The Stones of Athens

We do not say that a man who takes no interest politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.
—Pericles of Athens

The Israeli couple who picked me up in Delphi dropped me off near Omonia Square, about half a mile from the Acropolis, and right into the middle of a budding protest of KKE, the Greek communist party. I had noticed the party's signs and banners painted and plastered everywhere from Corfu to Attica, all white and red with a hammer and sickle — the communists are apparently very good at marketing. At the protest I saw in Athens, they read a few megaphone manifestos, backed by shouts of, "Allah akbar."

The condensed, modern construction and cosmopolitan bustle of Athens immediately disoriented me, after two weeks spent wandering the sparsely-peopled hinterland of northwestern Greece and southern Albania, and two months in cities which at best were post-Communist, and at worst war-raved, and universally backwards and homogeneous. I walked a few minutes north of Omonia to the Hostel Aphrodite, and got a cheap bed in a basement room next to the bar, the only thing available. It was Friday and extremely busy for May, an early portend of the crowded Greek summers. The downstairs room was probably intended for overflow traffic, but I did not mind the noise. I'm sure I set some kind of record for nights stayed down there.

After checking in I went to walk around the seedy immigrant quarter around Omonia. Some communist agitators had knocked over a few dumpsters into the street and lit the contents on fire, but most of the excitement was over by the time I got close. There were stupefied Athenians everywhere, along with cops in riot gear. A fire truck showed up, and someone started breaking the panes of glass in the bus stops.

It was a tactic guaranteed to win as many votes as the first outbreak of communism that struck the country during World War II and, commandeered by greedy malefactors, so disgusted the Hellenes that communism remains unpopular among locals even today. Nevertheless, I saw two other protests by the outspoken group, and two other rallies besides, during my time in Athens.

Athens (2)

The usual advice about Athens is, "Sneak in, see the Acropolis, get out, because it's filthy."

After King Otto suddenly declared the abandoned site his capital, and again after the Turkish partition brought millions of Greek refugees from Asia Minor, massive influxes of population yielded a hastily produced city of concrete tenements and little to no urban planning, but the Greeks have done a good job of cleaning up the ancient metropolis. For the 2004 Olympics they widened roads, installed a metro, and somehow managed to work around the house walls, ceramics, mosaics, and treasures they happened to excavate each time they moved to expand the city's infrastructure. These ruins and relics and fill small museums in each subway stop.

Athens is a much nicer, cleaner, and more lively city than it reportedly was ten years ago — especially outside of Omonia. Lively cafés, fashion boutiques, crowded sidewalks, and the neoclassical mansions of European Hellenophiles lurk under the omnipresent drizzle of the fenestrated air-conditioning units in the concrete jungle overhead.

At night I liked to walk down the cobblestone promenade that rings the Acropolis, one of the Olympiad renovations, and listen to the mournful Greek melodies and energetic cover songs of the street performers who seat themselves under lampposts. To the south the lane passes between the feet of the Acropolis and the Hills of the Pnyx, the Nymphs, and the Muses, and on the north near the Greek and Roman Agoras it becomes inundated with cafés and restaurants, and with hustlers and table vendors who pick up and run when the cops pass. Here it meets the city center at Monastiraki Square with its grungy flea market, where you can get bootlegged albums and DVDs, fake Ray-Bans, plastic Spartan helms, vulgar and kitschy T-shirts, tarnished coins, bronze in every shape, and pickpocketed. This is the avenue where locals and tourists take their evening Volta, which is the Greek word for Walking Time.

The modern Greeks have several customs of interest. Because there are no restrictions on where you can drink, everyone just settles down in the main squares with a few beers or a cheap plastic bottle of wine, and Omonia and Monastiraki are packed long after most of the bars and clubs have closed. The Greek word for every sort of insult is Malakas, and they like to say it. Every Athenian carries in their hands at least one of the following: a cell phone, a shopping bag, a clacking rosary, a moped helmet, a live human baby, a cigarette, a cold and foamy frappé coffee, or a water bottle.

