Friday, October 4, 2013

An Interlude in Athens

We arrive in Athens after travelling all day by ferry and bus from Corfu.  The bus takes a rather indirect route crossing over to the Peloponnese and back to the mainland again before finally arriving in Athens.  The scenery in parts is quite stunning and I wish there were a few photo stops along the way, but most of the people on the bus are locals and are quite blasé about the passing scenery. 

We arrive at the apartment to find Steve’s mum and dad eagerly awaiting us on the street.  They are delighted to meet up again because we haven’t seen then since we left Sydney in June.  After a brief rest we go out to a little café for a bite to eat and a long chat.  They’ve been travelling for the past 2 months as well and are full of stories of the places they have been – Budapest, cruising the Danube, Vienna and Prague. 

Steve has been to Athens many times before but this is my first time here and I am excited to finally see some of the world’s most famous archaeological sites and to be in one of the world’s most ancient cities with a recorded history that spans more than 3,500 years.  This is the city that is renowned for being the birthplace of Democracy and the disordered nature of the streets testify to its history and organic nature of development. 

On our first day, we catch up with our friend Niko, who we first met in Scotland at the conference in Findhorn.  Niko is a lecturer at a university here in Athens and has invited us to a lecture on Rethinking Athens.  We arrive early and chat with him and a couple of his friends.  Athens is obviously a cosmopolitan city with regular cultural and educational events.  The event we are attending includes speakers from the US and Spain as well as two speakers from Greece.  Everyone is here to talk about the global changes that are occurring and how citizens are banding together to change the nature of the cities they live in.  We enjoyed the talks and are especially intrigued by the speaker from the US, Cathy Lanh Ho, who talked about many spontaneous interventions that are happening in the US.   A number of these were
familiar to us, like the guerrilla gardeners (found in Australia as well) who transform public space over night, by planting on land that has been abandoned or neglected by its rightful owner.  We were amazed though to learn there were so many interventions taking place in the US and Europe and felt at the end of the talks that Australians were still very complacent about the future of our planet. 

If you wish to research this further, have a look at this website, full of ideas that you may wish to implement in your own city!

The lectures were held in the Onassis Cultural Centre and afterwards we end up at the rooftop bar where we get an incredible view of Athens by night. The Acropolis and Parthenon are all lit up and the lights of the city add to a breathtaking view from this spot.  Over glasses of white wine we share stories about the communities we have visited and what we have learnt and hear stories of some of the initiatives undertaken by Niko’s friends here in Greece.   

We start our explorations of Athens in the area known as Plaka, a very touristy section of this city but still a good spot for a bite to eat and a browse due to the many tavernas and little curiosity shops here.  We enjoy some traditional Greek food, my favourite mousaka, accompanied with dolmades, Greek, salad and meatballs. 

Our visit to the Acropolis and Parthenon was definitely a highlight of my visit to Greece.   This is a place that had great religious, cultural and intellectual significance for the citizens of Greece and a place that would have been symbolic of the achievements of this great civilisation.  Years ago, in 1959 my parents visited Athens and I vaguely remember some of the stories my dad recounted and the various marble sculptures that are placed around their home, mementos from this visit.   As I look closely I realise that the hillsides of this city are rich with marble, a fortunate co-incidence (?) for a city where sculpture played such a dominant part in its architecture.  The Parthenon itself has undergone many makeovers having first been built as a temple to the goddess Athena, then been converted by the Christians to a church and then transformed to a mosque during the Turkish occupation.  It has been destroyed and rebuilt many times during the wars and invasions faced by this city. 

I am glad we are climbing the Acropolis at the end of the summer.   A cool breeze (almost a little too cold) makes the climb a lot easier and enjoyable and we stop along the way to enjoy the incredible views of the city.  There are still crowds but not the hordes that would be here in the peak season.  I try to imagine what this place would have been like during the height of the Classical period of Greek Civilisation, more than 2,000 years ago.   The consumer concerns of much of society today, resulting in neighbourhoods with little style or architecture of significance seems so sterile in comparison. 

In the 1980’s Athens greatest challenge to preserving its archaeological treasures was the constant smog that engulfed Athens due to its traffic congestion.  New and improved infrastructure has seen an
improvement in air quality.  In fact, I am amazed at how impressive the metro of Athens is.  It goes everywhere and is well patronised by the citizens here.  What is more incredible are the artefacts housed in the walls of the metro, all of which were discovered during its construction.  This is testament to the fact that Athens is a city that has been continuously inhabited for over 7,000 years so any construction site is a minefield of heritage items!    Projects here often stall for months, till a suitable solution can be found with the discovery of new archaeological sites. 

We spend the afternoon at Syntagma or Constitution Square, home to the Greek Parliament as well as many of the posh hotels and expensive shopping district of Athens.  We enjoy the changing of the guard’s ceremony and people-watch for a while here. 

The next day I enjoyed the other highlight of my visit to Athens, discovering the new Acropolis
museum, built to house the artefacts from the Parthenon and to inform the public of its rich history.  The museum has a superb view of the Acropolis and Parthenon and includes models of the Parthenon as well a very informative video of its history.  We spend quite a few hours here, enjoying the space and the artefacts displayed here.  

We are leaving for Skopelos the next day so we decide to get our bus tickets during the afternoon.  Athens has a number of bus stations all serving different destinations.  Thankfully, we’ve decided to figure this out the day before.  We are first directed to the wrong bus stop and finally find our way to the bus stop serving Volos, the port city we must reach to catch the ferry to Skopelos.  Once we get there, we find the tickets for the 9am bus are all sold out so we have to settle for the earlier bus, which leaves at 7 in the morning.  It will be an early morning start tomorrow but at least we know how to get here now! 

It is our last night in Athens and we meet up with Niko again.  He has invited us to a little teahouse, owned by a friend of his.  It is only through knowing a local that you discover the real gems of a city.  The aroma of tea greets us as we enter the café.  It is an infusion of smells from the varied collection of teas from around the world that are housed on the walls of this special place.  Trying to select which tea to try takes us a little while but I settle for a mixture of apple and berries and Steve settles on an Indian tea with ginger, cinnamon and other spices.   We continue our discussions and stories of community and learn a little more about the projects that Niko is involved in.  We are amazed at the depth and variety of his interests and finally say goodbye.  We hope we will meet again and we are truly thankful for having this opportunity for cementing another friendship that was forged in Scotland.  

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