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Monday, June 13, 2005

INGRID'S LAST DAY: A Mini Tour of Syntagma and Plaka

"Maid of Athens, ere we part,
Give, oh give me back my heart!
Or, since that has left my breast,
Keep it now, and take the rest!
Hear my vow, before I go,
Zoe mou, sas agapo." George, Lord Byron.

Yesterday was Ingrid's last day in Athens, so we made one last tour around so I could show her "my Plaka". We hopped off the #15 trolley on Syngrou Ave. right by the lovely bust of Melina Mercouri that is placed in a small green space. She was one of the 'goddesses' of Greece, not only famous as a movie star (Never On Sunday) but also as an eminent cultural crusader and supporter of women's rights in Greece. At the time of her death she was the Minister of Culture. She was highly esteemed and revered. I'll never forget the day I was sitting in Plaka Square with my friends and she breezed through, all dressed in white, with her entourage. A beautiful, gracious woman. When her body was returned to Athens after her death of cancer in N.Y., the road from the airport was lined with people holding candles. The whole of the country wept for her.

Across from the statue of Melina, is the impressive Hadrian's Arch. The Roman Emperor Hadrian had a great affection for Athens and embellished the city with many monuments. The Arch of Hadrian was erected in AD 132 probably to commemorate the consecration of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It was a dividing point between the ancient Greek city and the Roman city. The inscription of the frieze of the N.W. side is "This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus." On the eastern side it states: "This is the city of Hadrian, not Theseus."

Behind the Arch stands the imposing remaining columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The building of the Temple began in the 6th C. B.C. but it took over 700 years to complete it and this was accomplished by Hadrian in AD 131. Only fifteen of the original 104 immense Corinthian columns remain. Each was 17 m. high with a base diameter of 1.7 m.) It was a perfect counter-balance to the nearby Parthenon high on the Acropolis hill.

Just across the road is a beautiful statue of Lord Byron being comforted by the angelic figure of a woman representing Greece. He, along with other aristocratic young men who included Shelly, Goethe, Schiller, Victor Hugo and Alfred de Musset, arrived in Greece during the Turkish occupation willing to fight to liberate the Greeks. Byron died in the town of Messalongi in Jan. 1824 of pneumonia. He became a Greek national hero. I used to live on "Byron Street" (Vironos) in the Plaka, just down the road from where there was a monastery where he often stayed, by the monument of Lysikrates, the last remaining tripod monument awarded to a choir for performing at the ancient theatre of Dionysos nearby. "Shelly Street" runs off of Vironos. And this was the actor's part of town in the ancient days and believe me, the scene of many a drama during the days we all hung out at the infmous "Dirty Corner."

We walked up the boulevard into the Zappeion Gardens. Here is the possible site of Aristotele's Lyceum. Although it is not marked as so, there are some ruins there and some marble chairs - possibly Roman period. The philosopher had studied at Plato's Academny where he remained for 20 years, til after Plato's death. Some years after leaving the Academy due to a disagreement, he returned to Athens to found a rival institution, The Lyceum, which was a school of Peripatetitcs (the walking philosophers) some of whom feature in my novel. (I forgot to mention in an earlier post that on the way to and from Bus Depot A, going to the islands, we passed the park that was the site of Plato's Academy. There are some ruins there and a bust of the philosopher.)

The Zappeion is a beautiful Neo-Classical building built in the 1870's with money donated by a wealthy Greek-Romanian benefactor. It's used for exhibitions. Next to the Zappeion are the National Gardens, a delightful shady refuge from the bustling crowds and din of traffic on the downtown avenues. They were formerly the royal gardens designed by Queen Amalia. The gardens contain sub tropical trees, ornamental ponds with water-fowl, and a botanical museum.

Right across from the Gardens is the well-known Plateia Syntagmatos (Syntagma Square) the main city square and scene of many protest gatherings as well as a nice place to lounge in the shade sheltered from the busy avenues. Flanking it on the east side is the former royal palace (til 1935 when the royalty moved to another residence nearby). Now it's the parliament buildings. It is guarded by the evzones - National Guards who get their name traditionally from the village of Evzone in Macedonia. Their uniform, short pleated kilts (white for special days) and pom-pom clogs are based on the attire worn by the klephts, mountain people who were fierce partisans in the battles against the Turks in the War of Independance. One day Ingrid and I were lucky enough to catch the changing of the guards, which is always fun to watch. They do a hop-skip, slow-motion kind of dance step which must require excellent muscle tone. (I once knew a former Evzone and he said he had long-lasting knee problems from having served as a guard).

