NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER/ APRIL 2000
got to take Athens slowly, advises Zoe Kalliga as we pick
our way through the olive trees and day-trippers at the base of
the Acropolis. An elegant septuagenarian with the enthusiasm of
a teenager, Kalliga has guided tourists around her native
city for more than 40 years. Today she is showing me the sights,
although Ι am not really a xeni a
foreigner. Ι moved to Athens from Britain when Ι was 6 and lived
here until Ι was 18. Now, with a little help from old friends, Ι
am rekindling my girlish infatuation with the city where Ι grew
up. Athens has changed radically since those blue-sky days when
Ι had a donkey in my backyard and televisions were a rare commodity.
Mobile phones and subway stations are everywhere, as are multiplex
movie theatres, cocktail lounges, and sushi bars. Being English
here was once exotic; now that Nigerians, Kurds, Albanians, and
Ukrainians have moved in, I'm just another European. Ι feel like
a stranger in my own hometown.
One thing hasn't changed: the city's centerpiece. Startlingly white and appearing perfectly symmetrical, the Parthenon always dazzles. Α tribute to the city's namesake, goddess of wisdom Athena, the temple originally was so gaudy, claimed the ancient chronicler Plutarch, that locals protested: "We are gilding and adorning our city like a wanton woman." Bleached by the centuries, the Parthenon now looks positively Spartan compared to the neon-bright metropolis clamoring at its feet. From up by the temple Athens appears bigger and brasher than Ι remember-and even more disorderly. Α jagged concrete skyline claws the horizon until it melts into the old Saronic Gulf.
Nuggets of nostalgia linger in the contemporary clutter: Fallen temple columns lie pell-mell in parks, Byzantine churches snuggle between skyscrapers, neoclassical mansions wear their peeling facades with pride, "Chaos" was coined by the ancient Greeks; in Athens, most modern of ancient cities, that chaotic legacy is everywhere apparent. And that's exactly how the locals like it. "The only reason Athenians have survived for so long is because they accept the assumption that they're all half-crazy!" laughs Kalliga. "They're proud of the fact that they do things their own anarchic way." Calm prevails in Anafiotika, a labyrinth of whitewashed lanes meandering below the Acropolis. Things liven up as we descend into Athens' oldest quarter, Plaka. Chock-full of folk museums, guesthouses, and cafes, for all its gimmickry Plaka remains disarmingly charming. Ι feel less of an imposer and more like a bona-fide (xeni / foreigner) here. Bouzouki players pluck a path through courtyard taverns while mustachioed men press us to invest in Ouzo Power-shirts. A chorus of hecklers chants in our wake: Madam Best price only for you.Please, Madam! Step inside and take a look! alliga bustles me past the glow-in-the-dark deities and phallic figurines. There's no time to haggle-we're going to church. In the hushed shadows of Kapnikarea church-a fragment of Byzantium marooned on commercial Ermou street instinctively cross myself three times. Orthodoxy is a way of life for Greeks, although it sometimes manifests itself in the most unorthodox ways. A few blocks over we come across a window display pairing icons and underwear. Next door is an ecclesiastical outfitter that doubles as a furrier. Thank God the city hasn't lost its surreal edge. Nothing has changed at Tristrato, the quaint Plaka tearoom where I would skip class as a teenager. We fuel up on iced mountain tea and creamy yogurt gilded with thyme-flavored honey. "You're in Greece-you're not allowed to pay! scolds Kalliga when I try to pick up the check. A cheerful squabble ensues. (Athenians always insist on treating visitors, but it is good manners to protest loudly before accepting their generosity.) "Next time, it's my treat. I'll be a local again by then," I promise as we kiss each cheek good-bye. After the drowsy lanes of Plaka, the honk-honk-honk of Athena's Street comes as a shock. I wade through a Balkan sea of hawkers peddling everything from bootleg cigarettes to hard drugs, then navigate parked cars, wayward motorbikes, and orange trees growing out of the sidewalk before setting a course for the Centric Agora-Central Market. Early this century horse-drawn carriages and chickens trotted along Athens's dusty boulevards. Today, more than a million cars, 600,000 motorbikes, and over 3.5 million people (a third of the total population of Greece) are squeezed into the capital.
