Sophia was late to meet me at the airport. While waiting, I nearly got crushed by English soccer fans, descending on Athens in baying, red-shirted mobs. When she finally arrived, half an hour later, it was because she’d been waiting for the Metro for 40 minutes. And besides, she said, no one expects Olympic Airlines to actually be on time. It’s unheard of.
As you can imagine, I felt right at home. The word chaos, of course, is of Greek origin. As is democracy. And the coming together of the two terms makes perfect sense if you’re used to the functioning anarchy that is Hindustan. For it’s not some stiff upper-lipped British parliamentary ideal of democracy we actually work by, but something closer to its original, ancient Greek incarnation—democracy as a mass public squabble in the marketplace.
So the Greeks aren’t Greek to me. Maybe it’s the constant, friendly banter between complete strangers. Maybe it’s that the taxis in Athens don’t believe in metres. Maybe it was the waiter who asked Sophia, “Where’s the boy from?” on the first evening out, when she asked, in Greek, for a menu in English. When she said India, he turned to me with, “Kaisa hai?” Maybe it was that the second time we came back, in a big group, he made us sit at the fancy display table of a neighbouring marble store.
Of course, May in Greece is a far cry from May in India. The days may get a little warm but the evenings are amazingly pleasant. It seems like all of Athens (and large swathes of middle-aged England and Germany) is out in the outdoor cafés and restaurants and bars of the pedestrian-friendly centre of the city; in Monastiraki, Plaka, Psiri. We stepped out of the subway at Monastiraki into music and laughter, and right above us, golden atop the Acropolis, was the floodlit Parthenon. The food and wine were delicious, and plentiful. While we were walking back, buzzed, a man with a guitar started singing ‘Bird On The Wire’. A song written in Greece. Some cities, some evenings, are meant for magic.
The Parthenon, so beautiful at night, from a distance, is a disaster up close; especially when you climb the Acropolis at 7.30 in the morning, in a grey drizzle, to beat the busloads of Japanese tourists soon about to ascend. It is imprisoned in scaffolding; much of the area is off-limits; there are hi-tech cranes among the weathered pillars, bright blue tractors among the ancient sculptures. Restoration in progress is an ugly thing. The views of Athens spread out below you are nice, but smudged with smog. But since it is Athens, you have to go to the Acropolis, if only because the trek downhill is a radical improvement. You walk down the Odos Theorias (Street of Theory), past beautiful houses occasionally marked by graffiti (artistic enough to be carefully colour-coordinated with the flowers) till you come to the astounding ruins of the Agora.
The Agora is the hot shit. This is where it all happened. Almost everything to which we look back at Ancient Greece for inspiration happened in these few acres of ruins colonised by terrapins and turtle doves; which wasn’t just, in the Classical World, a marketplace, but something more akin to the actual realisation of the (rather abstract and unworkable) modern idea of the ‘public sphere’. (The slaves, out in the fields, were conveniently absent from the ‘public’). The Street of Theory leading here is well named. This is where Philosophy (with a capital P) happened, with philosophers walking up and down and arguing in the open, pillared halls known as stoas. (Socrates is known to have frequented the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios). This is where Democracy happened; especially the deliciously nasty public act of Ostracism.
The ostraka, or pot-shards, on which people scratched the names of those they wished to exile from Athens are well preserved in the museum adjoining the Agora. In fact, much of the material remains of life in and around the ancient Agora—not just the ruins but also weaponry, jewellery, statues, utensils, burials, coins—are so well preserved, that the world and people of two-and-a-half-thousand years ago seems near at hand enough to touch.
Not only the temporal, but also the spatial gap between the present and the past collapses in Athens. Just across the (Metro) tracks from the Agora is the buzzing Monastiraki area and the Athens flea market; just below the Acropolis is the tourist trap of Plaka with its souvenir shops; bang in the middle of the high fashion street of Ermou is a lovely little Byzantine church. While walking among the plentiful ruins, I kept walking through the busy downtown, awash with the red of Liverpool fans, in town for the Champions League Finals.
Ancient Athens was sacked by barbarians known as the Heruli in 267 AD. The particularly Athenian lack of distance between the present and the past made it seem like Athens was bracing for another sack; this time by soccer hooligans. The news on TV was full of horror stories of English and Italian fan behaviour, and the measures the police were taking to keep the two sets of fans apart. By 5pm, on the evening before the match, the Liverpool fans were already tanked up and ready to go. The dull roar of “You’ll never walk alone” followed me all the way up the Acropolis as I walked up, alone, in the rain, to get to the other side. It didn’t sound very reassuring.
The next evening, hours before the match, Syntagma Square in front of the Parliament had been comprehensively trashed. There was trash and beer cans everywhere, even the pavement underfoot was sticky with beer. The public fountains were foaming with beer. The people in red were tanked and roaring. There were no Italians to be seen.
And then, Milan won. Early the next morning, we caught a ferry to Aegina.
Aegina Island is only an hour away by ferry from Athens. It might as well be another world. Once upon a time, it used to be a serious rival city state to Athens, but now it’s a quiet sort of place, where many Athenians have bought second homes for weekend retreats. They have good pistachios, though. We took a rickety bus over some seriously winding hill roads from the main port/city of Aegina to a small resort town on the other side of the island, Agia Marina, overlooking a crescent of beach.
It wasn’t quite season yet. There was us, and there were some sheepish Liverpool fans. And it drizzled gently. “They came, they lost, and it rained. They might as well have stayed home,” said Sophia. In a way, they were already home. All the restaurants advertised the greasy splendour of ‘full English breakfasts’, which we would demolish, and then saunter off to wander the island, taking ‘short cuts’ which would send us rambling for hours, through olive groves and terraced fields, past tiny whitewashed churches and cemeteries full of cypresses. Three kilometres from Agia Marina is the temple of Aphaia, high atop a narrow hill which falls away to the sea, and to spectacular views, on both sides.
