Athens

Tramp­ing through the city we find our hos­tel, nes­tled in an alley over-run by ped­dlers and the howl­ing of dogs, crawl­ing in wick­er cages out­side a satan­ic pet store. A Byzan­tine church defies the squalor, as a gyp­sy boy sings change from pock­ets. After twen­ty-four hours in the friend­ly skies, it’s a lot to take in, a cock­tail of ancient and mod­ern to wel­come us to the Old World.

Over­whelm­ing­ly, of course, I am struck by the Acrop­o­lis, its myth­ic poten­cy jux­ta­posed against the neon signs, the Amer­i­can pop music, and the wail­ing of sirens. I can’t help but won­der what Per­i­cles might say, were he holed up in a ten euro a night dorm, sur­round­ed at street lev­el by the muck of the Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry, yet with a glo­ri­ous night sky soar­ing over­head, for­ev­er span­gled with the radi­ance of a flood-lit Parthenon. To mis­quote an Irish author (with Hel­lenis­tic ten­den­cies of his own) mod­ern Athens is in the gut­ter look­ing at the stars.

The meat and fish stalls that dom­i­nate the mar­ket dis­trict of Mona­s­ti­ra­ki in which I am stay­ing are a sight unique. The fish mar­ket seems per­fect­ly respectable, brim­ming with the spoils of the Aegean, and odd­ly lack­ing the oppres­sive stench of oth­er seafood mar­kets. The meat mar­ket, on the oth­er hand, is an infer­no of shred­ded flesh and tossed giz­zards, chopped and hung with pecu­liar glee by the beard­ed Turks and Greeks who ped­dle their snouts and trot­ters all through the day. The illu­sion of hygiene sug­gest­ed by the white aprons of these meat sur­geons is quick­ly dis­pelled by the waft­ing cig­a­rettes that each uses to point out their wares (smoked ham, any­one?), and the unsavoury snowflak­ing of paint from ren­o­va­tions above, that seems not to both­er any­one but me. As the women duti­ful­ly select the best cuts and hag­gle the prices down, the men sit by in the lit­tle cafes that pep­per the mar­kets to smoke and drink frappes.

Total­ly removed from the nut­ty hus­tle of locals at the Athi­nas Street mar­kets, and the porno-lined streets of Omo­nia, Pla­ka (in the shad­ow of the Acrop­o­lis) is Athens tamed and mas­tered for the mild-man­nered tastes of tourists. Nes­tled between Syn­tag­ma Square and the Tow­er of the Winds, this cob­ble­stone net­work of shops and cafes is like a Hel­lenis­tic Diagon Alley. It is hard to fath­om how they fit every­thing in. Between every store sell­ing ortho­dox bric-a-brac (rang­ing from the solemn, to the Euro­vi­sion-meets-Jesus awful) and the jew­ellery stores with their glit­ter­ing hand­made trea­sures, is a well groomed tav­er­na own­er try­ing to tempt you inside. You can walk for hours try­ing to choose which temp­ta­tion to yield to first. Fried egg­plant, sal­ad, mous­sa­ka and organ­ic wines are washed down by the music that spills out from the tav­er­na and into the street where we sit, watch­ing the parade of fam­i­lies, lovers, and priests that drift along the street eat­ing gyros and dodg­ing overzeal­ous huck­sters, inter­minably sell­ing their flow­ers, plas­tic toys and boot­legged CDs.

After a morn­ing spent con­vers­ing with poets and con­querors in the Nation­al Archae­o­log­i­cal Muse­um, Jess and I walked through the bohemi­an stu­dent-filled back­streets of Athens, until we reached the base of Lykavit­tos Hill. Mean­ing “hill of wolves”, Lykavit­tos is the high­est point in Athens and promised spec­tac­u­lar views. Unable to find the funic­u­lar rail­way, we had to walk the whole way, stop­ping only long enough for Jess to brush her­self against sting­ing net­tles. Each metre climbed revealed new detail in the Athen­ian Rorschach, yet it was only at the peak we were able to appre­hend the strange majesty of this city. The view of Athens from above is breath­tak­ing. Like a great coral reef, scorched white by the sun after the tide has long gone out, the sense of her only emerges from a dis­tance, from a gods’-eye-view, if you will. It was deeply reward­ing. Exhaust­ed from the climb, we sat and watched an old lady sweep­ing the steps of Agios Geor­gios, the chapel stand­ing at the peak of Lykavit­tos. To see this lady sweep­ing, there, at the high­est point in Athens, the city stretched out for miles in all direc­tions, offered a moment of pecu­liar beau­ty. At least, it gave us strength enough to climb back down again…

It is after mid­night in Athens, and with the sun long gone, there is not a sin­gle pig-trot­ter to be bought in the Mona­s­ti­ra­ki meat mar­kets. The blood has been washed away, ready to be spilled again in the morn­ing. But although every­thing seems qui­et, a secret fire is burn­ing some­where over­head, stoked by sex, song and retsi­na. In this most unlike­ly of places, we are look­ing for the “Rem­beti­ki Stoa Athana­ton”, home of many of Athens’ most gift­ed Rem­betiko artists. This musi­cal form, devel­oped in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, tack­les many of the same themes as the blues. Once an under­world pas­time, rem­betiko is a swing­ing cock­tail of voice, drum and bouzou­ki, dom­i­nat­ed by one or two pow­er­ful singers, male or female. With­in min­utes of order­ing my first drink, I’m already in love with the youngest vocal­ist, clap­ping as appre­cia­tive­ly as the reg­u­lars who pay their respects by show­er­ing the per­form­ers with rose petals at moments of musi­cal cli­max. It is at once aching­ly beau­ti­ful and toe-tap­ping crazy, and locals (young and old) get up for some dirty danc­ing. It’s now two-thir­ty in the morn­ing, and Jess swears the god­dess is mak­ing eyes at me. I’m not so sure. I think that’s just rem­betiko. But you can be sure that I’ll be back again before we leave … just to be sure.

Say­ing good­bye to the trav­ellers we befriend­ed in our hos­tel, we said our final yasas to Athens, tak­ing with us mem­o­ries of rem­betiko, cala­mari and late night walks beneath the Acrop­o­lis. Jess also took with her bed bug bites to match the sting­ing net­tles. Despite a daytrip out of Athens to Cape Sounion, to see the spec­tac­u­lar Tem­ple of Posei­don (upon which Lord Byron graf­fi­tied his name), this was our first true change of scenery. We were head­ing to Corinth, to vis­it the ancient city to which St. Paul addressed his famous words about love…

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