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  • Shelley Dark

#17 Athens

Before I went to sleep last night, I set the alarm for 5am. That would give me plenty of time to have a coffee, maybe two, take the small bag of rubbish up to the bin around the bluff, shower, finish packing my suitcases and then pull them around the harbour to the ferry.

I half-woke in a dream about folding blankets. As if I were leaving somewhere. A sudden lucid thought penetrated the fog of sleep. Leaving? Leaving? I sat bolt upright and grabbed my phone from next to the bed. 6.11am. OMG! I had either slept through the alarm, or turned it off in my sleep.

Forget the coffee! I showered and shampooed, dried my hair so that I wouldn't have pain in my head for months, put on a dash of makeup, finished packing, and was over at the ferry landing at 6.50am. Phew. I texted Iliana on the way to Athens to say there was a little rubbish bag left inside the front door.

Tony from Piato was going to Athens too. He sat with my cases while I stepped from the grey early morning cold of the quay into the golden light of the Cool Mule café to drop the apartment keys. The long narrow 'fast' hydrofoil ferry looked for all the world like a praying mantis. ‘I hope we don’t break down,’ Tony muttered as he kindly carried one of my cases on board.

I looked alarmed. ‘They bought these ferries second-hand from the Russians years ago,’ he added.

I left a little of my heart behind as we backed out of the harbour, slowly turning away from the island in the choppy sea.

The trip to Athens was uneventful. I was excited about my first mission of the day visiting the offices of the genealogical association in Athens. Maria texted me the details last night.

After checking in at the hotel I immediately caught a taxi to their office address.

When I arrived, the street front looked less than promising. Inside the building at the back of the dingy entry corridor, the caretaker/janitor sat behind a glass partition.

I held up my phone to show him the logo of the association, and asked if he could please help me. The two-headed eagle again. I've since read that long before the Orthodox church, it was a common symbol of power in ancient Greek city-states.

In Greek mythology, Zeus let two eagles fly east and west from the ends of the world and they eventually met in Delphi proving it to be the centre of the earth.

‘Ahhhhh not here,’ he said. My heart sank. ‘Not here? You mean they’ve moved?’ He shrugged. He didn’t know, or he didn’t understand. I was guessing the latter. I was devastated. I stood for a moment thinking about what to do before turning away.

There was a building tenant list on a side wall. The association logo was there, showing on the seventh floor!

I went back to the janitor. 'Did you say that the association is not here any longer, or is not open now?' 'Neh,' said the janitor. That means yes.

Thankfully a couple of young men entered the building. The janitor went to the glass door at the back of his cubicle and came out into the foyer. He spoke to them in Greek, then one of them spoke to me in English. 'The association is not open today. Ioannis will give you a telephone number.'

I nearly hugged him. I said in my best Greek accent 'Sas efcharistó pára polý,' which is the most formal, extreme form of thank you. And a big smile for Ioannis.

He went back into his box and wrote down two phone numbers for me on a slip of paper. I went to a corner of the foyer. I tried the first. No answer and no answering machine. I tried the second. It rang out too. This wasn't looking promising.

Ioannis had warmed to the task and was watching me hopefully. I shook my head and shrugged. There was nothing more he could do. Neither could I. He was happy but a little perplexed when I indicated my phone for a photo.

I hailed another taxi back to the city and had him drop me at Ermenou Street - the pedestrian shopping street in the CBD. I wandered a little, looking at the shops, including this florist on Nikis Street.

A street café with starched white linen napkins and a red rose on each table looked inviting. I went inside glass doors to the restaurant area where there was a power point to charge my phone.

I ordered porcini and truffle risotto - I know, I suddenly have this thing suddenly about risotto! It should be moussaka! I tried both phone numbers again. No answer.

I had booked an afternoon tour with This Is Athens - a volunteer group who show visitors around their city. What a great concept. I've never tried a free tour before but I'm so glad I did.

Sotiris was waiting in the lobby of the hotel for me ten minutes early. Nicely dressed in jeans and a navy blue corduroy sports jacket. Shirt and tie.

Well-mannered, excellent company and very knowledgeable about Greek history, Sotiros was very kind and considerate. He had brought a book for me: The Companion Guide to the Greek Islands by Ernle Bradford 1963 . 'Send it back to me when you've finished with it,' he said. And a map of Athens.

