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. And there it was, lit up: the ‘Stou Tsante’. A great-looking rakomeladiko, decorated in the styles of the island of Ikaria. It had these Ikarian styles as this part of Athens is an area where many Ikarians had settled. Drawn over from their slow, sweet, island lives due to the need for work, the promise of money. But then to face the unknown stresses and struggles of life in the capital. The Ikarians tried to preserve their old island life, built tavernas just like back home.

There are many areas here in Athens where these Greek immigrants settled. Anafiotika, right in the centre, crawling up the slopes of the Acropolis, named after the island of Anafi in the Cyclades as Cycladian workmen came over and built their old houses in the same distinct island styles – white walls and colourful climbing flowers, still there today. Then there are the 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 setting up. Elena was the daughter of Tasos Falireas the great historian of Greek rembetiko music who helped bring the old outsider rebellious rembetiko 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 on the Greek state radio, ERT, playing crackling old rembetiko records every weekend morning. We took a seat in the rakomeladiko and listened to these dark-hearted Greek songs played live – in the most appropriate setting: most rembetiko music first originated here in these port areas back in the 1920’s and 30’s.

These songs – that have seemed to soundtrack my whole time living in Greece, appearing and following me round the country like ghosts – were full of the hard life that went on in these tough old streets: poverty, drug intoxication, migration, endless tales of lost love, infatuation, pains in the soul. Songs wrapped in a defiant hopelessness.

The great originators of rembetiko – like the hard-living, sexually seductive but forever broken-hearted singer Roza Eskenazi or the bouzouki magician Vasilis Tsitsanis – came down from the Turkish lands of north-eastern Greece 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 rembetiko, 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, heaving 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.

Rembetiko 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 pushed his chair back and came forward and picked up a bouzouki. He played it with incredible skill. I found out he was Kostas Kalafatis, a famed rembetiko player who had come to Athens today to appear on Elena’s radio show tomorrow 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 main Omonoia Square in central Athens. This café was where all the rembetiko players hung out in the 20s and 30s and where Hiotis learnt his trade. And where he saw his father killed in a brawl outside. 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, Manolis Hiotis. When you listen to him 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 he was being spoken to by 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 rembetiko 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?” they shouted over the music.

“London.”

Glasses were raised in my direction in salute. “Kalos erthes…” – welcome.

And then more songs. Glasses 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. We didn’t have that kind of stamina though, and so said our goodbyes and thanks and staggered out to face the dark port front, some time around 3am.

I thought of the 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. Missing their old lands back in modern day Turkey. The creators of these passioned musical gems, scattered, just like Greek islands, across the seas. Next morning I put on ERT radio. Elena was doing her show. I slumped over a Greek coffee. Kostas joined her on air. Rembetiko was played. They were talking.

“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 rembetiko. You know, I’m told it even touches Londoners…”

 

Ambelokipoi, 7.30pm

The pavements were heaving. The streets were 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’. The Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium on the main Leoforos Alexandras – 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 had been to Olympiacos’ ground – not actually based in Athens, based down in the port town of Piraeus, part of the Athens sprawl – to watch Olympiacos’ European Champions League game against the 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 at this match, all Turks had been banned from coming to the game. All Greeks banned from going to Istanbul, too.

And 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 had 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 a fantastic pink and purple 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 regalia. He had a loathsome, powerful, criminal face and had leered it into mine, as he did again now.

“Eh! Olympiacos man!”

He remembered me.

“We will win today eh? He slapped me on the top of my head two or three times. “We will win! We will win!!”

Then he stopped dead. “Eh, but why you here?” He glared at me. “You ARE Olympiacos, aren’t you?”

I thought of asking him the reason behind him being here too – but it seemed all too obvious why. The riot police were outside, helmets on, arms linked, shields up. Armoured vehicles blocking roads. Panathinaikos fans stood outside looking for trouble, hoping their dreams of a great punch-up with their rivals weren’t ruined – the sneaking Olympiacos fans milling around here, like my ‘friend’, 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’ supporters of Panathinaikos crowd on the stands. A frequent sign of ‘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 had slogged my way up there a few summers ago expecting to find a world of untouched nature. Olympiacos have their own famous gate too –Thyra 7– also painted all over the country. There was a terrible tragedy at Gate 7 in the 80s when 21 supporters were crushed to death, so 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 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 time during the game, they usually pull open those gates. We’re hoping we can all get in there…”

The game continued. Panathinaikos scored. The roar from the ground was huge, but the fans in the bar 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…”

And now you come in the hope of running into the ground for free?

