Everyone said I would hate Athens: that it was chaotic, too hot, urbanistically distasteful, and plain ugly. That it was like Bayamón, except for the Parthenon right smack in the middle. Such a description was enough for me to decide to skip it (could the Parthenon itself be that much better than all the photos of it I’ve seen? did I really need to stand on a dry plateau in the scorching sun to have the true Acropolis experience?). Always patriotic, Miss I argued that if I was already committing the sin of favoring touristy Santorini over the authentic Greek summer, it would be unconscionable to also forgo the cradle of Western civilization. With that admonition and the deceitful promise that she would help me find and seduce Yanis Varoufakis (not necessarily her favorite person), she convinced me. And so I fittingly sailed to the city (literally in the Highspeed 6 ferry), and loved it, and may some day forgive Miss I for the Varoufakis trickery. (He wasn’t even in town!!!!)
On morning #1 (out of three) it was clear that I needed to head straight for the Acropolis, not only because it is the most significant historical site, but more importantly because the morning rain would surely make it less crowded and possibly not hotter than Hades, pardon the pun (was the Greek underworld even actually hot?). Since we all think we know more about mythology and history than we actually do, or at least that’s my case, I opted for getting some context by starting from instead of ending with the New Acropolis Museum. My visit started after a brief detour to its very nice restaurant (the travel guide, which I did read this time, said they serve excellent breakfasts, and they do, and besides isn’t the little oregano centerpiece just darling):
Though museum buildings are often quite impressive (except, in my humble opinion, Barcelona’s MACBA which looks to me like a huge bathroom), only one–Bilbao’s Guggenheim–has previously taken my breath away. Although very different, I think the Acropolis Museum is in the same category.
It is achingly well designed and beautiful, and harmonizes ideally with its surroundings: not just the Acropolis, whose forms it echoes and which is intentionally visible from virtually anywhere within, but even the modern city’s dubious concrete urbanism.
Even more strikingly, glass floors draw visitors’ gaze in a different direction from the usual one in museums–below, to the Roman/early Byzantine ruins over which it was erected. Still being excavated, they will soon be open to the public, but I loved the way I seemed to float above them, eerily empty and yet so evocative of yesteryear’s hustle and bustle.
The museum itself is full of ghosts, just as Guillermo del Toro poetically defined them: something dead that momentarily feels still alive; a feeling suspended in time, like a blurry photograph. Inside, the Parthenon Gallery’s blueprint is the same as that of the monument and prominently showcases, arranged in the original position, what is left of its friezes, metopes, and pediments–the latter representing the birth of Athena (who popped fully grown and armed right out of Zeus’s head) and her battle with Poseidon for patronage of the city.
Walking around the faded marbles (some retaining a trace of their original colors), viewers are meant to somehow reincarnate the ancients who entered the temple during the Panathenaic Festival in honor of the goddess, but there is another ghostly presence: that of the many pieces removed from Greece by Lord Elgin in the nineteenth century and since displayed in the British Museum, for which space has been left in the reconstruction of the Parthenon’s perimeter. The arrangement succeeds in one of its purposes, making you long for what is not there (and hopefully support the Greek government’s position in the dispute with England over return of the Elgin marbles. I’m with my soul sister Melina on this one: cough them up, Perfidious Albion!
Though I can’t write about the museum forever, I don’t want to move ahead without mentioning the other truly haunting exhibit: the Korai or Caryatids, relocated here from the Erechtheion and as spectacularly displayed as the Parthenon’s sculptures.
There are five of them–the sixth one is in the British Museum as well (her place awaits her)–and they are everything one ever identified with beauty, aren’t they? Not all beauty, of course, but the classical model that became the Western norm and was transferred to other traditions. I have no words to describe them (what I felt was awe). However, my favorite poet (you know who, James Merrill!) did, in his hypnotic chant to nostalgia for Greece and Greece as nostalgia, “After Greece,” which I have not been able to stop reading since I left:
Row upon row, Essentials, Dressed like your sister caryatids Or tombstone angels jealous of their dead, With undulant coiffures, lips weathered, cracked by grime, And faultless eyes gone blank beneath the immense Zinc and gunmetal northern sky . . .
The zinc and gunmetal sky–and grime–part you only appreciate after you move on to the actual Acropolis where replicas now support the roof of the Erectheion (please ignore the stupid unsighly stain on my camera lens):
Starting with the mesmerizing, informative, and very comfortably cool museum is a great idea because these days, on its own, the first view of the Parthenon itself can be… well, let me just show you:
It breaks the magic spell a little bit. Which is no obstacle for the throngs of young ladies with their own photographer in tow because what girl in her right mind doesn’t want a picture of her beautiful self before Doric and Ionic columns, with hair and clothing floating behind her against the genuinely zinc and gunmetal sky.
Even I felt (yet again) all Melina Mercouri, but was discouraged from acting it out by the lack of my own photographer, and my feelings of repugnance toward selfie sticks (especially after seeing their ubiquitousness on this trip). So I was forced to play it conventional, but was just as excited to have my picture taken by a stranger in the friggin’ Acropolis!!!!
