Having heard that my boyfriend was Turkish, Loukas, the Athenian taxi driver, looked straight into my eyes, took a deep breath under his mask, and imparted what he felt was a fundamental truth: Greeks and Turks are alike, and would get along just fine, if it wasn’t for meddling politicians. We need to look at the future, not the past, he added. I admired his enthusiasm and open mindedness about a wide range of topics which we had just touched on, but oh, if only he looked at the road every now and then. For you see, I was in the back seat, and he was driving, occasionally even changing lanes on a busy Friday afternoon on the Attiki Odos, the motorway system which links Metropolitan Athens. It’s nice, yes, but most of it is unfinished, Loukas interjected. He was happy to find out that Romanians, whom he otherwise liked, the Black Sea is very pleasant, he added, a bit odd coming from a Greek, anyway, Romanians were even slower at building motorways than the Greeks, who had at least finished the stretch linking the airport to the city centre, and Loukas had evidently driven on it often enough to know it even when facing backwards.
He was delighted about the address of my apartment, ah, nice area, a lot of Anarchists! On the corner of Ippokratous street, the Anarchists failed to materialise. While waiting for my host, the only possible Anarchist was an elderly lady who haggled in quickfire Greek with two South Asian men over what looked like a plastic sieve. She later emerged from the store with sieve in tow, and a victorious look on her face. The South Asians remained nonplussed. Later, I inspected the map of Athens munching on some lifesaving Papadopoulos Πτι Μπερ (Petit Beurre) biscuits, which tasted wonderful, and exactly like the Turkish Eti version of the product. As Loukas was saying. From the map I learned that my apartment was situated right at the border of two districts, Neapoli and Exarcheia. The first is reputed for its bookstores, the second for being ‘the core of radical political and intellectual activism’. It seemed that I had quite inadvertently found just the place for me in the fair city of Athens. The TV was on in the background, for added local flavour, so I noticed that Greeks seem incredibly interested in metaphors. What a literary bunch, I thought, only to realise that μεταφορα (metaphora) is ‘simply’ transportation, the very literal kind, as opposed to the mental transportation of meaning our understanding of metaphor implies.
This was not the only time the penny dropped with a loud bang during my perambulations through Athens. The more I walked around, the more I felt that essentially any speaker of a modern European language knows some Greek, and a speaker of any language from the ‘Balkan area’ even more so. Ancient meanings mix with new ones, you feel that as words travel, they change, we change, but somehow this big, messy, unrelentingly hot metropolis is there at the core of it all. Metropolis, incidentally, meant mother city to the inhabitants of Greek colonies. It’s also a ravaged city, as mothers with too many offspring often are. As the glories of ancient Athens faded, it lost its relevance, being supplanted in the minds of Greeks with that city of all cities, which they simply called The City: Constantinople. Athens as the capital of the modern, independent Greek state was a sentimental plan B, with the ultimate, unfulfilled goal of recapturing what staunchly remained Istanbul. Greeks are traditionally voluble with strangers, so a waiter, in between two courses, volunteered his opinion on Istanbul as well: really, I don’t mind too much that the Turks have it, but for the love of God, make it the capital!
You can’t help but feel that there is still something improvised and almost a little offended in the city today, the memory of the village it was in 1834, when a German born king commissioned that order be put among the ruins. The city grew in bursts, sometimes joyful ones, such as the brush up preceding the first modern Olympic games in 1894, sometimes traumatic, such as the vast neighbourhoods born when the Greeks displaced during the 1923 population exchange with Turkey settled in a city they didn’t necessarily want to be in. The neighbourhood of Nea Smyrni is the home of Greece’s oldest football club, Panionios, founded in 1890 as Orpheus Smyrni (more precisely, for fun and for the record, as Orpheus Music and Sports Club) in what is today Izmir. There is hardly a way to put order in so many interwoven tales, so, having thoroughly inspected the map of Athens, I decided to set off without it and just go wherever my steps would take me.
But there is no escape from Athens the past in Athens the present. Going wherever my steps take me, I smiled, like the Peripatetics. An idea which I had always liked, walking, possibly on lush alleys, in the warm Mediterranean evening, with the purpose of thinking. I looked it up on my phone as I sat on a rock halfway up Mount Lycabettos. Well, obviously, the Lyceum where Aristotle taught was…right there, at my feet, Lycabettos having been its northern boundary. The Lyceum was initially a temple dedicated to Apollo Lyceus, Apollo the wolf-god. The fact that secondary schools in Romania are called liceu now made an ironic sense, as unruly wolf packs is exactly what we were back in those days.
As evening fell, the Anarchists (from the Greek άναρχος– anarchos, without a ruler) did flock out onto the streets of Exarcheia. They were fundamentally hipsters with Marx T-shirts, clutching thin volumes of Sartre in Greek translation (the plain Anarchist) or Sartre in the original (the sophisticated Anarchist). They sipped Cuba Libres on busy terraces listening to Lady Gaga intermixed with The Smiths, while occasionally somebody played Zorba the Greek on guitar. They didn’t seem very taken aback by the capitalist nature of Coke. Nearby, Greek police in riot gear were peacefully scrolling through their phones and didn’t seem very taken aback by the Anarchists. The action had moved to Syntagma (Constitution) square, where antivaxxers were exercising their constitutional right to be dumb, which was, however, in contravention of current pandemic regulations, so they were quickly dispersed.
