The first thing that struck me as I walked down the steps from my plane and looked around was the sheer beauty of the place. From the ground you could see an idyllic landscape teaming with hills surrounded by a vast expanse of greenery. As yet the city itself was not in sight. The sun was beating down and I already felt lighter in the fresh air. As I made my way through the airport I was quite disappointed not to have my passport stamped; it seemed to make my trip less official. The lack of ink would seem trivial to most but I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me. I wanted to fill up my new passport and this wasn’t a great start; in fact it wasn’t one – it remains empty. Sometimes having been to a place isn’t enough and we need proof of our experience to really feel it was meaningful, in order to look back on it with some sense of achievement. We feel each stamp adds value to a passport, that they give weight to it. Nevertheless, I made my way to the hotel, asking locals for directions when I was unsure about how to navigate my way through the city. Annoyingly, I usually asked when I was at the place I was trying to reach or near enough to it that they could point and perhaps wonder whether I was joking. This happened more times than I care to admit over my stay in Greece. All the same, it was one of the best experiences of my life. If ever my sense of direction failed me I found myself down some charming street or in view of a monument I hadn’t planned on seeing. In the end I walked a greater distance than I normally would over a month and did so gladly.
My first evening there was spent at the national museum where historically significant sculptures were housed. The most striking of these were the kourai, idealised youths with superhuman musculature and size. Some were armless or heavily damaged but they remained imposing. The statues of the Greek pantheon were scattered around the place and helped to give life to the myths that are so deeply entwined with the country’s culture.
That night I went to a restaurant recommended to me by the hotel. It overlooked a church, lit up from each angle by street-lamps. I was sat down at the table I chose and the waiter genially wrapped an arm around me and asked me what I wanted. Once I had decided I was surprised I didn’t need to produce my wallet. In Greece it is customary for diners to pay after eating. Call me cynical but in London I imagine this trust would be betrayed more often, though it was once exploited here. On that occasion a man that was unwell was sat on a table next to me. He had a nervous tic and from time to time he would get up and walk over to the nearby wall which he perched himself on, looking about as if talking to an invisible man. You could tell he would neglect to pay, not out of ill-will, but simply because he was out of touch with what was around him. He ate with almost childlike attentiveness, bending all the way down to his plate and slowly, carefully, cutting apart his meal. After finishing, he wandered over to the till to pay, correctly sensing that this was the place he had to go, but finding himself in a line he looked around awkwardly. A waiter saw him and gestured that he would get to him soon but not seeing this the man left, leaving the waiter frustrated he couldn’t go after him; he was otherwise occupied. The waiters then angrily cleared his table, complaining to each other about the man, their frustration in part due to their own feeling he would not pay, which they had failed to explore in time.
This brought to mind the economic crisis in Greece which had meant it remained in recession for nearly a decade, with many unemployed. Though this man perhaps could have paid for the meal, others could barely afford shelter. The influx of migrants could also not really be accommodated and many came here to be homeless. Poverty can be found in any major city but here it was less concealed. I once saw a man foraging through rubbish and he didn’t seem to notice me; it was of no consequence if anyone should see, but rather a matter of necessity for him. I understood perfectly well, survival took precedence over what people might say.
On my first full day there I thought it best to seek out the main sites, so that I could later explore as many places as I could without feeling like there was something important I had left undone. This meant a walk to the centre of Athens, where the Agora and Acropolis were to be found. In the city I was sometimes mistaken for a local and spoken to in Greek, with the only possible result being my saying ‘I don’t understand’ more times than I felt was respectable. I was slightly ashamed at this. Many of us go to other countries expecting the people to speak our language, not because it’s right that they should but because its convenient. Then when foreigners come to our country we look at them uncomprehendingly when they dare to ask us something in their native tongue. I realised I was part of that problem and looked up how to say ‘Hello’ so that I knew at least one word. I forgot it within an hour.
Arriving at the foot of the path toward the Acropolis I began to make my way up and soon enough I had reached the Propylaia, the grand entrance to the archaic temples at the hill’s summit. Once there I could understand why the Parthenon had been championed as one of the greatest feats of architecture of all time. It stood high and impressive, having remained virtually intact in all the intervening years since. Even today there is nothing comparable to it. It was bittersweet to consider that there may never be.
Later walking through the Agora I couldn’t help but imagine what the marketplace would have been like during the golden age of Athens. The streets would have been filled with a lively bustle and at certain points in history will have been populated by some of the greatest minds to have wandered the earth. Here Socrates had debated with locals, St Paul made his speeches and democracy was born. Thinking about that public rushing around what was their home I wondered whether they could have anticipated that milennia later people would be roaming around for leisure. Having envisioned the agora alive with people presently I regarded it with vague unease. What had remained of them? The finds collected at the Stoa of Attalos cast some light on their lives but much was left to conjecture and they themselves had faded into obscurity, forever lost to their time.