The marble statues and bronze busts of the founding fathers wear the classical chamys cloak over their three-piece suits, and the heroes of the Greek War of Independence all bear Turkish mustaches and are dressed and coiffured in the manner of their overlords — but don't call the silty strong brew they serve Turkish coffee, because it's Greek coffee here. There is still plenty of social unrest and nationalistic animosity, especially with the Cyprus Question and a recent horde of Palestinian refugees, and despite the Greeks' traditional extroversion and their custom of hospitality called philoxenia, one of the rallies preceding my visit was an anti-immigrant one.

It's a nation perched on the pinnacle of a mountainous history that draws pilgrims and compels expectations. And also there are the ruins.

Athens (31)

Leaving before 8 the next morning, I went to the Acropolis with Matthew Spells from Brooklyn, who was once a mass casualty mortician in the Air Force and a Maryland cop during the sniper incident, and now retired to Atlanta. We took the subway there and went up past the Theater of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, and up the defensive ramps to the gates of the Propylaia, already crowded with other early-rising tourists. I don't know why you would pay for a tour guide here. They all use English so you can just flit from one to the next.

"I don't know what the big deal is," said one visitor. "It's just a collection of rocks." Others complained that the monuments of the Acropolis are smaller in life than in imagination, but they aren't looking properly.

The Roman monuments — especially the Arch and Library of Emperor Hadrian — are huge, savage testaments to engineering, as is the Temple of Olympian Zeus, begun by the tyrant Peisistratus and completed 500 years later by the same Roman Athenophile. The few remaining columns show a massive and obscene construction. The Parthenon is smaller in comparison, but much more impressive due to the mathematical finesse of its Classical architecture. The columns bulge out in the middle so the human eye sees them as straight, and the temple's symmetry is enhanced by a total adherence to the ideal ratio of the Golden Mean. So anyway I thought it was really cool.

I told Matt about the scenes on the Ionic and Doric friezes that marked the roof, and of the Parthenon's use after the Classical Age: a home for the drunken orgies of Demetrius the Besieger and a mosque for the Turks. Scaffolding and the effort of maintaining 2500-year-old buildings marked each of the ancient Acropolian temples. The Parthenon is in a constant state of repair as scattered rubble is puzzled back into place and friezes and columns are archived in the museum and replaced with casts and copies. The Temple of Athena Nike had to be dismantled and rebuilt after the base started crumbling.

Matt and I also investigated the stones of the Panathenaic Way and the Agora, the stoas and pathways walked by Socrates and Plato, Miltiades and Themistocles, Pericles and Alcibiades, now a disarray of rubble. The west-facing Stoa of Attalos was rebuilt by the Rockefellers and filled with relics and statues. A little of the marble plaza still remains in the Roman Agora, and a few of the columns of the stoa still stand there. The Kerameikos, an artistic district and sacred cemetery, is where Pericles delivered his funeral oration, the archetypal democratic harangue, and harbors the remains of the Dipylon Gate and the Pompeion, a hang-out spot for Diogenes the Cynic, who lived in a bucket and told Alexander the Great to get out of his sun. Today it is overrun with tortoises.

With tireless enthusiasm I did the full tourist circuit in Athens, including the National Archaeological Museum, the Numismatic Museum in Heinrich Schliemann's house, and the Benaki Museum. I visited a few more Orthodox cathedrals and chapels in Athens and Piraeus, the nicest being Agios Eleutherios next to the ugly new Cathedral of Athens, and enjoyed the gold and marble, the frescoes of saints and the ornate carvings of animals and floral abstractions.

I did most of this on my own, but met a few Greeks. One guy named Nicolos started telling me where to go, and when I told him I wanted to go to the port to get some fresh fish, he said, "Oh you can get fresh fish. We have so many fish. We have so many fucking fish we don't know what to fucking do with them." He wanted to get a drink, but at the bar he let me buy myself one and vanished, only to be replaced by a Russian girl in a green shift who wanted me to buy her a €30 glass of champaign and look at whatever garter she was wearing. I guess this is a common scam in Athens, and I deflected it somehow and left.

Navigating the Greek signage is tough, since they maintain their age-old alphabet, adopted from the Phoenicians 2700 years ago. It's not as difficult an obstacle as Cyrillic, which made me feel illiterate when I encountered it in Montenegro, but confusing since many of the letters look the same as and are pronounced differently than their Roman counterparts: for example, Biktopia is Victoria.

