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Monday, October 04, 2010

NOW I'M HOME AGAIN, SOME TIPS FOR TRAVELERS TO ATHENS

I've been home two weeks now, and I'm finally over jet-lag and culture shock, and right back into my daily routines of instructing writing classes, getting my own writing caught up and reminiscing about the seven weeks I spent abroad.  I have a treasure-trove of wonderful memories and a lot of excellent photos to remind me of those lovely, sunny (sometimes too hot!) days in London, Wales, Germany and Greece.

Today I got a message from a traveling writer friend who just returned from Milan.  She said her husband had his pocket picked in Milan and lost his money, credit cards etc.  This reminded me of a warning I wanted to pass on to future travelers to Europe, and in particular Athens.  Beware of pick-pockets and purse snatchers because they are rampant in the city.  Not only have tourists been robbed, but also locals.  The thieves are watching people who stop at ATMs and banks and you are followed and accosted.  It happened to me last year right on the main street near the National Gardens. My sister and niece were following just behind me.  We had crossed the road from the bank and were heading up to see the evzones change guards at the Parliament buildings. I felt someone tap my back-pack and assumed it was my sister or niece but just then four girls accosted me, two on each side, and bumped me. I immediately pulled off my backpack to find it was open.  Fortunately my wallet was at the bottom but they had taken my gold cosmetics bag.  A short few minutes later we were in front of the parliament watching the guards routine.  People were pressing around. Again I felt someone nudge me, a woman, and immediately removed my backpack to find it was open.  I had acted too quickly for her hand to reach in and take my wallet.

Two incidents have been related to me by friends of their husbands going to the bank, being followed onto the metro and immediately jostled, and having their wallets stolen.  While I was in Athens a couple of weeks ago, the police arrested 75 Romanians who had been 'working' the metro trains and stations stealing wallets.  I also heard about a tourist in Monastiraki who had his bag snatched in broad daylight while on a crowded street.  So beware!

It is unfortunate that this is happening as when I lived in Athens and up until recent years there was very little crime there and I always felt perfectly safe.  Now it is no longer so.  DO NOT go around Omonia Square at night, and avoid getting a hotel anywhere in that area.  It is now full of drug addicts, thieves and prostitutes.  My friends who live in Athens are terrified to go near there, especially at night.  So take my advice and stay away from that area.  It might be cheaper than around Plaka, but it is very dangerous!

You must also be aware of the traffic in Athens as it is dense and speedy so watch out crossing roads.  People don't necessarily obey traffic rules.

I also found out that I couldn't wear my fancy shoes while I was there because I'd forgotten about the wonky sidewalks.  In the main downtown area it might be okay, but around Plaka and the other neighbourhoods the sidewalks are uneven, sometimes cobblestones and often with cracked pavements.  It's best to wear comfortable flat footwear.  I noticed everyone wearing beautiful thongs and sandals and that is the best bet, other than some sturdy running shoes or trainers. 

There doesn't seem to be the problems with electrical wiring that there used to be.  Back when I first started to visit Greece in '79 there were some pretty dodgy wiring jobs in hotels, but that has been rectified and in general washrooms and other public places seem pretty safe.  But remember something there, you still have to put toilet paper in the bins, NOT in the toilets!  It's a bit hard to get used to a first, but you'll soon get the knack (and find  yourself doing it once you get home too!)

In general you will have a safe and happy time in Athens.  There's plenty of people around in the tourist areas, and the Greeks are friendly and helpful.  You might find it a bit disconcerting on the local beaches when you are assailed by the droves of African and Bangladesh vendors who swarm all the beaches and even the streets of the city, in particular Plaka.  When I was on the islands, I didn't notice the same problem, but in Athens it has become a bit overwhelming.  I wonder how many of them are illegal immigrants.  It's a pretty bleak way to try and make some money.

Enjoy your stay there. Athens is an exciting city and there's lots to see and do.  Just be aware of the possible 'dangers' and take care.  Best to carry credit cards and extra cash in a body wallet tucked under your clothing.  My rule is to never carry any visa or debit card on me unless I intend to use it and then make sure it's safely tucked away where preying hands cannot reach it.  And because of the incident with my back-pack, I am careful not to carry my wallet there unless it is tucked away out of reach.  Better safe than sorry!
Athens sunset



Thursday, September 16, 2010

TIME TO SAY GOODBYE

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View of Lykebetos across the Agora

It's my last day here in Athens.  I am anxious to get on the way home but at the same time will feel deep regret leaving.  That's always the way it is. I am torn between here and home (both being 'home' to me).
If I could, I'd stay much longer like I used to during the 90's when I stayed six months at a time while working on my novel.  But this time I didn't do much writing and I realize now that I must get myself a notebook computer so I can be writing more on the road.  (I did make notes but because of the intense heat of August didn't feel too inspired!)

It's been wonderful seeing all my old friends and wandering my old haunts.  I've missed the absent ones and sometimes felt very nostalgic on this visit, as we always feel their presence.  I love Greece and all the opportunities it offers to me for exploring and creating new stories, whether historical or travel.  And although I have been many places in this country there are still so many others to explore. So I know I'll always come back here.  I couldn't bear to never see my Athens family and friends again.

So, til the next time,  Kalo taxidi and goodbye to Athens.  Don't worry, I'll probably be back next year!

