SUNDAY MAGAZINE

The real Athens

DESTINATION

The ancient temple of Poseidon, built on top of Cape Sounion, 60 km south of Athens.

The ancient temple of Poseidon, built on top of Cape Sounion, 60 km south of Athens.  

IT is probably impossible to love Athens at first sight. It is not a city that deliberately puts its best foot forward to greet visitors. Its unruly aggressiveness, noticeable at once, almost feels like a slap. It takes a little time and patience to feel its first caress.

That initial slap, however, is well intentioned, the kind that tries to bring the befuddled to his senses. Almost rudely, Athens brushes aside preconceptions people have of it and roughly proclaims its very own reality.

They call it the cradle of civilisation. Seeing the Greek capital from the top of the Acropolis on a clear, late afternoon, you may find little reason to argue. White rooftops cluster quaintly against the lower slopes. A carpet of inhabitation spills towards the glistening Saronic Gulf in the south and the mountains in the east and north, exuding, from this deceptive distance, a kind of order.

The problem with this idyllic scenario, of course, is finding Athens on a clear day, since the air is often smothered by the infamous nefos, a cocktail of traffic fumes caught within the natural basins of the city. After centuries of onslaught from war, vandalism and natural disasters, some of the most important ancient relics of western civilisation are now threatened by it foremost symbol, the motor car.

So, while waiting for the air to clear, it is worthwhile to concentrate on the Acropolis, which for more than 2,000 years dominated the city — first as a spiritual centre and fortress, later as the site of Parthenon, a temple honouring Athena, the patron Goddess of Athens, still later as churches, mosques and even harems as it was transformed by different conquerors. Today stripped of the many of the statues that once lined the way, with drums and columns strewn about, the Acropolis with Parthenon as its centrepiece remains even in ruins majestic and monumental.

When a brisk wind scoops away the nefos, the fantastic panorama becomes clearly visible. From the top of the hill the view goes on forever. The landmarks from Herodes Atticas across the Agora, which formed the centre of the city life in the Classical age, past the Temple of Olympian Zeus to the reconstructed Roman Stadium, site of the first modern Olympics in 1896, are scattered as if some remnant of the fabulous ancient theme park.

Athenians are so careless of the past in their manic absorption of the present, one might conclude that history did not leave a deep imprint here. This is far from the case, but in one respect it is a good thing. Past gives the impression of lying lightly on the present. There is little feeling of the weight of time. The great monuments are either set apart, floating like the Acropolis serene over today's hubbub, or engulfed like the little Byzantine churches which lie scattered around, half submerged on an earlier foundation of civilisation, overwhelmed by traffic and fumes but, being always in use, themselves exhaling puffs of incense.

Most of the interesting sights of Athens are within walking distance of one another. But you have to find them amid the cacophony of modern day structures like shops, apartments, and traffic. For example, one has to cross a busy and dangerous thoroughfare to reach the Arch of Hadrian. Roman emperor Hadrian had this arch constructed in A.D. 132 to demarcate the city he built from the earlier one.

Of others eras in Athens' long history, little remains. A few churches are the meagre remnants of 1,000 years of Byzantine rule, and the tortuous lanes of the Plaka are all that is left of the 19th Century Athens except a few remaining old houses, mostly occupied by tavernas, in this pedestrian zone on the northern slope of the Acropolis. Just around is Monasteraki — the flea market and metal smithing area of the city. But they still retain a kind of charm, which attracts camera-toting tourists round the clock.

Modern Athens from the ancient Acropolis hill. The famous Caryatids, statues of women which hold up part of the Erechtheion temple, are in the foreground.

Modern Athens from the ancient Acropolis hill. The famous Caryatids, statues of women which hold up part of the Erechtheion temple, are in the foreground.  

Interestingly in those remaining Byzantine churches, age-old Pagan customs can still be observed like the tradition of offering bridal wreaths to Athena, only now transferred to offerings to the Virgin Mary.

To the east of Acropolis lies the modern city, spread out almost like an afterthought. Planned to accommodate only two lakh people, today some 40 lakh inhabit this city that spills almost randomly over the hills of the Attic plain. Roads are narrow and inadequate for the ever-increasing number of automobiles. Traffic is horrendous, with streets congested during seemingly interminable rush hours. The air is kept fresh only by the indefatigable breeze blowing in from the sea.