On Wednesday I received in the mail my new debit card, which banished thrift and poverty from my narrowing wallet. I did not survive the whole twelve days on my initial €300 budget, but had my mom wire me money in Delphi — which was, incidentally, the first time I had called home since I was in Berlin a month and a half before.

When they shall span the sea with ships from Cynosura
To the holy shore of Artemis of the golden sword,
Wild with hope at the ruin of shining Athens,
Then shall bright Justice quench Excess, the child of Pride,
Dreadful and furious, thinking to swallow up all things.
Bronze shall mingle with bronze, and Ares with blood
Incarnadine the sea; and all-seeing Zeus
And gracious Victory shall bring to Hellas the day of freedom.
—Prophecy of Salamis, Herodotus VIII.77

One morning I took the
metro out to the port of Piraeus, then a small ferry across the straights to Salamina, ancient Salamis. Pursuing one of my favorite pastimes, I scrabbled up the rocky hill above the island's chief town, past dead plants and butterflies, to achieve a better vantage point over the narrow lagoon between Attica and the island, where 2500 years ago a small and desperate coalition of backwater polities defended their quirky and individualistic cultures from the greatest empire in the world, like some hippies at a small Seattle startup fending off Microsoft, only this was fought with bronze and the bows of ships rather than subpoenas and polemics. I wanted to see where the Greek beat the Persian, where the West defined itself over the East, where democracy beat despotism, and where the world changed substantially.

The Athenians were trapped on the island, from which vantage they watched their city burn to rubble, and the allied fleet threatened to disband at any moment for their disparate homes. Before they could, Themistocles, the wily Athenian general later exiled for fleecing money from the Aegean islands, lured the Persian fleet in with a trick and inspired the Greeks with a rousing exhortation about freedom and honor and all that's good in mankind, which has probably been repeated unknowingly by every great leader from Alexander to Skanderberg to Patton. The Persians sailed straight into a trap. They had more ships of better quality, but the Greeks outflanked and outfought them, and at the end only a few escaped. The Persian King retreated in disgust, and the Greeks defeated the remnants of his army at Plataea the next year and began a crusade that culminated 150 years later with Alexander the Great.

I can say a lot about Salamis, but it's really just a little strait defined by a small spit of land, crowded with ferries for cars and pedestrians and with larger cargo ships and armed destroyers headed out to sea. Any evidence of what happened here has long ago rotted away or rusted to dust at the bottom of the sea floor. Even the locals were surprised to see me there. One man proudly told me the story of the battle that raised his nation to eternal greatness. "But we didn't start the war," he said. "The Persians, the Afghans, the Syrians: they came here to fight. We no like the war. Like the peace. America, you like the war. But you and me, we are together. We like peace."

After exploring the island, I crossed back over to the Attican side, and climbed the road up the slope of Mount Aegaleos, from which point the Persian King oversaw his defeat, then took a bus south to Piraeus on its little peninsula.

On seeing the main harbor full of ferries and commercial tankers and the Zea marina opposite it, with the docks of sailing ships and motorboats divided by narrow waterways, I began to wonder how the number of ships compared with those that must have crowded the natural harbors before the Sicilian Expedition launched 2400 years ago. As a writer, you try to make observations that other people can identify with, and only a classicist could identify with many of the things I found remarkable or timeless about this place. This says something about my coming here: It's like a Mecca, a Pilgrimage, where through relics and monuments I can meet the ghosts of the legendary past.

I was in Piraeus to see the harbors which have always been the Athenians' chief ports, but also to get fresh fish. I went to the Mikrolimano, just east of Zea on the peninsula, and found one of the fish shacks that sat right above the water. My table was on the open window, through which I could see the small port quieting down for the night. A concrete ledge ran underneath, and two girls walked back and forth offering flowers to all the restaurateurs. Fish is expensive, so I got salad, bread, beer, and a mixed plate full of crazy things. I didn't mind it since I had yet to try many of the strange organisms on my platter, and had just learned that fish heads are crunchy and delicious. Now I know that octopus raw is very rubbery.

