Athens

Athens

I’ve come to show you the Street of Dreams
It doesn’t stand out; it’s just a street like all the others of Athens
It is the street where we live
Small, insignificant, sad, tyrannical, and yet infinitely kind
There is a lot of dirt, a lot of children, a lot of mothers, a lot of hope; and a lot of silence
And everything is blanketed by a tender, unbearable sky

 

Keratsini, 9.30pm

It was dark down by the ports. We passed up and down the unlit roads, behind the backs of warehouses, just up from the sprawling shipyards and gigantic ferries of Piraeus. We were looking for an old rakomeladiko – a tavern that specialises in the drinking of hot raki with honey – and, this one, specialising in music. Suddenly, there it was, all lit up: the ‘Stou Tsante’. We went in to to find this Athenian rakomeladiko decorated in all the style and tastes of the Aegean island of Ikaria, the island of Giristroula and my wedding gledi. The bar was Ikarian as this part of Athens was where many Ikarians had settled – drawn over from their slow, sweet, island lives due to the need for work and the promise of money, but then cursed to face the unknown stresses and struggles of life in the heaving capital. The Ikarians had tried to preserve their old island life here, built tavernas just like back home. There are many similar areas here in Athens where people who had moved from the islands looked back to their old worlds. Anafiotika, right in the centre, crawling up the slopes of the Acropolis is named after the island of Anafi in the Cyclades. The Cycladian workmen had come over to build up Athens as it grew and expanded, but built their houses in exactly the same distinct island styles from back home – white walls and colourful climbing flowers, all still there today. There are Athens areas named after the old city names of cities in modern-day Turkey, all prefixed with “Nea” – new. Cities in Turkey that the Greeks had left in a panicked hurry, with their bundled possessions, in the 1922 population exchange: Nea Chalkidona, Nea Ionia, Nea Filadelfeia… And perhaps most significantly of all, for these exiles in their own country, the neighbourhood of Neos Kosmos – New World.
In the corner of our Ikarian rakomeladiko bar in Keratsini, Elena Falirea and a crowd of bouzouki players, guitarists, violin scrappers were all setting up. Elena is the daughter of Tasos Falireas the great historian of Greek rebetiko music who helped bring the old outsider, rebellious, rebetiko music out of its forgotten state after the Greek dictatorship banned it – even banning the bouzouki – to be an important cultural touchstone for Greece again. Elena herself was a fixture now on the Greek state radio, ERT, playing crackling old rebetiko records every weekend morning. We took a seat in the rakomeladiko and listened to these dark-hearted Greek songs played live – in its proper setting: most rebetiko music first originated here in these port areas back in the 1920’s and 30’s. These songs – that seemed to have soundtracked my whole time living in Greece, following me round the country like shadows – are full of the hard life that went on in these tough old streets: poverty, drug intoxication, migration, endless tales of lost love, infatuation, pain. Songs wrapped in a defiant hopelessness.
The great originators of rebetiko – like the hard-living, sexually seductive but forever broken-hearted singer Roza Eskenazi or the bouzouki magician Vasilis Tsitsanis – came down from the modern-day Turkish lands to live and make their music around the Athens port. Bringing with them the sounds and rhythms of the East. Markos Vamvakaris – the patriarch of rebetiko, with his deep, shredded, voice sounding not unlike a group of builders pissing freely into a metal bucket – fled from his island of Syros in the Aegean to Athens to work in the pits of the port. On hearing and being mesmerised by the sound of bouzoukis coming out of one of the sweating, teaming Pireaus sawdust taverns Markos passed, he vowed to learn the instrument within 6 months or cut off his own hand. He went on to become the Godfather of the whole scene.

Rebetiko is more than music – it is a state of mind. It has its own moral code. Rough, urban, always accompanied by glugged glasses of alcohol, swearing, koboloi beads clacked between fingers, hats, moustaches, truculence, pugnacity. The players here in Stou Tsante played long into the night. The air was heavy with smoke, drink, songs. An old man who’d been sat eating at a table pushed his chair back and came forward and picked up a bouzouki and played it with incredible skill. I found out later he was Kostas Kalafatis, a famed rebetiko player who had come to Athens that day to appear on Elena’s radio show the next morning. The greatest ever player of the bouzouki however, was Manolis Hiotis. Hiotis was a virtuoso on the instrument. His family had an infamous café where the streets Zinonos and Keramikou meet, just under the grimly alive Omonoia Square in central Athens. This café was where all the rebetiko players hung out in the 20s and 30s and where Hiotis learnt his trade, and where he saw his father killed in a brawl. Hiotis went on to become a sort of star of this anti-authority working-man’s outsider music. Changing the sounds to create a newer more accessible form: laika music. He starred in films, toured America. Jimi Hendrix was even a fan. Once, on being told that he was the greatest guitarist ever, Hendrix replied “You only think I’m the best in the world because you haven’t heard the Greek guy, Hiotis. When you listen to Hiotis playing… well, then you’ll know who the best is…” Aristotle Onassis once took along his friend Prince Rainier of Monaco and wife Grace Kelly to a Hiotis show in Athens. Afterwards Grace Kelly asked how the bouzouki and the electric guitar differed. Hiotis looked at her with disgust, as if she was a fool. Finally he replied, through Onassis, saying “Tell her the strings of an electric guitar are vibrated by electricity…the strings of a bouzouki by the soul!”

