Monday, 27 July 2015

The Sacred Way (Ιερά Οδός)

Out time! declared The Little Laughing Olive Tree. At home, we usually stay in in the evenings, meaning we sit outside on our large airy balcony, enjoying the view and the fresh air, with platters of fruit and cheese and paximathi (when there are no delicious leftovers available from the day's lunch). The Little Laughing Olive Tree's balcony did not offer the same romance (and neither did her pantry), so it was almost a pleasure to leave the confines of the apartment block and venture out into the cooler air at street level.


Tonight, we're going to cross the Sacred Way! cried The Little Laughing Olive Tree. Having just returned from the very crowded commercial centre of Αιγάλεω (Egaleo) along the Ιερά Οδός (Iera Odos - Holy Road/Sacred Way), where I had taken my daughter shopping, I was rather disappointed to think we would be entering that mess all over again. Iera Odos links the Acropolis of Athens with the Eleusinian Mysteries in the West Athens suburb of Elefsina, one of the five holiest sites of ancient Greece. Now, it's a quiet residential area in Athens, once famous for its heavy industry, which subsided well before the period known as the Greek economic crisis.

The Chalyps concrete factory

Ιera Odos feels rather stifling on a hot summer's day from the roars and fumes of car engines forming an endless stream of traffic. But Athens by night is a different picture to Athens by day, so we piled into the car and off we went, with our starting point at Iera Odos in Elefsina. We rolled down the windows to catch the cool air of the late afternoon and tried to take in the sights which were anything but sights for sore eyes. Initially, the bus stop signs we passed which showed the place names of the areas did not seem to match the industrial scenery that shapes Δυτική Αττική (Ditiki Attiki = West Athens). For instance, there were no phoenixes at Φοίνιξ (Phoenix) and the industrial scenery of Παράδεισο (Paradise) did not look tempting. Our concept of Hades suited it better. Χάλυψ (Chalyps) was a steel structure resembling a disused adventure playground while Πετρογκάζ (Petrogaz) was located close to a string of gas stations. Λουζιτανία (Lusitania) was not even near the sea, as its name suggests, but when the sea did come into view, the relation between its murkiness and the fear of its depths became more apparent from the frightening structures that bobbed on its surface. The unknown depths of the Mediterranean have a knack of enveloping all aspects of Greek life: "Listen to that bitch, the sea," Zorba once said, "that maker of widows."

Skaramangas - the area resembles a ghost town in some respects. Some places had their heyday and are now forgotten. Others are coping well with the crisis as they keep morphing into new businesses. Hotel signs may be misleading here - they are usually used by lovers. 

What a daredevil! The Little Laughing Olive Tree chuckled. He must be desperate! She pointed to a man who had just come out of the water and was stepping carefully over the rocky coastline in his bare feet. The bus stop sign told us we were at Σκαραμαγκά (Skaramanga), which hosts a shipyard. What James Bond's ScaramAngas has to do with the Greek SkaramangAs is probably all Greek to most people, suffice it to say that few would dare to go swimming anywhere near a place called Skaramanga, without James Bond around to protect them. Both S(c)karamangas take their name from the same family. The James Bond writer named a nasty character Scaramangas after a spat with a half-Greek Eton schoolmate, whose Greek roots hailed from the island of Chios, well known in Greece for its illustrious maritime history. The Skaramanga family did well in England, and their name lives on in Greece in the same way that all prominent wealthy people's names are remembered, as placenames lost in time. However unattractive the Skaramanga area may now look, it hides many secrets. Driving past the bus stop Αφαία (Aphea) close to Skaramanga, all you will see is a quiet idyllic neighbourhood cluster bordered by hills. Hiding in Mt Egaleo is the original road of the Sacred Way, together with a rocky temple dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite. The archaeological treasures of this area are all due to the route of the Sacred Way. Shrines of various deities were located along the route to keep the pilgrims' minds on the job.