Sunset from Dinaz's rooftop apartment

A SALAMINA ADVENTURE

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View from Christina's house, Salamina


My friend Christina has bought property on the island of Salamina (Salamis) just off the west coast of Attika.  I have only visited there (briefly) one afternoon long ago and had no idea what to expect.  It isn't an island that tourists head for and even many Greeks don't bother.  I was happily surprised by what I discovered there.

Salamina is off the coast near Pireaus in the Saronic Gulf.  The Straight of Salamis ws the scee of the famous naval battle between Greeks and Persians, about Sept 22, 480 BC.  Salamis was a key point In Themestocles plan of defense again the Persians and this was a decisive battle.  The battle wasn't as legendary as the one at Marathon, but it is still considered as one of the most decisive naval battles in history.  There is a monumet to the battle near the ancient port of Salamis.  Currently, the Greeks keep the most important naval station in Greece at Salamina and you can see the naval ships when you come into the port.
The Beach

Salamina is much larger than I'd expected with many coastal and mountain villages and high mountains.  Chris's house and studios is in one of the small village, up a very steep hill.  So every time we went to the beach, we walked down and had to hike up.  Believe me, that strenuous hike has now qualified me for the Grouse Grind!  I amazed myself at achieving this twice a day while I was there!


I stayed in Salamina for the weekend, then coming home Sunday was a bit of an adenture as the direct passenger ferry to Pireaus didn't show up, so after waiting more than an hour, I called Chris for instructions and caught the little Perama foot passenger boat which runs every 10 mins, and on the other side, at Perama, found the bus that takes you right to the Pireaus metro station.  I got home just in time to meet up with Dina, Andreas and a group of other friends (friends and relatives of our late friend Graham) for a little party at Mike's artist studio and then a wonderful late lunch at a rooftop taverna in Thission.

A DAY AT CORINTH (OLD AND NEW)

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Corinth with Acrocorinth in background

I hadn't visited Corinth (Korinthos) since 1996 and only once before that, during my early days in Greece, so I looked forward to going there again this week with my friends Andreas and Dina.  We headed off early Tuesday morning along with their friend, Lydia, and drove through some dense traffic where the oil trucks (striking) had parked all along the highway, blocking the lanes.  Eventually got there, across that famous old Corinth Canal that was dug centuries ago to make a shipping lane from the Aegean Sea to the Gulf of Corinth.  It's one of those engineering wonders but is rarely used these days.

The ancient city lies below the slopes of a mountain, Acrocorinth, a precipitous mountain that was the acropolis of the ancient city.  The city was in existence since the 5th millennium.  It was at one time known for its naval strength and ship building, and during the Persian Wars, served as a Greek headquarters. 

Temple of Hera

In 338 BC, Corinth shared the Greek's defeat of Chaironea and the Macedonians built a garrison there.  Following that, it was under the leadership of King Philip and later Alexander the Great, and flourished under a century of Macedonian rule.  The Cynic philosopher Diogenes (414 -323) ended his days in Corinth.

In future years, the city was besieged by the Romans and lay desolate until Julius Caesar Planted a colony of veterans on its site.  The Apostle Paul came here during that time and was said to have addressed the Corinthians from the Bema, which still stands among the ruins of the agora.  There are several notable, interesting remains in the ancient (Roman) city and a few of the old Greek city including a theatre and the Asklepeion, the Fountain of Lerna, the Roman baths and most notable, the Temple of Apollo (mid 6th C. BC) with its Doric columns.  There is also an interesting museum at the site.

Roman Baths

After touring the archaeological part of Corinth, we drove down the the Bay of Corinth, picked up Andreas' cousin (another Andreas) and went to a lovely seaside taverna where we had a refreshing swim and later enjoyed one of the best arrays of seafood I've tasted: oktopodi (marinated octopus), kalamarakia (tender, succulent calamaria), filleted sardines and two other types of small fishes cooked whole (maridakias and garides) plus a big plate of fresh horta (greens) and deep fried zucchini balls, all washed down by several jugs of white wine.

Later, Andreas' cousin took us to see where a spring of fresh water gushes and flows into the sea at a place where he said once the women of his village used to wash clothes.

In all, it was a remarkable day, one that will forever stick in my memory.

I've spent the week with my friends in their beautiful roof-top flat overlooking the city clear out to Pireaus where you can see the ships at sea.  We went one day to Flisvos Marina for icecream, the other days just sat around on the balcony enjoying the view and the sunsets and discussing my novel and other literature.  It was indeed a very special time spent with these special friends.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

MY ATHENS FAMILY

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I thought it was time I introduced my Athens family.  These are people I have known for many years and who I usually stay with when I am visiting here.  Without their kind hospitality I probably wouldn't be able to afford such long holidays in Athens and we have become extended families, always keeping in touch.
Christina, Carola and Kim
Many of the friends I first met when I started coming to Greece have left, passed away or moved on. When I went to find Ari, a waiter I've known since 1979, I found he had retired and moved to Patras.  My dear soul-brother friend Roberto, the Argentine artist who shared so much time with me, passed away from cancer 7 years ago. And another good friend, Graham, a retired British accountant, also died five years ago.  But these friends are linked to my other friends as we have all shared time together and were part of a large group who either hung out at the former "Dirty Corner" on Vironos St. or at the To Kati Allo Taverna in Makriagianni. 
My friend Christina is originally from Sweden but has lived in Athens for years, and used to work in the tourism industry.  She was a friend of Robbie's who informed me, back in 1995, that she needed a babysitter for her 1 year old daughter Daniella.  I accepted the job and we have been close friends ever since. Daniella is now a gorgeous 15 year old.  Christina now runs a little dress shop in Koukaki and has just bought property in Salamina where she will use part of her house there as guest studios.  Christina's friend Carola, originally from Germany, is also a long-time friend. She's married to a Greek.  She also works in tourism.

