I had loved Rome, Paris and Istanbul… but Athens! It is profoundly special and awe-inspiring in its expanse of history and graceful beauty.
It was the perfect choice for our brief interlude. Keeping in mind that we would be laden with a pile of suitcases as we moved from India, we wanted somewhere en route to our destination, ideally warm, and a contrast to Asia. Greece was the perfect choice… and there was another poignant reason.
My husband’s father had been a classical scholar, a longtime philhellenic; a professed lover of all things Greek. George Greenaway Wilson was a didactic dad who took great joy in sharing his love of literature and military history, his bookshelves crammed with the works of Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Euripides. He notably earned a Doctorate in Classics in his later years, studying the Ancient Greek language in parallel to better read the texts. Visiting Greece often with Bruce’s mother, Isabella, they had mostly forgone the tourist streets in cities such as Athens, Heraklion and Kalamata, preferring the clubs and haunts of local Greeks.
“He would unleash his Ancient Greek to the bemusement and delight of patrons in back-street tavernas and working men’s clubs,” Bruce recalled fondly, visualizing the scene with amusement.
I had heard some of these stories through the years yet now being here, I could more easily imagine George as he transformed into Georgios during his visits. Bruce’s mother was very much a willing accomplice to the twice-yearly forays to Greece and Turkey.
“I can see why your mom loved it here so much,” I proclaimed on the first afternoon as we lingered over a languid lunch of Greek salad, spanakopita, bread, olives and a carafe of local white wine. “And how could you not, the food is enough to never want to leave!”
We were sitting in an outdoor taverna, Scholarkheio, a family run restaurant since 1935 situated in the quaint streets of Plaka. It became our local ‘go-to’ and from that first long indulgent lunch, the stress of the move from the past few months was lifted; a sense of recovery from the planning, packing and heartfelt farewells of India.
“Mom loved it here,” Bruce confirmed, as we imagined them walking these streets. “The sun and the heat. And the very drinkable cheap wine of course! There was never a problem with Dad luring her along with him,” he said, refilling our tumblers with local wine.
I understood this immediately. Athens is alive with colour, great food, wandering minstrels, and of course even arrays of Greek sandals to choose from! And wonderfully, it is a very approachable and walkable city. At its heart are the magnificent buildings of the Acropolis, overlooking the ancient settlement since 450 BC or so. Life radiates gently below – the charming streets of old Plaka, for dining, browsing and shopping. The ancient Forums and Libraries, the most excellent Acropolis Museum, and parks where grand sculptures rest amongst silvery oaks, fragrant olive and eucalyptus trees – I was quickly beguiled and in the city’s thrall.
Yet Athens is not a trivial holiday experience, it is humbling if one sets the span of a life against its timeless presence. It speaks of the founding of democracy and art, poets and scholars, and theatre of the great odeums where orators and actors guided and chided the world into independent thinking, towards democracy itself .
We stayed in the shadow of the Acropolis. The breathtaking view of the Parthenon held us spellbound as we lingered over drinks that first evening on the rooftop bar of the Herodion Hotel – feeling close enough to reach out and touch its aged, elegant marble. Its Ionic columns still evoking the power and refinement of ancient Greece. But life then, as now, plays out on the stage beneath its glorious prominence, fanning out over the plains and hills of old Attica.
After climbing the limestone crag of the Acropolis (literally ‘highest point of the city’), the magnificent ruins stood before us. While there is evidence that the hill was inhabited as far back as the fourth millennium BC, it was the astute and forward-thinking statesman Pericles (495 – 429 BC) who coordinated the construction of some of the site’s most important structures and others that followed: the delicate Temple of Athena Nike, the grand entrance of the Propylaia, the Erectheion with its maidens columns – all stunning even in the fractured mosaic of their sun-bleached remnants.