On the north side of the Square is the grandest of Athen's hotels, the Hotel Grand Bretagne, built in 1862 and refurbished for the Olympic Games. It was originally a sixty room mansion used to accomodate visiting dignitaries and was convereted to a hotel in 1872 to house guests of the royalty and eminent politicians. During WWII, the Nazi's made it their headquartrers. This hotel was once the scene of an attempt to blow up British prime minister Winston Churchill on Christmas Eve 1944 when he was in Athens.

From there, on to the Web Cafe, (my favorite hang-out), and then a delicious concoction of passion fruit juice and espresso coffee at the Floka Espresso Cafe which has the most amazing toilet I've ever seen! (side note: the public bathrooms all over Greece have undergone major beautifying, but this one takes the prize! ) It has a gadget that santizes the bowl and toilet seat. I was amazed, on rising from the throne, to see the seat begin to spin around and a scubbing gadget comes down to cleanse it. It was quite a phenomena! I wonder if they'll ever get those in Vancouver? Just goes to show you some of the amazing affects and benefits the Olympic Games had on this old city!

Now we went on to the Plaka, my old home turf for so many years! The Plaka Square was mobbed with the first wave of tourists (mostly American). On a side street I had to show Ingrid this curious little 'garden' of graffitti and props built by a character known as Tim-Tom-Teddy. He was a friend of Robbies and my friend Lilian knows him, says he is an eccentric Englishman who does odd jobs for the Church so they have given him this 'hovel' to live in. He has all sorts of junk decorated up, such as an old jeep (A "Taliban Taxi') and bits of pieces of junk and mannikens, most of which have Anti-Bush slogans or sayings on them. As we were observing this latest display some American tourist ladies came by and were obviously quite aghast! (Did I mention how anti-Bush the Greeks are?)

Through the busy Square which is lined with expensive tavernas (we used to hang out there in the '80's before the white table clothes and pricey menus) and up through the narrow marble-paved streets to the little settlement of Anafiotika. This is a replica of a small island village, built years ago by the stonemasons of a tiny Cycladian island, Anafi who came to help rebuild the city after the War of Independance. The little whitewashed cube-style houses are built under the brow of the North flank of the Acropolis. It's a beautiful spot, often overlooked by tourists, and one of my most favorite places in Plaka. The narrow paths wind up the hill. Painted olive oil tins and small garden plots brim with a profusion of flowers. Some of the lanes are barely an arm's width and some even narrower. Dozens of tame and feral cats lounge in the sun along the paths. I had a friend (now passed away) who lived in Anafiotika and I stayed in his house several times on my early trips to Athens. My friend Corinne and her daughter Tay lived there with George for some time.
Sadly, he died several years ago and the house was abandoned last time I came to Athens. This time I notice the shutters had been freshly painted and there were geraniums in a pot outside the padlocked door so perhaps some family member has taken possession of it.

Down the hill from Anafiotika we stop to visit the ancient Theatre of Dionysos. The theatre was originally built in the 6th century BC with wooden tiers and in the 4th C. BC the tiers were replaced with Pireaus limestone. Theatre life was important in Athenian life and here all the dramas of writers such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were performend along with the bady comedies of Aristophanes. The theatre had a seating capacity of 17,000 spread over 65 tiers of seats of which about twenty survive. Except for the front row, the seats were occupied by ordinary citizens (women were confiend to the back row!) The front row of 67 throne seats built of Penetic marble were rerserved for festival officials and important priests. Some of them have names carved on them and you can see the holes where poles held up canopies to shade them from the sun. The grandest throne seat in the centre was reserved the the Priest of Dionysos.

I was impressed to see more work has been done on the site including a paved pathway that leads on up to the Acropolis. You can now obtain a ticket that includes all the sites, including the theatre, Acropolis and Agora however I am lucky to have a site pass because of my research which was provided by the Finnish Institute some years ago.

After our mini tour, we walked over to Hatzichristou Street, just outside Plaka, and sat awhile at the To Kati Allo Taverna enjoying some cold Myro beer and a chat with Anna and Dino. Later that evening all of us went there for dinner, treated by Ingrid. (Christina, Daniella, Dinaz, Ingrid and I). Then Ingrid and I went to spend the night with Dinaz as it was closer to reach the airport bus at 4 .a.m from her apartment in Plaka. I'll be staying there this week, anticipating the arrival of our friend Patrick from Central America on Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, I was sorry to say good bye to my travel companion and I know Ingrid was sad to leave. But we will no doubt have lots of time to rehash our adventures when I get home after two weeks.

"Maid of Athens! I am gone:
Think of me, sweet! When alone,
Though I fly to (Istanbul) Vancouver
Athens holds my heart and soul:
Can I cease to love thee? No!
Zoe mou, sas agapo." Byron





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