Dina and Andreas

I met Dina back in 1993 when she was working in a tourist office. She is my Persian Princess (because when I met her I realized she was the living example of Princess Drypetis in my novel Shadow of the Lion. She is,in fact, Parsi, from Mumbai and  is  married to another very nice Greek man, Andreas, who also works in tourism.  She has a son named Andreas who I have known since he was quite young. 

The folks who run the To Kati Allo are gypsies from near Sparta in the Peloponnese.  At first Anna's brother Babis used to run a sandwich shop on Hatzichristou St. where the gang gathered back in the '80's.  She then opened her taverna next door.  Her son Dino was a little boy then, running around the tables, and now he is married (to an American girl) had has two children of his own.  Her husband Leonidas drives a taxi.
Mike and Me

That's the taverna where I always hang out when I'm here.  It's right across from the new acropolis museum (south side) and the prices there are cheaper than the up-scale tavernas on Makgrianni St around the corner. Anna does the cooking, Dino is now taking over the shop.  It's always a fun place to hang out although without the daily attendance of Roberto and Graham it gets a bit lonely.  Ove, the Danish archaeologist, still goes there every day and sometimes Mike, the English artist also comes by (though he usually goes to a taverna in Thissio or Gazi).  There used to be apartments across the street where Graham lived but those were torn down to build the museum.  The Norwegian Institute is up the street so in the past there were usually classical scholars who stayed there such as my friend Anna Britt, who I also met at To Kati Allo.  The Finnish Institute is around the corner and I had friends from there too, including Vesa, an architect, who sometimes visits at the same time Anna Britt and I are here.  I also have a friend who is a very talented artist.  Mike has lived in Athens for many years and I met him through Roberto. He is part of the To Kati Allo group of friends.

Zoe

Two other friends are Zoe and Carol.  Zoe came to Greece to live about the same time I did, in 1983, and married a Greek bouzoukia player.  Carol lives in a house that was right across from where my friend Robbie lived. It also happens to be the house where Audrey Thomas stayed while she wrote her book "Latakia".  I met Zoe at the American Church where she and her two children attended back around 1995 and we've always kept in touch.  I met Carol a couple of  years ago when a friend stayed at her Villa Olympia.  But Carol knows all the people I do as she has lived in Athens for years, so we found much in common.  I thoroughly enjoyed staying at her old neo classical house and would recommend it as a residence for any writer who is coming to Athens. (Or traveler who wants a homey place to stay other than an expensive hotel). 

Over the years I've managed to keep in touch with these very special friends and they are all part of my Athens Family.

A STROLL ALONG THE AREOPAGITOU TO THISSIO

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Thission Taverna
Areopagitou is the long pedestrian mall that runs beside the Acropolis.  All along this walk you will see archaeological sites and  you'll get some wonderful views of the Parthenon and surrounding hillsides.
Keep walking, and you will reach the Thissio district, an area named after the nearby ancient temple in the Agora.  It's a traditional neighbourhood with charming neoclassical houses.  It's become very popular in recent years with many outdoor cafes located around Thissio Square. 

Kerameikos

Nearby is the Kerameikos, a part of ancient Athens located in the north west outskirts of the ancient city.  It was party enclosed and in the centre was an arch known as the Dipylon Gate where the Panathenaic processionals would start, and a Sacred Arch where the Sacred Way began leading to the Elefsinian Mysteries.

The district was named after the potters (Keramioi) who lived there on the banks of the River Iridanos.  However it is best known as an important burial site honoring citizens of Athens.  There are avenues lined with grave stele and a memorial where Athenians who died in the Battle of Charionea against the Macedonians are interred, as well as memorials to other Athenian heroes.  There is a museum on the site with some of the finds.

I passed by there yesterday while exploring Thission on my way to find the James Joyce Irish Pub which is located on a side street just between Thission and Monastiraki Metro Stations.  You can spot it right behind the fences that block off a new archaeological dig on the street running by the rail tracks.  Friends had told me about it and I can guarantee it's worth a visit.  I went inside the air conditioned bar which was stepping back into a real Irish pub.  Their menu is impressive and includes such dishes as Sausages and Mash and Dublin pasties. Of course there is Guiness on tap!

I ordered steamed mussels and a Guiness.  The mussels were stewed in white wine and lemon with bacon bits and were absolutely fabulous!  Some dark bread accompanied them to sop up the 'soup'  I'll write more about this pub later as it's unique to find such a place in the middle of the traditionally Greek market area. My meal and the relaxing stop in that friendly place topped off my afternoon wanderings.

My friends, Christina, Carola and Kim
I just had time to rush home, shower, change and hop a tram (they started running again at 4 pm) to meet Christina, Karola and Kim at the To Kati Allo for a fun evening of chats over white wine that only cost us 3.50 euro a half litre.  Talk about a cheap evening! And so much fun to be with the girlfriends.

WHAT TO SEE AROUND SYNTAGMA SQUARE

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Syntagma Square is Athens' central square. Its name means "Constitution Square" which is derived from an uprising on Sept 3, 1842 when the people demanded that King Otto, the first king of Greece, grant a Constitution.  This area, in front of what was the Royal Palace (now the Parliament) is well known today as the gathering place for protests and, unfortunately in recent times. riots.  Around the area are fashionable cafes and restaurants as well as some of Athens' most outstanding New Classical Buildings.

