Athens - Impressions Of The Capital
( Originally Published 1936 )
The Athens station was crowded with a hurrying, chattering throng, but we had no more than put our feet on the platform when two young men came forward to meet us. Outside they had a bright
new Oldsmobile with an Egyptian driver who would have looked perfectly at home in the streets of Meridian, Mississippi. His fluent Greek and French might, however, have seemed a little unusual to the local population. We had this man as a driver on our various motor excursions and the only intelligible words I ever heard him utter in English were, " me Egypt boy." It is a mark of distinction to have a colored chauffeur in Athens for, so I was informed by a member of Parliament, there are but four negroes in the entire city.
There was the usual mob of hotel runners and cabmen outside, but they wasted no time on us and we were immediately off for the Palace Hotel, in Stadium Street. The Rue Constantine, in which we found ourselves, is an important thoroughfare, but like most of the streets of Athens it is unpaved and full of dust and chuck-holes. Over these the black driver eased his car with great consideration for both his passengers and springs.
There was little to be seen until we came to the Onomoia, or Concord Square, the chief center of night life. Here were great crowds, and the pedestrians swarming over the roads reminded me of an ant colony into which somebody has just prodded with a stick. The " jay-walking" habits of the population probably account for what seemed to me the most characteristic noise of Athens,—the incessant sounding of motor horns. It continues far into the night and often I have lain in bed listening to the discordant chorus that rises from every down-town street.
A traveler writing of Athens thirty years ago complained that it was a noisy town. On the night of his arrival a party of Greeks parked themselves under his window and discussed the political situation until after 2 A. M. When they finally departed the dogs, donkeys, tomcats and chickens took up the refrain, with the result that he got no sleep until dawn. Now. the bulb motor horns, which I strongly suspect of German origin, have stifled all human and animal competition. Unless the people can be trained to walk on the sidewalks I tremble to think of the uproar when automobiles become relatively as numerous in Athens as they now are in our most obscure prairie town.
We turned into the broad University Street, which in my opinion is easily the finest and best paved in the city. For three blocks from the square both sides were lined with coffee houses and the sidewalks cluttered with iron tables and chairs. If the food and drink served in these cafes were in any way commensurate with their size and number Athens would be as great a gourmand's paradise as Paris. Unfortunately the Greek taste is very different from ours.
We presently came to the group of buildings comprising the University of Athens, the Academy of Science and the National Library. These structures have been pronounced by competent critics the finest public buildings. in Europe. They are all classical models or reproductions, and though it is fashion-able among scholars to belittle all classical imitations it seemed to me that in these buildings I saw again the temples of the Athens of Pericles. They rise behind gardens of palms and are so tied together by harmony of design and situation that they might easily be mistaken for a single institution.
The Academy is the most interesting and pretentious. It is built of Pentelic marble, with an Ionic colonnade and a sculptured pediment in which the figures have been painted after the ancient manner. Inside the lofty columns of the portico is a mural painting, which gives a striking and brilliant effect, even from the street. The library is the only member of the group in the more severe Doric style.
My attention was next drawn to a brilliant electric sign bearing the single word " Ritz," which flamed from the top of a modern six-floor building. " I did not know that you had a Ritz hotel," I re-marked to the courier. " Don't let that sign fool you," he answered. " It is the biggest thing about the hotel. There are only about twenty rooms and a restaurant and it has nothing whatever to do with the other Ritz hotels." A moment later we turned into Stadium Street and drew up at the door of the Palace Hotel.
The plan of the central district of modern Athens is comparatively simple. There are two principal squares—Concord Square, which I have just mentioned and the more fashionable and pretentious Syntagma, or Place of the Constitution. Stadium Street is the chief artery between the two, but the two parallel streets, Academy and University, are also convenient routes.
Stadium Street derives its name from a modern corruption of the ancient measure of distance. The stadium of classical times was a trifle more than 6o6 feet, and as some of the principal races in the great national games were run at that distance the name was finally extended to the amphitheaters in which they were conducted. In modern times the Greeks applied it to the kilometer, which is approximately five-eighths of a mile. Since the new street was of that length it was called Stadium Street.
