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Thursday, 17 January 2013

Lycabettus (Λυκαβηττός)

We couldn't have wished for better weather while in Athens: brilliant winter sunshine without the sweltering heat of the summer, perfect for a leisurely stroll in the capital around one of its seductive points of attraction, and it has many to choose from. But walking is not everyone's sport. In deference to my Athenian hosts who are not great fanatics of leg power, preferring to strut around in their labelled clothing and high heeled boots, I bought a €7 return ticket to the top of Lycabettus Hill for a 2-minute ride in the cable car (which Greeks know as the 'teleferik', from the French). The cable car ride took me back to my student days in Wellington: I used the cable car to get to university during wet weather to save me from getting drenched. In this case, we took the cable car to avoid getting drenched in sweat.

On exiting the dark train tunnel, your eyes will be dazzled by the brilliant sunshine that tourists yearn to experience when they come to Greece (which makes Athens seem such a disappointment when it's raining!), while your mind is hypnotised by the panoramic views. As your eyes feast on the captivating vista, you wonder where you have been all these years, and why you didn't manage to get here earlier. The dazzling rays of the sun fall on the apartment buildings, giving them a resplendent look with an air of luxury. Living on the top floor of one of those buildings feels like being awake in your dreams. Once regarded as the ultimate in urban living, the 're-ti-re' is now seen as an unnecessary luxury due to the high cost of living. From this height, even the jumbled streets appear to lose their haphazard placement, since you can make out the lines of the roads, hiding the sprawl of the concrete jungle. So it's all a question of point of view, and if you are looking at Athens from the right place, this can improve your feelings about a city that has suffered an immense loss of dignity in recent times.
What do you first turn your attention to from this point in Lycabettus? Should you admire the rocky hill itself with the pine forest? Or maybe use the zoom on your camera to spy on the houses directly below the hill with the swimming pools on the roof? How about looking for the Acropolis instead, with the brilliant coastline in the distance? Or maybe visit St George's church first and light a candle? Or grab a table at the cafe before the crowds get to them and it's standing room only after that?
Sitting at an outdoor cafe is a very Greek way to pass the time on a fine clear day. As you sip your tea or coffee at Lycabettus Hill, don't be surprised if you find that time moves backwards. No, it doesn't stand still; it takes you back to the days of the romantic if somewhat melodramatic black and white Greek films of the 1960s, the ones that you (if you have Greek heritage, that is) used to watch with your parents at a Greek cinema night, or on a VHS, where women wore pointy shoes, and their menfolk wore suits and skinny ties, and they all went to the bouzoukia where they sat at a table and solemnly clapped to the music as they smoked their cigars and sipped their aperitifs. In those days, everyone was happy even if they were poor. And in their angry or sad moments, they still managed to laugh and smile, even the ones that didn't emigrate, but stayed on to watch their children emigrate 40 years later.
Mind you, you don't have to sit at a cafe and order expensive drinks when you reach the top of Lycabettus. But a place at a table is an iconic part of Greek life in general, and any trip to any point of attraction in any part of Greece will include this. The tables beckon you to come, almost as if seducing you; it's difficult to deny their charm and turn them down. At any rate, it may be a while before you return to this spot (it took me nearly two decades to return to Lycabettus), and you need to live the experience there and then. By taking a seat at a cafe, even if you have no Greek hertiage, you will suddenly find that you have become Greek yourself, and there is no better place to go Greek for a day than at the enchanting hill of Lycabettus, as you recall the words of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Odysseus Elytis, when he wrote that to be Greek is to feel the same way whether you are standing next to the Parthenon or next to a lichnari (oil-lit lamp).

A man of letters once said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, but I say that if a man has not visited Athens at some point in his life, then he hasn't lived life at all. And when he experiences Athens from the top of Lycabettus, even if he is an atheist, he will understand the sign at the entrance to the cable car tunnel:

"Great and wonderful are Thy deeds, O Lord God the Almighty!"

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