Monastiraki square bubbled with the bustle of Athenians and tourists alike. Fruit sellers, bananas hanging from the awnings of their wooden stands, bellowed the price of their wares in rich resonant voices. The sweetest seedless grapes were piled up in bunches. Heart shaped chocolate donuts wafted their merciless scent through the crowds. Koulouri, sesame bread rings, were sold hot. But in this land of treats, baklava was king.
On every corner, hunks of meat rotated on vertical spits, dripping oily juice. Olive skinned men brandished large steel knives, watching the meat brown before carving a few more slices. Each portion was adeptly stuffed into a pita with a handful of salad. A blend of garlic, yoghurt and cucumber – tzatziki – was then smothered inside the warm bread pocket, it was sprinkled with chilli powder, and another hot gyros was doled out to the next hungry Greek.
Gyros is sold everywhere, in tavernas, tourist restaurants and fast food stands, and is Athens’ tastiest, cheapest, and most convenient meal. Few streets are without a local outlet of some sort, complete with a gyros master carving away, his belly bulging from years in the trade.
The Greek alphabet’s distinctive, unfamiliar lettering was spread all over the city. It made me feel severed from this foreign place, forcing me to realise my role as spectator, outsider. I delight in that sense of foreignness.
Suddenly, even toilet paper became a foreign object, not to be flushed. Ancient plumbing is one of Greece’s less reliable amenities, and requires that toilet paper is disposed of in accompanying rubbish bins.
A bustling row of markets occupied an area adjoining the central thoroughfare, Athinas street. Fruit, vegetables and unfamiliar snacks, like sunflower seeds, lay in compartments beside old grey scale sets. Bright orange seasoned nuts were scooped into white paper bags from piles balancing on little wagons. Corn on the cob cooked slowly on open coals. Luminous shoe laces hung in bunches along the pavement. A shoe box of a shop stocked starched old men’s hats – grey, beige, tweed checked.
A strange mix of exoticism was present in those markets, Eastern seeming to my uninformed mind, but reminiscent, too, of somewhere African, third world. Italy’s monumental squares felt much further away than the short hop we’d made across the Adriatic, although the olives had followed us, as had the Mediterranean. The bridge that we would finally cross in Istanbul, from Europe to Asia, was becoming a reality.
A man wheeled a wooden box down the street, polished, bright with circus motifs. He turned a brass knob around and around as he walked, faint melodies strained from the boxes little wooden heart. He walked, or worked, expressionless, with his contraption, his livelihood. There, in Athens, began the increasing idleness of men’s jobs, their desperate attempts at work, soon to become commonplace in our snatched glances.
We stood in Monastiraki square, staring into the sunlight, the Acropolis looming above us. The creamy pillars of the Parthenon on the hill above were only just perceptible, obscured by the sun’s haze. We strode toward it, though the old Plaka quarter – now the tourist ghetto of Athens. Jewellery, sea sponges and tasteless figurines posing in erotic threesomes lined the labyrinthine streets, as we hauled ourselves up the hill through the heat.
We stopped at an ancient quarry, a viewpoint from which to glimpse Athens beneath. Joining the hoard of young kids and tourists, we clambered up. The clump of buildings ahead stretched, unrelenting, into the remote distance. The sprawl halted at the foot of a purple mountain range, bordering the northern edge of the city. The city swept around in a vast panorama, encircling the Acropolis, which stood vigil from above.
The usual motley array of foreigners congregated around the ticket office and the refreshment stalls, gulping Pepsi or mineral water, trying in vain to cool down after their hike up the hill. High heels tottered on the cobbled stone paving, desperately trying to find grip while hiking boots strode past briskly.
We made our way through the gates and up the steps to the Parthenon. Completed in the 5th century BCE, the monument, dedicated to the goddess Athena, is said to epitomise the glory of ancient Greece. The structure owes its perfect form to the strategic curve of its lines, which create a sense of harmony that was once unsurpassable. Regrettably, its appearance was less than perfection on the day we visited: metallic scaffolding invaded the exterior, as part of a restoration project.
Bypassing Plaka, we strolled down to the site of the Ancient Agora. The tourist stalls were spread more thinly there, and I noticed a collection of glass blue pendants hanging outside. Painted with the shape of a blue and white eyeball, I had seen them mysteriously dotted all over Plaka.
The Evil Eye is an ancient symbol, present within the Greek Orthodox Church. When worn, or hung in one’s home, it is thought to protect from jealousy’s evil eye, and for this reason is often hung above the cribs of pretty babies. A neurotic pet owner had even attached a tiny eye ornament to the collar of their Siamese cat, who was obviously considered a particularly attractive specimen. Dangling in abundance in some businesses and households, the symbol is taken quite seriously, as is the wickedness of the Evil Eye. Traditionally, ladies may also wear blue clothing as an additional safeguard against the evil force.