“Well it’s a very hard to get a ticket,” he said sheepishly .“Especially for this game… But anyway, 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, cannon-like sound of the seats being pummelled, the boom of flares and fireworks, the relentless chanting.

“Like a church,” he repeated sadly.

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…”

Then suddenly there was action. The crowd of the bar 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 said. He 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 couldn’t really understand why I’d put myself in this situation. Just as I felt stuck in the scrum, neither able to get forward or back, two hands grabbed 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 ever seen in my life.

He smiled at me. “Good, eh?”

The whole stadium was pounding up and down on their seats. Everyone, without exception, was jumping, flags waving. The chants 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 were punching and kicking and throwing broken seats at the each other. Nobody else in the rest of the crowd seemed to care about this in the slightest.

Smoke and flares and instruments and an enormous smell of alcohol. It was like a 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 rembetiko 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. It was an impressive win, Olympiacos had been the Greek champions for the last 6 years. They 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. Now 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 passionately on the left. 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 at this time in the vast Olympic stadium, but had thrown it open for all refugees to come in for free. “The Mother Of All Refugees” the banner that ran across the stands read.

Another team in Athens with roots in the Greeks in 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 great fire where the Turks in revenge for Greek armies pushing into Turkey, burnt the Greek areas in the town of Smyrna for nine days. people were 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 like today, so many didn’t make it.

Of course the history of Greece, the history of Athens, joyful and tragic, the nuances, the politics, the pain and the identity, it even flows through Greece’s football, just as it does in everything in Greek life.

As we left the match, the crowds piling over each other, songs still ringing out, I asked my 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… So, of course, you may ask the question why do I still go…” he said, smiling.

Why do you still go then, I asked him.

He stroked his chin, gave a rueful laugh “I don’t know!”

We both looked at the sea of green flowing away down Leoforos Alexandras.

“But who could ever leave all of this?”

 

 

Iera Odos, 11am

Along the Sacred Way we go.

Originally made by the feet of devout pagans on their way to Eleusis, the Sacred Way is now a multi-lane anonymous highway cutting through central Athens. They still give it its holy name, Iera Odos, but this seems a sacrilege really, set amongst the petrol stations, furniture depots and ‘Pet City’ superstores as the road is. But we still set off to walk it one early summer day. We felt it needed to be remembered, just as those ancient walkers would go, leading away from the city of Athens to 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 his dirty black cassock. He placed the book 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 towards me. He smelt faintly of alcohol. His beard had white strings of spit in it.

Den peirazei,” – never mind – he shrugged. “Ki afto kalo sinai…” – this is all still good for you. “O Theos einai enas,” – it’s all the same God – he told me, closing my hand round his pamphlet.

I didn’t want any of this rubbish, but smiled and thanked him.

“10 euros,” he said, holding out a demanding hand.

In a wide part of the street: hot concrete, deserted, no people, just cars blurring past and a punishing sun above, we were chased by two mad stray dogs. We decided to abandon the pilgrimage by foot.

Next day we were in a car instead. Heading again down the Iera Odos. As we went further and further on the fume-filled street, at last the Holy Road finally started to thin out. The trees started to close in around us, the ugly buildings of Athens turned slowly into parkland and woods, the road became more tranquil and benign. However, at the masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, the Daphni Monastery – with its orange brick domes and dazzling gold mosaics inside, and the terrible figure of Christ looking severely down on his creatures – we were again thrown on to another frantically busy road. But, as we finally approached Eleusis the Iera Odos reappeared once more and we turned onto it – it was now a residential road – getting smaller and smaller until it reached its end. A cul-de-sac. A cul-de-sac ending at the great ancient site of Eleusis.

Eleusis.

First established over a thousand years before Christ. Dedicated to the Goddesses Demeter and her daughter Persephone. And the place where the ‘Mysteries of Eleusis’ took place. Persephone had been snatched, kidnapped by Hades, king of the underworld, and taken down to his world of death. But she was rescued, brought back to her mother here in Eleusis. Demeter, in gratitude, gave the world fertility and growth and crops. And in celebration of the two Gods and their gifts, the ancient Greeks would gather here and perform the most extraordinary rites and celebrations.