Elena and Kostas and the band of rebetiko players carried on here in our taverna, playing the tortured songs long into the dark Nea Ikarian night. I told them how much I like this music. They smiled and nodded with a kind of detached gratitude and carried on playing.
“Where are you from?” one shouted over the music.
“London,” I replied.
Glasses were raised in my direction in salute. “Kalos erthes…” – welcome. The music carried on.
Glasses and bottles had built up all over the tables. Elena told us that she usually just goes straight from here to the old ERT radio studios in the Agia Paraskevi suburb in the east of the city and straight on live air to do her show. I didn’t have that kind of stamina though, and so we said our goodbyes and thanks and staggered out to face the dark port front, some time around 3am. I thought of the black-suited rembetiko players here all those years ago. Moving from tavern to hash den, instruments under their arms, hats pulled over eyes, ducking down, avoiding the police. Next morning I put on ERT radio, Elena was doing her show. I was slumped over a Greek coffee. Kostas joined her on air, rebetiko was played and between songs they chatted.
“This music is not just for the Greeks. It means something to all people, everywhere. I see this all the time, I see it everywhere I go and play rebetiko. You know, I’m told it even touches people from London…”

 

Ambelokipoi, 7.30pm

The pavements were thronged with people. All the traffic had stopped. The streets crowded and green.

“‘Zíto!’ lene ‘O Panathinaikos!’”
‘Viva!’ they say ‘Panathinaikos!’
“Panathinaike, megale ke trane.”
Panathinaikos, great and mighty.

I was on my way to the Athens football derby. Panathinaikos v Olympiakos – the ‘Derby of the Eternal Enemies’ – at the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium on the main Alexandras Avenue, not far north from Athens centre. Smaller in size than I’d thought. Far louder and fervent and fanatical than I’d ever imagined. Most of Greek football supporters follow one of these sides, Olympiacos or Panathinaikos – apart from those up north in Greece’s second city of Thessaloniki who, of course, hate them both. Between them they’d won 64 of the league titles during the 90 years the Greek league had been running. My father-in-law was a gavros – the name of a small fish but also the nickname for Olympiacos supporters – so I’d felt it was my duty to take on his team too. I’d been to Olympiacos’ ground – down in the port town of Piraeus but really part of the mass Athens sprawl – to watch Olympiacos’ European game against Turkish side Besiktas. I hadn’t been able to buy a ticket, but then neither had any of the Turks. In fear of the likely violence that could have erupted, all Turks had been banned from coming to the game. All Greeks banned from going to Istanbul too. The Olympiacos fans had been banned from the game I was currently walking towards as well – no fans at all of one of the teams at this, the great Athens derby. Hooliganism and fighting between both sets of fans has always accompanied these games, only 10 years ago a 22 year-old Panathinaikos fan was stabbed to death here. I wondered, with apprehension, what I was going to find on this warm Athens evening, as the sky streaked fantastic pink and purples over the green Panathinaikos stands.
The stalls outside of the ground were selling forests of green and white Panathinaikos flags and scarfs – plus, I noted with smile, souvlaki, feta, olives. I saw a heavy-set man skulking around. I’d seen him before, leading the rowdy crowds outside Olympiacos’ ground, which had been itself a riot of red and white. He had a loathsome, powerful, criminal face and he leered it into mine.
“Eh! Olympiacos man!”
He remembered me.
“We will win today eh? He slapped me on the top of my head two, three, four times. “We will win! We will win! We will win!” Then he stopped dead. “Eh, but why you here?” He glared at me, pushed his finger into my chest. “You ARE Olympiacos, aren’t you?”
I thought of asking him why he was here too – but it seemed obvious. The riot police were outside, helmets on, arms linked, shields up. Armoured vehicles blocking roads. Panathinaikos fans were stood outside looking for trouble, hoping their dreams of a punch-up with their great rivals wouldn’t be ruined – and the sneaking Olympiacos fans milling around, like my friend here, looking not to disappoint.

I took a place in a crowded bar opposite the ground. Directly opposite the infamous Gate 13. Gate 13 is where the ‘Ultras’ of Panathinaikos crowd on the stands. ‘Thyra 13’ is graffitied onto walls and bridges and houses and bins and benches and trees over the whole of Greece. I even saw it tagged on a rock on the very top of Mount Olympus when I’d slogged my way up there expecting a world of untouched nature. Olympiacos have their own famous gate too – Thyra 7 also painted on every available space all over the country. There was a terrible tragedy at Gate 7 in the 1980s when 21 supporters were crushed to death, a connection to Liverpool supporters has remained since. I stood in the ‘Green Bar’ at the Leoforos Stadium, watching the game on a small tv in the corner. I noticed, though, that the heaving sea of Panathinaikos fans around me weren’t really paying much attention to the game on the flickering set. They were all turned the other way. Facing the stadium.
“What’s everyone looking at?” I asked the man next to me.
“We’re watching that gate,” he nodded towards the steel doors of Gate 13. “At some point during the game, they usually pull open those gates. We’re hoping we can all get in there…”
The game continued. Panathinaikos scored. A huge roar from the ground swept into the bar like a wave, but the fans here carried on with their twisting heads and narrow-eyed scrutiny of the gates of the ground.
I asked the man how long he’d been coming to Panathinaikos games.
“My father carried me in there when I was a baby… But it’s not like it was. It’s like a church in there now,” he said, nodding towards the stadium. The stadium I could see with green smoke pouring over the top, the cannon-like sound of the seats being pummelled, the boom of flares and fireworks, the relentless chanting.
“Like a church now,” he repeated sadly, shaking his head.