My descent from the sacred hill was rather quick, because Miss I had agreed to meet me after work; it could not, nevertheless, exclude a stop by the ancient Agora because I am, after all, a Doctor of Philosophy, and in addition to feeling like Melina Mercouri I wanted to feel all Socrates and Plato. (I even wore the right outfit, didn’t I–except maybe for the bag.)
“Ancient Greece” day ended at the Temple of Olympian Zeus, seven hundred years in the making and, in its glory, much more… monumental than even the Parthenon:
See how the very tiny part of it that’s left dwarfs Miss I, and even seems to dwarf the Acropolis (first pic below)–the temple originally consisted of 104 Corinthian columns. I know this because on the Athenian portion of my vacation I was ALL ABOUT the travel guide, illustrating friends, Romans, and countrymen about any and all relevant details.
A little strolling around shady Anafiotica with my own photographer in tow (that rare luxury for a sola solita traveler, who may or may not then start unstoppable crazy posing)
preceded our first dinner out, at an Athens “it” restaurant recommended by a good friend of Miss I’s where, I’m told, the locals always take visitors: Vezene. I was intrigued by TripAdvisor’s labeling of the place as “Japanese, Greek, Bistro,” thinking it would feature some sort of nouvelle fusion Asian-Greek cuisine. The semi-open premises were very pretty, and the meal was very good (on the expensive side for Athens, but not necessarily for the US–three-course dinner for two including cheeses for dessert and wine ran 95€); however, it was not tremendously interesting dining as the gig was excellently cooked Japanese and American (Angus!) beef, which is pretty common where I come from (we ordered the one Greek option, with the benefit of being both delicious and the cheapest). Curiously, I seem to have offended some sensibilities by calling the restaurant a steak house, as apparently for Greeks that term conjures up a different image than it does for us Amurricans (something like Ponderosa, I gather, with Wild West paraphernalia and French fries). But for the record let me clarify that US steak houses (like my beloved Keens in NYC) are very upscale and fine dining spots that share another peculiarity: being always predominantly full of MEN. So it was with Vezene, where at one point Miss I and moi looked around and realized we were virtually the only women:
That could have been very exciting but you’d have to be into the executive type, which it has been established I am not.
On morning #2 I intended to start at the Museum of Cycladic Art, but after dutifully figuring out how to get there on the metro (which involved a longish walk in sweltering heat), found it closed–as it always is on Tuesdays. On the spot, I resolved to move on–by taxi this time–to the National Archaeological Museum. Of course, an archaeological museum in Greece is going to be–and was–so huge so as to be unmanageable in a single visit, not least if you find yourself a little indisposed (let us not blame Vezene) and have to make frequent trips to the bathroom, which is always really, really, really far from where you are standing. (I did become very familiar with the beautiful mosaic next to the lavatories,
a second-century A. D. floor found in Zea, Piraeus, featuring a Gorgon‘s head–two if you count me in the picture to the right.) I confess I only made it as far as the Egyptian collection–not even halfway through, chronologically–but before throwing in the towel I managed to see the Artemision Bronze,
that famous 5th-century B. C. sculpture depicting either Zeus or Poseidon (depending on whether what’s missing from his right hand is a thunderbolt or a trident) and known as one of the earliest manifestations of the way in which Greek sculpture would idealize the male form.
Already a little lightheaded from all that aesthetic appreciation, I stumbled upon the Stathatos Collection, where for some reason
my resolve to drown out the sirens’ call finally broke down and I decided I must have JEWELS. On the way out I searched in vain (!) for a museum store, which I was informed they will have at some point in the future.
I was so distressed by this that when I got home Miss I immediately sent me to a few shops, and I ended up buying earrings from two of them in the Syntagma square area.
The modern-ish silver hoops are from Apriati, which also sells those darling colored thread bracelets you will see on Miss I’s wrist in a picture below. The other ones I got from Maramenos & Pateras, one of the oldest houses for traditional “Hellenic” jewelry, and are designed by Mr. George Maramenos, who believes in earrings. In truth, I couldn’t afford both pairs but the moment I walked into the store a handsome young man named Adonis (or something that sounded very close) asked me if I was wearing a Maria Frantzi ring. And I was!!!!!!!!!! I had forgotten the designer of my beloved never-take-it-off ring was actually Greek, and apparently she is well-known around there. Then he told me the stone[s] on the earrings that had called my attention in the shop window were actually (like my own ring) a doublet, i.e. a “gemstone sandwich” with a clear stone (quartz) on top of a colored stone underneath. You learn something new every day. It felt so “international jet set” that my rings are recognized by Greek jewellers, and I found the doublet coincidence so amusing, that I forked over my nonexistent euros for the quartz/ruby earrings. In my defense, I actually lost my jewelry roll with everything I wasn’t wearing at the hotel in Sitges a couple of weeks earlier, and what’s a goddess without her baubles?
My reckless purchases were celebrated over girls’ night at By the Glass, a sweet little wine bar with a very limited but tasty selection of small dishes (the shrimp “tempura” with mango sauce especially memorable).