The area of modern day Eleusis was now a massive industrial centre for Athens. A desolation of quarries and cement works. Ugly and unhealthy. The ancient site in the town was mainly forgotten, overlooked, and ignored by tourists normally so randy for the old civilisation’s cultures. But we were here.

We had checked before making our pilgrimage, making sure that the site didn’t shut until 8pm. We walked 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 and the place was firmly locked up. The man-on-the-gate’s wife had probably made his favourite 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. But anyway, having come all the way here though, all down the Sacred Way, there was only one thing for it. We walked round, found a low part of wall at the back of the site, and hurdled the fence into Eleusis’ mystical grounds.

The columns and steps and altars where bizarre initiation sacrifices and practices happened for over 2,000 years were all there. A place so secret and so protected back in ancient times that anyone who revealed the rites that were performed at Eleusis would be put to death. These strange ceremonies were carried out to make the ancients feel better, happier. At the climax of the ceremonies they would be plunged into darkness and then restored to light. They said life would be unliveable for the Greeks if Eleusis ever ceased to exist. They also said that any non-initiates who entered the sanctuary would also be put to death.

As we crunched over the old stones and the shattered fragments of marble and wondered just what really happened here those thousands of years ago, over the hot air came 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!– he hollered back.

I felt a little puzzled at this, but nodded and smiled back anyway. “Yes!” I shouted.

Hey! Tin ehete vapsei poly ashima!”, they shouted again – You’ve painted it very badly!

Things seemed to have got very strange now. I looked over to Giristroula for clarification.

“They’re Greek idioms…” she said.

Oh. Right…

“They’re telling us we’re in big trouble.”

Oh.

And so it was that, shamefacedly, we had to climb back over the fence and face the policemen in front of the craning necks of the patrons of the slightly tacky cafes. The policemen enjoyed lecturing us on trespassing. They pretended they might take us back to the station, before we were finally sent away. Told to head back towards the Sacred Way. We set off, the police watching us, making sure we went, while they took a seat at a cafe next to a large cheap-looking nightclub. The nightclub –club “Opa” – was badly decorated. Illustrated with silhouettes of dancing girls. A club for the industrial workers who live in modern day Eleusis.

So happiness was still found in Eleusis then. But in very different ways these days.

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 sits over everything.

But in Petroupoli, in the north west of the city, as I walked down its fairly clean, fairly modern high street, the city suddenly 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, nothing and no one around me. I found myself standing on one of the quiet towering violet-coloured hills that lie all around as the backdrop to Athens. The city sprawled in front of me. It was breath-taking in its size, breath-taking in both its beauty and its ugliness. The Attic light above, and the dull haze below that the city bathed in.

My stomach somehow pulled me out of this dream. Made me forget the strange glowing magic of Athens and I found myself on the hunt for gyros. In Athens they confusingly call the staple Greek meal wrapped in pita bread a souvlaki – whether it contains gyros (the shaved strips of meat) or indeed souvlaki (the cubes of meat cooked on a skewer). Athenians call what everyone else in Greece calls a souvlaki, a kalamaki. Which is the same word as a drinking straw. Confusing.

In the very centre of the city, next to Agia Irini church – the old, very first, cathedral of Athens – is ‘Kostas’’. Established in 1946, so the sign read – an Athens institution as venerable as the church – the tiny, narrow shop, wedged in between the hefty downtown buildings, had quite wildly erratic opening hours. All chalked up on a board outside in the morning, then rubbed out often during the course of the day as old man Kostas had changes of heart. New times chalked on. Then rubbed out again. Queues were long. They only sold pork souvlaki (or kalamaki, as they would say) but they were good. Really good. I guess Kostas had earned the right to open whenever and served whatever he liked.

 

Athens centre – later the same afternoon

The Grande Bretagne hotel sits imposingly in Syntagma Square. A great view can be had here of Athens and down onto the square below, black with people moving about, flowing out of the metro, past the parliament building. If you’re rich enough, that is. If you’re not – and who is? – just enter the dark foyer of the grubby looking National Bank next door instead. It may seem a strange thing to do, but just take the lift to the top. And weirdly, here, high on top of the bank building, is a classic, cheap, old fashioned kafeneio, with old style Athenians drinking their coffees. The same glorious view as the toffs had next door, but a real locals’ place. The Grande Bretagne hotel has its important place in Athens history though.

