The historic city of Athens with its towering ancient monuments has an old world charm. Ramendra Kumar and his wife Madhavi give us a glimpse of the lively, awe-inspiring experience they had there.
When we stepped out of Athens airport we were greeted by an impeccably dressed man in formals who turned out to be our taxi driver. We got talking and learnt a bit about life in Athens.
I was in Athens to attend the 36th IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) World Congress. With me was Madhavi, my lucky charm!
The city looked like any two tier Indian city – Pune or Vizag, except that the roads were far less crowded and cleaner. Forty minutes later we checked into our modest hotel and after a bite, decided to take a walk.
There were pedestrian crossings all over and the respect shown to people who were walking, was nothing short of awesome. One disconcerting note was provided by the two-wheelers who raced around at crazy speeds, with their silencers removed. The cacophony they created was the only dissonance in an otherwise near perfect ambience.
Next morning we were picked up from our hotel for a sightseeing tour of Athens. We headed straight for the Panathenaic Stadium.
“This is the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble. It is the finishing point for the Annual Athens Classic Marathon and also the last venue in Greece from where the ‘Olympic flame handover ceremony’ to the host nation takes place,” I told Madhavi. She turned to me, “I know. You are not the only person who dipped into Wiki before coming here.”
Our over-garrulous guide whose accent, if you didn’t follow very closely, was rather difficult to comprehend, was in full cry, “The Panathenaic Games were held in the stadium in the times when a single olive branch was the visitor’s most esteemed prize. Later the Romans polluted the game’s cultural identity turning a place of friendly rivalry into an arena for contests between men and animals. Over time the stadium went into decay. However, when Olympics were revived at the initiative of Baron Pierre De Coubertin, the Panathenaic Stadium was once again restored, and hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896.”
What I found most impressive in the stadium were the sparkling toilets. I decided to take a pic and send it to the Indian Government requesting it to take the washrooms as one of the paradigms for India’s Swachha Bharat Campaign.
On the way to our next stop, the legendary Acropolis, our guide pointed out to a huge statue made of layered glass. Named Dromeas or The Runner, the statue is a tribute to the athlete who ran the original marathon.
At first glance the Acropolis turned out to be a cluster of monuments. It was built in the second half of 5th Century BC and dedicated to goddess Athena, whom the people of Athens considered their saviour. It is regarded as the most important surviving building of Classical Greece.
As we walked up, I realised I should have been wearing sports shoes rather than the leather ones. The latter are okay for my daily encounter with the CEO, but to navigate the steps of the Acropolis I needed to be on a firmer footing. The time was around 12, the sun was unsparing, and the climb seemed almost endless. The crowd was thick, and with so many guides unleashing their wisdom in different languages, it was virtually a Babel of voices.
We were taken to Parthenon which stands at the centre of the Acropolis. The Parthenon is regarded as a lasting symbol of Ancient Greece and thriving democracy and one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. It is an impressive structure which is under restoration by the Greek Ministry of Culture.
I can’t resist quoting from our motor-mouth guide here, “From the most ancient of times Athena taught her citizens freedom, respect for human rights, belief in democratic principles. At times when a major part of the human community existed under the veil of intolerance and slavery, the Athenians enjoyed the advantages of a vibrant democracy.”
There are several other monuments such as the Temple of Athena Nike, Temple of Rome and the Roman emperor Augustus Octavius, the remarkable Porch of the Caryatids which includes statues of maidens, the stone theatre which is called Odeon of Herodes Atticus, et al. Each structure has its distinct mythology or history or is a delightful blend of both.
Our guide ‘kindly’ gave us a break for taking pics. One thing I noticed was the way the monuments were maintained. Even though the vagaries of war and weather had impacted the buildings, the average visitor had not disrespected them.
‘If Acropolis had been in India it would have been decorated with existential statements like ‘Munna loves Pinky’ embellished by some lewd graphics’, I thought wryly to myself.
By the time we reached terra firma we were bone tired and famished. A little respite was provided, as we were leaving the Acropolis, by a middle aged man who was selling cobs (bhutta). We grabbed two and dug into them. They were absolutely delicious – fresh, soft and juicy.
Our next stop was the Acropolis museum, which we were told is an award-winning repository, housing around 4,000 priceless artefacts found on the slopes of the Acropolis. These relics apparently are from the Bronze Age to the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods. We got a chance to view an important archaeological site through the transparent floor and the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Finally, there was a change of baton and a young woman in her late twenties took us to Cape Sounio, our next destination. After a pleasant bus ride of around ninety minutes we reached the place.
“This is the “sacred promontory” of Sounio, as Homer called it in his Odyssey. On the highest point of this isolated Cape are the ruins of the Temple of Poseidon, which is one of the major monuments of the Golden Age of Athens. It is dedicated to the God of the sea in Greek Mythology,” our guide said, pointing to a structure of assorted columns.
We went up to the temple which was by no means impressive. However, the view from the top was breathtaking. The azure blue sea on three sides, with its placid waters punctuated by ripples – it was an awesome sight. If the sea could be surreal at six, this was it.
I went around exploring and sat on a rock, at the very edge and struck some cheesy Travolta poses, with Madhavi doing the honours with the camera.
We had an uneventful ride back to our hotel. Madhavi wanted to visit Plaka the downtown area famous for its quaint ambience. We then managed to locate an Indian restaurant: Indian Chef. It had a neat ambience, reasonable rates and great food.
We then walked down to Plaka which was close by. It was lined with coffee shops, restaurants offering more substantial fare and tiny establishments selling souvenirs. As we walked soaking in the ambience, we heard a shout.
“Indian lady, Indian lady,” and two girls around 13 years of age came up to us and started singing, “Pardesi, pardesijaananahin…” in heavily accented Hindi. One of them was even playing a banjo in perfect sync.
I always wait for an opportunity to get Madhavi to sing and egged her on.
She sang a line and the girls exclaimed, “She sings so beautiful(ly) – she has a lovely voice.”
One of the girls tugged her arm, pleading her to join.
Finally Madhavi condescended to lend her voice to the balmy evening and the ‘international band’ belted out the chart buster – ‘Teri meri, meri teri, prem kahaani hai mushkil, do lafzon mein bayaana ho paye…..’
Later we chatted with the two pixies and came to know they are refugees from Albania and sing in the streets to supplement their family income. They saw a lady in a salwar and rightly guessing that she was an Indian started singing a Hindi song.
“Where did you pick up Hindi songs?” Madhavi asked.
“YouTube!” They declared.
We gave them a generous tip and they scampered off, impish smiles in place.
The next morning as we flew down to Santorini I refreshed the play back button. It had been a memorable day at Athens – the city where mythology and history, art and technology, east and west blend so seamlessly, where one could eat Greek souvalakiand Indian biryani and jive to the traditional Nisiotika as well vintage Bollywood. I could almost imagine Athens singing to us – ‘Pardesi, pardesi, janaan ahin…..hamein chodkar, hame chodkar….”
(Picture Credit: Madhavi Kumar)
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