“My father-in-law is an Olympiacos fan,” I told him, cheerfully.
“Sshhh,” this big man said, crouching slightly, looking around him. “Don’t say that in here…”
Suddenly there was action. The crowd of the bar all lurched up as one and started to surge out. I could see, after a few practice attempts where supporters had been chased away by security, they’d succeeded. They’d ripped open the gates of Gate 13. The crowds were pouring in.
“Come on,” my new Panathinaikos friend grabbed at me “Let’s go…”
I hesitated. “Is it safe?” I asked. The man stopped. Let out a belly-rattling laugh.
“Look at that stadium. Just look at it. Look how old it is. Look how falling-apart it is. Look at it… Of course it’s not safe! Now come on, we’ve got to get in there before it is too late…”
We battled our way down the tunnel, the bodies piling together, the crush getting dangerous. I started thinking of Hillsborough and really couldn’t understand why I’d put myself in this situation. And then, just as I felt stuck in the scrum, neither able to get forward or back, two hands grabbed at me and lifted me up, out of the tunnel onto the stands. It was the bear-like Panathinaikos fan, beaming, looking around him at the loudest, most manic crowd I had seen in my life. He smiled at me. “It’s good, eh?”
The whole stadium was pounding up and down on their seats. Everyone, without exception, was jumping, flags billowing along the stands, the chants were deafening. Down by the cages at the front of the pitch, Panathinaikos fans – in the absence of Olympiacos fans to fight – were fighting with each other. Bunches of men punching and kicking and throwing broken seats at the each other. Nobody else in the the crowd cared about this in the slightest. Smoke and flares and instruments and an enormous smell of alcohol. It was like some film scene from the camps of those getting ready for the Battle of Agincourt. The game itself was not really of high quality. The players seemed cowed by the noise around them. No one seemed to want to play the ball out wide as no one wanted to go near the edges of the pitch near the supporters.
The Panathinaikos football songs rang out. In typical Greek fashion they were almost poetic, romantic…
Panathinaikos I follow you… for me you are a sickness…
Some were almost like rebetiko songs:
It’s a magical weed. Like hashish. Give me a little bit to taste. To dream of my Panathinaikos and to shout as far as God. My Panatha, I love you!
Panathinaikos won the game. An impressive victory – Olympiacos had been the Greek champions for the last 6 years. and were currently completely dominating Greek football.

Originally Olympiacos were the working-class team of the city. Formed in the port area and supported by the poor, rather than well-heeled Panathinaikos of central Athens. Nowadays though they were owned by a billionaire ship owner and the fans of both clubs came pretty much from the same varied classes. The other big team of Athens, AEK, were different though. Their fans were on the left and passionately anti-fascist. Their team – with their Byzantine double-headed eagle badge – had their origins back with the Greeks in Constantinople before the great population exchange with Turkey. They played their games, around this time, in the vast Olympic stadium and had thrown it open for all refugees to come in for free. “The Mother Of All Refugees” read the banner that ran across the stands. Another team in Athens with roots in the old Turkey is Panionian. Panionian are based in the suburb of Nea Smyrni, but Nea Smyrni is rich. These were the refugees that got out of Turkey before the great fire of Smyrna in 1922 – the haunting tragedy where the Turks, in revenge for Greek armies pushing into Turkey, burnt the Greek areas in the town of Smyrna for nine days. People left crammed on the waterfront waiting for any clapped-out boats that could take them away to Greece. Similar to the refugees of today, and similarly to today, so many just didn’t make it…. Of course the history of Greece, the history of Athens – joyful or terrible – the politics, the nuances, the pain, the sense of identity, it all even flows through Greece’s football, just as it does through every single thing in Greek life.

As we left the match, the crowds piling over each other, songs still ringing out, I asked my new Panathanikos-supporting friend if he was happy they’d won. He shrugged.
“Yes…of course. But it’s already decided who will win the championship. It has always been decided. In 20 years Olympiacos have won 18. It’s all blackmail, it’s all corrupt. Bombs sent to referees in the post. It’s like the football league in Chile or something like that… So, of course, you may ask the question why do I still go…” he said, laughing out loud.
“Why do you still go then?” I asked him.
He stopped, scratched at his chin and thought, before giving a rueful smile.
“I don’t know!” We both looked at the ocean of green flowing away down Leoforos Alexandras. “But who could ever leave all of this?”

 

 

Iera Odos, 11am

The Sacred Way, originally made by the feet of devout pagans on their way to Eleusis. This holy road is now a multi-lane anonymous highway cutting through central Athens. They still give it its religious name, Iera Odos, but it seems a sacrilege now, set as it is now amongst the petrol stations, the furniture depots and ‘Pet City’ superstores. Giristroula and I set off to walk it one early summer day, just as those ancient walkers would go: leading away from the city and aiming for the fantastical, mystical, site of Eleusis. At first though, we were hounded by a priest as we walked through the suburb of Egaleo. I spotted him coming out of a betting shop and he beckoned me over and brought out some religious literature from under his dirty black cassock. He placed the books and cards, featuring various saints and Orthodox iconography, in my hand.
“Ah…I’m not Orthodox,” I apologised to him. “Eimai Agglos…” – I’m English.
Eisse Anglicanos?” – you’re Anglican? – he asked, and pointed a finger straight under my chin. He smelt strongly of alcohol, his beard had white strings of spit in it. “Den peirazei,” – It doesn’t matter – he shrugged. “Ki afto kalo sinai…” – This is all still good for you. “O Theos einai enas,” – It’s all the same God – and he closed my hand round his pamphlets.
I didn’t want any of this rubbish, but smiled and thanked him.
“10 euros,” he said, holding out a demanding hand.
The street opened wide as we carry on towards Eleusis. Hot concrete, deserted, no people, just cars blurring past and a punishing sun high above. We were chased by two mad stray dogs and decided to abandon the pilgrimage by foot.
Next day we were in a car heading down the Iera Odos. As we went further and further along the fume-filled street, the Holy Road at last seemed to thin out. The trees started to close in around us, the ugly buildings of Athens disappeared, turning slowly into parkland and woods. The road became more tranquil and benign. The Daphni Monastery appeared – a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, with its orange brick domes and dazzling gold mosaics inside and the terrible figure of Christ looking severely down on his creatures from the ceiling. It sits across the road from the famous Daphni madhouse. “Eese gia to Daphni!“-  You are for Daphni! I often heard exasperated old women shouting at their husbands in the streets. We were again thrown here on to another frantically busy road. But as we finally approached Eleusis, the Iera Odos reappeared once more. We turned onto it – now just a residential road getting smaller and smaller until it reached its end. A cul-de-sac. A cul-de-sac leading right into the unique divinity of ancient Eleusis.