This hotel had been the British HQ during the Greek civil war. And it was where the British army turned their guns on the unarmed pro-communist demonstrating Athenians in Syntagma Square in December 1944, killing 28. The British turned on those who had been fighting by their side only weeks earlier as the Greeks and the Allieds together forced the Germans out of the country. But then the RAF bombed areas around the city, including the houses right under the Acropolis, as they had a manic fear of a communist takeover in post-war Greece.

Tons of dynamite were put under the Grande Bretagne by the extraordinary figure of Manos Glezos, still alive today, living in the city – 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 history could have changed in this handsome bulk of a 19th century building…

*

I found the best 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 seemed to have an intense game of chess going on. Scraggy old men with half chewed cigarettes dangling from their mouths took on epic matches against smart briefcased workers stopping off on their way to the Archaeological Museum. The air was heavy, the coffee strong, the silence in the city welcome.

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 been in place for seven years in Greece. Successfully facing 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. Now, when now he struggles to even find his glasses.

The Archaeological museum though is, of course, the indubitable star of Athens. The dazzling golden death mask of Arkememnom; the carved Kores and statues of Zeus; the bronze statue of the child jockey, looking fully alive 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  stunned me. But then, in its own way, so did the old Panellinon cafeAnd so I whiled away hot afternoons in the dark, dusty, kafeneo under the black and white pictures of old chess Grand Masters on the wall, set in-between the many black and white pictures of great rembetiko players of the past. And the black and white photos of ancient Panathinaikos players, grainily captured out on the pitch. The games of chess never ending around me. I watched the Athenians walking past the window in the sun outside.

One of the old men behind me said in my ear, as one very tall man and his very short woman walked past, awkwardly arm in arm.

“As my grandmother used to say: like Metropolis and Agios Eleftherios…” He chuckled and nudged me. He turned round to his friend “I told him: like Metropolis and Agios Eleftherios…

“Eh? Eh?” he nudged at me again. I had no idea what he meant, but agreed. “Yes, 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 then head up towards Athinas Street and the central covered food market of Athens – the Dimotiki Agora. In the public market, amongst all the chaos and theatre of the sellers, and the hundreds of varieties of fish, olives and live chickens, are the best places to eat. Cheap restaurants, making no play to the tourists in design or atmosphere, just good honest cooking. The best of all is perhaps the anonymous hidden tavern, known round town as the Two Doors – Diporto – as you enter by one un-signed wooden green door, leave by another, having sat in the basement by their great 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, I passed the square of the huge, imposing, grand 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 suddenly became clear to me what the old Athenian saying meant, the saying the old man nudged me and repeated again and again in Panellinion.

I looked at the two comically mismatching churches in the dying Athens evening light. It made me smile as I walked on.

 

53 Chiou, near Larisa Station, 5pm

This is a strange part of town. It seems given over to all different areas of Greece. Dotted round are bakeries from Epirus, Macedonian tavernas, hotels dedicated to the island of Corfu…

Perhaps it was something to do with the Athens stations that were once here and used to serve the whole country. Now there was 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 sadly over the tracks.

I was walking through Chiou to search for something else though. Another building. One that also looked rather 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 unshakeably error-strewn grasp of Greek as me – despite the years I’d been here now – 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 way, they reminded me of the ‘Carry On’ films back in the UK. The actors who turned up in the Finos Films each have their own wild idiosyncrasies, bizarre characteristics, just like the old ‘Carry On’ team. It all seemed to be 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 from this very building I was standing in front of – graffitied and a little uncared for now.

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, always seem rooted in poverty and struggle and strife. Rather 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 hero for the corner shop workers. A patron saint, hanging next to their icons and crosses.

My personal favourite actor in the Finos Films, though, was Veggos. Plump, kind-faced, bald-headed, he 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 the destitution and the toil, but without perhaps the guile and cunning. Veggos was 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 often say, when someone is busy, rushing about: “Trehees san ton Veggo!“ – 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. He told me Veggos would always give the most when they went kalanda – carol singing.

Other faces that appeared throughout the series are the hysterical Rena Vlahopoulou – the ballsy battleaxe matriarch, shouting and ranting at everyone; Kostas Constadaras, a Sid James-type overweening dominant male; the Charles Hawtrey-esque nervous bespectacled Ntinos Eliopoulous; the ludicrously eyebrowed, bald-eagle looking, Dionysis Papagianopoulos, who always played the father figure in the Finos Films. Papagianopoulos was actually a trained Shakesperean actor with a complex life, but he 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 the big hit black and white film ‘Madalena’ back in 1960.