Since it was cloudy, the beach was also deserted. But the Mediterranean in May wasn’t cold, so we would go swimming at night, drunk on the ridiculously cheap wine. Or rather, wading, since we could walk a good 50 metres into the sea, and still be only waist deep. At high tide.
On our last morning in Aegina, the sun came out. We went down to the beach, where pink sunburnt flesh stretched and jiggled and played beach volleyball as far as eye could see. We took the first boat out.
Just before dusk we reached the town of Nafplion, in the Peloponnese, about two hours south of Athens. Nafplion had long been a Venetian colony, and, briefly, the first capital of independent Greece. Which is probably a good thing, because being a capital for too long might have ruined it.
We climbed up the hundreds of steep steps to the Crusader-ish Palamidi castle, perched high above the town, and looked behind and below us. The sky and sea had turned various shades of pink, a boat was leaving the town marina to go to the small fortress island in the middle of the bay; the streetlights were just coming on around the red tiled roofs of the town. In the witching hour, the town seemed straight out of a fairy tale.
When we walked into the town, I immediately fell in love. Whatever Greek-Venetian-Ottoman alchemy had happened because of the town’s history, it all worked. Nafplion is the most beautiful town I have ever seen, and I have seen many which are no pushovers in the picturesque stakes. Maybe it was the architecture. Maybe it was the bougainvilleas that grow everywhere in the town, their petals strewn carelessly in the narrow streets. Maybe it was the crowds of people down from Athens for the weekend. Maybe it was the bouzouki music which filled the streets where people sat down to dine and drink. We wandered long past midnight through Nafplion. It was my last night in Greece. I never wanted to leave.
Getting there: There are no direct flights from India to Greece. The cheapest fares we could find were on Gulf Air: Delhi-Athens return (via Bahrain) for Rs 31,439 including taxes, Rs 26,580 from Mumbai. (Source: Shikhar Travels, 011-41523667.)
When to go: The best times to go are from mid-April to mid-June; and from end-August to mid-October. The mid-June to end-August European summer holiday season is tourist hell.
Where to stay:
Athens: I was staying with friends, which was great, because the UEFA Cup Finals meant that all hotels were booked solid. But if you have to stay in a hotel, it’s best to stay in the picturesque (and partying) heart of town—Monastiraki, Plaka, Syntagma. Two hotels with character are the Acropolis House in Plaka (from 75 euros; and the Cecil Hotel in Monastiraki (from 55 euros/single, low-season to 153 euros/quadruple, high-season;
Aegina: We stayed at the CostAntonia in Agia Marina, about 150m from the beach, and the cheapest place we found on the Internet. It’s a steal. A suite for five people cost us just 70 euros, or 14 euros per person, which is a steal. It is run by a really nice guy called Nikos, has a Jacuzzi, and there are even thematic film screenings in the bar pretty much every night of the week, if you don’t feel like going swimming in the moonlight. Email Nikos at
What to do & see:
Athens: A 12 euro ticket (6 euros if you’re a student), bought at the Acropolis, is good for several ancient sites, which you can explore at your leisure over four days. These include the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora, the Roman Agora, the Theatre of Dionysius, and the Peripatos (the path around the Acropolis from which ‘peripatetic’ is derived). Apart from this, you could go shopping in Ermou (high-end fashion), Plaka (tasteful junk jewellery and tourist souvenirs), or the Flea Market near Monastiraki (unspeakable kitsch). Or you could just relax after a hard day of ancient ruins and drink till three in the morning.
Aegina: There is nothing to do, apart from long walks through the hills, hanging out by the beach and eating English breakfasts. Part of the charm of the place. A nice excursion is up from Agia Marina to the Temple of Aphaia. Getting to Aegina from Athens requires a subway ride to Piraeus (80 cents) and then a ferry (9 euros).
Nafplion: There are three forts to visit. Two require hard climbing, one requires taking a boat from the marina to the island it’s on. All of them are outrageously scenic. Nafplion also invites just hanging around, wandering its streets, and sitting down at regular intervals at any of the outrageously pretty cafés all over the place, and sighing with delight as you drink your wine. Close by are the ruins of Mycenae and Corinth. In Mycenae, which dates back to 1500 BC or thereabouts, the Lion’s Gate and Agamemnon’s Tomb are must-sees, if only to appreciate the origins of the word cyclopean. The very modestly named cistern at Mycenae, carved out of solid rock, is a spelunking expedition all by itself.
What to drink & eat:
Despite their fame, Retsina and Ouzo are both acquired tastes, and sort of rough going down the hatch. However, restaurants everywhere in Greece have fairly good barrelled ‘house wine’, both red and white, for under ¤5 for a litre jug.
For a country surrounded by sea, Greek cuisine is not too hot on seafood. Most of the signature dishes, including the souvlaki skewers and the moussaka are meat based. You can’t leave Greece without eating the dolmades, meat and rice stuffed in vine leaves. For vegetarians, there is spinach pie, tzatziki with pita bread, and the delicious ‘giant beans’ (megalos) which seem straight out of Jack and the Beanstalk.
In Athens, Monastiraki is more touristy and more expensive. Much better value for money, more ‘authentic’ and less crowded is the Psiri area, about 10 minutes’ walk away. On Aegina and in Nafplion, you can walk into pretty much any restaurant and get good, reasonably priced food. Find what looks good at the menu, and send a silent prayer to the patron saint of Greek cooking