My third and last day in Athens I returned, with better luck this time, to the Museum of Cycladic Art, located in a beautiful neoclassical house (the Stathatos mansion, in fact) seamlessly connected to a gorgeous modern building. Each of the two entrances speaks to a fascinating aspect of the museum: the exhibition of prehistoric Cycladic art, ancient Greek objects, and Cypriot antiquities painstakingly collected by traditional patrons (most notably Nicholas and Dolly Goulandris)
and its contextualization through state-of-the-art multimedia presentations. Case in point is the exhibit on daily life in antiquity, in which commonplace objects from the Classical and Hellenistic periods are brought to life by linking them to a visual narrative on the birth, life events, and ultimate death of a character named Leon.
On occasion perhaps the visual narrative (here Leon and a fellow athlete oiling each other after a competition) can distract from the objects (here the little oil containers and the strigil). Also on a casual sideways glance I happened to notice a giant vaccine mark on Leon’s arm, which they should probably edit out (or maybe not, given the recent bouts of diphteria in Europe).
The museum also featured a trove of fabulous jewels, so again I was tempted to drop by the shop on my way out. But, alas,
Greek museums don’t seem tremendously into their stores these days. It was a good thing, after all; restraint prevailed and I can still probably pay next month’s rent.
A visit to the Cycladic Art Museum can be easily followed by some time at the excellent Benaki Museum, just a few blocks away. Its collection also begins with antiquity, and near the entrance there was a funky juxtaposition of classical and classical-inspired contemporary works:
Don’t look like part of the permanent collection and I found nothing about them in the current exhibit description but I liked them a lot. Unlike other museums, though (except perhaps for the part of the NAM to which I didn’t get), the Benaki features a significant amount of modern material, especially from the Ottoman Empire period, independence, and the reigns of Kings Otto and George I. Especially eye-catching were the lavish reception rooms from old mansions preserved here
and the aristocratic court costumes and jewels. I judged my ring could compete with that of Princess Sophia’s lady-in-waiting.
And then I wanted more jewels! But although the Benaki has an excellent shop, I was due to meet Miss I in what would be the ultimate dining experience: Karamanlidika, a place her mother had serendipitously discovered the previous week and which unbeknownst to us was TripAdvisor’s #4 in all of Athens (as of the day I write this, it’s risen to #2). To get there, you auspiciously walk through Evripidou street, which despite its ramshackle character houses some WONDERFUL spice stores where Miss I generally stocks up, and luscious butcher shops:
One of those butcher shops, on the corner of Socratous street (Euripides and Socrates!) is Karamanlidika.
They use market-fresh ingredients and the charcuterie and cheeses they sell to make scrumptious small dishes and full entrees. Although the menu is in Greek (they have an English menu but it still read like Greek to me!), everything was described in perfect Spanish to us by the wonderful manager María Jesús de los Reyes Ces Domínguez (full name, y olé!), a Castilian who has spent over thirty years in Greece, as nice as the rest of her staff.
And if you just surrender to her recommendations you’ll be doing just fine. So I can’t name most of what we ate, but I can show you the dishes, and more revealingly the look on Miss I’s face when she put a bite in her mouth:
Or what happened to me when I tasted their complimentary dessert of candied carrots (yes, candied carrots) on yogurt:
It was Finger-Lickin’ Good, bejewelled fingers or not (not the time for ladylike elegance and dignity!). Remember that scene in When Harry Met Sally? Except this wasn’t faked.
After lunch it was time to leave for the airport and head back to Barcelona, but not without a last stroll through the busy colorful streets full of contrasts, not the least of which is the Acropolis towering, like the sacred site it is, over the asphalt jungle:
In the end it is just like Bayamón, with the Parthenon right smack in the middle. And that’s a good thing: it’s just the life of a city with its glories and challenges. One that I’ll miss from Barcelona just like Merrill missed it from Stonington,
They seem anxious to know What holds up heaven nowadays. I start explaining how in that vast fire Were other irons — well, Art, Public Spirit, Ignorance, Economics, Love of Self, Hatred of Self, a hundred more, Each burning to be felt[. . .] Zinc and gunmetal northern sky... Stay then. Perhaps the system Calls for spirits. This first glass I down To the last time I ate and drank in that old world. May I Also survive its meanings, and my own.
During my few days in Athens, and in the few days since I returned (late June 2015), the drama of the impending “grexit” has been unfolding. Certain as I am that Greece should shun the evil Europe of the moneychangers (good time to ask: what would Jesus do???), I can fully understand the fear and the pain that my old and newly-acquired friends there are experiencing, and the uncertainty of what will happen if Greece is forced to exit the eurozone. To take her mind off her nerves, Miss I knits and knits, like Penelope. She lives her daily life, tending to her tomatoes and watching the rain from her lovely balcony.
She combines walking her pretty puppy Keira with stopping by the latest protest in front of Parliament.
What is theoretical for me will be very real for her, and her family and friends. Perhaps the system does call for spirits. I toast to them, and wish them godspeed. May they survive their own meanings.