Since 1985, I've visited the city of Athens three times, including 1999 and 2005. The marble streets of the Plaka, the cafe's, the Acropolis, the retsina all make this metropolis unique.
Beginning and end, city spreading its white houses and buildings into the haze of the mountains and sea, Athens still lies beneath the two towers of the past: the ancient Acropolis and Mt. Lycabettus, symbol of Byzantium. As I sit sipping a pint of German beer, surrounded by olive old men smoking and drinking the sludge of Greek coffee, as the fumes of Omonia Circle waft into this sad, deteriorating interior of a once grand cafe, I look out at the noise of the city, over the accumulated trash of the election, the tourists, and the indifferent Greeks. Where is the civilization, the wisdom that was worshiped here?
Here is what I wrote on my first visit:
Even the Athenians need refuge. It lies in the adjoining parks of the National Gardens and the Zapion. The limbs of Orange trees with as much ripe fruit as leaves weigh over the walks. A dozen species of birds swoop and chirrup through the tall pines. I sit on a carved bench cracking pistachio nuts, watching afternoon strollers: the families, the lovers, the casual businessman taking a siesta. Roses, bougainvillea, and countless flowers I cannot name fill the parks with their fragrances. The parks open to two other worlds: the plaza where a band gathers to play bouzouki music across a space that includes fountains, statues, sculpture, and a view of the Acropolis; and named after Herodes Atticus, the road lined with trees that passes the Royal Palace and the gates of the Parliament, where skirted guards march their odd goosestep, exchange places, and pretend to ignore passersby.
John and I are staying in the old Plaka section at the base of the Acropolis. Less than a block away are the Arch of Hadrian, gateway to the city in the First century, and the temple of Zeus, largest in Hellas, which took 700 years to build. At night, Artemis, Zeus' daughter, gives the Temple her ghostly moonlight. We stand reverently gazing through the Arch at the lost splendor, behind us a rapid river of autos, buses, trolleys, and taxis speed past, reverent only to modernity and to Pluto, god of money.
The base of the Acropolis is my favorite area of the city. Up the steep, narrow streets cars rarely ascend. Rather, there are walls of honeysuckle and bougainvillea, numberless cafes and roof gardens, and quiet views of the Roman ruins, the Agora, and elegant if slightly worn homes, their French windows opening to balconies above untended gardens along the broken towers. It is a world ruled by cats lying on every ledge.
On our last night in Hellas, John and I ascend Mt. Lycabettus. Our walk takes us into Kolonaki Plaza, like a Paris park, a fountainhead in the midst of elegant European boutiques and cafes. Unlike the rest of Athens, Kolonaki is the domain of Athenian aristocrats. I experience again, as I did fifteen years ago in Paris, the grand European manner --the leisurely evening meal or drink, the intelligent conversations, cosmopolitan people of fashion.
Above Kolonaki plaza the street climbs to a dead end where a series of steps recall San Francisco. At the top of the steps we look back over a vista of white city at the foot of the tree-lined street below us. Above is the funicular, a cross between subway and cable-car that lifts us though the rock of Lycabettus to the peak.
Atop the mountain, we watch as Apollo sets over his once adoring city. We sit respectfully as armed guards lower the blue and white flag and goosestep away. Reverently, we tiptoe inside the Byzantine church of St. George, filled with polished silver icons to the dragon slayer. Most impressive, of course, is the view of the expanse of Athens white from sea to mountains. As the day fades, the city becomes a shimmering galaxy of moving, twinkling lights. Athens becomes Mexico City: hideous, awesome, and sublime. Only a brief display of lights on the distant Acropolis below distinguishes Athena.
In Athens, the values of ancient Greece are in the same state as Athena's temple, the Parthenon. The ruin stands as monument to ideal form, to mathematical harmony, to the design and embodiment of reason. Yet it is a ruin, nonetheless -- as much a ruin as the high consciousness of Pericles and Phidias who conceived it. That bright morning when John and I mounted the worn steps of the Acropolis, I felt for a moment the shade of that high consciousness, knew the cosmos of the Timaeus and of Aristotle's De Caelo. How swiftly that shade fled as daylight brought the gesticulating, clicking tourists; and with them, the lizard looks of suspicion from the Parthenon's present guardians.