The new metro system, still burrowing its way through layers of antiquities and scheduled to open in sections through 2000, promises to alleviate the perennial traffic problem. Ambitious plans to link all the major archaeological sites with pedestrian walkways are also underway. The sixth century B.C. Agora, Europe's first shopping mall, is where the ancients bartered and bickered. Nowadays the pulse of the Athenian marketplace races at the Centric Agora. Whiffs of oregano, paprika, and raw meat tickle and prickle my nostrils. Α delicious assault on the senses, the market is also the perfect appetizer. Like a saucy schoolgirl Ι dip my fingers into a barrel of olives, snaffle a handful of pistachios. For big spenders and big hairdos, Kolonaki, in the city's center, is the place; only suburban Kifissίa competes with this upscale district. Ι hail a cab, squeeze in beside a pair of hefty housewives, and we inch our way uptown. Suddenly Athens looks glossy, glamorous. Everything oozes wealth. Haughty shop assistants give me dirty looks as Ι gaze into designer boutiques decorated with α selection of haute couture labels. So Ι settle for a cheap thrill: chocolate gateau at Desiree, a zaharoplasteion (pastry cafe) frequented by Old Money. Athenians love to make an occasion of everything, especially dining out. Once, souvlakia was the staple diet and moussaka - was on every menu. Fashion-hungry Athenians have since - acquired α taste for foreign fare, and a rash of designer eateries-White Elephant, Κίkυ, Boschetto-has broken out across - town. Right now, though, Ι am craving some honest Greek grub. It is 3 p.m.-not an unreasonable hour for lunch in Athens. Ι have a date at Το Diporto, a bastion of culinary authenticity hidden below the food market, with my friend, Yianni's, an eisodimatias-man of independent means-who- is free to indulge his twin passions for food and art. Ι sidestep a crumpled crone hawking beets on the roadside and slip down into Dίporto's basement. Everything is reassuringly, wonderfully familiar. Smoke, garlic, and snatches of a song hover in the air. Ensconced beneath the casks of retsina - are a motley crew of vendors and gallery owners. We all stew - in the same blackened pot down here. Yianni's has already made friends; he shouts introductions above the clattering saucepans and scurrilous banter. Α barrel-bellied waiter slams a tin pitcher of wine onto our grease-proof paper tablecloth. Wedges of - grilled bread drizzled in olive oil and oregano, a lemony salad of wild weeds and a hunk of feta appear and disappear. Then we pounce on a platter of char-grilled fish, tearing at the soft white flesh with sticky fingers. Α naturally messy eater, Ι have always loved bare-bones mageiria (literally "cook houses") like Dίporto because you can get as messy as you like. Dipping your bread in the olive oil and sucking your fish bones clean is de rigueur. You can also get absolutely drunk without causing the least offence. This is the kind of joint where a stranger might send over a carafe of wine or grab one of your meatballs. Yianni's and I drink another cheery toast-to the camaraderie that miraculously survives in this manic metropolis. We sober up with a stroll through one of my favorite neighborhoods, Psirri, near the city center. Ι hardly recognize my old stamping ground. Traditionally the domain of tanners and coppersmiths, who had their workshops here, the area has been taken over by rustically deco red music-and-meze appetizer bars. The streets smell less of leather, sweat, and wood shavings, more of ouzo, octopus, and insouciance. Ι am glad to see Athenians still take their leisure seriously but surprised how gentrified cafe society has become. All the hipsters have moved to Gazi. "The old gasworks has been converted into a cultural center," explains Yiannis. Gazi is an intriguing blend of bohemian ghetto and industrial chic. Street urchins run riot in the squares while the stylishly savvy hang loose in experimental theaters and side walk bars. Like so much of Athens, it feels both urbane and provincial. For old time's sake Ι drag Yiannis into a kafeneion for α glass of sludgy Greek coffee and a vanilla submarine spoonful of vanilla-flavored sugar paste served in α glass of ice-cold water. The slam of backgammon and click-clack of worry beads beat their own, slow time. Neighborhood kafeneίa- nicotine-stained coffeehouses where cards and tavli (backgammon) are played, and political grievances loudly aired-remain almost exclusively α male domain. It is astonishing that they remain at all, given their rock-bottom prices