The Palace is not the finest hotel in Athens. The Grand Bretagne and the Angleterre in Constitution Square are certainly more fashionable. But they are somewhat more cosmopolitan, and for this reason lacking in local atmosphere. Two men were on duty at the reception desk, which also served as an office for the concierge. They received us in excellent English, but conveyed the rather disheartening news 'that we had not been expected until the following day, and the house was entirely occupied. They agreed, however, to make temporary provision for us, which they did by closing off one of the large salons on the lounge floor and installing beds and washing facilities. Thus our first night in Athens was passed in an apartment gorgeous with scarlet hangings, long mirrors and French windows. But there were some disadvantages that quite offset all this magnificence. The windows opened into noisy Stadium Street and outside our doors the other guests gossiped until after midnight in their pro-longed coffee hour. Next morning our luggage was transferred to a spacious room on the fourth floor, which had the added attraction of a wonderful out-look on the Acropolis.
Breakfast was served in a pleasant ante-room connecting with the main restaurant and when we entered next morning we found mingled with the native guests a goodly sprinkling of American and British teachers. At no bathing resort have I ever seen a more sun-burned company. They were as black as a group of life-guards and a single glance assured me that the feminine contingent was not recruited at Hollywood. The younger men were following their college custom of going about without hats, and I wondered if the Greeks regarded them as entirely sane. The April sun was so intense that to me it seemed dangerous. But the young professors on sabbatical leave were heedless of the risk.
The principal buffet was located in this room and it carried a stock of wines, whiskeys and liqueurs that would have caused a beneficent Government to have had it padlocked for fifty years if this hostelry had happened to be located in our own land of the free. The breakfast regularly served consisted in-variably of honey, rolls and coffee, but an omelette was also obtainable by doubling the price. I doubt if any food has been so widely known for so long a period as the honey of Hymettus. There grows on Mount Hymettus a great crop of flowering thyme and the bees who feed upon it produce a honey dark in color and of distinctive and appealing flavor. To me it was slightly suggestive of the honey we occasionally get at home when the locust is in bloom. The honey of Hymettus is often mentioned in the classical writings, and this has undoubtedly contributed to its great fame. I suspect that it was especially appreciated in early times because of the fact that it was practically the only sweet obtainable. The manufacture of sugar was then unknown and honey was put to far wider use than now.
In every list of Greek exports honey still has a place and it is consumed by fastidious people all over the world. I asked the head waiter one morning if the honey he was serving was the genuine Hymettus. " Oh yes," he said, " and the very best." I am sure he was telling the truth, for it checked well with that sold in the best shops. In other years a good many impostures were practiced. One of my friends, who is now a professor of Greek, stopped a good many years ago in a pension that still exists in Athens. He was served daily with honey that he was assured came from Hymettus. One day the servant inadvertently brought in the original jar and he then discovered that his Hymettus honey was all imported from Marseilles.
The entire second floor of the Palace Hotel was given up to the restaurant and lounges, and in the latter the social life of the house centered. It was customary to serve the coffee there and as a great many town people had the habit of dropping in the large rooms were usually crowded from nine o'clock until midnight. One family of permanent guests never missed an evening. The portly mother was always dressed in black silks, and she never failed to carry from the table a half-dozen oranges, which she munched during the course of the evening. Her two daughters were of more modern tastes and preferred coffee and cigarettes. The sociable priests were frequent visitors and were usually the center of groups of interested friends. An elderly and dignified business man came in to wait for his wife. She was late as usual, so he whiled away the time with his string of beads.
One does not have to be long in Athens to realize that it is not an early town. In the more fashionable establishments, public and private, the usual dinner hour is nine o'clock, and the theaters and cafes are correspondingly late. Business does not begin at dawn and the siesta prevails, so shops and offices are commonly closed from noon to 3 P. M. In our own hotel, as befitted a house that was respectable, but not ultra-fashionable, a compromise was made and dinner was served at 8:30.
The heavier meals are, satisfying, but seldom tempting, and during their progress I was in much the state of mind that Professor Tyndall describes in his account of an ascent of the Matterhorn, when he slept out under too few blankets. I was neither entirely happy, nor utterly miserable. Lamb and veal were the usual meats, and there was a soup, fish, spinach, salad, oranges, cheese and coffee. Frequently a pudding or custard was provided.
