Thursday, October 16, 2008

Athenian Agora phobia

Welcome to thriving and prosperous Athens. The world financial meltdown seems to have passed Greece by. Either that or Prime Minister Karamanlis has ordered a food led recovery. Cafes, bars and restaurants are numerous and packed. A gemutlich hum competes for attention with the ceaseless traffic. Gnomes from Zurich number banks are here to understand why the country seems immune to crisis. Either that or they are Swiss football fans here for the World Cup match v Greece tonight at Piraeus. Perhaps the slight grim look on the Swiss faces is more to do with that country's embarassing World Cup loss to Luxembourg rather than the impact of the battered bourses of the world.

October is a good time to come to Greece. The weather is warm but the crowds are thinning out. There are no peak season prices either. Hotels are cheap, clean and competitive. I flew into Thessaloniki on Friday on a quiet British Airways flight from Gatwick. The capital of Macedonia is Greece's second city hugging the Thermaic Gulf some 500km north of Athens and contains a considerable charm of its own. The city is named for the sister of Alexander the Great who married the founder of the city, King Cassander of Macedon. The city subsequently passed through a series of rulers, Romans, Byzantians and Ottomans who all left their mark on the architecture. The Turks captured Thessaloniki in 1430 and turned the city into a religious-coded patchwork of Islamic, Greek and Jewish areas. This uneasy multiculturalism survived until three 20th century tragedies forever changed the town. A great fire destroyed half the city in 1917, and five years later the Turks were expelled creating a refugee crisis across both countries. Finally Hitler's conquest in 1941 doomed the Jewish population. By the end of that war, Thessaloniki was a purely Greek city.

Today, Thessaloniki proudly wears it patchwork past and even more proudly proclaims itself capital of Macedonia (FYROMers need not apply). The former Ottoman prison guarding the eastern entrance to the town is now the White Tower museum and lookout and is the preeminent symbol of the city. Underneath the tower the seafront stretches on for miles in either direction while the remains of the Ottoman walls guard the hills over the old city. Other museums detail the Alexandrine, Roman and Byzantine epochs while the subsequent 400 year Turkish occupation is casually ignored.

They may not like the Turks, but the Thessalonikans do like their food. Cafes and bars radiate out from Aghia Sophia square and hog every available space in the numerous alleys and lanes. This glorification of food was repeated in Volos some 2.5 hours south of Thessaloniki, on a railway branch line out from Larissa. Volos is on the Pagasetic Gulf which, when not sounding like some nasty infection, resembles a lake being surrounded on three sides by high mountains some of which are skiable in the short winter. Though a relatively new city founded in the 19th century, it is one of Greece's most charming towns with many neoclassical buildings peering out on the promenade. Behind the town, Mount Pelion commands the landscape imperiously. The seafront exudes relaxation and demands the consumption of a beer, ouzo or Metaxa, or better still all three.

Although Volos is only 300km north of Athens, it took seven hours to get there by train including a one hour wait in Larissa. There are some serious mountains to contend with in Central Greece but annoyingly the railway line grimly clings on to the side of the mountains while the motorway cuts a swathe through the plain. Why couldn't they have built the railway there too? Eventually the "fast" train rolls lazily into Athen's Larissa station in late afternoon.

There is just enough time to visit the Agora before it closes at 6pm. Situated between the Plaka and the foot of the Acropolis, the agora dates back to the 6th c BC. Here was where ancient Athenians met to discuss public matters. If some international financial crisis was afoot, the leading men (ancient democracy was not asexual) of the era would gather in one of the buildings of the agora to discuss what impact it would have on Athens. There under the cool marble stone, religious gatherings took place, merchants sold their wares and artists displayed their handiwork. Much of the spirit of the agora is retained in the Plaka where a steady stream of hawkers gather around the outdoor diners selling knickknacks of dubious provenance.

Behind the Plaka and the newly built metro lies the glory of Athens: the Acropolis. Greek for "high city", the Acropolis is the Sacred Rock and officially Europe's most pre-eminent cultural site. Rising 150m above sea level, the earliest buildings on the site date from Mycenean times. The Parthenon was built to commemorate the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC but was destroyed ten years later by marauding Persians. During Athens' Golden Age 20 years later, Pericles began an ambitious building program on the sacred rock. He build temples which honoured many of the Greek Gods including Athena herself in the form of Nike ("victory"). The Parthenon was rebuilt as a treasury, also honouring Athena. The building has since served as a Byzantine church and an Ottoman mosque. The Venetians badly damaged the site during their invasion in 1687. The British Earl of Elgin stole many of the Parthenon artefacts in 1801 leading to a squabble over the marbles between Greece and Britain that remains a touchy subject to this date.

There have been several restoration projects since the Greeks regained control of Athens in 1832. The earliest efforts were clumsy and made matters worse. Greece established a Committee for the Conservation of the Acropolis Monuments in 1983. Every item on the rock was meticulously catalogued and the restoration began with the delicate task of repairing the bad re-work. The difficult task has been exacerbated by the pollution which has plagued Athens since the 1960s. Acid rain and car pollutants have eaten into the marble threatening to undermine the whole restoration project. News that the Italians have returned some stolen booty is only partially good news. Some day, the Acropolis museum may be the only place to see the wonders of Pericles' greatest creations.

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