The Parliament Building dominates the square. It was constructed from 1836-42.  The kings used to reside here until a fire destroyed the building.  In 1924/23, the building was reconstructed and used as the Parliament.  Out in front is the Monument of the Unknown Soldier bearing an inscription with excerpts from Pericles' Epitaph.  It is  here that the select troop of the Evzones, wearing traditional uniforms, stand guard.  The changing of the guard ceremony takes place every hour and on Sunday mornings, it is accompanied by a military band and a large regiment of Evzones.
Across the Square is the Grand Bretagne Hotel, built in 1842 which was original built as a private residence.  It has been used for notables and celebrities visiting Athens and is now a luxury hotel.

Stairway and Courtyard of the Schlieman House

I took a stroll down one of the main roads leading from Syntagma to take photos of some of the neo-classical buildings.  Panepistemeion Ave. a  busy road linking Syntagma to Omonia Square.  Along here are some of Athens' unique landmarks including the Catholic Church of Agio Dioysios (1853-1865) and the former home of Heinrich Schlieman, the German archaeologist and philhelene who excavated Troy.  It now houses the Numismatic Museum.

"The Three Temples of Learning" (The Athenian Trilogy) are on are this street.  These are beautiful buildings that are prime examples of the Greek architectural style.  The Athens Academy is decorated with painted freizes.  Two high columns on either side support statues of Apollo and Athena.  t the front steps leading up to the building sit Plato and Socrates.

Athens Academy

The University building (1839-64) has a circular stairway and fountain court.  Next to it, the National Library is the largest in the country.  On the facade is a six columned portico in Doric style.  These buildings were designed by the Hansen brothers, two Danish architects who lived in Greece.

From Syntagma Square if you walk up Vassilis Sophia Ave. you will see exquisite buildings that house various embassies.  These neo-classical mansions were formerly owned by wealthy families.  There is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the French and Arab Embassies and others.  The Italian Embassy building was once the residence of Prince Nicholas before the royal family was expelled in 1917.  One of the most impressive of these buildings is the Beanaki Museum, one of the leading museums in Athens.  It displays more than 45,000 exhibits that belong to Ant. Benakis and other donors.

Across from the embassies you can enter the National gardens, an oasis in the centre of he city covering an area of 160,000 m.  Over 500 varieties of different plants, trees and bushes from around the world grow there.  It was formerly the palace garden but is now open dawn-dusk for the enjoyment of the Athenians.

The Zappeion

I love walking through the gardens and this day I walked right through to the Zappeion, an attractive building also designed by a Hansen brother (1874-1888). It's now used as an exhibit and conference hall.  Across from the Zappeion on Vassilios Olgas, you'll see the Olympic sized swimming pool, and tennis courts used for the first modern Olympics as well as he nearby Panathinaiko Stadium where the first modern Olympic Games were held.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A VILLAGE WITHIN THE CITY: ANAFIOTIKA

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View of the Agora, from Anafiotika

The great city of Athens is made up of a lot of small villages that have melded together over the years.  Plaka is the original, oldest part of the city where most of the archaeological sites are located.  Just up on the hill in Plaka,  under the flank of the Acropolis ("the high city") there is a tiny village, unique because of how it came to be.

Some people came to Athens from the island of Anafi, after an earthquake destroyed some of their villages.  They came to Athens to find work, and decided to rebuild their village up on the edge of the hillside.  It is called Anafiotika.  The 'village' has houses built in the style of those that had been on Anafi island, with cobbled lanes no more than an arms width.  These little white-washed houses are one of the archaeological treasures of the Plaka and unfortunately a lot of tourists who visit here miss the experience of wending their way through the tiny lanes and enjoying the magnificent viewpoints across the red-tiled roofs of Plaka out to the vast expanse of what is greater Athens. 

Anafiotika house (George's house)

You can get to the Acropolis via Anafiotika. Just follow the signs as you climb up the hillside up from the Areopagitou behind Vironos Street, and make your way between the houses with their pot gardens blooming with red geraniums and bowers of magenta bougainvillea that spill over the stone fences.  A friend of mine had a house up there and when I first started visiting Greece I often stayed with him.  Unfortunately he was killed in a cycle accident several years ago, but his house is still there, without the brilliant display of marigolds and geraniums he used to keep on the porch.  I wonder if his Australian family ever come to stay there.  It seems sad that the house is deserted now.  Each time I come to Greece I pass by just to see if it's occupied or not.  Sometimes when these old Anafiotika houses are deserted they are taken over by the Archaeological society or National tourism. But George's house seems to be intact as it was before.


There are several very old Byzantine Churches in Anafiotika which are well worth a visit - some dating to the 1600's or even earlier.  And it is a quiet, mostly shaded walk up to the Peripatos walk along the base of the Acropolis hill.  From that walk you can go around to the Acropolis entrance, or keep going down to the Areopagitou pedestrian mall.  Or, as I often do, take the path down toward the ancient Agora along the Panatheanic Way, where there are still big marble paving stones along where the ancient Greeks used to walk in the processional up to the Acropolis to honor Athena.  All along this road are various digs including part of the East Stoa.  And I found an very interesting site the other day in a place where once it was unexcavated and I often would sit in the shade. I wrote a poem called "Under the Mulberry Tree" in that place. And now I have discovered it was a sanctuary to Hekate, queen of the night!  There is also the remains of a sanctuary to Demeter and Kore nearby.  At the foot of the roadway is the ancient agora. You have to pay to go into that part but the walk down the Panathianic Way is a free zone.  There is also a trail that goes along the fence of the Agora toward Thission and there you will find other partially excavated sites including the remains of one of the very first Christian churches and a stairway leading up to a treed area where I think the  Apostle Paul was supposed to have climbed.  (You can also visit the Aereopagus, the Hill at the top where he addressed the Athenians).