A thousand years before Christ, the sanctuary of Eleusis was dedicated to the Goddesses Demeter and her daughter Persephone. This was where Persephone had been snatched, kidnapped by Hades, king of the underworld, and taken down into his world of death. But when she was rescued and brought back to her mother, Demeter in gratitude gave the world fertility and growth and crops. In celebration of the two Gods and their gift of cultivation to the world, the ancient Greeks would gather here in Eleusis and perform the most extraordinary rites and celebrations. The ‘Mysteries of Eleusis’.
Modern day Eleusis was now a massive industrial centre for Athens. A desolation of quarries and cement works and factories and petrol refineries. Ugly and unhealthy. What had they done to this place? The ancient site seemed mainly forgotten, overlooked and ignored by tourists normally so randy for the old civilisation’s treasures.
But we were here. We had checked before making our pilgrimage to make sure that the site didn’t shut until 8pm and walked confidently up to the gates. There was a heavy, official, metal board with the opening and closing times embossed in thick letters – and covering the 8pm closing time was a ratty scrap of torn paper, hurriedly sellotaped up, with a “3pm” scrawled on it. It was now 3.05pm. The place was firmly locked up. The man on the gate’s wife had obviously made his favourite meatballs for lunch. Or perhaps an interesting game of backgammon was taking place in one of the many cafes lining the roads running alongside the old sanctuary of Eleusis. Whatever the reason, the site was closed. Having come all the way here, all the way down the Sacred Way, we were’t going to let locked gates stop us. Giristroula and I walked round, found a low part of wall at the back of the site, and hurdled the fence into Eleusis’ mystical grounds. Dropping down into the ground where the columns and steps and altars, where bizarre initiation sacrifices and practices happened for perhaps over 2,000 years, all stood. This was a place so secret and so protected back in ancient times that no one ever dared reveal the rites that were performed at Eleusis – the strange ceremonies that were carried out to make the ancients feel better, happier. At the climax of the ceremonies, they say the devotees would be plunged into darkness and then restored back to light. Life would be unliveable for the Greeks if Eleusis ever ceased to exist. But any non-initiates who entered the sanctuary would instantly be put to death. As we crunched over the old stones and the shattered fragments of marble and wondered just what really happened here all those thousands of years ago, over the hot air came a two-note “whoop-whoop.” On the edge of the site, on the other side of the fence, a police car had pulled up, its lights flashing.
Ti kaneis ekei?” – what are you doing there? – one of the cops shouted over at us.
“We’re searching for happiness!” I shouted back, thinking it all a bit of a joke.
Tin pateesate!” – You’ve stepped on her!
I felt a little puzzled at this, but nodded and smiled anyway. “Yes, I suppose so…” I said.
Tin ehete vapsei poly ashima!”, they shouted again. I translates this in my head – You’ve painted it very badly…
I turned in confusion to Giristroula and squinted at her for clarification.
“They’re Greek idioms…” she said.
“Oh I see.”
“They’re telling us we’re in big trouble.”
“Oh. I see.”
And so it was that, shamefacedly, we had to climb back over the fence and stand, heads bowed, next to the policemen in front of the curious eyes and craning necks of the patrons sat at the tacky cafes. The policemen enjoyed the lecturing. Pretended they might even take us back to the police station before finally letting us go, telling us to leave and head back towards the Sacred Way. They watched us as we walked away, making sure we left, while they took a seat at a cafe next to a large cheaply decorated nightclub – ‘Club Opa.’ The club looked quite the most terrible place you could imagine, the windows illustrated with silhouettes of dancing girls. A club for the industrial workers. So happiness could still be found in Eleusis. But in a different way for the people of Eleusis now.

Petroupoli – afternoon

Athens covers the entirety of the Attica valley. It has groped its way up the sides of all the surrounding mountains. Five million people living in this hothouse, this ancient dust bowl, which less than a hundred years ago held barely 500,000. A blanket of pollution sitting over everything. But in Petroupoli, a suburb in the north west of the city, as I walked down its fairly clean, fairly modern high street, the city just runs out. There was no warning. I didn’t feel an end coming, but just as I noticed the street starting to climb, suddenly I was alone. The city had vanished and nothing was around me and I found myself standing on one of the quiet violet-coloured hills that are the backdrop to Athens. The city sprawled out in front of me. Breath-taking in its size. Breath-taking its beauty and in its ugliness. The Attic light above, and the dull haze below that the city seems to bathe in.

My stomach pulled me out of this reverie though. Made me forget the strange magic of Athens and instead I found myself on the hunt for gyros. In Athens they confusingly call a gyros a souvlaki, and they call what everyone else in Greece calls a souvlaki a kalamaki, which is the same word as a drinking straw. It’s confusing, but what was certain was that in the very centre of Athens, next to Agia Irini church, the old, very first cathedral of the city, ‘Kostas” was the  very best place to get a souvlaki, a kalamaki, or whatever you want to call it. Established in 1946, so the sign read – ‘Kostas” was an Athens institution, just as important and venerable as its neighboring church. The tiny narrow shop, wedged in between the hefty downtown buildings, had wildly erratic opening hours, all chalked up on a board outside in the morning then rubbed out during the course of the day as old man Kostas had changes of heart, and new times chalked on. Then rubbed out again. The queues were long and they only sold pork souvlakis – kalamakis, as the Athenian would call them – but they were good. Really good. I seemed to spend all my time in Athens either eating here or waiting outside for Kostas to open up.