The national cookery has been so greatly influenced by the Turkish occupation that even today the diet of the Greek peasant differs little from that of the Anatolian. Even the names are but modifications of the Turkish terms. But sufficient knowledge of foreign tastes now exists to make it possible to travel to every center of Greece without being forced to live on pilafi, lakonika or avgo-lemoni, or to submit to having a considerable part of one's diet immersed in salsa, the combination of tomatoes and olive oil that is the national sauce. The olive is served ripe, as is proper, but too often it floats in a bath of crude oil.
There is a scarcity of really good meat animals and one of the important problems of Greek agriculture is the introduction of °better strains of stock. Unhappily most animals are slaughtered young, so lamb and veal are universal, while beef and mutton are all but unknown.
The religion of the Orthodox Church has a good deal to do with the Greek dietary, for under the rules of the church the life of a pious man is a constant alternation of feast and famine. The periods of fasting are far more numerous and austere than in the church of Rome. Lent continues forty-eight days, but in Athens, at least, its rigors are ignored except during the final Holy Week. I was told by several business men that they were so severe that it was not possible to carry on one's business efficiently if they were observed. But during the last week previous transgressions are atoned for by a diet that is substantially limited to fruits and bread. It would be tiresome to enumerate, much less to read, all the periods of fasting scattered through the year. It is sufficient to say that prior to Christmas there is a period of abstinence continuing forty days. The eating of fresh fish is prohibited for as many as two hundred days in the year, and this has serious effect on the fishing industry of the country. Nowhere in Greece did I find fish either so abundant or fine as elsewhere in the Mediterranean. The invertebrates are under no such inhibition and may be eaten at any season, but they are not too plentiful in the near-by waters and I, at least, saw little of them.
Until a year ago I did not realize that Athens had become a large city. The raising of the prolonged moratorium and the influx of refugees caused a speculative boom in real estate that was comparable to the inflation in Florida at about the same period. Indeed I saw some published items that referred to Athens as "The Miami of the Levant," and asserted that it had become the largest town on the Mediterranean. This I believe to have been an exaggeration, though no census has been taken and the estimates remain pure guesswork. It was generally claimed by conservative men that the combined population of Athens and its port, the Piraeus, is approximately one million. For a time I accepted this opinion, but on reflection and by such comparisons as I can make from my acquaintance with similar cities, I am disposed to regard the estimate as some 200,000 too high.
There is a singular lack of statistical information in Greece. Mr. Kalapothakes, of the Foreign Office, told me that it was a serious handicap in public ad-ministration and would be corrected when possible, but up to the present time but one Governmental department had collected any reliable information. This was of limited scope.
The site of Athens has been described with varying degrees of enthusiasm and it has often been likened to Edinburgh. I suppose this comparison is occasioned by the fact that in each city are two outstanding heights; but it seems to me that if Phaleron Bay resembles the Firth of Forth, if Lycabettus resembles Arthur's Seat, if the Acropolis is the counterpart of Calton Hill, then Greek sun-shine must resemble Scottish mists and a Levantine can be mistaken for a Highlander.
The city is generally level, but apart from the two eminences within its border it has a background of superior mountains. Hymettus, Pentelicus and Parnes form an encircling ring at a distance of perhaps ten miles from the heart of town. Lycabettus is not so well known as the Acropolis, but it is almost twice as high. From most parts of Athens it is really an imposing peak, rising almost a thousand feet to a pinnacle topped with the white Convent of Saint George. No doubt the early city would have grown up around its base, instead of around the Acropolis, except for its sharp configuration which afforded small facilities as a place of public refuge.
Constitution Square is the center to which visitors naturally gravitate. It is not only the daytime rendezvous of Greek and foreign society but the principal scene of tourist activity. The leading hotels, travel agencies and cafes surround the three sides that are devoted to business, for one of them is monopolized by the old Royal Palace. I need not dwell on the unfortunate architecture and ignoble fate of this great marble pile. When I saw it the lawn was used as a public parking place for motor cars, and the building stood empty and neglected. I understand that it is to be reopened for the purpose of housing some of the departments of the Government.