Those that escaped oblivion to be remembered as heroes were buried at the edge of the ancient city, at Kerameikos. The outer walls that had surrounded Athens were now long gone, but they had ran through here. At Dipylon, the largest entrance to Athens in Ancient Greece, many arrivals and departures were marked. This was where warriors had returned to Athens and received a hero’s welcome, though some were not so lucky; many warrior’s tombs lie here alongside other notable people. The presence of death lent a sombre air to the place but this was not so oppressive as one might expect. Some tombs depicted those perished as being alive and with their families, with others celebrated by monuments.
After a day of almost uninterrupted walking I allowed myself a drink at a charming rooftop bar overseeing the Acropolis, whose crowning jewel the Parthenon assumed a golden hue in the city lights. The cocktail cost more than any of the meals I had but in truth I would have paid for the view itself.
I started the next day at the roman forum, to which the marketplace was moved under their occupation of the city. The edges of the courtyard were punctuated by roman columns and the tower of the winds, an octagonal tower whose sides each apparently represented a type of wind, stood highest. A mosque, erected during the ottoman rule of Athens, drew the eye. This in part because it cast light on the number of times that the city had changed hands.
Following this I soon found myself at philopappos hill, known as the ‘hill of muses’ and named after a syrian prince. Socrates prison, where he was forced to drink hemlock for corrupting the youth of his day, was easily recognisable and I made it my focal point. The pnyka further up had held the first democratic congress, with an area for the public cut into the hill. A monument for the hill’s namesake stood at the very top. Having explored and taken in the hilltop view I made my way back down and through the national garden.
In a short time I had another hill in my sights that I recognised. I had seen it from the Acropolis the day before. This was no suprise, the summit of lycabettus hill was the highest point of the city and was visible from anywhere in Athens. The hill itself had paths spiralling around it and I began to climb my way up, taking in the view as I did and quickening my pace out of impatience at reaching the peak in this roundabout fashion. I was suprised to have to negotiate my way through a restaurant near the top but soon after I had reached it and from here I could see the whole city in all its glory. I was on top of Athens.
Having conquered Athens I made my way to syntagma square, the hub of the city’s transport, in order to find my way back. Along the way I saw armoured police vans and wondered whether anything was amiss, but soon found my worries were misplaced. With the task of protecting the citizens of Athens stationed at each of the metros were heavily armed police, dubbed the ‘black panthers’. This was a common occurence and thinking about my experience so far I questioned the point of it. But perhaps my reservations were even simpler; I doubt the assault rifles helped people to feel safe.
I strolled through Plaka, which was apparently the place to get souvenirs. I went to two shops and took my time in both, if only because I wanted to be certain I liked what I was getting. I didn’t know when I would come back here. At either place, the shopkeepers began to walk around me in order to rush me but this only increased my hesitation in picking things out and lengthened their wait. The old man in one shouted a lower price whenever someone expressed an interest in something, discounting it further if they were still unsure. Sensing this pattern when I picked up something I wanted I feigned suprise at the price and moved to put it back and he always gave a much lower price right before I let go, with my reaction always the same disinterested nod as I handed it to him to later wrap. In this way, I saved a considerable amount on what I thought were reasonably priced souvenirs.
On my last day I went to Glyfada beach an hour or so away from the centre of the city. First I took the metro to syntagama and from there I initially went the wrong way on the tram but quickly realised my error. Once I had reached the beach I was taken by the picturesque view of the ionian sea from its shores. The horizon was almost entirely aquamarine save for a ship in the distance. The beach itself was stunning and I strolled up and down the shoreline while the sun shone high above me, watching the waves crashing in at intervals.
Athens is a great city in the history of the world, that no one can deny. Even today the influence it exerted in its prime is still felt. We still marvel at the works of architecture and think over the writings that were set forth from here. In fact, it is the cities intellectual history that is especially important. Plato and Aristotle have between them influenced centuries of thought. The formers Republic continues to inform politics while the latter contributed to practically every subject we now study, so that even today they are looked to for guidance. Our buildings are now much more advanced, our lives last much longer and yet we haven’t really thought up anything new to solve the problems they contended with, those of justice, morality and truth. There is nothing new under the sun. In all the centuries since we have grasped with the same age old questions they did, and have not fared much better. As a result I arrive at a sobering truth; we haven’t come as far as we tend to think.