and the relentless pace of modernization in the metropolis. But haste is anathema to the Athenian way of life. It's easy to idle away an afternoon over a 50-cent coffee, slouched in a chair worn smooth by countless armchair philosophers. "Hello, daaarling!" No wonder locals fondly refer to Athens as "the big village"; wherever Ι go, Ι bump into someone I know but then, artist and man-about-town Dimitrίs Andonitsis is one of those Athenians who seem to do nothing but socialize. He knows everyone and everything worth knowing in Athens. "Darling, where have you been? And what are you doing tonight?" Ι shrug and start to-"Perfect! Darling, I'm taking you out! "This is my cue to go and sleep off lunch. If Ι plan to stay the pace, I'll have to take a siesta-in Athens a night on the town begins around midnight and ends with tripe soup at sunrise. Andonitsis kicks off the evening highbrow; applying his networking magic, he has secured front-row seats at the Herodes Atticos Theater, for my money the best of concert halls. While Electra's tragic fate is played out before a backdrop of broken columns, shooting stars arc like silver tears across the sky. The city's glorious past suddenly dwarfs the present. Athens was the birthplace not only of drama, but of democracy and philosophy-as any Athenian will volubly inform you. Athens By Night
Despite this fixation with history, impulsive Athenians live for the moment. It is 1 am, and all of Athens is a stage: Α cast of gesticulators improvise abuse in yet another traffic jam, university students chew on Socrates in brightly lit tavernas, and loud merrymakers shower each other with car- nations in bouzouki nightclubs. We hail a taxi and squeeze in beside two tarts in teeny tank tops. Gossip flows from their painted pouts like a Joyce an stream of consciousness. Athenians have always been furious gossips, but Ι am positive that Athenian women weren't so skinny and bleached before. The leggy hookers cruising Plateia Theatrou have been at the peroxide too. They greet Andonitsis like an old buddy. Okay, he's a self-confessed socialite, but isn't this going a bit far? "Darling, my last art project was all about drag queens you'll adore it!" Inside Guru Bar, media darlings vie for attention and floor space. Ι shuffle after Andonitsis as he air kisses his way up three floors of margaritas, Thai noodles, and dancing to live jazz. Ι am keen to get back into a more traditional Greek groove though, so we hotfoot it to the nearest bouzouki, known colloquially as a skyladiko, or "doghouse." Devotees flock to these temples of kitsch to worship a modern pantheon of Greek pop stars. The decor is sheer Euro trash. Too shy to try the tabletop tsiftetelli, a shimmy that would put Cher to shame, Ι indulge in a little carnation-flinging. Eventually, we come up for air. Last stop is the meat market, for a nightcap at Stoa ton Athanaton, a round-the-clock rembetadiko, a tavern where traditional Greek music has found a new audience. Andonitsis then talks me into a finale at one of the all-night restaurants nearby, to swill down the night's excesses with a bowl of patsas-that tripe soup. As dawn dapples the Parthenon, Andonitsis and Ι bid each other good morning and he leaves me alone with the city. Athens is good company. The perfumed shade of the National Gardens affords sweet respite from the night's extravagances. Pistachio vendors, portrait painters, and stray cats are beginning to wander into the scenery. Ι stroll through the park, and watch the traditional evzones parading like toy soldiers in tutus outside Parliament. Somehow this mismatched mosaic of myth and modern-day grit fits. Infuriating, inspiring, and always surprising, Athens is the capital of contradictions. Few fall in love with her at first sight. Once smitten, your relationship is bound to be more than platonic. View our Portfolio at Athens By Night
London born and Athens bred, Rachel Howard (Α Night in Athens) has led a life that can be called a tale of two cities. "Living in Athens gives you a heightened sense of the surreal and makes you addicted to the unpredictable. In a single afternoon Ι came across a sign outside of a souvlakia stall warning `Please don't touch the fries,' a furrier who doubled as an ecclesiastical outfitter and a taxi driver whose opening gambit was: "Do you sleep alone?"' Managing editor of the first official website (currently under construction) for Greece, Howard also contributes to High Life, Odyssey, and Το Vima, the leading Sunday newspaper in Greece. Athens By Night
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