*

The Grande Bretagne hotel sits imposingly over Syntagma Square. The best view of Athens to be had at the top of the hotel, down onto the square below, black with people moving about, flowing out of the metro, past the parliament building. If you’re rich enough to stay there that is. But who is? Not me. I used to enter the dark foyer of the grubby-looking National Bank next door instead, take the lift to the top and there, weirdly, high on top of the bank building was a classic old fashioned kafeneio, with old style Athenians hunched over their coffees, peering down on the square. The Grande Bretagne hotel has its important place in Athens history though. It was the British HQ during the Greek civil war. And it was where the British army turned their guns on the unarmed pro-communists demonstrating Athenians in Syntagma Square in December 1944, killing 28. A shameful moment in modern British history. The British turned on those who had been fighting by their side only weeks earlier as the Greeks and the Allieds together had forced the Germans out of the country. The RAF bombed areas around the city, including the houses right under the Acropolis, the houses of Anafiotika, because of their maniacal fear of a communist takeover in post-war Greece. There was a plot by the communists that saw tons of dynamite put under the Grande Bretagne by the extraordinary figure of Manos Glezos – still alive today, still living in the city as I was there – the man who heroically climbed the Acropolis in 1941 to rip down the swastika flag that had been put up by the conquering Nazis. Churchill was staying at the Grande Bretagne as the dynamite was laid in the cellars. The fuse was never lit though. A fug of confusion and dithering meant the communists missed their chance… How world history could have changed in this handsome bulk of a 19th century building.

*

I found my favourite place in Athens to sit, do nothing, sup Greek coffee, to think, was Panellinion on Mavromichali street. An old, quiet kafeneo – a little dirty and ragged at the seams – where every table always had an intense game of chess going on. Scraggy old men with half chewed cigarettes dangling from their mouths took on long lengthy matches against smart briefcased workers stopping off on their way to the Archaeological Museum. The air was always heavy, the coffee strong, the silence in the city a relief. The nearby Archaeological Museum that the workers were heading to, after their protracted games, was just a short walk away. Past the classical-looking Polytechneio university building where, back in 1973, students – my father-in-law included – protested against the vicious military dictatorship that had stricken the country for seven years. They faced off the tanks, daubing slogans in their own blood on the walls. 24 students’ lives taken. It seemed incredible to think my father-in-law had helped rid the country of a dictator. Incredible, when now he struggled to even find his reading glasses.
The Archaeological museum is, of course, the indubitable star of Athens. The dazzling golden death mask of Agamemnon; the carved Kores and statues of Zeus; the bronze statue of the child jockey, looking alive up on his horse which had been found and incredibly pulled whole from the sea; the philosopher’s head 300 years older than Christ still with his piercing gemmed eyes; a seductive Athena clobbering a randy Pan with her sandal. Thousands of artefacts that filled me with solace. But then, in its own way, so did the old Panellinion cafe. I would while away hot afternoons in the dark, dusty cafe under the black and white pictures of old chess Grand Masters on the wall, faded pictures of great rembetiko players, photos of past Panathinaikos players grainily captured out on the pitch. I watched the Athenians walking past the window in the sun outside. As one very tall man and his very short wife walked past, awkwardly arm-in-arm, one of the old men of the cafe crept up behind me and said in my ear “As my grandmother used to say: like Metropolis and Agios Eleftherios. Eh? Eh?” He chuckled and nudged me. He turned round to his friend “I just told him: like Metropolis and Agios Eleftherios!” He nudged me again. I had no idea what he meant, but agreed “Yes, just like Metropolis and Eleftherios…”

Later I was walking through the tangle of streets that run from Syntagma Square to the antique flea markets of Monasteraki to head up towards Athinas Street and the old covered food market of Athens – the Dimotiki Agora. In the public market, amongst all the chaos and theatre of the sellers and their barrels of olives overflowing, rolling out on the ground under your feet, the huge fish that are proffered under you nose as you walk along, like a magician with a conjuring trick, the live chickens that have escaped the coup and are making a mad bobbing run for it, are the very best places to eat. Cheap, making no play to the tourists in design or atmosphere, just honest cooking. One taverna you enter by an un-signed wooden green door, leave by another, having sat in the basement by their vast barrels of wine and eaten and drunk whatever it is the owner wants to bring you – you don’t actually get to order anything. As I walked on my way to the market, I passed the square of the huge central Metropolis church… and I spotted for the first time the tiny Byzantine church nuzzled down next to it: Agios Eleftherios. Made of crumbling brick, much older and sweetly small sitting down next to its clumsily tall, lugubrious, partner. It now became clear to me what the old Athenian saying the old man nudged me and repeated again and again in Panellinion meant. I looked at the two comically mismatching churches in the dying Athens evening light. “Just like Metropolis and Eleftherios” I said to myself, and smiled as I walked on.

 

53 Chiou, near Larisa Station, 5pm

This was a strange part of town. It seemed dedicated to all the different areas of Greece. Dotted round were bakeries from Epirus, Macedonian tavernas, hotels celebrating the island of Corfu… Perhaps it had something to do with the two Athens stations that were once here and used to serve the whole country. Now there is only one station, with a fairly meagre and miserable service up through central Greece towards Thessaloniki. The impressive old Peloponnisou Station that used to service southern Greece lies forlorn, derelict and forgotten, like a decaying Christmas cake, sitting on its own over the other side of the tracks.
I was walking through Chiou to search for something else though. Another building. One that also looked as if it had seen better days. And it had. Between 1943 and 1977, one hundred and eighty five different films were produced, some even filmed here, at number 53, in this sturdy old residential villa. The great Finos Films. A cultural beacon of Greece. From the black and white comedies to later colour dramas and musicals everybody in Greece knows and watches Finos Films. You can usually find a Finos Film being shown somewhere on a Greek tv channel most days. The best are easily the comedies. Even someone with a seemingly permanently error-strewn grasp of Greek as me – despite the years I’d now been in Greece – can easily understand what’s going on, although sometimes the stark street-colloquialisms had to be explained to me. I enjoyed how these Finos films were always populated by the same characters. In their own way they reminded me of the ‘Carry On’ films back in the UK. The actors who turned up in the Finos Films each had their own wild idiosyncrasies and bizarre characteristics, just like the old ‘Carry On’ team. It all seemed to be run like a sort of family, and just like the ‘Carry On’ films, they were churned out on a tight budget under an astringent guiding eye of the patriarchal owner – in this case Filopimin Finos – and all coming from this very building I was standing in front of – graffitied and a little uncared for now – number 53.