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

GRAFFITI AND RUBBLE

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Graffiti on a Plaka street.


I've been shocked, on this visit to Athens, to see the excessive amount of graffiti and rubble around the city.  A small amount of the graffiti may be political slogans, but most of it is simply defacement of property -- and in this case, many of the buildings defaced are the lovely neo-classical buildings that ought to be declared protected as historical sites.  Yesterday I was aghast to see that the front of the Melina Mercouri museum in Plaka was marred by spray painting.  And on any blank wall or fence you see these ugly markings left by roving vandals.  It's time that strict laws were proclaimed (and obeyed!) here in regards to vandalism.  But, knowing the Greeks, it's hard to get them to abide by laws. Just look at what is happening on their fourth try to prohibit smoking inside restaurants.  Even the restaurant owners (who all smoke) are against it!



As for the rubble, a certain amount of it is the archaeological digs around town that are fenced off and usually labeled.  But there are a lot of old houses and buildings that have gone into decay and fallen into ruin.  Sometimes this is because of estate disputes and sometimes it is left over damage from the bad earthquake there was a few years back. 

Of course, the sidewalks are another story and most of them will remain that way forever.  (They've been like that for at least the last 30 odd years I've been frequenting the city).  So you learn to put up with it.  You just have to learn to watch your step.

And people!  Why do you insist on wearing improper footwear when climbing the slippery and uneven marble stairways in the archaeological sites? It never fails to amaze me to see the number of tourist women in inappropriate shoes trying to make their way up and down.  These pathways can be treacherous.  Hundreds of years of feet walking on the marble has made it slippery as ice.

I guess this is my 'rant' for today but after yesterday's walk-about and seeing all that ugly defacement of buildings and walls it made me angry and I'm just about ready to write a letter to Athens News, not that it would do much good.  But it is disappointing to see the beautiful buildings in this city so destroyed by idiots with spray-paint cans!

Monday, September 06, 2010

GAZI AND THE FLEA MARKET

The Gazi Gasworks, now a Cultural Centre

The former gas works, Gazi, has become a popular bohemian neighbourhood of Athens in the past few years, since the gas works buildings have been turned into an Arts Centre.  Here is where the annual (May) Jazz Festival is held, concerts, art exhibits etc.  I first visited Gazi a few years ago when they had a remarkable exhibition of paintings of Alexander the Great.  It was formerly called "Gazhori" (Gas Village) and is now the site of popular luxury restaurants, tavernas, and a trendy crowd. It's located near Thission, just behind Monastiraki districts.


On a hillside park right opposite the Gas Works buildings, every Sunday there is a Flea Market that is quite a contrast to Gazi's new artistic ambiance.  I went there Sunday with Carol. It's an experience you should try if you are visiting here -- a bit more crowded and noisy than the one in Monastiraki, with hawkers yelling out their wares, gypsies quarrelling, kids screaming, people jostling up the pathways between the stalls that are strewn with everything from junk to antiques.  You can find anything there: electronics, toys, clothes, old records, books and curios.  Among on the junk you might find some exceptional treasures.  All you have to do is bargain for them.  And Carol, who collects a lot of things from the flea markets, is an expert at that.

Greek Fast Food: Souvlakis
You better watch you purse or wallet in those crowds. There's a lot of seedy-looking characters as well as the local neighbourhood people who come out to buy and browse.  Quarrels break out among the gypsies. Today a gypsy lady with a cart heaped with green grapes approached the crowd of flea market merchants and was yelled at and chased away by another gypsy lady.  Territorial rights or something.  She had to park her cart farther along in the parking lot.  Carol says a few years ago there was  a shoot-out on the street, but now they are more regulated and pay a fee to use the spaces for their wares.  It's a lot different than flea markets or garage sales at home, with more aggressive selling and people crowded together.  There's souvlaki stands and cold drinks for sale if you get hungry or thirsty.  It's an interesting way to spend part of the day on a Sunday even if it's just to take a look at the goods that are on display for sale.  Yesterday I spotted several antique sewing machines, the kind with the little handle you used to turn the needle up and down.  And I've never seen so many old records.  I'm sure among those stacks were some real treasures!


Saturday, September 04, 2010

SOUNDS OF THE CITY

Street Musicians

One of the things I find interesting about Athens are the different sounds you hear around you.  It's not like any other place and these distinctive sounds are all part of what makes up the pulse of Athens.

I was sitting quietly in the patio garden yesterday and could hear a yiayia somewhere next door screeching like an old crone. The same experience happened when I was staying at Villa Olympia -- an old yiayia across the street sets up a howl every siesta time (or earlier).  It used to be that siesta time was reasonably quiet but not any more.  I remember when I was living in Plaka in the quiet of the afternoon hearing the moaning and crying out and screams of ecstasy coming from someone's apartment and echoing down the street.  Obviously 'nap time' was a time for other activities.  And there's the cheerful voices of people calling greetings to one another, "Kali mera! Yia Sou, ti kaneis?"  People here are much more vocal than in Canada.