The Ancient Agora proved a thoroughly stimulating excursion, giving us an insight into early Greek life. This was the marketplace of ancient Athens, as well as the centre of communal and social life.
I often find architecture difficult to relate to, and the Parthenon was no exception. But ogling at the artefacts in the Ancient Agora Museum, dug up from beneath and around the very ground that I was standing on, provided a thought-provoking glimpse into the life of the ancient Greeks. Images of their ordinary activities were fluidly awakened, as I pondered the similarities between ours and that vanished existence – unfathomable, yet undeniably clear.
Who would have thought that children played with toy horses that rolled along on terracotta wheels in the 4th century? And the enforcement of weights and measures is at least as old as the Greeks. Small lead weights dating from between the 2nd and 5th centuries BCE were excavated from the Agora.
Ivory pots depicted Greek mythology at its most fantastic: a griffon attacks a stag and the goddess Athena stands up to a giant. The delicate detail of the artwork is remarkable and its preservation since the 15th century BCE astonishing.
Today’s border-defined society and the need for proof of one’s identity may have roots in ancient Greece. Several clay tokens are encased in the museum, dating from the 5th century BCE. Some are thought to have been identity tokens, while others are presumed passports, used also by messengers reporting to and from military headquarters.
I noticed, with fascination, a particular earthenware vessel, a pyxis from the late 8th century BCE, adorned with swastikas. The symbol’s intricate and widespread history was completely unknown to me. Unfortunately, the Nazis used the swastika emblem so effectively that many people are clueless to its significance: it is the world’s oldest known symbol and there is evidence of its use since the 5th millennium BCE.
The swastika can be traced back to Asian, European, African and Native American cultures, either as a religious symbol, or a geometrical motif. It remains a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism today.
Named the tetraskelion or gammadion by the Greeks, the common term comes from the Sanskrit svastika: its syllables literally meaning “good” and “to be”, with ka as a suffix. By the Middle Ages, it was a recognised symbol of life, sun, power, strength and good luck, and remained a positive emblem until the early 20th century.
Taverna Gardenia was listed in our guidebook’s “Eating Out” section. The restaurant’s owners, a sweet old Greek couple, “boast the lowest prices in Athens”. We trekked through the city, eager to sample this quaint little place for ourselves, and almost walked straight past its paint peeled sign nearly an hour later.
The dim interior lacked any customers, so we chose a table outside overlooking the quiet street. Mrs Gardenia presented us with a motherly smile and a dusty menu as old as the taverna itself, entirely in Greek. Mr Gardenia stood at the back of the restaurant, sweating behind the coal stove on which great tarnished vessels held the day’s offerings: roast chicken, moussaka, boiled potatoes, spaghetti and meatballs, sticky creamed spinach and a large pot of mixed vegetables. To my undernourished body, this was home cooked heaven. I hadn’t eaten a vegetable that wasn’t topping on a pizza or salad stuffed into a pita since Germany and sauerkraut.
Mrs Gardenia gestured for us to consult her husband and the selection of meals in the steamy old kitchen, which looked directly onto the restaurant. Mr Gardenia pointed to and carefully pronounced the name of each dish. “Moussaka…Chicken…Potato…”. He dished hearty helpings onto hot plates, and Mrs Gardenia tottered to our table with crusty Greek bread and butter. Aside from being a charming (and cheap) little find, the food was tasty and satisfying. We undertook that long walk to the Gardenias thrice more to satisfy our appetites for humble, wholesome food.
The restaurant came up in a conversation with Chris, an Australian with whom we shared our Athens dorm for a few nights. He was also heading to India later in his trip. We recommended Taverna Gardenia for a meal, as he’d just arrived.
The following day, Chris made the journey across the city, to sample the cheap and cheerful restaurant that had been a refreshing highlight in our Athenian dining experience. Over a beer that evening, we asked him excitedly whether he’d managed to find it. He hesitated. “Yeh…” he said slowly, “I found it”. And then, with a puzzled look on his face, “Are you guys practising for India or something?”
Its cheap prices immediately entered my mind. But Chris wasn’t referring to those. The restaurant’s dinginess – a mere aspect of its down to earth appeal – had scared him beyond risking the food. “I have a weak stomach”, he explained, perhaps so as not to offend us. But there was no fear of that. We returned the next day, and left, bellies full, counting our saved euros happily.
We attempted a sample of Athens’ high life too. Neighbouring the ramshackle central market, the city is a cosmopolitan mix of designer outlets, English bookstores and trendy espresso bars that make Paris seem cheap.
Feeling that we were flagging one hot afternoon, we stopped for an espresso, having become quite accustomed to the pick-me-up in Italy. Six euros later, Athens’ notoriety for selling some of Europe’s most over priced coffee, needed no further testimony. The local kafeneion’s gritty mud brew became our reluctant substitute, as did Nescafe, when we were feeling flush.
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