I thrilled in the ruins, content for them to hint at the once glorious past. My engineer partner suggested that he would rather see the Parthenon fully reconstructed and on that point I had to protest. I loved imagining it in my mind. Like all Greek temples, it was richly ornamented in vivid natural colours of blues, reds and golds. Statues honouring Greek mythology posed dramatically – Apollo and Athena Nike the goddess of victory, Zeus, Hercules and the messenger god Hermes. I can imagine the beautifully adorned women in their flowing tunics, the chiton or the sleeveless peplos, maybe a himation (cloak) for cooler winter months. Perhaps their exquisite gold jewellery glinted in the sun as they strolled the temples with offerings of incense and honey-dripped sheafs of wheat.
We had visited the excellent Acropolis Museum before the site itself, its trove of treasures depicting everyday life, allowing ones imagination to easily meander to that time. In fact I learned that meander, one of my favourite words, comes from the Greek meandros, the ancient Meander River which was exceptionally winding and twisty. The meander design was a common theme, replicated on pottery, clothes and jewellery. As one of the most important symbols of Ancient Greece, its connotation of unity and infinity in continuous interlocking lines represents eternity, an unbroken flow of things, like the meandering of life. And to this day it permeates Greek design.
The Parthenon is the crowning glory of classical Greece ethos and standing in the midst of it, we understood George’s deep appreciation of Greek philosophy and its role in the dawning of democracy.
“I wish he was here to share his knowledge, bring it to life for us,” Bruce said with a tinge of regret. “He always thought he was better suited to this time. Perhaps it was the philosopher-warrior in him, the deep thinker and the stoic.” His maxim might have been a quote from his favourite general, Thucydides, subject of his doctorate, who said that ‘The State that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.’ Having once been a soldier himself, this resonated.
“I wish I had asked him more questions while he was alive,” I lamented and Bruce agreed. “I feel the same, but he’d be pleased to know we are now trying to understand his Greece.”
From the high outcrop, it’s possible to understand how Athens became the dominant power of the numerous Greek States, though nearby Sparta was long its rival as were the Persians and even the Venetians, to name a few.
But beyond the impressive and dominant Acropolis, the daily life of ancient Athens played out on the gentle hills and plains below; in the temples and agoras where people gathered to trade goods and ideas, and in the odea where orators spoke and playwrights provoked their audience into thought. These impressive outdoor auditoriums were often set into natural bowls in hillsides. The Theatre of Dionysus was created in 530 BC, believed to be where ‘drama’ and ‘theatre’ was first presented, where Thespis (yes where the word thespian derives) was likely the first to perform in a play. The impressive Herodeion is a later structure, from 161 AD. It’s stone-chiseled seats could accommodate 6000 spectators and still hosts events during the Athens Festival.
“Oh to have been here to see Luciano Pavarotti, Elton John, even the Foo Fighters,” I commented to Bruce, remembering this is also a backdrop for world class performers… the Greek god drama and theatre, Dionysos, must indeed be smiling!
Our last day finds us meandering through the Roman Agora, the Tower of the Winds, and past Hadrian’s library of 132 AD, complete with music and lecture halls. I sit happily on a bench and contemplate… Athens is a lot to take in.
I muse over the people I’ve met and how they all showed me something of their kind nature. The lovely mother I happened to chat with as I appreciated her daughter’s May Day laurel that her father had crafted. And the waiter at Scholarkheio who found one of my camera memory cards and tracked me down to return it. Or the shopkeeper I met as I perused modern day chitons. We connected immediately.
“Do you feel like you’ve been here before?” She asked, as if she could sense how connected I felt, how I was claiming Athens as my own, even to having my own chiton.
Taking out one of George’s books that I had thought to pack at the last moment, I read quotes from the great poet and playwright Euripedes who lived around 400 BC. How fresh, how poignant his words are still today. And I think of George who was always one to ponder…
Nothing is hopeless, we must hope for everything.
It is a good thing to be rich and strong, but it is a better thing to be loved.
There is just one life for each of us: our own.
Experience travel – these are an education in themselves.
Yes, the last one particularly rings true to me and as much as Athens has thrilled me, it’s time to meander to the small island of Hydra… to be continued