“Athens, the eye of Greece, mother of arts and eloquence.” - John Milton
Morning in Athens. Clear blue Attic sky, balmy temperatures and even in the midst of the traffic noise and the pullulating masses, even amongst the canyons of the high rise apartment buildings one may see some of the glory of the past that has inspired millions through the ages. We stayed at our usual hotel, the Golden City on Marni Street and had our usual room up on the seventh floor. Breakfast up on the roof garden is a pleasure looking over the sprawling city, watching every year as the built up area slowly creeps up the distant mountains. Amongst the TV aerials, through the dirty white apartment blocks one may see the odd church steeple or intriguing dome, catch glimpses of shining marble or the odd low hill covered with pines.
Athens is a city of great contrasts. With each passing year these contrasts increase in their depth and one is always astounded by the beauty and ugliness that can quite happily coexist, seemingly unaware of each other’s existence. The bathos sinking to the nadir of life abutting the highest of sublime heights. Dirty streets with seeming tons of rubbish right next to the most elegant and glittering of shop windows. The stench of urine and sewers assailing one’s nostrils with one step and the fragrant aroma of freshly baked bread, cinnamon-laden syrup and crisp pastries in the next step. The glazed stare of miserable drug addicts stumbling in the street next to the almond-eyed, beautifully made-up, alluring and coy glance of a beauty that passes by and smiles. Ugly modern apartment blocks happily coexisting with mellowed marble columns of the classic age; glittering buildings of glass and steel right opposite elegant, renovated neo-classical masterpieces. Ruinous and derelict buildings, ready to collapse right next to magnificent shopping centres. Beggars – maimed, dirty and unkempt sitting on the sidewalk with outstretched hands while young, carefree, fashionable people pass them by laughing and chatting. The illegal immigrants rubbing shoulders with the tourists, the Athenians smirking at the provincials on an obvious first time city visit. The terrible traffic – cars, motorbikes, motorcycles, crazy pedestrians while in the small parks and gardens tranquility. And it all works, in this mad, whirling, noisy, lively, exhausting, enervating, annoying, never-sleeping yet adorable megalopolis…
This is what makes it always a pleasure to return here – for every minus there are pluses, for every negative a positive. We have several activities planned, some friends to catch up with, some time to rest and spend relaxing in the city but also out and about. We spent the whole day wandering through Athens, in and out of bookshops. The highlight of these peregrinations was finding my children’s book on the shelves of the bookshops. The book is just out and found in a few of the larger bookshops already, but even the smaller ones have it on order. The publication has been a long process, almost two years in the making, but it was largely due to the fact of the publisher changing hands. Now with all under control, it has been released and from what the publisher is saying it has received good reviews.
Inevitably we end up buying large numbers of Greek books in Athens. The same books are anything between double and triple the price in Australia, but also one does not find the variety one has here. I am constantly surprised by the large numbers of bookshops and publishing houses in Athens. People certainly read here and they read a lot! We had an early night and made a few phone calls to catch up with friends.
Another full day of visiting bookshops! The whole day was spent going in one and coming out of the other. Immersing ourselves in the hunt for books and chatting to the owners or the staff about books was quite a pleasurable activity. However, after several trips to and from the hotel to leave behind our shopping, we felt quite exhausted. We took count of the number of steps we had made and it was over 22,000 (according to our trusty pedometer). A tiring day, but full of the satisfaction of the happy hunter who has captured the stalked prey!
There is a wonderful part of Athens called Monastiraki (= Little Monastery). It is an old part of Athens which nestles under the ancient Acropolis. Monastiraki Square is a lively place around here and the main street leading off takes one to narrow streets full of tourist shops, cafés and restaurants. On one comer of the square is a relic of the Turkish occupation, the Mosque, minus minaret, built by the Athenian Moslem, Tsisdarakis in 1759. Opposite is the Metro station through which pass two of the major lines of the network, making this place easily accessible by public transport. The square is being renovated a the moment and it is all dug up, but one gets used to this type of activity in Athens, where half the city seems to be under remodeling, renovation and refurbishment.
At the center of Monastiraki is Abyssinia Square, where the Sunday flea market has been held since 1910, but which now is host to a lot of antique shops, as well as many stalls full of trash and treasure. Thousands of things are for sale: Army uniforms, old brass items, Mickey Mouse clocks, mock Roman helmets, old money, second hand clothes, furniture, shoes, books, CDs, DVDs, whatever you could imagine can be found in these narrow alleyways and winding streets. There are souvenirs galore, some of them very good bargains (while others shamelessly overpriced – do shop around!).
There are jewellery shops and furniture stores with pine cabinets stacked high among semi-antiques. Ceramics, terra cotta and marble ware, old chess sets and new ones made of silver, marble and brass, old copper pans and bronze hearth sets. There are chandeliers and phonographs, junk to high quality antiques. Bargaining is very acceptable here as it is throughout Greece and it can be good fun too if you like that sort of thing! Monastiraki shows a lot that is Greek, in its shopping habits and tradesmen, its people and variety. It hasn't changed very much in centuries. A visit will show you a lot of the capital and its people, its mixture of old and new, a fascination that will keep you busy and guessing, and inevitably, shopping.
We visited some of the bookshops here and as well books we got some CDs and DVDs at bargain prices. The weather all of these days has been glorious, with warm days and balmy nights, no rain nor wind. Perfect for walking around the city and conducive to open air living. This is something that Greeks do a lot of in summer, whether at home or out and about in the city, at bars, restaurants and cafeterias.
We had dinner at Petrino Restaurant (http://www.petrinorestaurant.gr/homeenglish.htm) this evening and we enjoyed the fish we ordered with some house white wine (non-resinated) and with a delicious summer salad of tomatoes, cucumber, onions and oregano with a simple olive oil vinaigrette. We were treated by the management to a dessert of crème bavaroise with a chocolate sauce, which was also rather nice.
We walked back to our hotel and spent the night going through the books we bought and packing them into boxes, ready to be shipped to Australia. There were about 80 kg of books to be sent and the maximum allowed weight is 20 kg in a special packaging style. We prepared four packs and the fortunate thing about our hotel is that it’s only about 200 metres away from a post office.
At about 2:00 am that morning we were woken by an earthquake. It was only a slight tremor, but enough to wake us and make us realise immediately what it was. It was a most disconcerting feeling lying in bed and feeling the whole bed, the whole room wobbling. A few minutes later, the same thing happened and we felt again the tremor. The next morning we asked people at breakfast whether they had felt it and some said yes, but other had slept right through it. Unfortunately this quake was a warning of Monday’s intense earthquake in the Peloponnese, but of course nobody could predict it.