I was delayed on Monday when I was unable to renew my stay in the basement room at Hostel Aphrodite and had to switch to the Easy Access Hostel just off Omonia, which is even dingier than the Hostel Aphrodite at night, when all the transvestites and hookers come out ("Hello would you like woman?"). All the online reviews for the hostel attest to its cleanliness, but add that security and sanitation end at the door. Finally, though, I left for Marathon, across the peninsula from Athens and Piraeus, the battleground where 10,000 Athenians and Plataeans repelled a Persian landing force of 25,000.

According to the legend, Pheidippides ran 120 miles from Athens to Sparta in two days to ask for aid. When the Lakedaemonians turned him down, being a devout people in the middle of a religious festival, the trained runner returned to Athens just in time for the battle. The Greeks formed up in front of their camp at Marathon, just inside the hills above the coastal plain. Under the weight of 80 pounds of armor they ran a full mile down to the beach where the Persians had disembarked and "fought in a way not to be forgotten." When the Persians had been routed, Pheidippides sprinted back to Athens, and with his dying breath told them, "Nenikikamen — We have won."

The distance from Marathon to Athens is 26 miles, same as a modern marathon. A large gate stands at the beginning of this classic run alongside the Pheidippides Stadium, and faces southwest towards the city. I wanted to go the other way. From the gate, I turned south toward the beach and ran toward the coast. The Greeks would have started closer, but I wasn't carrying a shield or running in a formation of 10,000.

I tried to keep to Miltiades' route, but I don't think the Marathonmachoi had to jump fences or plow over farm fields, past the incredulous stares of farm hands and air-conditioned drivers, who wouldn't have understood what I was doing even if I told them. I was out of breath by the time I reached the beach anyway, and not at all ready to fight the Persians. South of this route, and a little inland, stands the burial mound of the 192 Athenians killed in the battle. I had bought a little bottle of ouzo and poured it out in the dirt, because the dead have no use for flowers.

Marathon (15)

I find it difficult to justify spending thirteen days in Athens, at least to someone who didn't spend four years learning about her. I intended to leave on Sunday but ended up hanging around with two technophile siblings from New Jersey, Mike and Claudette, and Kylie from Brisbane, who wants to write a book about her travels in Egypt. We got sacks full of fresh meat, cheese, bread, and fruit from the market streets, with wine and water, then took it to the Agoras and the park, where we attracted a pack of stray dogs, happy to have someone scratch their belly.

One night I decided to wear my Albania T-shirt, which is red and says Albania over the double-headed eagle, not just because everything else was dirty but also to get a rise out of the nationalistic Greece. However, other than one guy who elbowed me as he passed, it was not Greeks but Albanians who responded, and with exuberant acclaim and photo requests.

Under a late spring rain, I visited the Pnyx Hill on Tuesday, where the great democratic leaders delivered their crafted rhetoric and stately orations and where Socrates died for asking too many hard questions. I drank with Australians and Americans in the hostel, and on Wednesday I looked for Themistocles' tomb in the Piraeus. At this point I was just buying time.

After that first full day here when I visited the Acropolis, I went back to the hostel and drank cheap wine in the street with Matt Spells, two well-traveled sisters from Chicago, and an expressive and energetic Israelite from Brooklyn who only started traveling the world a few weeks before when he was deported to Frankfurt from India, where he was bound for a conference. We talked about how no one but travelers understand the addiction to adventure, exploration, and being lost, alone and unique in a strange-smelling place, and how the first step is the hardest.

It is very difficult to leave a place which is familiar — as Athens immediately was to me — where you have friends and a place to stay, and to step out the door on a journey across the Isthmus and the Argolid and down into Laconia, to Crete and back up through the Morea; but one day you just have to say that's enough and start walking.

Here are my photos from Greece.


  1. Jacqueline11 June, 2009

    Hey Jon

    Not doing a very good job of keeping up on your travels and just read this latest blog. Gosh, what great adventures you are having!

    Bri and I went to NY a couple of weeks ago to see Erin. A very cool city - I want to go back and see more.

    Take care of yourself. We will be eager to hear more when you are back in the states and maybe have a slide show or something for the fam? - yes?

    God's Blessings to you...have you checked out any of the old churches to attend?

    Jacqueline, for Brian too :)


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