Wise-cracks, put-downs, sexual innuendo, meddling mothers, incompetent men reduced to impotent humiliation by hard faced wives. Humour doesn’t change much throughout the world. Although the old Greek films, of course, are often rooted in poverty and struggle and strife. A bit less less camp too. And here in Greece, the omnipresent good old fashioned British V sign is replaced, but used just as constantly, by the open-hand Greek insult of the muja.
A classic of Finos films is ‘O Bakalogatos’. It tells the tale of Zikos, the small-statured corner-shop worker who endlessly argues with his boss, needles his customers, chases women. You often see black and white printed pictures of Zikos loafing and lounging, scheming and arguing, behind the counters of real bakaliko – corner shops – around Greece. He seems a sort of hero for corner shop workers. A patron saint, hanging on the wall next to their icons of saints and Madonnas. My personal favourite actor in the Finos Films was Veggos. Plump, kind-faced, bald-headed, Veggos would always be let down by his hopeless bad luck. Always trying his best to make something of his life, always thwarted by the outside world. Pratfalls and clowning, hollering his catchphrase “kaloi mou anthropoi!” – my good people! He was like a Karagiozis brought to life with his destitution and toil – but sadly Veggos was born without the guile and cunning of a Karagiozis. Veggos was also famous for his running. Running to try and catch some offer, some tantalising reward, that always seemed to disappear as fast as he ran towards it. Even today people say, when someone is busy rushing about: “Halara! Trehees san ton Veggo!“ – Calm down! You’re running around like Veggos! This being Greece, Thanasis Veggos, the actor behind the character, had an interesting back story of course. He was a far Left supporter and was exiled during the Civil War, where he first discovered he could act by entertaining the other prisoners. Later in life, after fame, and always overly generous, he lost all his money. But Giristroula’s Godfather, growing up in the suburbs of Athens, told me he remembers a down-on-his-luck Veggos living near-by. The old star was always very humble and Giristroula’s godfather told me Veggos would always give the most when he was a child and went with his friends singing the kalanda carols at Christmas.
Other faces that appear throughout the Finos Film series: the hysterical Rena Vlahopoulou – the ballsy battleaxe matriarch, shouting and ranting and gesticulating at everyone; Kostas Constadaras, a Sid James-type dominant male figure; the Charles Hawtrey-esque nervous bespectacled Dinos Eliopoulous; the ludicrously eyebrowed, bald-eagle looking, Dionysis Papagianopoulos, who always played the fathers in these films, who was actually a trained Shakesperean actor with a complex life, but clowned on screen for Finos with the best of them. The most famous of all the Finos actors though must be Aliki Vougiouklaki. A huge star and Greece’s blonde bombshell and national sweetheart – their Monroe or Diana Dors. Everyone knows Aliki and her films and the trademark straw hat that she flounced around in, singing and dancing in big hit films like ‘Madalena’ back in 1960.
Giristroula was working with young children in primary schools here in Athens. The kids sang a song in the playground…
“I saw a girl walking by… Her name is Aliki Vougiouklaki … And here is Karamanlis… he woke up at three…”
She asked them if they know who they were singing about. Karamanlis? The four-time prime minister of Greece, a towering figure of Greek history… They stared up at her, blank faced. No? Well, do you know who Aliki was? “Of course!” they all shouted “We love her!” I personally found Aliki a bit Barbie-ish, a bit too sugary and twee for me. I much prefered her rival, Jenny Karezi. Dark haired, funny, a little cynical and sarcastic, Jenny was the negative to Aliki’s blonde simpering. Jenny Karezi once spent time in prison for starring in a play which insulted the military dictatorship. Aliki on the other hand was famous for her singing kitten routine. Giristroula had a friend whose grandmother altered clothes in a back-street of central Athens. Aliki used to come in with her dresses to be fixed all the time. The grandmother was never paid once.

*

Cinema is a big thing in Greece. A pure Athenian experience is taking in a film at one of the open air cinemas on a hot summer night, alongside all the locals who had tried sleeping their oven-hot bedrooms, given up, and gone out to see a film. The whir of the old clunky projector, the chatter of the cicadas, the smell of jasmine in the air as you take your seat in rows of chairs on the rooftops set back behind shops or bars, high above the streets. Classical old films flicker at the Cine Vox or Cine Zefyros or the Cine Theseion, built back in the 1930s, overlooks the Acropolis. Watching a Finos Films you can still see a Greece that existed not so long ago. I saw how the laos – the poor folk – of Greece lived. I saw many of the streets and areas of Athens that had now altered dramatically and forever. The humour of Greece, the adages and sayings. And all made in this falling-apart house at number 53.

 

Pagrati, a little after 10pm

The ‘Magmenos Avlos’ restaurant was full of dark reds, wooden tables, wine glasses, old framed photos yellowing theatre programmes and newspaper cuttings on the walls. It was pointed out to me that on the next secluded table to ours, a New Democracy minister was eating an intimate dinner with an attractive young lady who was certainly not his wife. An old singer, who had seen better, more celebrated days, walked the room singing Greek torch songs. Mascara smudged, telling dirty jokes between numbers. The mood was debauched, but civilised. The food was average, the wine very good. Just off the wide Vasileos Konstantinou Avenue, with the traffic flying out of central Athens, the restaurant was set in a quiet square in the suburb of Pagrati. Pagrati has many dark, aged old cafes dotted around, old cinemas, a community, and more charm than the wealthy, hoity-toity, Kolonaki suburb across the road where the monied folk of Athens live… ‘Laos and Kolonaki‘ the old song goes – the poor and the rich living side-by-side in Athens. The Magemenos Avlos restaurant was also where Manos Hajidakis came every day. Starting with his early morning coffee, I was told Hajidakis would stay here all day until long intemperate dinners ended sometime well after midnight.
Manos Hajidakis was Greece’s greatest modern composer.
He wrote Oscar winning soundtracks and grand orchestral pieces. Even his ditties, like ‘Never On A Sunday’ – which you will hear piped over cheap taverna speakers the length of Greece – have become modern staples. But other, lesser-known, pieces – like the heartbreakingly sad ‘Waltz Of Lost Dreams’ – are where his real genius lies. I was a huge fan. I had made a point of walking past the house Hajidakis was born in up in Xanthi every day when we were there. Hajidakis’ father died leaving the Hajidakis family in poverty and they moved to Athens where Hajidakis later worked in the Piraeus docks and the Fix brewery factory on Syngrou Avenue to support them. But in between, he taught himself music.