The open space is divided into two parts. The section before the palace is a garden of palms and flowering plants, but the other half is given over to a promenade and is littered with the chairs and tables of a coffee house that has a concession for its use.
The famous cafe of Zacharatos Brothers uses part of the northwesterly corner for its overflow. The cafe itself is across the street, where Stadium Street enters the square. It is, I have no doubt, the best known public house in the Near East and is the habitual meeting place of the higher politicians. If a census were taken of the occupants of its chairs on any late afternoon it would include a large part of the membership of the Greek " Who's Who." Certainly there would be a quorum of the Parliament and if any cabinet ministers were missing it might be assumed that they were ill or out of town.
I passed the corner frequently and one afternoon my curiosity led me to enter. The drabness of the place was my first surprise. The furnishings were plain and the ceiling was the pressed metal that we often find in rural stores. For an establishment that has so great a reputation and so distinguished a clientele the fare was meager. There was not a pound of meat in the house. Coffee, pastries, wines and spirits were all that could be had.
The park system extends south from the palace as far as the ruins of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. The Palace Gardens are now public property and they lead up to the Zappeion, which, together with an exposition building, now used for the ad-ministration of the Near East Relief, was presented to Athens by the brothers Zappa forty years ago. There are statues of the two philanthropists at the entrance of the building and they look very stiff and formal in their long frock coats. The successful Greeks have both public spirit and love of country, and many of them have made important public benefactions. Mr. Averoff, who won his fortune in Alexandria, was the donor of the great marble stadium and of the battle-ship that bears his name. Baron Sina, of Vienna, built the Academy and Mr. Valianos the National Library. The banker, Mr. Syngros, erected at his own expense the museums at Delphi and Olympia and built the broad boulevard that connects Athens with Phaleron Bay. These are but the few philanthropies of which I happen to have heard, and I have no doubt the list could be greatly extended.
Of the prominent streets that I have not yet mentioned two are deserving of notice. Hermes Street leads from Constitution Square almost to the ancient Dipylon gate. About midway in its course toward the west it crosses Aeolus Street, which in turn runs north and south, between Concord Square and the Acropolis. It has often been said that the triangle formed by Hermes, Aeolus and Stadium Streets includes the most important part of the modern city. Hermes Street remains the most fashionable shop-ping street. There are no large department stores, but the shops along this narrow thoroughfare afford the best display of luxury to be found in the town. The street was evidently laid out in Turkish days, for its sidewalks are so meagre that it is hardly possible for two persons to pass.
The Greeks are, and have always been, a trading people, but in no shop did I encounter that eager money-hunger that is so annoying in the bazaars of the East. In fact I thought the trades people leaned a little toward the side of indifference, and some-times they were less attentive than the salespeople of any well-conducted shop at home. More than once I was forced to find what I wanted with no assistance from the clerks. I saw one day a fine Hermes in the window of a store in the street of that name. The proprietor was an elderly and courteous man. On examining the statue it seemed too heavy to conveniently transport. When I made this objection the merchant expressed regret, explained that his smaller copy was damaged and pressed the matter no further. Even the waiters in the cafes were in some instances in no great hurry to give service. I suppose the Ambassador is as fashionable and expensive an establishment as any in the city, yet I was forced to give up patronizing one section of it because of the negligence of the man in charge there.
Aeolus Street is the shopping center of the humbler classes, and it was interesting to walk from Con-cord Square all the way down to the Tower of the Winds, noting the curious merchandise and the many types of buyers. The shops were large enough in the central district, but they gradually changed character as one progressed until at the end they de-generated into mere wayside shacks. The method of merchandising shoes struck me as the most novel of all. Hundreds of pairs of every size and style were suspended in great, swinging festoons, which the customer could revolve at will, selecting anything that happened to strike his fancy. The apparent inferiority of the leather was made up by bright col-ors, cloth tops and decorative stitching. The national taste in footwear is not subdued.
