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Thursday, June 16, 2005

A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE

When I first started visiting Greece, and later when I lived here, I stayed in the Plaka, which is the old district just below the Acropolis. The name "Plaka" may be derived from the Albanian pliaka (old). It's part of the original old town which corresponds with the ancient deme of Kydathenaeion (and that's the name of the central street that runs through the plateia, Plaka Square.) In Turkish times much of this area was known as Gorgokikos. It's narrow lanes have steps rising up the slopes of the north side of the Acropolis hill to the little village of Anafiotika where the stone masons from the Island of Anafi settled. Most of Plaka is occupied by tavernas and tourist shops although now the grand old Neo Classical residences dating to the mid 19th B.C. re being restored and it's a prime location to live. I was lucky to have lived there while it was still inexpensive!

YesterdayI took a walk down memory lane, starting from Dinaz's apartment at the edge of Plaka, going up Vironos St. past #14 where I lived during the '80's in a cool, shady basement suite, sharing a courtyard with my lovely landlady and Roberto, my Argentian artist friend. Before that I had lived over in Koukaki on a tiny dead-end street called Iannatakis, with my African American friend Connie. When I returned after the summer of '84 I moved into this little suite where I lived until leaving Athens in '87. The street, Odos Vironos, is named after the poet George, Lord Byron. At the end of the street is the choregoi monument of Lysikrates. Lysikrates was a choregos who sponsored a choir of boys in a competition at the Theatre of Dionysos. Where the monument stands, and there used to be a milk shop where our gang of ex-pats hung out. It was known as the "Dirty Corner" because of the excavations around the monument, which have since been filled in.
This was once part of the Street of the Tripods. Odos Tripodon.

It was the custom of the victorious chorogoi (chorus sponsors) to dedicate to Dionysos the tripods which they had won in dramatic contest or choirs. These were either erected in the precincts of the Theatre of Dionysos which is just behind the Street ofTripods or on the street, which was specially appropriated to them. There is still a Tripodon St. which runs into Vironos, and also another street at this junction called Shelly St. after the poet Percy Byce Shelly who used to hang out with Byron on that corner.

The nomument is a round structure of Pentilic marble on a base with six Crinthian columns holding up a dome. At one time it was known as The Latnern of Demosthenes as it was believed the orater prepared his speeches while sitting inside it. During the 1800's the nonument was incorporated in the library of a French Capuchin convent. Byron, one of the many guests at the convent, is said to have used it as a study. He wrote part of Childe Harold here (1810-11)

Passing by the former "Dirty Corner" (the milk shop no longer exists and it's now quite a 'clean' corner) I couldn't help but recall the many daily dramas that took place there (of which sometimes I was the star). Every table would be occupied by ex-pats, strolling tourists or locals and there was alway some sort of scandal and much merriment. Often when I was on my way to lessons I'd have to skirt around here and detour the Plaka Square or someone would nab me along the way, inviting me to sit down for a krasi and chat and I'd never get to my destination. When I'd come home later in the evening, they'd all still be there, holding court in front of the monument, generally gathered around Roberto, the side-walk philosopher who provided hours of interesting discourse on life, often talking endlessly about his beloved Argentina, from which he was an exile.

Past this corner, I enter the Plaka tourist district, going down Adrianou St. with all the souvenier shops, until I reach the corner of Aeolou St. and Hadrian's Library. The Library covers a large area and is still being excavated and restored. The interior was laid out as a garden with the rooms around it, probably like those in the library at Alexandria, Egypt. Up Aeolou Street to familiar territory.

When I first started visiting Athens from 1978 until 1983 when I came back to live here, I always stayed in this part of the Plaka and spent my time in Monastiraki, especially at the Taverna Poulakis where I made a lot of friends including Giorgos who used to live in Anafiotkia, and Connie the African-American girl I later shared an apartment with. One of the same waiters, Ari, still works at the taverna next to Poulakis (which is closed now) and each time I'm here I go around for a meal and a visit.

My favorite hotel at the time was the funky old Hotel Tempi. It was a five-floor walk-up hotel that used to rent rooms out by the hour for those desiring a quick tryst, so there was always a lot of action. I'd lug my back-pack up the marble stairs to my room, which I usually only paid about $4 a night for or 500 drachmae. Once I had the 'pent-house' room on the roof. It was painted Pepto-Bismal pink and the walls had sole marks all over it with squished mosquitos. I liked that room though. From it I looked down on the street to the flower market in front of the Church. In those days, Aeolou St. was a busy thoroughfare but now it's all paved in a pedestrian mall. And much to my surprise, the old hotel has undergone a face-life and is quite spiffied up! I had to go back there today to take photos as I must put together a 'before and after' album. It's really quite incredible the improvements that haved been made in the city since the advent of the Olympics!

Aeolou is a shopping street, bustling with people and merchants hawking their wares. The tourists rarely venture forth here and for that reason it's more interesting to go there. Prices are moderate and there is no shortage of shops and entertaining sights to see. This is the 'real' Athens: a political protest by the National Bank with slogans broacast over a loudspeaker; a strolling group of gypsy musicians playing Latin music on clarinet, accordian, guitar and tamourine; the old hurdy-gurdy man in his yellow jacket and fedora cranking the handle on his antique laterna; a barefoot gypsy crone begging for alms.

The grand bazaar of Plaka runs off Aeolou St. Monastiraki is teaming with people (watch your purse here!), the narrow streets lined with tourist shops. Then, past Monastiraki Square where the Metro station is, there are miscellaneous shops and on weekends a huge Flea Market.
Today Patrick and I went from here up Adrianou St. - another shopping area. Here you can buy everything including the kitchen sink. I was fascinated by the pet shops with cages full of exotic birds (Cheeky's relatives were there!). We went up past the big Demokratika Agora Athena, the public market where there are aisles of fish and meat. The fish market has stalls displaying sea-food (fresh) of every species. The meat market has sanitary refrigerated display cases now. Back in the '80's there were sides of beef, whole skinned lambs and pigs and wild boar hanging on hooks. At night time, when the stalls closed, there are a couple of taverns and going to the "Meat Market" after midnight to enjoy a bowl of patsa (tripe soup) or souvlaki was a favorite place of our gang. People of all walks of life would appear there for late-night meals: from the raggle-taggle gypsies to women in expensive furs just come from the opera. I wonder if those tavernas still exist?

This is the Athens that I have such fond memories of and going back there brings to life all those long-forgotten stories which one of these days I really must write down. Athens is changing but somehow I doubt these parts of town will although I must admit the improvements have made everything look smart and appealing. (not trendy, for 'trendy' you go up to the expensive shopping areas of Kolonaki where the wealthier folk hang out.) This is Athens, the Athens I will always remember!


"Yet are thy skies as blue, thy crags as wild;
Sweet are thy groves, and verdant are thy fields,
Thine olive ripe as when Minerva smiled,
And still his honey'd wealth Hymettus yields;
There the blithe bee his fragrant fortress builds,
The freeborn wanderer of thy mountain-air;
Apollo still thy long, long summer gilds,
Still in his beam Medeli's marbles glare:
Art, Glory, Freedom fail, but Nature still is fair."

George, Lord Byron - from "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage"

2 comments:

Sam said...

lovely descriptions - I feel as if I'm walking through the market with you!

Wynn Bexton said...

Thanks for the reply. More coming up - and you can be here in spirit. wynn