Two side notes at this point: Fix beer is another classic symbol of Greece. Going back to the 19thcentury, it’s by far Greece’s best beer. The bottle’s label is a work of modernist art in itself, and the factory on Syngrou Avenue a vast, modern icon of architecture.
Syngrou Avenue is one of the great, wide, funnelling streets that take you out of Athens, heading down towards the port. It is lined on either side by gaudy sex shops and has always been a seedy place down through the years – prostitutes and pimps. The street’s become part of a common idiom now in Greece and you often hear some of the most unlikely figures, priests or old women,  a bit hard-up, scrabbling for money say “Tha vgo stin Syngrou!” – Right, that’s it, I’m going to work on Syngrou!

Hajidakis eventually moved into the musical world, received formal training and soon became, along with Mikis Theodorakis, Greece’s best known modern composer. Unlike Theodorakis though, politics weren’t a strong issue with Hajidakis. He even said, with comically bizarre Greek logic, he voted for the conservative New Democracy party because at least it allowed him to hate the government. His music isn’t as strident as Theodorakis either, there is always a great undercurrent of melancholy. Even his most jubilant pieces are tinged with a sense of longing and sorrow and a poignancy. His concept collection ‘Odos Oniron’ – Street of Dreams – is set in Athens, in the street that doesn’t stand out; just a street like all the others.  It’s an incredible collection, full of nostalgia and sad humour. Hajidakis was also a great champion of the newly re-emerging rebetiko scene. He composed music for Finos Films, as well as working on ERT radio – helping with the important late-70s series for children Lilipoupoli. Lilipoupoli was great programme and I hunted down all the old recordings I could find – it was where I’d learnt pretty much most of the Greek I had.

A note on ERT: ERT is the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, is Greece’s state broadcaster. It started in 1938 and in a sea of rubbish tv and radio in the country it still stands out as a rare mark of quality programming. However at the height of Greece’s financial crisis in 2013, the New Democracy government announced suddenly it would be taken off air. With only a few hours notice, the nations public service broadcasting media was closed down. A scandalous action. The ERT employees didn’t stand for it. For two years they broadcast by guerrilla means, illegally transmitting on stolen airwaves, and kept the great institution going. No journalists were paid, they did it for moral reasons and for the good of the country. ERT was finally re-installed when the New Democracy government fell. It remains a vital part of Greece’s national fabric.

I continued my obsession with Hadjidakis and started visiting the Magemenos Avlos every day. Appearing, just as they opened up, for a morning coffee. Sitting and getting in the way as they cleared up from the previous boisterous evening. I was fascinated by Hajidakis’ old stand-up piano that he had moved to the restaurant so he could compose if inspiration ever struck, or to play on during wild nights when surrounded by his crowd of intellectuals and dirty drinkers. It sat in the corner of the restaurant and I drove the waiters mad as they lined up the fresh cutlery and puffed new table cloths into the air to flutter down onto tables as I tinkled on it, chiming a clumsy chord in reverence to its old owner.

The maitre d’, hunched over his newspaper, cigarette resting in the ashtray, grey smoke spiralling up into the air, had had enough. One day looked up and with a sigh said to me “Do you want to see the walk Manos took every day? The walk from his apartment to here?” Of course I nodded eagerly. I couldn’t believe it. The maitre d’ jerked his head towards the door, picked up his jacket and we left and walked out from the dark restaurant, quietly preparing itself, getting its breath back from its night’s carousing  – and into the bright scene of the lively Pagrati streets…

 

The 1st Cemetery, late afternoon

Behind the stadium of the first modern-day Olympics in 1896 lies the 1st Cemetery of Athens. Unlike Paris’ Pere Lachaise or London’s Highgate cemetery, this is no real tourist’s destination. There are no maps, the plots aren’t numbered, the dead are left to lie in their patches of peace here, undisturbed. Or that was until Giristroula and I decided to climb and clambered around the graves to see who of Greece’s past was laid here in this rare tract of tranquillity of central Athens. We found it was a catalogue of some of the greatest names of Greece’s history. Among the quiet lanes, alongside the pines and cypresses and the neo-classical masterpiece graves, away from the city heat, we spotted names. Names such as the formidable Greek poets Elytis and Seferis. Seferis, who attracted thousands lining the streets to the cemetery in 1972 when he was buried, singing his poems which had been banned at the time by the dictator Georgios Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos’ rather plain unadorned grave lies near-by. A grave that people danced on after he passed away in prison in 1999. There was a grand tomb for the German Heinrich Schliemann, the man who excavated so many of Greece’s archaeological sites. A tomb almost matching in magnificence some of his finds. We passed a grave known as the Sleeping Beauty, sculptured by the master craftsman Yannoulis Chalepas. Chalepas is here too, in a rather dull plot – as after his death, of course, there was no one left to make such a beautiful grave for him.

