Saturday, 23 November 2013

a city of all ages

Stavros had suggested we take the metro line 3 from Piraeus port into the city, but as the ferry pulls in to port and we stagger off bleary-eyed at just after 5 in the morning we reckon we'll have no problem reaching his appartment before he leaves for work at 10.  Stavros is our Couch-Surfing host in Athens and he's kindly replied to our request at fairly short notice.  We are heading to the island of Chios but from Naxos that would either involve a bit of island hopping on ill-timed ferries or a journey via Piraeus.  When the possibility of visiting Athens cropped up, we both got excited. And here we are in Piraeus port, all bleary-eyed and excited. It's not cold but there's almost two hours before sunrise so we park ourselves outside the port police station and doze on a bench.  Around 6 it starts to rain, but there's shelter outside a ticket office so we brew up and have breakfast before deciding that we really ought to get going.  So off into the rain we ride.  

The streets of Piraeus aren't how I imagined it in my head when I had plotted a route to Athens.  We are immediately heading uphill when I thought we'd have a nice ride along the coast.  The rain is belting down and it's a bit hard to start consulting our various maps, but an old man we ask confirms that we're going the right way.   Now when we stop at lights the water runs over our feet.  At the bottom of another hill there's the smell of raw sewage as the drains can no longer cope with the downpour.  It's 7.30am and rush-hour.  Traffic is clogging the roads which have parked cars on both sides.  Fortunately every driver treats us kindly and gives us room to squeeze past, or waits patiently if we slow them down.  Perhaps it would be different in the madness of a summer heatwave, but right now on a dark and wet November morning everyone seems pretty chilled.  We get out of Piraeus and eventually find the right road into Athens.  The clock is ticking.  It stops raining.  We get lost.  We find the right road.  It starts raining.  The road is closed.  We are hurtling along with all the taxis and buses when Gayle screams out to me: "Look!!!"  Oh, hey, it's the Parthenon on our left. It's 9.45 when we get into the residential quarter we want and the road suddenly veers upwards.  It's at this point that Gayle's gears fail.  She has to push.  We are hot and sweaty and soggy and late when we reach Stavros's but he has patiently waited in for us.  Relief.

After a hot shower and a short kip we feel bold enough to venture into the centre.  The afternoon has turned out nice and we walk around the old part of town below the acropolis.  The streets are not so busy, the air is clean after the rain, there's a handful of tourists about.  We join them outside the parliament to watch the changing of the guard by the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The guard are wearing the highland uniform of independence fighters from the 1820's - a short kilt, wool stockings and pom-poms on their shoes.  It is clear that being on duty here is some sort of public punishment.  Those stockings must itch in the summer.  And then, of course, there's the silly walk, made famous by Monty Python.

Turn a corner in Athens and you almost trip over Antiquity, as it lies sprawled in the road before you.  Hadrian's Arch now has a main road right past it.  It's taken our visit to Greece to understand how great an influence Classical Greece had on the Romans.  I'm still amazed at the realisation that the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, used the Greek language, not Roman.  There's a temple in a field, some foundations below the street level, an 11th century church around the corner, a mosque outside the metro station.  The ruins and the buildings tell the story of Athens' topsy-turvy history. 

On our second day we walk through a couple of contrasting neighbourhoods on a route recommended by Stavros.  We begin in the posh neo-classical neck of the woods, with embassy flags waving here and there, designer shops glittering their pearls and flashing their furs and outrageous clothes at us.  The locals are well-heeled and everyone stands to attention when a military band plays the national anthem at a parade.  The road then segues into the bohemian quarter where the buildings are decorated in graffiti and the cafes proliferate.  You can get a takeaway coffee for a euro these days - while our guidebook tells us that here you will find the most expensive coffee in Europe.  As Stavros has already remarked to us, the worse the economy gets, the more cafes open.

Greece has a long pedigree in cured meats.  In 431BC the Greeks famously defeated the Persians in the Battle of Salamis.
The highlight of our trip here is the visit to the Archaeological Museum.  The collection here is understandably large, varied and impressive.  It's also well-displayed.  There are finds from Mycenae, discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876, a German archeologist who, as Stavros puts it "found the truths that appeared in the Greek stories and myths" - he discovered Troy and Mycenae because he believed the stories in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were based on actual events.  At the time this was revelatory. In another room there are beautiful Cycladic finds over 4000 years old.  And then a flurry of bronze and marble sculptures from Ancient Greece.  Minoan frescoes. The finds from a shipwreck carrying Greek art to Rome around 200 BC, when the Romans were buying up everything they could get their hands on from Greece.  This shipwreck contained some geat sculpture, but Stavros' favourite piece is the Antikythera Mechanism.  This is hailed as the 'first computer'.  On the sea bed they found a collection of gears - fragments of metal - that have now been identified as a device that indicates the constellations and movement of the moon on a given date or vice versa.  The design and use of highly-sophisticated gearing is far beyond the known technology of the time and probably would not be matched for centuries. Great stuff.  The unmissable museum leaves us exhausted but sated.

the Cycladic "Thinker" is quite clearly on the phone - another piece of ancient Greek technology lost for centuries
In the evening we chat with Stavros.  He tells us that Athens, which we like immensely, is much better than two years ago.  He seems disappointed how the protests have now died down.  As an Erasmus student he studied in my home town of Manchester for 6 months.  He seems equivocal about his time there.  On his first night, like a true Greek, he went out after 11pm to see what was going on.  After walking a while in the wrong direction, away from the city centre, he was stopped by the police who suggested he might not want to be there and drove him back to the campus.  He travelled a lot around Britain and preferred everywhere else he went to Manchester.  After university and a few years as a computer programmer he found himself teaching at a primary school.  He loved it absolutely, but could never find a full-time permanent job.  He trained and taught supply for a few years, at one point having concurrent jobs teaching at primary, secondary and undergraduate level.  He came to the capital about four years ago when the crisis was taking hold - he could see that his job prospects were dim with the government being forced to cut public spending.  Now he's back computer programming but you can tell he'd rather be teaching children.

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