The best transportation service now existing in Greece is unquestionably the semi-underground electric line connecting Athens and the Piraeus. It is double tracked and the trains are airy and commodious. A modern third rail power system is employed. There is a local trolley system, a suburban steam road to Kephissia and a motor bus service powered entirely by a certain rich gentleman of Detroit, whose name is so often in print that I am sure he will forgive me for not mentioning it here. The whole of these transit facilities are now to be re-constructed and improved by the Power and Finance Company, Limited, a British corporation which has secured from the Government a concession to re-organize the entire system. The plan involves the electrification of the Kephissia line, which is not only to be extended, but to be converted into an under-ground within the city. There are to be extensions of the Piraeus line and the trolleys will be carried into the newly developed districts which are now ill served.
The climate of Athens is not very different from that of Southern California, though the months of January and February are probably colder and mid-summer a little more tropical. The lack of trees and the white buildings make the glare exceedingly trying and even in April every traffic policeman wore colored glasses. These men are British trained and their uniforms are of the English military type. Their bearing and costumes give a western touch to the streets and they are easily the smartest police body in Eastern Europe. They have trying work in the relentless sunshine, and during the long summer drouth they have to contend with dust as well as heat. During the summer of 1926, I was informed, not a drop of rain fell in Athens between February and December. As most of the city is still unpaved the dust is more easily imagined than described. No wonder Athens supports an army of bootblacks.
It was pleasant in the late afternoon to drop into the Ambassador. Until about 6:45 the tables on the pavement were deserted, but fifteen minutes later there was hardly a vacant seat. It was the cocktail hour of Athens society, but the Greek usually develops an appetite for dinner by consuming two or three large pastries and drinking Turkish coffee. The only real aperitif was ouso, a spirit made from white grapes and anisette. When poured into a glass of water it gives the whole a milky color, and a taste as bitter as quinine. The addition of a little mastic gum produces mastica, which is also a favorite tipple. It seemed to me that all Athens passes the Ambassador in the hour between seven and eight, and I am sure that most of the automobiles do. The parade here was a striking evidence of the preponderance of American cars, which are in high favor in Greece. Once I counted six of a single American make pass in succession.
The old customs are now disappearing in the modernization of Athens, but we encountered one day a funeral conducted after the traditional manner. The procession approached chanting a wailing dirge. The leader was a young man who carried the lid of the coffin in his arms. Then came the acolytes bearing silver crosses and next the priest in his dark robes. The body was that of a young girl and she was carried to her resting place attired as for a party and exposed to the view of all who passed. The family and friends followed the bier and we could hear the solemn dirge long after they had been swallowed up by the crowd.
The growth of the Piraeus has been more remarkable than that of Athens itself. At the beginning of the last century this ancient port was so reduced that nothing remained except a few fishermen's hovels and a small monastery. Now it claims 300,000 people and is the chief port and industrial center of Greece. It profited greatly by the transfer of trade following the burning of Smyrna and the decline of Constantinople. The oriental rug industry has moved there bodily and the skyline of the city is marked by many factory stacks. Asian refugees have settled there and the chief square is still surrounded by booths in which they are striving to catch a foothold as merchants.
The historic hill of Munychia, where Thrasybulus made his heroic stand against the tyrants of Athens, is now built up to the top with cottages, and very barren and uninviting it is with its terraces of yellow clay. I wondered how the residents there managed to get home after a rainy day. The name of Themistocles is still revered in the Piraeus and the supposed site of his tomb is pointed out near the harbor entrance. He first made it a great port and fortress, but the tragic outcome of the Peloponnesian War marked the term of its glory. Now after more than two thou-sand years it has resumed its place as an important port and trading center.
If sentiment did not sway the heart of Greece I doubt whether Athens would to-day be more than a great memory. During the middle ages she practically disappeared from history, and her revival dates from her selection as the capital of a free Greece in the year 1834. There was intense rivalry for the honor. During the war of independence Nauplia was the seat of the revolutionary government, and when the war ended Patras and Corinth put forth their claims. Patras was then a much larger and more influential town than Athens, and Corinth had the advantage of a central location. The only practical argument in favor of Athens was her comparative immunity from earthquakes. About one hundred per year are recorded throughout Greece and both her rivals had a bad record in this regard.
In the end it was sentiment that determined the issue. The people still burned with enthusiasm for Greece and they had visions of the restoration of her ancient glory. What capital save Athens befitted these high ambitions? Thus the ancient mother of art and knowledge was born again.