Aphaia - a shrine to Aphodite

Nearly there! chirped The Little Laughing Olive Tree, as she veered right off the highway leaving behind a jumble of road signs pointing to a Ψυχιατρείο (Psychiatric Hospital) and a Μοναστήρι (Monastery), both named Δαφνί (Dafni), not to be confused with the area of Δάφνη (Daphne) which is an eastern suburb of Athens (we were in the west). One lone stress mark changes the whole meaning of a word in the Greek language. The road here had a tidy and above all pleasant appearance at this point after the shabby wasteland appearance of Λεωφόρος Αθηνών (Leoforos Athinon - Athens Avenue), which lies in the path of the original Iera Odos. At the Dafni Junction, Leoforos Athinon continues into Athens, while the road to the right that runs parallel to reappears as Iera Odos. The original Sacred Way of ancient times is the practically the same road in modern times. At the bus stop Αιγάλεω (Egaleo), during construction work for the Athens underground train network, the original Iera Odos was discovered, and is now open for viewing to the public via a raised platform.

It was sales time when we went shopping in Egaleo - there is no Zara in the area, just a heap of stores selling a lot of made-in-Greece clothing, sewn in the working class locality, providing local jobs. There were virtually no boarded shops here - the area is quite widespread, with businesses tucked in the side streets off the main road. 

The industrial nightmare of Leoforos Athinon did not suggest the picturesque green neighbourhoods that suddenly emerged into view on Iera Odos, all clustered around a steep hill. No one would even guess that the bus stop Διομήδειος (Diomedios) actually refers to a botanical garden (a gift to the state by someone named Diomidios) containing over 3000 species of flora, including plants appearing in ancient Greek texts, connected with Greek mythology, and mentioned in the Bible. In modern times, Ditiki Attiki is generally known in Greece (and abroad) for its working class industrial neighbourhoods, and not for its immense significance in ancient times, linking the Acropolis of Athens to the Eleusinian Mysteries via Iera Odos. And yet the sacred nature of this industrial road has not been lost. It is still there, constantly being uncovered, and the residents of the area are not immune to a sense of pride developing among them that they live amidst an unbroken historical connection spanning many centuries.

Hi Vicky! The Little Laughing Olive Tree shouted out, waving her right arm, as we passed a set of forbidding gates leading to yet another psychiatric hospital, the Δρομοκαΐτειο (DromokaIteio). There do seem to be quite a few of them here; we wondered. But who was Vicky? We all knew her very wellTest. As mothers, we both felt sorry for Vicky Stamati: she had not seen her young child for so many years since she was charged with her husband, former Minister of Defence Akis Tzohatzopoulos, for corruption and bribery involving the embezzlement of state money. But as Greek citizens, we felt vindicated for the damage she and her husband had done to the country and if we were asked to vote in a referendum with the question of whether she should remain imprisoned (she ended up at the Dromokaiteio due to mental health problems, we would probably vote NAI (YES). We imagined her cooped up in her cell with a view of the dark foreboding forest where the hospital was located. As the Greek saying goes, όλα πληρώνονται στη γη (everything is paid for on earth).

It's worth taking the metro just to see the archaeological excavations. This one is in Monastiraki.

No more driving! The Little Laughing Olive Tree announced, parking the car close to a station on the Αττικό μετρό (Attiko Metro), a dream come true for Athenians. The Athens underground is the swankiest in the whole of Europe. Construction began in the 1990s and by 2000, the first stations opened, linking the mainly overground 'electric' train line that ran through the city from north to south. It has been embraced by Athenians of all ages, and the addition of many more stations has meant no more mid-town parking worries and no more bumper-to-bumper drives into the town. The Attiko Metro is a unifying force in Athens, bringing together the different worlds of the wealthy Βόρεια Προάστια (Voreia Proastia = Northern Suburbs) and the poorer Δυτική Αττική (Ditiki Attiki = Western Athens). Before its existence, never the twain would meet. We bought our tickets at the automatic ticket dispenser and made our way to the high-speed trains in the super-clean platforms of one of the most archaeologically-rich undergrounds in the world. The crisis is said to have taken Greece backwards, but the Attiko Metro has forced people to move forward, and life will never be the same again because of its existence. We watched the old blind man tap his stick to find a free seat, the middle-aged ladies holding their patent leather bags with one hand and a standing passenger's bus strap with the other, and the young girls holding tightly onto their baby strollers, as we all headed towards the centre of Athens.
It wasn't quite dark when we came out of the Monastiraki train stop.
We were greeted by this sight.
One more stop! The Little Laughing Olive Tree reminded us, as the train pulled into Κεραμεικός (Keramikos), the point where the pilgrims of ancient times began their journey in Athens on their way to the Eleusinian Mysteries. We had covered almost the whole of the Sacred Way now, and were very close to Μοναστηράκι (Monastiraki) just below the Acropolis. Travelling underground, we missed out on seeing the stop where Plato's Ιερή Ελιά (Holy Olive Tree) once stood, but we were reminded of the significance of the olive in Athens by the metro stop Ελαιώνας (Eleonas), once the site of the largest olive grove in Greece, and the area which grew all the crops needed to feed Athens. It began to disappear relatively recently, after the population exchange in 1922; alas, not a branch of it remains in modern times.

