As the heart and soul of Greece, Athens is a living museum steeped in rich history. But this bustling, developing city extends far beyond its past and the usual tourist attractions, as Mike Tittensor finds out.
The first thing to remember about Athens is that it is a living city not a museum with an extensive array of caretaking staff. There is a bad but easy habit that many folk have here. They arrive, hot and bothered from the airport and look up to the Acropolis. They brace their shoulders and then tramp up the endless path to look at the admittedly quite impressive Parthenon. However, once they have paid homage to one of the All Time Must Sees and paid more grudging amounts to the piratical purveyors of bottled water on the way up, they are inclined to shrug their shoulders and, after ticking this particular box on their mental checklist, move on. It’s off to the Piraeus for the ferries to the islands or to the car rental firms to move on and out in search of beaches and fun. A few might stop off at the Temple of Hephaistos and the Agora because they are obvious, very pretty and on the way out. However, there is so much more to do and see.
For a pleasant afternoon stop half way down just past the Areopagus rock and instead of continuing down, keep heading East through Plaka or Aerides. It is a quiet area, largely free from tourists and has some quiet, comfortable bars and restaurants. If you are troubled by the sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere of Tourist Athens, then this is an excellent place to recover some balance and catch your breath. Keep walking and you will come to the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Hadrian Arch. The busy Syngrou road can be tricky to cross and the Olympian Zeus temple is somehow disappointingly flat although once the finest classical temple in the known world. Wait. Stop. There we go. It’s so easy to fall into the trap. Stop thinking about the monuments. Think about the city, the living city.
Turn left and go North towards the National Gardens. These are lovely with the heady smell of jasmine and citrus fruits and some truly exotic plants that tease the senses because they are so special to discover when the rest of the tourist hordes are sweating up and down that wretched hill and paying a fortune for bottled water.
The Gardens are the site of an extraordinary moment in history. In 1920, King Alexander I was committed to re-establishing a greater Greek empire to reunite the Greek speaking lands on either side of the Aegean. Greece was engaged in a war with the Ottoman Empire and looked set to break up a large chunk of it away. King Alexander had the tacit support of Britain and France. All seemed to be going well until the king was bitten by a pet monkey on the hand. He died of blood poisoning a few weeks later to be replaced by his deposed father King Constantine. Now the father had been (possibly unfairly) accused of harbouring sympathies for the Germans and driven from power. Upon his return to the throne the British and French lost interest, the war effort faltered and then collapsed. In deeply unpleasant circumstances, the Greek communities that had lived on the coast of what is now Turkey for millennia were evacuated. Many settled in Athens in poverty to forge a new life. All for the sake of a badly trained monkey. Such are the quirks of history.
Why is this relevant? Well, for two things that you will encounter if you stay long enough in Athens. The first is everywhere. On almost every menu you will see Smyrna meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce. They are good and filling and go well with a cold beer. However, instead of the cheery wholesome fare, they were brought here by these refugees and are a bittersweet memory of a time of loss, tragedy and exodus. The other takes more hunting but is worth the effort. With the refugees came their music: Smyrneika and the “bluesier” Rebetika. Now this music is an acquired taste. My son and I love it; my wife, a classically trained musician is not partial to it. However, if you want to get to know the living city, then there is no better way than listening in some smoky taverna on a Saturday evening with a glass of decent red wine, maybe a gyros or sesame-seed bread. It’s the perfect way to find the knots in your shoulders have somehow loosened without you realising it. Hang on! Did I just say wine? Shouldn’t I be recommending ouzo or retsina or the brain blistering coffee that everyone associates with Greece. Well, if you like those sorts of drink, then feel free. However, I’ll let you into a little secret: Greek wine is extremely good, particularly the dry reds. Like so many countries where wine is a basic commodity not a status drink, the Greeks have some truly fine wines, they just see little reason to tell anyone else. That one sentence, as much as words ever can, really does give you the heart of Athens: this is a city that lives and its people get on very well thank you. Meet them half way and the Athenians will give you a rich experience.