Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Last day, in Athens

End of our last day, back in Marinos taverna in Old Korinthos after a day in Athens (reached by train). Very sati. I wanted to see if I could find some reproduction figurines to buy, for an exhibition I would like to put together about the Great Goddess in her various incarnations. This has been in fact, one of the main purposes of this whole visit.

We had researched the journey into Athens last night. Corinth station is on what they call the RR Railway, which mostly runs between the two carriageways of the new motorway running straight into the capital. The whole thing is rather smart but sort-of unfinished, and with only one train an hour into the city, and that via a connection in the outer suburbs. However, we caught the 8.39 without difficulty and got into Athens – well, a sort of peripheral grubby suburb which they optimistically label 'Athens' – about an hour later. Waiting for a bus was frustrating. It turned out they were on strike, but the metro proved swift and clean and took us into the centre. We walked up past the parliament building and some evrones on parade, and into the very excellent Cyclades Museum. Here I feasted my eyes on the beautiful neolithic figurines – some in clay, some in marble, one almost life-size. This was the last great fling for the Goddess, because not long afterwards, the discovery of metal (copper and then bronze) co-incided with the discovery of agriculture and and end to the mysteries of growing food and making babies. However, in the Cycladic Islands of the Aegean, artists and devotees spent hundreds of years perfecting their statues and figurines, and they are totally marvellous. I bought two and will have to send for more when I get home. These will be enough to kick-start some interest, I hope!

Unfortunately the Cypriot section was closed for refurbishment, and I particularly wanted to track down any plank figurines they might have had there. I have seen some in Cyprus a few years ago, before I had this idea of an exhibition – I was hoping the Cycladic Museum could help, but maybe we will have to go back to Nicosia or somewhere to track down some photos or replicas. Of course, replicas are always going to be inadequate, but seen in series, along side explanatory notes and photos of 'the real thing', I think people will be amazed and amused by the whole project.

We headed out into the open air, and had a coffee, and then into my favourite museum – the Benaki – the staggeringly rich collection of a Greek cotton merchant of the early 20th century who aggregated anything to do with Hellenistic history and then gave it all to the people of Greece. It is simply stupendous. Again, I bought some replicas – a little Boetian priestess, and a dove, thought to be an aspecat of Aphrodite. Actually in that museum is a mass of tiny, very very ancient fat-bellied neolithic figurines, utterly pregnant and round, about the size of small pebbles, in all sorts of colours and textures of clay. Sadly their appearance in repro is very disappointing, poorly moulded and all the same colour and texture. I am wondering if I have the nerve to write to the museum's exalted directors and ask if they would consider upgrading this artefact (you get a row of 6 on one little plinth) for 62 euros.

Then we walked in the cool of the National Gardens having admired an evzone practicing his extraordinary cockatoo walk, with its stamping and pacing, under the watchful eye of his sergeant who was in ordinary military dress, while the young sentry was in that famous (slightly hilarious) rig of short white skirt, thick cream tights, and pompoms on his nail-studded clogs.

Next we met up with my friend Daphne, who I was hoping to take out to lunch, but she resolutely, absolutely, utterly refused, and instead took us out, to the glorious Dionysos restaurant which under-looks the Acropolis. We sat in the balmy shade, gazing up at the glories of the Parthenon, and ate a simple but fantastically well prepared feast of salads, lamb, veal, then ice-cream, chocolate souffle and crisp brandy-snaps. She says there are at least 365 strikes a year now in Athens, a website called strike.gr so that people can find out what's not going on, and she says she has huge admiration for the people of Athens because life is almost completely impossible. She talked about Patrick Leigh Fermor who she knew when she was young and was interested to hear about our adventures in the Mani.

She dropped us off from her snazzy Mini Cooper near the garden of Zeus, absolutely horrified that we intended to get into a trolleybus to head back to the station. 'No, no!' she said, but I explained they hadn't been running earlier and Andrew dearly wanted to go on one.... So, she sped off into the traffic and we clambered onto a very smelly armpitty crowded carriage and lumped along back towards the centre. In fact, once honour was satisfied, I asked if we could get off and perhaps walk for a way, and that is what we did. Past the beautiful Academy building, past the scary druggy Omonia quarter where a gaggle of ladyboys were out cruising amongst the litter-strewn alleys, past the stalls selling rather snazzy reading glasses in all colours (bought two), through the Metaxourgia area filled with Albanians queuing to get onto buses to go home, clasping their babies and carrying cardboard parcels wrapped up in thick plastic tape, and finally up to Larissa station where we gingerly crossed the local lines and waited for our connection up to the Corinth express.

Now it's about 10pm, we are still too full to think about eating (though our plan had been to eat our last supper here at the taverna, where, just as the guidebook says, the food is delicious, made according to mama Elisabet's recipes. But it is not to be. Tomorrow we have to somehow get all these figurines into our suitcases which are already crammed with too many clothes (the climate being so unpredictable – after all, there has been a heatwave in London while we've been here, the temperatures soaring to 28!!!!! In October!!!!!!!)

There are so many things I meant to mention and have not. In fact, I think I have been pretty tired this week, and I have the slightly uneasy feeling that the blog has been more incoherent than usual.... It has been written without much chance to sit and think before setting everything down, not an ideal pattern. One thing I really enjoyed was spotting the very decorative chimney cowls which adorn the tops of houses. They swing round very freely in the wind, and they are made of bent metal, formed into the shapes of various birds – most often an eagle, or a peacock, or a cormorant. It seems a simple design, but without having seen one at close quarters I am not sure exactly how they are made or how they work. But they are very very attractive, and I should think quite effective.

Someone commenting via email about this blog asked if I would do a summary of the visit – a slightly daunting task as we have seen so much, there are so many things I know I have left un-described, and there has not been enough time to think about it. I have loved reading th guide books we had at our disposal – especially PLFermor, of course, and Peter Greenhalgh, both of whom I have mentioned extensively this week. To that I will add the marvellous Cadogan guide, which I think may be out of print but which is a mine of information and explanation. If there is anything I have said here which makes you think you should come and see for yourself, that would be marvellous. For me, coming and looking has had the effect of changing a 2-D view of history and myth into a 3-D view. Names of places, gods, heroes, heroines and events which were just names are now vivid to me. I can see why and how and where these things happened and these are not remote disconnected stories for us. Greece is where our alphabet and a lot of our vocabulary coalesced into existence, and it is where democracy and medicine and mathematics and science and astronomy and poetry and drama all took on their modern forms, such as we know them today, every day. The present difficulties this beautiful, wild, fascinating, hospitable country face today may seem impossible to overcome, but they have gone through worse than this. I should say, I also found it heady to be reading a completely different book during this trip: The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley, available through Amazon of course. That offered a counterpoint and a set of options which we could all do with in these turbulent times.

Enough! I am going to bed. Flying home tomorrow, and that means no more blogging till our next travels.

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