Ermou Street, beside Monastiraki Square. The busiest area for the Athens yellow cab is here. With the arrival of Attiko Metro, the taxi business has slowed down. Before the Attiko Metro's appearance, taking a cab in Athens was as common as taking a bus. 

Eureka! The Little Laughing Olive Tree looked elated. We had arrived at Monastiraki. The passengers of our carriage spilled out onto the platform, leaving the the carriage quite empty. Everyone had the same idea as us: it was a perfect night for a walkabout. And there, The Little Laughing Olive Tree did something I did not expect. As we exited the station, she suddenly stopped in her tracks, completely oblivious to hordes of people coming in and out of the station. In the meantime, I was clutching my bag furtively, looking out for my brood.

Athens by night: Monastiraki Square.

Smell! The Little Laughing Olive Tree ordered us. Smell! she repeated on seeing our bewildered looks, waving her hands in front of her face, as if fanning towards her some invisible force that only she was aware of. Monastiraki stink! she laughed. What is Athens without it! And yet, Monastiraki did stink in a way. It stank of too many cheap souvenirs, too much grilled meat and too many people, all right below the Acropolis hill crowned by the Parthenon. Whatever day it is, whatever the weather, it always feels like a formidable moment to be standing at Monastriraki Square and to be looking up at the Parthenon. Right at this moment, the Monastiraki stink smelt like the sweetest perfume, one that could not be bought or bottled.

*** *** ***
Like Cavafy's Ithaca, we had come to the end of our journey, enjoying the Sacred Way even more than the destination. We grabbed a table at one of the tavernas located on the square and sipped in the atmosphere. We had it all: the coveted view of the marble structures of the Acropolis, the worldwide revered Greek cuisine on our plates, a bongo beat band entertaining us on the square, and a world of tourists clamouring to grab the chance to be a part of our country's lifestyle.

Pittaki St - ιf the overhead lampshades were lit up, they'd look like they do in this link.

After dinner, we walked about in the general area, through the urine-scented Pittaki St with its overhead collection of lanterns and graffiti-stenciled boarded up shopfronts, which led us into the hipster Psiri neighbourhood, with its own lively Square at Plateia Iroon, where there wasn't a seat free. The worst moment came when the realisation hit us that we would miss the last train back to the Agia Marina stop where we had left the car. We almost felt like Londoners, dashing to the underground so as not to be left stranded.

The hipster neighbourhood of Psiri, a short stroll from Monastiraki Square

The global media focuses on a crisis in Greece, centred only a few metres away from Monastiraki, on the other end of Ermou St at Syntagma Square outside the Parliament Buildings, misleading the world about the true nature of the Greek crisis, which is a crisis of values, a re-evaluation of identity. Like Alexis Tsipras who acknowledged that he made mistakes in his handling of the crisis in the five months that Syriza has been in power, the global media should apologise for the way that they have reported the situation in Greece. A step in the right direction would be to start asking the Greek people not why they are leaving, but why they refuse to leave their country.

For more photos (which I haven't had time to label yet), click here.

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