It was one of those birthdays that end with a big fat ‘oh!’…A party? Definitely not! I wanted to go somewhere where half a century would be just a flicker, where half a dozen centuries would only be a blink. Athens was the place. The city has the weighty presence of history in its worn stones; the Acropolis is a fixed point that time flows around. Age doesn’t frighten Athenians; they see it every day from their doors and windows. They see their faces reflected in the old stone statues and they think in centuries. They give it an amiable shrug and live for what counts; respect and friendship and the present moment.
Husband David and I flew out on the morning of my birthday, very early. By lunchtime we had negotiated the sparkling clean marble floors of the underground railway, built for the 2004 Olympic Games and filled with cabinets of antiquities dug up in the building of it, and arrived into the sunshine of Syntagma Square. Consulting our map we headed for the picturesque jumbled Plaka District where most of the restaurants are centred and were soon tucking into a lunch of slowly stewed lamb falling apart in a clay pot and tender veal in a rich tomato and oregano sauce accompanied by complementary glasses of wine from the proprietor.
We had booked a hotel room with a view of the Acropolis. An impossible dream, I thought. Not at The Athens Gate and I spent the next hour on the balcony staring upwards into history. The Acropolis is actually the hill (meaning the edge of the city) and it is the Parthenon Temple on top that is the real feature of all those photographs. It was spectacular and I felt the pull of one of the greatest monuments in the world even after twenty-five centuries of existence. I couldn’t wait to get up there.
It was a beautiful ’cardigan-weather’ day, and red poppies were growing wild between the old stones as we wound our way along the gentle path inclining gradually higher. I have heard that Athens can be horrendous in summer, full of heat and crowds, but our early spring day was cool and peaceful as we walked under the shade of the gnarled trees, warmed by our walk and by the shafts of sunlight dappling in and out through the overhanging leaves. A few groups of people were relaxing in the ancient theatre at the foot of the temple. During the summer months it turns into an open air concert hall as was intended when it was built from the best marble the 5th Century BC had to offer. After a brief rest on those sun-warmed seats and a spell of awe thinking of those who had sat there in the past, we tore ourselves away to reach the Temple before closing time.
A dog was asleep in the sunshine of the gently curving Parthenon steps. He opened one eye as we stepped around him. Most people were on their way down and we found ourselves alone apart from a striking girl dressed all in black, who stood at the highest point trying to take a photograph of herself. We swapped cameras and snapped each other, then marvelled at the peace and emptiness of the place. Who would have thought that the three of us could have had this Wonder of the World all to ourselves? We sat amongst those fine stones from the distant past, made by master craftsmen so that not a single line was straight but looked like it was and so was more pleasing to the eye. From there we admired the view of the whole of Athens laid out below us. We saw the modern buildings stretching out to the larger hills beyond and as the late-afternoon sun began to burn we wandered slowly back down, stepping once again over the sleeping dog who kept his eyes closed this time. We sat amongst the olive trees to drink freshly squeezed orange juice from a stall whilst the elderly guides in their green wooden huts packed up their belongings. One of them pointed out a hole in the base of the rock, a secret passage in and out of the temple. “But” she said, “it’s blocked off now, you can’t get through.”
Back at our hotel, George, the manager, had looked at my passport. “Happy Birthday!” he called as we came through the revolving door. “I have put a small celebration in your room.” I went back on our balcony and tucked into the complementary plate of fruit salad and sipped the unexpectedly good and fruity Greek Merlot, my eyes glued to the Acropolis the whole time. It was hard to believe we had been up there, let alone had the place to ourselves. The floodlights had come on in the meantime and it looked more like a stage-set than a real antiquity.
The hotel had another view too. The Roof Garden Bar overlooked The Temple of Zeus. We didn’t feel very hungry but we ordered champagne –well it was my birthday – and a banquet of bread and cheese. There were six types of Greek cheese, from soft to hard, mild to pungent, and three types of yeasty bread; plain, a deliciously juicy olive and a crunchy walnut loaf.
After breakfasting in the same spot the following morning and still talking about the surreal experience of waking up to watch a pink dawn over the Acropolis from our bed, we headed to the brand-new, modern and shiny Acropolis Museum next door. We were watching a heavily weighted documentary on Lord Elgin’s theft of the marble friezes when a guide beckoned us over and opened the door of an empty room. “We are awaiting their return when your British Museum can be persuaded to give them up.” He said with a smile.
They were still excavating the floor because, as with everywhere in Athens, once you start digging foundations you come across treasure troves. There were already lots of remnants from the Parthenon on display and we wandered around for a while reading the stories behind them alongside the complete history of the Acropolis. In the cafe we had a cup of smooth Greek coffee and a dish of Greek yoghurt with Thyme Honey and walnuts on top. This started a search for jars of Thyme Honey to take home, because at one taste I had instantly understood the meaning of the Greek Proverb “Who wouldn’t lick his fingers if he got honey on them?”
We ate at the hotel most nights because the food was good, the waiters charming, and anyway we were unable to tear ourselves away from the view. Dusk would fall slowly bringing a dark blue sky. The ruins would turn black against it, and then suddenly the lights would come on illuminating the old walls better than any light show.
By the end of the week we had become quite blasé about all the temples and ruins, saying with a smile, “There’s another one!” because there was, at every turn. We explored the Temple of Zeus from ground level, Agora, the marketplace, with the exquisitely preserved Temple of Hephaisistos and the Stoa of Attalos restored by the American School of Archaeology to almost new. We had lunches in the Plaka; veal with tiny pasta or pastries that oozed feta cheese and bowls of olives shaded from ink to sage. We walked back to the Acropolis to see all the other buildings on its slopes, to the modern shops and to the antique market. We bought herbs and honey and watched the changing of the guard at the Parliament Building, where some students from Athens University asked if they could take a photograph of us. They were doing a project called ‘Couples in Love’ they said.
We saw churches and the Cathedral and the Parthenon from every angle. One day we had High Tea at the Grande Bretagne Hotel where Winston Churchill stayed during the war and Liz Taylor used to strut her stuff. The friendly staff served us with our choice of tea from the wide exotic selection in the colonial-style Winter Garden. A three-tiered stand arrived with sandwiches in tiny squares; crab, beef, cheese, and toasted triangles of smoked salmon followed by fruitcake and scones with three jams and clotted cream. To end there were the tiniest dainty pastries with fruit or chocolate mousse or strawberry meringue.
Wherever we went we met friendly curiosity and helpful kindness. If we stopped to look at our map on the street someone would come over and advise. If we ate at a restaurant they asked where we were from and gave us a glass of ouzo to digest our food. When the weather turned and it began to rain we visited a few of the varied and numerous museums, where we saw some fascinating treasures and learnt a lot of Greek History.
The sunshine broke out again for us as we visited the Panathenaic Stadium. It was built for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to the design of the original on the same site which dated from 4th Century BC. It is the only all-marble stadium in the world. There were thrones for the King and Queen and a good audio guide that included cheering crowds as you walked down the tunnel and on to the rostrum. Several events were held here in the 2004 Games.
On our last afternoon, walking past a florist, the strong smell of the blooms plunged me back into childhood. They rarely smell so good in my adult world and I stopped to watch a woman cut the stems of exquisite yellow roses. Athenians love flowers and we saw people carrying bunches of them everywhere to give as presents or take home for themselves. It is a way to stay in touch with and receive pleasure from nature and they have been doing it ever since the days of Chloris, Goddess of Flowers. I decided I would have one of those sunshine-coloured beauties to press on her page in my Greek Myths book to remind me that the real secret of eternity is to live in the moment each and every day.