A Cute Little Canary

Another pleasant sound you hear are the trilling of canaries from their balcony cages and the cooing of the ring doves.  And every afternoon without fail, there is the chirring of the cicadas, a sound that always takes me back to my mountain village. ( I miss the bleating of sheep and the jingle of sheep bells.  Also the roosters heralding the dawn along with the braying donkeys and barking dogs!)

Instead, there's a constant hum of traffic in the city: the buzz of motor cycles (those annoying little pakakias that zoom around endlessly as well as the roar of bigger bikes), and the steady whir of cars and trolleys passing.  It goes on without ceasing, all part of the city's living pulse.

Today when I was waiting for the trolley,  another familiar sounds; the raspy announcements from a loud speaker by a gypsy man driving slowly around the streets selling plants.  Or sometimes it's watermelons or lawn chairs.  And often it's political announcements being broadcast from passing cars.

I love the sounds of this city. It's alive, day and night.  Even when you climb up to the Acropolis hill you can hear the sounds way across the city, muted, but still audible.  It's Athen's pulse, indicating how 'alive' this city is.
Tourist trolley


Thursday, September 02, 2010

HANGING OUT WITH FRIENDS

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Last night I moved from the Villa Olympia where I've been staying, over to Philoppapou to my friend Christina's house.  This is a new house and it seems strange to not be in her other one where I've stayed many times over the years. But this is quite a luxury house in comparison and last night it was lovely sitting in the patio garden chatting over a glass of krasi.  Her friend Margaret is also staying there. Margaret is Welsh, and used to work in tourism here so I've met her before.  It's so nice to be back with old friends again. And this weekend I'll be going to stay awhile with Dinaz, my lovely Persian Princess friend, then back again to Chris's for the last week here.

At the To Kati Allo Taverna with my friends Carola and Christina

Today I was browsing Plaka looking for a larger suitcase.  I have accumulated a few extra things, souvenirs and such, and don't want to pay another 40 euro for excess baggage when I go home.  So I need a larger suicase and that will solve the problem.  It has cooled off somewhat so it was very pleasant walking around today.  I just took my time, stopped for breakfast at the former Moroccan Chicken Corner (now the posh Grill restaurant) then meandered down to Monastiraki Flea Market.  While I was in that vicinity I went over to see Dimitri, the icon painter.  If  you look on TRAVEL THRU HISTORY http://www.travelthruhistory.com/ you will see (under Arts/Lit) a story my friend Anna Britt and I did about Dimitri and his wonderful icons.  He was so pleased to see me and told me that he knew about the story in the ezine because some people had read it and came to his shop. 

After browsing around Monastiraki awhile I went over to another old familiar haunt,  just between the Roman Agora and Hadrian's Library, to where the old Poulakis Taverna used to be (now replaced by something fancier). That was my very first hangout in Athens from 1979 until the early years of '83 when I discovered Plaka Square and the Dirty Corner.  I remember the old fellow Ioannis who used to run it and after he died, his wife, and my favorite waiter Aris.  Last year Aris was working next door at the Acropolis Taverna, another nice place we enjoy going to dine.  I asked if he was still working but his friend told me he has retired now and is living in Patras with his family.  I did see him last year and have a great photo of him and me. 

Then I went over to Adrianou and Aeolou St. to the corner taverna which was another old hangout in the early years.  I recall a flirtation I'd had with one of the waiters there, Vassilis, that managed to go on for a couple of visits to Greece.  I used to stay at the old Tempi Hotel just up the street on Aeolou for the first few years I visited Greece.  Of course, it's fancied up a bit now too.  I used to get a room for what amounted to $5 a night when Greece still had the drachmae and there are a lot of funny memories about that old place too.

During those years I wasn't even aware of Plaka Square.  It was at Poulakis that I met George Boutsinas who had a nice old house up in Anafiotika under the Acropolis. He has since passed away, as have so many of the others.  I also met Connie there, the African American gal who I ended up living with for a year in 1983 over in Koukaki.  The other day I located the tiny dead-end street where our apartment was on Iannatakis Street.  Lots of memories of those days,  and I am getting closer to starting those memoirs about it all.  I have a box full of journals to remind me.  And I was saying to Carol at the Villa Olympia, it would be a good place for me to stay and write the memoirs as if I have forgotten some details, she will be sure to remember.  She's been here a long, long time and knew a great many of the people I did.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

MEANDERING AROUND PLAKA

Plaka
Plaka is the old part of Athens, where the city began back in the ancient times.  And it is the most popular tourist part of Athens with lots of shops and tavernas.  The houses in Plaka are all old and many (if not all) protected by the Ministry of Culture.  The place is full of history -- and of the old ghosts that haunt the ancient streets.  Some of those 'ghosts' are dear friends of mine and others who once were part of my life when I lived in Plaka during the '80's and '90's.  So when I am meandering around I am doing a lot of reminiscing and recalling so many stories of events that happened during that time.  Actually my relationship with Plaka goes back to '79 when I first went to Athens on holidays and fell in love with the city.  There are still some people around from that time although when I went to look for Ari the waiter last night at the old tavern beside the Roman Agora, he wasn't there. Perhaps he's retired now or on holidays? I'll have another look in the next week or so.
Shadow Puppet Theatre