Giristroula was working with young children in primary schools here in Athens. They sang a song…

“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 eminent, four-time prime minister of Greece, a towering figure of Greek history. They stared up at her, blank faced. No? Oh. Well, do you know who Aliki was?

“Of course!” they all shouted back “We love her!”

I personally found her a bit Barbie-ish, a bit too sugary and twee. I much prefered her rival, Jenny Karezi. Dark haired, funny, a little cynical and a little sarcastic, the negative to Aliki’s blonde simpering. 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- apparently her 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, gone to see a film. The whir of the old clunky projector, a chatter of the cicadas, the smell of jasmine as you take your seat in rows of chairs on the roofs set back behind shops or bars, high above the streets. Classical old films flicker at the Cine Vox or Cine Zefyros . The Cine Theseion, built in the 1930s, overlooks the Acropolis. And Finos Films are a great ways of still seeing 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 now have 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 and yellowing newspaper cuttings on the walls. On the next – secluded – table to ours, it was pointed out to me a New Democracy minister was eating an intimate dinner with an attractive young lady. A lady who was clearly not his wife. An old singer, who had seen better, more famous, more celebrated days, walked the room, singing Greek torch songs. Mascara smudged, she told dirty jokes between numbers. The mood was debauched, but civilised. The food was average, the wine very good. And flowing.

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 is a fairly well-off area, but with many dark, aged, cafes dotted around. Old cinemas. A community. And more old charm than the wealthy, hoity-toity, Kolonaki suburb across the road. The Magmenos Avlos restaurant a great example of this. And the Magemenos Avlos was where Manos Hajidakis came every day. Starting with his early coffee in the morning, Hajidakis would stay here until long intemperate dinners ended well into the night.

Manos Hajidakis was Greece’s greatest modern composer. He wrote Oscar winning soundtracks and grand orchestral pieces. Ditties like ‘Never On A Sunday’ – which you will hear piped over every cheap tavern speaker the length of Greece – have become modern staples. But other, perhaps lesser known pieces – like the heartbreakingly sad ‘Waltz Of Lost Dreams’ – are where his real genius lies. I was a huge fan. The house Hajidakis was born in, up in Xanthi, I walked past every day when we lived there for a time. Hajidakis’ parents divorced and his father subsequently died leaving the Hajidakis family in poverty. They moved to Athens and Hajidakis worked in the Piraeus docks and the Fix brewery factory on Syngrou Avenue to support his family. In between, he taught himself music.

Two side notes here: Fix beer is also a 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 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. It’s always been a seedy place down the years, prostitutes and pimps. The street’s become part of a common idiom in Greece and you often hear some of the most unlikely figures – priests and old women – a bit hard-up and wishing they had some money say “Tha vgo stin Syngrou!” – 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, politics wasn’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, there is always a great undercurrent of melancholy. Even his most jubilant pieces are tinged with a sense of longing, a 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 rembetiko scene. As well as working on ERT radio, helping with the incredible late-70s series for children Lilipoupoli – which can still be found online today, and from where I’d learnt pretty much most of the Greek I had.

A side note about ERT, the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation: Greece’s state broadcaster started in 1938 and in a sea of rubbish tv and radio it 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 worrying and scandalous action. But the ERT employees didn’t stand for it. For two years they broadcast by guerrilla means. Illegally transmitting on stolen airwaves, they kept the great institution going. Journalists not being paid but doing it for the good of the country. ERT was finally re-installed with the election of the Syriza government. It remains a vital part of Greece’s national fabric.

Hadjidakis was even involved in the music for Finos Films. I got quite obsessed by him and started visiting the Magemenos Avlos every day. Appearing, just as they opened up, for my 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 moved himself 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 played the same chord over again 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, 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 here to his flat?”

