw it in passing and left their mark. The vast majority is urban scrawl, but the occasional gem slips through. Along these narrow streets, cafés and restaurants ply their trade, offering up plates of fish, meat, and rich desserts. The wine was cold, the beer was local, and the service friendly yet unobtrusive. This part of Athens I could grow to like … a lot. Time took on new meaning and three hours passed in a flash.
The layers of walls tell centuries of stories. That no attempt has been made to fix them up only adds to their charm. With few others walking the narrow streets, I quite fancied that I was strolling through a giant book, turning a page as I went around each corner. Yes, there were still some hopeful vendors here and there, but it was nothing like the warren of stalls down at the flea market (which incidentally, is nothing like any other flea market I’ve ever seen – instead of the makeshift stalls and blankets on the ground, this is street after street of shops selling everything a tourist might want). I spent some time in a spice shop and one of these fine days might even try my hand at making souvlaki.
The Agora was on my rather short list of places (3) to see in Athens. The remnants of this ancient market place are quite spectacular. I was slightly amused at the sign at the gate urging me not to take any indecent or defamatory photographs… I spent a good five minutes wondering what exactly had prompted this precaution. The removal of stones I can see. Permission to use a tripod is arguably needed. But indecent photos? The mind boggles. Am sure the spirits of the ancient debaters who used to come to air their views at the Agora are having a field-day trying to figure that one out.
Was it worth a few days? Definitely. Would I recommend it? Yes. Would I go back? I could be tempted.