The journey to Athens begins by rail, four or five cars headed northeast out of Patras toward Corinth. To the right are hillsides covered by vineyards or grayish-leaved olive trees with citrus interspersed, deep green leaves speckled with bright orange or yellow fruit. To the left are steep drops to the Ionian Sea, the occasional sienna-tiled house perched on a cliffside. Soon, the spectacular Rion-Antirion Bridge looms ahead, spanning the Gulf of Corinth to the mountains of Sterea Erada.
But the great Grecian transformation for the 2004 Olympic Games is still under way, and the tracks end in a jumble of construction material midway to Corinth. We transfer to a bus, with seats that are more comfortable and air conditioning that is more effective.
Our bus ride ends after about an hour when we are discharged at a new rail station. There is no train, and the rail personnel disappear into their own quarters, leaving the rest of us to mill around on the platform. Two fellow passengers quickly distinguish themselves.
The first is a middle-aged man who takes exception to something a male teen has said or done and begins yelling at him. There is pushing and shoving. A passenger informs the railroad officials, who come out of their office and watch, apparently interested. But they do nothing. Finally, the man disappears, still yelling.
A few minutes later another teen, at the other end of the platform, becomes belligerent toward the woman with whom he is sharing a bench. He finally stalks off. Later, on the train, he will again create a scene, this time with his girlfriend. He is a brawl looking for a place to happen, and everyone tries to ignore him.
On the outskirts of Athens, a middle-aged man and a student-aged girl sit down across from me. The man, speaking passable English, proceeds in academic terms to regale the student with his views on mobile-phone use. The Greek woman sitting next to me, who is carrying on a conversation via her mobile phone, has apparently reminded him of a pet communications peeve.
He doesn’t approve of cell-phone use. The talker can’t understand his English and is too engaged in her conversation to pay any attention: Communication about a communication theory in the face of communication reality.
Finally, Athens station, surprisingly small. A short taxi ride and I am at the Cecil Hotel, one of those old European stops with a small entry way almost hidden between street-level shops. The elevator is an ancient cage model, suitable for a role in a 1930s Hitchcock movie.
But the room is clean and comfortable, and the Cecil perfectly located for my purposes, only a couple of blocks from the bustling Monastiraki square and, in the other direction, Omonia. The Agora is within walking distance, as are a major flea market, the city’s main fresh-food market, and Psiri, site of restaurants, nightclubs, and, I will discover, some of the more unsavory aspects of big-metropolis life.
After I tour the neighborhood (and lay in a supply of the excellent chocolates sold at Anassa), I make arrangements to join a bus tour that will culminate with the National Archeological Museum and the Acropolis. Neither disappoints.
The hill, despite the onslaught of tourists, the babble of guides explaining in a myriad of languages, the restoration work off to one side, dwarfs everything I’ve seen so far on this trip – even the hundreds of Harley-Davidsons at Patras. Simple, classic lines over chromed excess.
The entry walkway to the museum features glass flooring revealing the active archeological digs below. Inside, it’s masterpiece after masterpiece. But one area stands out because it is empty – the space reserved for the return of the Elgin Marbles from London’s British Museum, source of friction between the two countries for decades.
The next evening I find a concert at Monastiraki Square, a six-piece brass band, its middle-aged members in black pants and white shirts, a horn case set out for donations. A crowd gathers, and an unexpected vocalist joins in – a large white mixed-breed dog sings along with the saxophone player. He’s a hit.
A Romani woman circulates through the crowd with her hand out, implying that she is collecting for the band members. The tuba player confronts her and a loud argument ensues. The show obviously over, audience members disperse after dropping a few euros into the horn case. And the vocalist wanders over to the edge of the square and stretches out in his usual spot, saving his voice for the next show.
The next day I discover a great taverna on tiny Iroon Square. After a great lunch (fresh fish with a sauce full of sweet peppers and tomatoes), I wander into Psiri, past homeless men sleeping on the porches of abandoned buildings. Just beyond a small church, I glance down at movement between two parked cars and see a junkie crouched on the curb, shooting up.
Early the next morning I go through Monastiraki, take a quick tour of Hadrian’s Library, meet Hadrian’s three cats and his tortoise, and climb the hill toward an entrance to the Agora, onetime hangout of Socrates, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Paul and other ancient thinkers.
Along the way, on a quiet side street, is the office of the Melina Mercouri Foundation, the late actor’s organization to promote European arts and culture.
The Agora is quiet, a true park of several acres stretching down the northeastern side of the Acropolis and home to another museum of splendid antiquities, Among the ancient Greek ruins is a pacific 11th-century Orthodox church tucked among old trees. But the gem of the park is the Hephaesteion, a temple from 400 BC, and one of the best-preserved edifices in Greece.
Atop a hill, it rises from surrounding greenery, a refuge in the chaotic world that is modern Athens. In fact, only a mile or so away, demonstrations have been taking place against Greece’s government and the austerity measures being implemented to help solve the country’s economic woes. Perhaps an ancient philosopher or two could help.
The few euros I’m spending aren’t going to make much difference, and it’s time to head for another country whose roots are in Mycenaean culture, Cyprus. But before my entries about the island of Aphrodite, I’ll report on a one-day detour to Cairo.