Saturday, 29 September 2012

Anafiotika (Αναφιώτικα)

Just recently, I found myself directly across the road from Syntagma Square for work purposes, which gave me a chance to visit a unique location in Athens.

The hotel where the seminar was located was very close to the famous Plaka district of Athens below the Acropolis, a place I visited often when I lived in Athens almost two decades ago. After the seminar, I had some time to kill before my next meeting, so I decided to take a stroll round the area for old times' sake. I headed in the direction of Kidathineon Street, which I knew would take me through some picturesque squares surrounded by neo-classical buildings and cosy little κουτούκια.

This would have been better done on an empty stomach, which would have tempted me to take a seat at one of those eateries, to enjoy the brilliant sunlight and plough my way through a few μεζέδες. Alas, my stomach was full after the all that meeting room catering that seminars usually put on; as I passed the tavernas and cafes, the only hunger I was experiencing at that moment was the deisre to make the most of a beautiful sunny day during my short stay in the capital of Greece. It was still too early to head to the train station which was a short walk from Plaka, so I used the time to take a steep walk up the hill to the holy rock.

The contrasting sites of Athens were thrown at my face as I walked up the slope with a view of the Acropolis: the boarded-up buildings representing old grandeur of former times lay side-by-side with the renovated edifices in inspiring Greek style, all surrounded by the forested greenery surrounding the sacred site. I was close to the rock now - by taking the road to the right, I knew I would end up on another road that would eventually lead me down to the Monastiraki train station.

At one point, I came across some lime-painted steps such as those that are often associated with islands and small villages. I was entering the hidden part of inner-city Athens known as Anafiotika, a name taken from the area's original inhabitants who came from the island of Anafi, neighbouring Santorini. Legend has it that their fame in masonry was so well known that they were invited in the mid-1800s by the newly-appointed German King of Greece to build the palaces and grand mansions that Athens was lacking when she became the capital of the newly established Hellenic Republic. Another legend tells us that the Anafiotes were desperate to leave their island homes after an earthquake that caused great destruction to the area.

Whatever the reasons for the Anafiotes leaving Anafi and coming to Athens for work, they also had to find a place to live; Athens at the time was nothing more than a village centred around the Acropolis. The Anafiotes built their houses on the northern rocky slopes of the Acropolis below the hill, which felt like home to them, as it was similar to the rocky terrain of their island homeland of Anafi. They hastily erected homes overnight, taking advantage of an Ottoman law which stated: "if you could put up a structure between sunset and sunrise, the property was yours." The paradox was that during the day, the Anafiotes built palaces for the rich and powerful, but at night they built simple island dwellings for their poor needy selves. The small houses in the Anafiotika area constitute an architectural example of simple structural sense and a need for saving resources. With flat roofs, joined to one another "like a flock of white ewes", combined with the layout of narrow alleyways and upward hewn steps, the area creates an unexpected 'island' picture at the end of the neoclassical district of Plaka.

The original inhabitants of Anafiotika from the Cyclades were joined by more displaced people from Asia Minor, after the Great Catastrophe in 1922, when they too were seeking a quick cheap way to put a roof over their heads in a desperate attempt to rebuild their lives following the turmoil of the events that drove them out of their homeland. By this time, the area of Anafiotika, which had originally been abandoned in classical times because the Delphic Oracle claimed it as sacred ground, was now being seen for its true value, as prime real estate in the constantly growing and sprawling capital of Greece; despite its original legal status, a number of houses were demolished in 1950 for the purposes of archaeological excavation work

By 1970, the whole area was reclaimed by the state, but many of the descendants of the original occupants of these houses continue to live there to this day, invisibly guarding their homes, since you rarely see human presence in the area, save a smoking chimney from an indoor woodfire, or some washing hanging on a clothesline flapping in the breeze. Some of the houses have been renovated to look very modern, accentuated with the well-known Greek style of wooden shutters, tiled roofs and decorative ceramic statuettes, but they retain their original style, with a hint of their roots showing in the rounded corners and strips of garden, helping them to retain their old-time look. In this way, they link us to the past and provide continuity in the 45 remaining houses which are now protected by preservation orders.

The whitewashed look of the cube-like houses, coupled with the rocky slopes, the narrow lanes separating the houses on either side of the street and the terracotta pots of geraniums give the area an island look - Anafiotika is often described as an island without a sea. It is only when you look down the hill that you remember you are in the heart of Athens, and your imminent departure from Anafiotika will take you back to the concrete jungle. 

The Greek state television archives contain a 1980 video based on the history of Anafiotika (ie pre-EU Greece), containing some historical information on the area. Unfortunately, the speech is not clear, and the language used in the voiceover is Katharevousa Greek, which makes it doubly difficult to understand, so I can't provide a synoptic translation because it really does all sound Greek, even to me...

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