The Papandreou family that ruled Greek politics for so many years; a personal favourite Greek artist, Nikiforos Lytras; Demis Rousos… They were all here. There was the master rembetiko musician Vasilis Tsitsanis. Further on my man Veggos, finally able to stop his running and take his deserved rest. Aliki Vougiouklaki and Jenny Karezi buried in the actor’s corner – even in death they seemed to oppose each other – Aliki’s grave a burst of colour and girly gaiety, a bright coloured picture of herself, a carving of her famous straw hat, fresh flowers from fans laid on the floor; Jenny’s hidden away, sombre, just a small monochrome picture and the trees overgrown, hanging over the grave.
“Is Manos Hajidakis buried here?” I asked a gardener tending a patch of earth in front of some white gothic grave.
He scratched at his face. “I think so,” he said. Up that way…” he flung his head backwards.
I walked around the west part of the graveyard, the area that he’d vaguely directed me to, but could find nothing. I asked another of the ground staff. He directed me to another part of the cemetery. Again, nothing. I asked an old man who had been eyeing me walking around while he sat on a grave, eating olives. He looked as if he came here often.
“Hajidakis?” he said to me, looking slightly amused. He chewed an olive. Did the Greek trick of rolling the stone round his mouth with his tongue. Made me wait. “You’re miles away,” he chewed, spat out the stone. “You’ll find him in Paiania… ”

 

Sounio, early evening

The highest cliff on the furthest tip of Greece’s mainland. The ‘Cape of Athens’. Underneath the cliff, the sweep of the sea murmured away but from up here the noise of the waves barely reached us. Set a little way back, on top of the cape is the Temple of Poseidon. Of course the ancients would build a temple to worship the God of the seas here, with the colossal breadth of sea spanning away in front of us, littered with tiny islands. The 15 Doric columns of the temple – sitting regal, surveying the Straight of Makronisos – have been battered by the salt winds since the 5th century BC. They give a dazzling, glittering, appearance when the sun hits. The columns also contain, scratched and carved into one of the bases, the graffitied name of Lord Byron, made by Byron on his first visit to the country. The first hooligan of Greece.

2,300 years before Byron a thousand of Xerxes ships had sailed from Persia to conquer the Greek world. In what was perhaps Ancient Greece’s most glorious hour, the Persians never made it past this cape at Sounio. The fleets destroyed off the island of Salamis, defeated by the ever-present Greek courage and an all-too-rare display of unity. The Persians who had fallen into the sea left to be speared by the Greeks like fish.
In mythology, King Aegeus threw himself to his death from the top of the cliffs – so giving the name to the Aegean Sea –  when he saw his son Theseus’s ship sailing with a black sail on his return from Crete having fought the Minotaur. Aegeus believed the black sail meant tragedy had befallen his son. However it’s thought Theseus knew all too well that by not raising the white sail of victory, his father would plunge off the cliffs of Sounio in sorrow, leaving Theseus to claim the title of king of this land.
The island of Makronisos out on the Straights, uninhabited now, has a terrible history as a prison and place of exile during the civil war. Veggos’ prison in fact, Giristroula’s grandfather’s for a while too, and the poet Giannis Ritsos. The waters here also hold the wreck of the Britannic, the sister ship of the Titanic, which incredibly also sunk with many death in 1916. So this huge expanse of sea seems a desolate spot then – one that seems to have born witness to many a miserable fate. We’d timed it though, with absolute luck, just as the sun was setting and we gazed out on one of the truly greatest of Greek sights as the sun hissed and crackled and gave off great flares of colours as it set into the Sounio sea. But we’d not actually come for this. We’d actually set off on the road south-east out of Athens to find Painia, somewhere along the route.
Tiny underneath the gaze of Mount Hymettus – known round these parts as Trello Vouno, crazy mountain, with its peaks full of bees and honey – 10km out of the city, we had found Painia. There’s not too much to the town: vineyards lie on the surrounding hills, Panathinaikos’ old training ground is here, deserted and forlorn, the gates hanging off their hinges, the pitches overgrown, but sitting quietly in a well-tended graveyard, away from everything, under the mountain’s shadowed protection, there was Hajidakis’ grave. It might have been the most peaceful spot I’d ever stood. I read that at the end of his life, Hajidakis had told his friend “I’m very happy… I’ve found a nice grave for you to bury me in…” Hajidakis had arranged everything: to be buried here, far away from the bustle and chatter and ego and ostentation of Athenian life. He had demanded no fanfare, no speeches, no crowds. It seemed the humblest of final moves. So we started to feel a little ashamed at being here. We hoped we hadn’t disturbed any longed-for peace. and soon took ourselves off towards Sounio, as if actually this had always been our goal. The sun chased us away, to the end of Attica.

 

Pagrati, 12 noon

The head waiter had left me on the street corner. “There. That was Manos’ flat.” he had told me. I ignored his shaking head, the muttering under his breath, as he headed back to the ‘Magmenos Avlos’ restaurant and stared up at the white Athenian block of apartments. It felt just as significant to me as the Parthenon or the Temple of the Olympian Zeus – the broken temple that sits next to Athens’ National Gardens, with its tumbled columns, domino-ed down onto the floor hundreds of years ago which seem to have been caught, suspended in time, so that you can almost hear the booming collapse and feel the reverberations on the ground. This block of 1960s white balconied flats meant just as much to me. I walked to the door and saw, with a shock, that Hajidakis’ name was still on one of the doorbells. I stood looking at it, dumbly. Someone came up behind me, leaned over and pressed the Hajidakis bell. I looked up at the man.
“Do…do you know Hajidakis?” I asked. A little confused.
“His son,” the man replied.
His son? He lives here? “Do you think I could meet him?” I asked.
The man looked a little taken aback. “Well…I can ask him. But yes, I’m sure he’ll come down and see you.”
So I stood on the street. Thinking of how I would get to see the great man’s home, where some of the most moving musical pieces of Greece were born. I stood and watched the Athenian life going on around me: the deliveries; the hawkers; the lottery card sellers with their cages of tickets around them; the rugs being beaten over the side of the balconies; the old women on their way to prepare for services at the small Byzantine Athenian churches that sit round the city, almost crushed between the modern blocks. I stood and waited. And I waited. Twenty minutes went by, half an hour. It was clear no one was coming down. I turned and gave a last look at the building, then started off on the slow walk back into the centre of Athens. Down the road, heading towards its bustling pandemonium of life, where I would soon be swallowed whole.

Here, in this street, the dreams of so many children are born, and die…