There are various places I have lived in Plaka and also in the neighbouring district of Koukaki where I am staying now.  The most memorable place was on Vironos Street (Odos Vironos) BYRON'S STREET. Yes, it was named after the poet Lord Byron, because right at the corner a few meters from my gate at #14 Vironos, there was an archaeological site we called "The Dirty Corner".  There is a choreogos tripod monument there, Lysikrattes monument that was awarded to a chorus for a performance at the Theatre of Dionysos just up the hill under the Acropolis.  This was once a theatre district and later there was a monastery built on the site where Lord Byron stayed and wrote his poems.  Right around the corner is Shelly Street named for is friend who used to visit.  And it connects with the Street of the Tripodons that was once lined with these tripod monuments.  Yesterday I went for lunch up at the Thespis Taverna just up the steps from the Dirty Corner near the Theatre of Dionysos.  This was the thespian district, the actors. 

The former "Dirty Corner" (now quite posh!)

In the evening I decided I should stop at the Dirty Corner for old time's sake.  These days it is the Posh Corner with an upscale establishment and a restaurant where Hilary Clinton ate dinner when she was here.
I sat at approximately one of my old tables and had an ouzo and pistachio icecream. 11 Euros.  We used to drink for a week when it was drachmae on that amount!  I sat there remembering all the scenarios, the dramas that unfolded on a daily basis, all the actors (I was one) and dear friends now gone from this earth.

I always touch the gate at #14 when I pass by. It holds so many memories for me. I wish I could look inside and see my old suite and the little spitaki in the courtyard where Robbie used to live, but it's locked and it looks like there is construction going on. I wonder if Kyria Dina still lives there?

As I walked out of Vironos Street, across the Areopagitou pedestrian mall, I saw a man that looked exactly like Robbie -- the long hair, beard, the way he was walking. He looked up suddenly and caught my eye and I felt sure it was Robbie's ghost. It almost made me burst into tears.  These are the kinds of moments I have here, remembering people and times dear to my heart.

Dancers in Plaka Square 
Today I was on a quest to photograph the old Byzantine churches in Plaka so I stopped round to see my friend Dinaz at the tourist shop where she works. I'll be going to stay with her next weekend.  Then I walked around doing my photo-journalist job (yes, this is partly a working holiday!) and later went back to Plaka. Right on the corner of Kidetheneon and Adrianou used to the what we called The Moroccan Chicken Shop.  They made excellent roast chicken which was popular with a lot of Moroccans and Ethiopians.  I used to go there often with Robbie and my Moroccan boyfriend Ali.  I sat at one of the now-fancy tables under the big old tree and remembered the fun times we used to have there. I had chicken salad for lunch and a cold Mythos beer and thought lovingly of my old friends.  Then I went up to the top of Plaka where not many tourists go and there are some nice old taverns (some with live music).  Took the photos of the ancient Churches,  walked along the Peripatetics walk alongside the base of the Acropolis, and showed two elderly tourist ladies how to go over the hill to find their tour bus.  I am comfortable enough in this city to feel as if I could be a tour guide,  I can find my way around easily and lately I've even been exploring some streets that I have never before walked down.  You never know what surprises await you, or what ghosts will appear.

A LITTLE TRAGEDY ON KARAZA STREET

There was a pathetic little black and white cat named Sylvester who lived out on the street corner here on Karaza St.  It looked like it needed a good bath but Carol said it had a growth in its mouth and couldn't clean itself so she and a couple of neighbours were caring for it. They took it to the vet, gave it antibiotics, fed it etc.

The other night there was a terrible racket outside with barking dogs and a yowl of a cat.  In the morning Carol found Sylvester dead on the sidewalk, mauled to death by the marauding dogs.  She was heart broken and so were the other women who cared for him.  Such is the plight of many of the strays here in Athens (and all over Greece) And the animal cruelty extends to dogs, horses, mules and donkeys.  Sometimes they are poisoned, sometimes badly mistreated and cruelly killed, mostly just neglected.  There are hundreds of strays - some of which used to be people's pets that were abandoned, and others feral animals. It's not quite as drastic as it used to be when I first visited Greece in the late '70's, but it's still a serious concern.  Fortunately now there are some organizations and private persons who make it their job to help these animals get fed, find homes, be spayed and if necessary find medical help.  Vets are brought in from elsewhere such as England to treat them and many private people have taken it upon themselves to feed the strays.

You can see on the Facebook groups that there are some organizations in Greece listed.  When I was on Samos I picked up a brochure about an animal rescue station there where you could volunteer and adopt animals. And there is the Hellenic Humane Society.


One of my very first published stories, written in 1980 was about the cats of Athens.  Later, the story was republished in the RSPCA magazine in England when the British Humane Society began working with the Hellenic Humane Society to do something about the strays.  There has been some improvement, but the fact that people here let their dogs roam free while they go on holidays so the packs of dogs roam the streets killing defenseless little kitty cats is one of the big problems.  I've also see dogs kept on roof-tops with no shade and likely little water.  And in the villages it is no surprise to see a dog chained on a very short leash out in the hot sun.  This used to disturb me no end when I lived in Lala.