Elliniki Astynomia, which is to say the police, had been busy bees all day. In the early afternoon I had wondered, absolutely unwittingly, into one of the oldest churches in Athens, the church of Panagia Kapnikarea, dating back to the 11th Century. Strict anti-COVID and anti-photography measures were in place, enforced by a stately matron who loved yelling ‘don’t touch’ in loud Greek to locals, and very loud Greek to tourists. There was, however, a wink you could give her, upon which she gave a nod, and you were allowed to take off your mask and do a quickfire round of kissing all the icons, with the possible implication that the powers of the Panagia include disinfection. At this point, delightful music seeped into the church. It was The Beatles. The source of ‘All My Loving’ in the church of the All Holy was a group of young men in crisp striped shirts. I was therefore very cross when a policewoman put a halt to proceedings, but was then very relieved when, upon checking some papers, she had found the lads to be compliant and the merriment could resume. Order and disorder flow through Greece in harmony, like complimentary emanations of the Holy Ghost.
Having returned to Mount Lycabettos for the sunset, I tried to sum up some conclusions for the day, while being a little cross with the German whose very long limbs entered everybody’s pictures. He tried to contain himself and fidget less on the most scenic bench he had secured by arriving early, but he was, as a result, just about a bottle or so of Mavrodaphne away from self-control. The conclusions, fueled by retsina, which, as confirmed by the authority on everything Greek, Patrick Leigh Fermor, causes neither confusion nor hangovers, were the following: the principal ingredients of the Athenian landscape are five. There is an Ancient ruin. There is a beautiful, modern building. There is a hollowed out, graffitied shell of a construction, waiting since forever to be fixed. There is a taverna. And of course, there is a church. (The number of small, random churches in Greece had always perplexed me. It shouldn’t have. They’re simply the transformed shrines of all those ancient gods and goddesses who never went away, each saint picking up business where an old god/dess had left it).
And yet. Sown together haphazardly, overflowing with past and present, with joys and sorrows, covered by a film of dirt and heat yet enshrouded in the celestial radiance of a glorious sunset, containing too much for its own good and sometimes falling just a little short of what is expected, Athens feels whole. Perhaps it’s the horizon, the sky and the sea, bleeding into each other, meeting, and then going on, and on, beyond what you can see, going on, and on. Forever.
And now some practicalities. Both the airport and the port of Piraeus are connected to the centre by metro. The airport metro ticket costs 9 euros, single rides within the city cost 1.4 euros each. For a city break, the best option is the 3 day tourist ticket, for 20 euros, which includes airport rides. If you stay for less than three days, the 24 hour ticket is also a good option at 4.1 euros, but it’s mostly worth it if you plan to venture outside the centre. If you hate hoisting your luggage around as much as I do, and want some enlightening conversation with a taxi driver, a ride from the airport to the centre is ballparked at about 40 euros. Metres in the taxis will run, but when taken to the airport, it is understood that your fare will be higher, given the extra effort your Charon put into ferrying you.
The classical attractions such as the Acropolis and adjacent ruins will be busy during the summer/autumn season no matter what time you choose to visit them, but given the risk of extremely high temperatures, early morning does seem like the best idea (they open at 8). The simple ticket for the Acropolis and the surrounding slopes costs 20 euros (10 euros outside of the high season, namely from November to March), and a combined ticket of 30 euros can be purchased, which includes entry to a number of other historical sites in the vicinity, such as Hadrian’s Library and the Lyceum. A (not completely) exhaustive tour of the centrally located monuments will definitely take up a full day if not more, so I personally suggest skipping some if you don’t plan on a longer stay. Besides the Acropolis, the Panathenaic stadium, which has a 5 euro entry fee, is an exciting and not very taxing visit, except if you’re set to break your personal record over the mile- yes, you are free to run inside the stadium if you wish but be mentally prepared to be hated by everyone whose selfies you’ve ruined.
The sunset seen from Mount Lycabettos is truly spectacular, but do go at least an hour earlier if you want to have a good spot. The hill looks forbidding, but the slope is gentle and the walk won’t last more than half an hour at a leisurely pace. The highest point will probably be crowded beyond comfort, especially if you go at the weekend, when the small church is hosting weddings and baptisms, so the most strategic position is to be found a little lower, on the Acropolis facing side. For those looking for less arduous walks, the National Garden is a lush and sedate oasis in the very heart of the city, hosting, among others some deeply unbothered turtles. Our animal spotting didn’t however extend to the city’s iconic bird: while the little owl, Athene noctua, does live in Athens and its environs, it is obviously nigh impossible to spot in daytime, except in its endless iterations as a souvenir.
Finally, a few places I peripatetically and quite accidentally found and really enjoyed: Motiv have excellent coffee to kickstart the day, Ella Greek Cooking saved me in the best possible way from succumbing to hunger, while Beertime and Brew Str have a wide selection of Greek craft beers- Beertime is in the highly lively area of Psirri, for those who may find that a bit overwhelming in pandemic conditions, Brew Str is a more sedate option. Tsigaridas bookstore on Ippokratous street stocks English titles as well (they have other locations which don’t), while Thíki have a wide range of locally designed and made souvenirs.
Speaking of books: quite a lot of my enthusiasm for understanding things Greek, and a great wealth of knowledge, derives from the books of the above mentioned Patrick Leigh Fermor. While not necessarily about Athens, his two unorthodox travel guides, Roumeli and Mani, are the best and most enlightening beach reads I can ever imagine.
PS: I do not know the young woman in the cover picture. She was just striking great poses for her friend, and I felt this is perhaps the closest I will get to taking something that looks like a Vogue cover shot. With a bit of photoshop on the cables behind my model, and absolutely none on her, because she is fabulous, I think we’d do a more than decent job of it.