I, of course, nodded eagerly. He jerked his head towards the door, picking up his jacket and we left and walked out from the dark restaurant, quietly preparing itself, getting its breath back from its nightly carousing  – 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. Although we climbed and clambered, disturbed the serenity – the infinite sleeps – to see who of Greece’s past was laid here in the rare tranquillity of central Athens. And 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 varied neo-classical masterpiece graves, under the blue sky, away from the city heat, we walked. And 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, set to music by Theodorakis, which were banned at the time by the dictator Georgios Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos whose rather plain unadorned grave also 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 inestimable archaeological sites. A tomb almost matching in magnificence some of his finds. We passed the Sleeping Beauty grave famously sculptured by Yannoulis Chalepas. Chalepas is here too. But after his death, of course, there was no one 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 Rouso… They were all here…

And there was the master rembetiko musician Vasilis Tsitsanis. Further on my man Veggos was there, finally able to stop his running and have his deserved rest. Aliki Vougiouklaki and Jenny Karezi are buried in the actor’s corner. And even in death they seemed to oppose each other. Aliki’s grave a burst of colour and girly gayety, bright coloured picture of herself, a carving of her famous straw hat, fresh flowers from fans laid on the floor. Jenny’s is hidden away, sombre, just a small monochrome picture of her, the trees rather overgrown and hung over the grave. It didn’t look much visited.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I found the whole cemetery both beautiful and haunting.

“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. 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. I 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 has been eyeing me walking around. He was sitting on a grave, eating olives. He looked as if he came here often.

“Hajidakis?” he said to me, looking slightly amused. He chewed a few olives. Did the Greek trick of rolling them 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 sweep of the sea murmured away. From up here though, the noise of the waves barely reached us. On top of the cape is the magnificent Temple of Poseidon. Of course the ancients would build a temple to worship the God of the seas here: the colossal breadth of sea spanning away in front of us, littered with tiny islands. The 15 Doric columns of the temple – sitting here now, regal, surveying the Straight of Makronisos – have been battered by the salt winds since the 5th century BC, acquiring a dazzling, glittering, appearance when the sun hits.

Quite astonishingly 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 earlier a thousand of Xerxes ships had sailed from Persia to conquer the Greek world. In what was perhaps Greece’s most glorious hour, the Persians never made it past this cape at Sounio, destroyed off the island of Salamis. Defeated by both the ever-present Greek courage and an all-too-rare display of unity. The Persians who had fallen into the sea were left to be speared by the Greeks like fish.

In mythology King Aegeus threw himself to his death here – 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 it meant tragedy had befallen his son, whereas 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 as king of the land.

The island of Makronisos, uninhabited now, has a terrible history too as a prison and place of exile during the civil war. Veggos’ prison in fact. Giristroula’s grandfather’s for a while too. The poet Giannis Ritsos. The straits also hold the wreck of the Britannic, the sister ship of the Titanic, which also sunk with many death in 1916. It seems a desolate spot then. One that seems to have born witness to many a miserable fate. We had timed it though, with absolute luck, just as the sun was setting into the Sounio sea. This must be one of the truly greatest of Greek sights. One that hundreds of Athenians make the pilgrimage to see. But actually we had not come for this. We were only here as we had set off on the road south-east out of Athens to find Painia, somewhere along the route. And – 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 found it.

There’s not too much to the town. Vineyards surround it. Panathinaikos’ old training ground lies 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, I finally found Hajidakis’ grave. It might have been the most peaceful place in which I’d ever stood.

I’m told that at the end of his life, Hajidakis said to his friend, the famous newspaper editor Fyntanides “What’s left for me? (Legendary theatre director) Koun is dead, (revered, Piraeus-born artist) Tsarouhis too. And now even (left-leaning party) PASOK are in power! But I’m very happy… I’ve found a nice grave for you to bury me in…”

He died soon after, and Hajidakis had arranged for everything. Arranged 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. We started to feel a little ashamed being here and hoped we hadn’t disturbed any longed-for peace. And we took ourselves off towards Sounio, as if this was always our goal. The sun chasing us to the end of Attica.

 

Pagrati, 12 noon

The head waiter had left me on the street corner.

“There. That was Manos’ flat.” he 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 but which seem to have been caught, suspended in time, so that you almost feel you can hear the booming collapse, the reverberations in the ground.

I walked to the door of these flats and saw, with a shock, that Hajidakis’ name was still on one of the doorbells. I stood looking at it, dumbly. And then someone came up behind, leaned over and pressed the Hajidakis bell. I looked up at the man.

“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…yes. I suppose. Why not? I’ll ask him, I’m sure he’ll come down.”

So I stood on the street. Thinking of seeing 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 rugs beaten over the side of the balconies; the old women on their way to prepare for services at the many small Byzantine Athenian churches that sit round the city, almost crushed between the modern blocks. I stood and waited.

And I waited.

Half an hour went by It became clear no one was coming. I gave a last look at the building and then turned and walked off towards Athens’ brilliant bustling pandemonium. I was soon swallowed whole.

 

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