The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 4: Athens Today

Note: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece too many years ago, I have been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently made a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gave an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.

With only two and a half days in Athens, Thor and I could barely dip our toes into the attractions of this bustling city, and we plan another trip soon.  I’m happy that Thor has fallen as much in love with Greece as I am! Athens, now cleansed of the eye-burning smog I was breathing 35 years ago, casually blends the ruins of 3000-year-old Classical and older Greece with later Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, and modern buildings. The top photo we snapped from the Acropolis over the ancient Agora (gathering-place and possibly the first shopping mall) shows the blend of ancient Greek, Byzantine, and modern city.

Everywhere you look are the reminders of its long, rich history, and it seems that every time a new building or street repair gets underway, an historic remnant is discovered. Strolling along, you’ll often see the accommodations built around such finds to preserve them:

Since we were walking around the baking steets during an early September heat wave, Thor was grateful for the natural springs found everywhere in this country of porous limestone. Like the Italian vapas that saved us from heat stroke in Rome, these streetside fountains offer fresh, cool water to the weary traveler:

We took the recommendation of friends and stayed at a centrally-located hotel, named appropriately The Central Hotel, so we could walk the neighborhood or take the excellent underground to sites of interest. We never thought we’d enjoy their rooftop cold jacuzzi tub, but in the late-afternoon heat it was refreshing. From the rooftop deck and restaurant, we also enjoyed a wonderful sunset view of the Acropolis and Parthenon:

Again on the advice of friends, we found a quirky restaurant, “Tzitzikas keh Myrmikai” (I think I got that right), translated as  Cicada and Ant, with wonderful fresh salads and creative entrees like the lamb in flavorful sauce over a pasta nest that we enjoyed. The decor mimicked a retro general store, with shelves of dry goods and old ads papering the walls:

On our walk through the evening streets, we heard brass band music approaching and were soon in the midst of what looked like a parade winding through the cobbled lanes. We followed and realized it was a funeral procession bearing a casket, led by the uniformed band, then priests in their black robes and high hats carrying flower-trimmed icons and other sacred objects, then a lot of people following. They circled the block twice and ended up at a tiny old chapel with its foundations below the level of the present street, with a modern hotel built over the top of it, the sleek square lobby/porch posts straddling the old church with its tile roof. (I apologize for the blurry photo.) Apparently these processions are common, even in the modern city.

There are Byzantine and newer churches everywhere in the country, reflecting the culture of 98% of the population officially registered as Greek Orthodox. This one is a large, modern church near our hotel, still decorated with traditionally-styled icons:

And there are many shops selling religious items:

We spent a half day at the amazing Archeological Museum, and I wish I had had more time to appreciate its treasures like this Archaic Period (around 1200 BC to 500 BC) Kouros. Precursors of the more lifelike statues of later periods, they have stylized features and standard poses probably influenced by Egyptian culture:

You can see the difference in style and realism in this Hellenistic period (around 330-150 BC) or possibly Roman Period (around 150 BC to 300 AD) statue of Aphrodite, the marble carving so delicate that it almost seems you are seeing through the diaphanous garment draping her body:

And I had to revisit one of my favorite small bronzes, this jaunty phallic satyr. Again, I apologize for the blurry photo; visitors are allowed to take photos without flash, but this was through display case glass.

The many displays of small household items, such as painted ceramic ointment jars and spindles, give intimate glimpses of daily life in antiquity. These parts of a reconstructed chariot were also fascinating:

A favorite place from my earlier trip, which unfortunately I didn’t have time to revisit this time, is the Athens Central Market, a sprawling neoclassical edifice built in 1875 near the Ancient Agora where Socrates and Aristotle taught among the bustle of vendors of every kind. Several large archways open to corridors of fish sellers, a meat market, fruits and vegetable stalls, and crafts vendors.

In my novel THE ARIADNE CONNECTION, my near-future Ariadne is feverish and near collapse as she’s pursued by relentless mercenaries, and she flees through the streets of a post-earthquake Athens. She stumbles onto the still-intact central meat market:

*****

A clear alley magically opened to her right. Ariadne ran down it, hand pressed to the ache in her ribs as she sobbed for breath. Shouted commands rang out behind her. She bolted through traffic for the cavelike dark mouth of a building across the street.

Sunlight glare, and then shadow falling over her. Forcing her way through a wall of heat, bodies, and voices, she fell through into dimness. She faltered, blinking, numbly registering cavernous walls opening up before her. Overhead, a high ceiling of curlicued iron grillwork in flyspecked peeling white, flecked with red. Blood everywhere.

Slabs of meat dripping blood. Headless poultry hanging. Severed tongues piled. Rows of hearts, livers, brains. She staggered forward, eyes glazed, deeper into the meat market. Convoluted twists and turns carried her on through swarms of buzzing flies, between racked carcasses lining the passages. She was jostled by hungry figures haggling over the meat, mouths shouting as they jabbed fingers at the raw red cuts.

She was lost in the maze, gagging in the reek of blood. She stumbled past slashing knives, muscle and guts tossed on the scales, thrown dripping over the heads of the buyers to be wrapped. She came up short, staring at trestles of twisted pale intestines, numbly tracing the convoluted kinks until someone pushed her aside. She tried to find a way out, but the passages kept turning and twisting back on themselves. Voices shrilled, ringing in her ears, and she could hear the distant shouts of her pursuers.

The flecked white walls swayed, closing in. She looked up, straining for escape, stretching for the distant rafters and a thin slice of sunlight shimmering through them. Grisly joke high overhead, crucified on a butcher’s hook, a life-sized pink naked baby doll smirked down at her.

Ariadne screamed her fear and confusion, exhaustion and despair, up at that empty leering face.

More faces turned toward her—accusing eyes and mouths—and she was running again, tripping, hands scrabbling over the slippery stained floor, scrambling up to run on.

*****

And, yes, at the time of my visit there really was a baby doll impaled on a butcher’s hook overhead. Join me next Saturday as we visit the Ancient Agora and then pack up for our next destination: the fabulous island of Rhodes!

*****

You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect.

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