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…