Between the Syntagma Square and Omonia Square is European Athens, in contrast to the quintessentially Greek Plaka, and Oriental Monastiraki.

The hub of Athens is the open area called Syntagma, or Constitution Square. Here is the centre of all activity, from the functioning of government to the ogling of ladies' legs. Syntagma Square is where the entire world must pass in order to cross the city. Around this green oasis roars traffic, angry traffic. In Athens, apparently everyone ultimately converges again and again at Syntagma Square, which acts as a modern counterpoint to the historic pull of the city. This is the prime territory for watching the world go by. Sitting in one of the cafes, you can watch foreign business people rushing in and out of luxurious hotels, office workers heading home for lunch break, and Greek men trying to pick up female tourists in front of American Express. The square is often a gathering point for demonstration, as it is very close to the House of Parliament, a large lemon coloured structure, which occupies the high ground.

Around Omonia are many government buildings. There are chaps discussing politics, inevitably. This is evident from the intensity of the debate, the waving newspapers and gathering crowds. Circling the square — a geometric possibility in modern Greece — one reaches the National Theatre in one of the radial roads. In an adjacent caf� itinerant gypsy musicians congregate in a sort of musical labour exchange. The place is identified by the sounds of clarionets, violins, and small drums or tabmourlakia, and by the singers in the floor-length gold lame who stop in after work in the early hours of the morning.

So, in Omonia Square, the city's hyperactive middle class plaza, while the parade of Greek food items reaches your table one by one, you can take time in eating them or if you like, allow yourself to enjoy the show put up by a variety of pavement artists and acrobats just outside.

The kiosks of Omonia sell foreign newspapers and magazines, books as well as the usual tobacco and sweets.

If Athens' rather makeshift, sloppy, unfinished look seems disconcertingly haphazard at first, it is necessary to see this scattered metropolis as a whole to understand that it could not be other than it is. In the first place, more than most capitals, Athens is the embodiment of its country in a highly concentrated form. It exemplifies a way of life, which Athenians themselves, rarely at a loss for words, can only call "Greek Reality". It is a complex, but definable combination of attitudes that makes the country tick.

And meanwhile, Athenians are on record for being the most optimistic city dwellers in Europe. This must be due to their looking at life in a fluid, take-it-as-it comes sort of way. Four thousand years of continuous civilisation may be difficult to find in Athens, but the street wisdom it has produced is visible everywhere.

A perfect Mediterranean climate and outlook permeate the city, creating an appropriately relaxed atmosphere. Residents spend hours over cups of coffee — the thick, muddy Greek variety — discussing life and politics. Athenian workers break in the afternoon for a few hours, return to work, and go out to dinner quite late, about 10 p.m. Even on weeknights, tavernas are full past midnight. In many bouzoukia — nightclubs where traditional bouzouki music is played — the entertainment does not really start until midnight. Despite the big city veneer, people take their time.

I find this both engaging and perplexing. The lifestyle is quite pleasant, but it takes its toll on the economy. Greece has fared well in a few industries — its shipyards are the sixth largest in the world; tourism is an excellent and well organised business; petrochemicals have made quite a few Athenians wealthy in the past 30 years — but still Greece is one of the least productive of the major countries of Europe.

My hotel receptionist confirmed another side of Greece's problem — the loss of its young talent. All her four brothers have left for the United States and are unlikely to return. In fact, one-third of the Greeks in the world live outside their native country.

But Greece's loss is other country's gain. Visitors from more developed Western countries do not need much time to understand why transplanted Greeks take to restauranteuring. In Greece, eating is a way of life. Restaurants are more than places to have a bit before the evening's entertainment. Very often they are the entertainment themselves. And, the pleasure is not directly proportional to the price of the place.

Athens is not actually a city preserved in amber for the fastidious connoisseur. No Disneyland anywhere in the world would want to have anything to do with it. With its incomparable past body-locked into an unquaint but vital present, Athens is the real thing — a great human hodgepodge dedicated, as it has been continually for the past 4,000 years, to the business of living as fully as possible.

Athens has in a sense, come full circle. Though its ancient history is very ancient indeed, as a capital of a modern democratic state it is entirely new, with a burdensome history and a future still unmade. Perhaps the split in its history has created an ambivalent nature of modern Athens — a city somewhat overshadowed by the glories of the past.