It used to be they kept animals in pitiful conditions in the National Gardens too. When I lived her in the '80's there was one old lion in a small cage, no foliage, just cement and usually no food and little water. It was so disturbing to me I couldn't bear to walk by it.  Eventually, not that long ago, someone from England bought the lion and took it away to better accommodations.  And I'm not sure they still keep animals there. I can't bear to look as it usually upsets me to see the bleak conditions they are kept in.
My friend Christina's cats were rescued from the street
The lovely cat Carol keeps was rescued from the National Gardens.  And my friend Christian has several rescue cats plus one nice old dog, Mangus, who lives part time on Philopappou Hill.  Those dogs are checked by vets, fed and tagged.  You see a lot of them around town. Most of them were people's pets and are friendly fellows.   It's good to know there are some people here who really care what happens to the animals.


Monday, August 30, 2010

SPENDING TIME IN ATHENS

There's no end of things to see and do in Athens. I can never understand people who come here for just a day and then quickly depart and say they don't like the city.  I love it here!  And there are plenty of things to do.  For any tourist, you need to allow yourself at least four days just to see the major sights and more if you really want to get the feel of this famous city and its people.  Athens is a second home to me and I feel more than comfortable here.  Besides the fact that I have friends who I've made and kept over all the years I've visited or lived in the city, I never tire of seeing the amazing wonders that there are here, the many museums, the old Plaka district, and of course Athen's crowning glory, the Acropolis.


Copy of the Parthenon frieze in the Acropolis Metro Station

I haven't been up the Hill as yet because it's been far too hot to enjoy a leisurely saunter around the temples and agora, but I will make my yearly pilgrimage before I return to Canada.  Meanwhile I have been visiting museums and strolling the Plaka and other parts of town.  I've visited the National Archaeological Museum many times in the past, though not recently, so the other day I made it my focus, hopped a trolley and went to have a look.   This museum is the largest archaeological museum in Greece and one of the most important in the world for the treasures it contains.  It was founded at the end of the 19th century to house and protect antiquities from all over Greece.  The building itself is a protected monument, founded in 1866 on donated land.  In recent years they have done some renovations and when I visited this time I found that things seems to be displayed more tastefully with lots of new additions including a fabulous Egyptian collection.  The galleries trace the evolution of ancient Greek culture from prehistoric, bronze and Egyptian antiquities as well as the Classical Greek and Minoan.  I spent several hours there and only covered about half of it.  So if you plan a visit, it's probably best to decide what particular era you want to explore and see that first.  You can take photos in the museum without a flash so I got pictures of some favorite pieces.  But you must not pose beside any of the sculptures as this is forbidden.  The Greeks look upon these antiquities as almost sacred!

Royal Palms in the National Gardens

Yesterday I decided to go for a cooling walk in the shaded National Gardens.  This used to be a botanical garden belonging to the royalty and when the royalty was abolished it became a public garden.  I've wandered those shaded paths hundreds of times as when I lived here I used to walk through almost daily on my way to get transportation to my English tutoring classes, but it's a nice place to go for a little retreat any time of day.

The park is full of various plants and trees and statuary and somewhere toward the back of the park, where there used to be a river running through, was the Lyceum of Aristotle.  There are still some ancient ruins in the park.


Lysikratis monument, Plaka

Being Sunday all the shops were closed but after a lunch at McDonalds (Yes, a Big Mac!) at Syntagma Square, I browsed down the shopping mall street and drooled over the  beautiful shoes (all half price) in the stores along Ermou.  Took more photos of the little Byzantine Church there, and remembered I had a story, written long ago, about the little Byzantine Churches of Athens, which I have never published. So I'm planning to do a little more research and rephotograph some of them to revise the story for future.  Walked down into Monastiraki Flea Market -- a real zoo on the Sunday afternoon with hordes of tourists.  You can buy anything there from junk to designer copies.  Came back to Monasitraki Square and noticed the gate open at the old mosque that dominates the square.  In all the years I've lived and visited here I have never once gone inside. So the open door beckoned me and in I went.  Wow!  What an amazing discovery that was!

During the Turkish occupation, this as the Djistaraki Mosque.  After the Turkish occupation it served temporarily as a prison (1915 - 1920).  There are still bits of the original decor inside and out but now it is  the Museum of Greek Folk Art, containing the V. Kyriazopoulos Pottery Collection.

The works of several Asia Minor Greek potters are on display, some of the most beautiful pieces of pottery and ceramics I've ever seen.  And upstairs there are collections of pottery from all the various areas of Greece including Cyprus.  It's certainly well worth a visit and I am surprised at myself that I didn't take time to discover it before.  I took lots of photos of special pieces and told the curator at the desk who I was and that I intended to write a piece about it (which I will.)  Unfortunately most people (even the Greeks) tend to ignore this museum.  That big mosque is a central point of Monastiraki right next to Hadrian's Library, but for some periods of time it was closed for renos.  Now it is open to the public and too bad not more people are taking time to visit it.

I'm not sure what my plans are for the rest of this week.  Christina is still in Salamina and I am still enjoying my stay at Carol's guest house, Villa Olympia.  It's truly a writer's house and if I were to come here again for any length of time I'd certainly consider renting here.  She is a most interesting woman with a wealth of knowledge and an interesting history so we have some excellent discussions.  Some evenings, like the last two nights, we've been taking the tram to the beach and enjoying an early evening swim (best time to go in this unrelenting heat!).

 So today, who knows what my plan will be. I'm running on Greek time now. Sega sega. Easy Easy. No need to hurry around (and anyway it's hard to move about fast when you are dripping with sweat!)  There's be more blogs coming up soon with news from around town.  I'm enjoying the life - zoe and looking forward to contacting the girls as soon as they are available.