We did a comprehensive walking tour around central Athens from 2 until 5.30pm. Everywhere from the royal palace now parliament building to the first modern olympic games Panathenaic amphitheatre (1870), the Acropolis museum to the Monastriakos flea market. The hill is the Acropolis, the building is the Parthenon.

Although most of the hills around Athens are denuded, this small hill shows how they once were before the trees were cut down for construction.

Photo work of Valentin Fiumefreddo via Wikimedia Commons

Hadrian's gate leads into the temple of Zeus. This is how it might have looked.

And this is what's left.

photo courtesy wikpedia commons

Did you do ancient history at school? I loved it and still remember the capitals and their names. Top Doric, middle Ionic, bottom, Corinthian. The Zeus temple's are Corinthian.

Sotiros said that the name Melina Mercouri elicits mixed responses in Athenians. He felt one of her best contributions was to eradicate the toxic night life areas around the base of the acropolis, so that now it's safe for everyone to walk at night.

photo courtesy Acropolis Museum website

The absolute highlight of my day was the Acropolis Museum. It was designed by Bernard Tschumi Architects. You can see from the photo above that it's down below the acropolis itself, but the top floor is twisted on the first and second floors to reproduce an exact copy of the parthenon's floor plan with exactly the same orientation.

At one point, Sotiris said to me 'I think you like the architecture as much as the museum contents.' He was right. All the spaces are lit by the most magnificent natural light. See the photo above? The materials are simple and so powerful - plate glass, concrete, and marble. Glass floors reveal excavations below. An absolute masterpiece.

You could spend days looking at the exhibits. Or you can stroll through in an hour.

But always, the light, and the impact of those concrete panels!

Sotiris and I had a coffee on the space-age terrace, popular for wedding receptions. He's a widower, with children and grandchildren. He loves showing visitors his city. I walked away to try my two phone numbers again. No result. Sotiros was annoyed that the waiter asked how much tip I would add to the bill. 'It's very bad manners,' he said. Don't you love him?

​Sotiros described the way the Elgin Marbles were removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin as the ultimate outrage, speaking almost as you would about a traumatic physical assault.

Far from being removed with the care reserved for priceless treasures, they were levered off by crow bars and allowed to crash down. This also caused irreparable damage to the building because the sculptures were not just ornaments on the building. They were actual structural elements. I shared his outrage. So did Lord Byron at the time, who called it vandalism.

I wish the Brits would return them. Brexit seems the perfect opportunity. In a recent British poll 69% of people interviewed were in favour.

As we resumed our walk around the base of the acropolis, children were running to catch soap bubbles. What fun!

Sotiros has attended many concerts inside this ancient Odeon theatre, from Beethoven to bop. There's an open air amphitheatre behind the arches. I loved hearing that the cheapest and highest seats enjoy the best acoustics. Seems fitting in the birthplace of democracy!

Natural woods at the base of the Acropolis surround the very picturesque Temple of Hephaestus.

Paths in this area were laid out as an art installation in the 1950's by Dimitri Pikionis and his students, using marble and clay shards left over from demolished buildings.

The same wild flowers as on Hydra. My heart flew back there.

Roman mixes with Byzantine mixes with modern - it's what I love best about Athens.

At this point Sotiris left me to attend his grand-daughter's celebration dinner. I continued down the Monasteraki flea-market street past the t-shirts and caps until I reached the antiques section.

This is Georgios. He sells jewellery in the flea market, offering me a price of 400 euros on a piece which was marked 1200. Just for me. Just today. His sense of fun was infectious. A warm hug when I left. In Australia that would probably be called harassment.

On the way back to the hotel I came upon the Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea built around 1050. The serendipity of its preservation right at the intersection of a pedestrian street in the centre of the city is simply breath-taking.

As I crossed Syntagma Square, I could see beyond the fountain that a crowd had gathered on the street in front of parliament house. I wondered if it was a demonstration about Macedonia again. I don't enjoy crowds at the best of times, and definitely not demonstrations in a foreign country.

Back on the hotel rooftop, drink in hand, I watched the crowd listen quietly to the leaders of the communist party for over an hour, now and then chanting a learned refrain. I was astonished at the length of their attention span. Then the music began, the crowd swayed and sang as they followed the banner away down the street.

I tried my two contacts again before I fell into bed. No response.

Keep your fingers crossed that they'll answer tomorrow. Until then buddies, I wait you.

shelley dark, writer 

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