A Rough Map of Greece: Athens by Moonlight

A resourceful traveler, with a love for antiquity, PHOEBE LOU ADAMS, a member of the ATLANTIC staff, conducted a one-woman exploration of the Greek Islands and the mainland in the spring of the year. We published four of her papers in 1963, and this completes a new quartet.

THE airport bus, packed with passengers, leaned slightly to one side because everybody was trying to see the acropolis. There were murmurs of apprehension. Athens is a good-sized modern city, sprawling from the docks at Piraeus across a shallowscoop of plain and into the hills north and east of the harbor. Would the acropolis look trivial in the midst of this metropolis?

It’s the metropolis that looks trivial, a muddle of buildings stretched like a faded rug below the great upthrust of rock. The acropolis strongly resembles a mesa, and one of highly respectable size. The Parthenon stands on the highest point of this plateau, scaled to the rock itself rather than to its human builders, an immense sand-gold crown which dwarfs all the modern city. Even the new Hilton hotel, a lump of a thing rising higher than the Athenian building code allows, remains insignificant.

The impulse to rush off at once to the Parthenon is almost irresistible but should be restrained. The night of a full moon is the time to make acquaintance with the place. In the meantime, there lies modern Athens, a bustling mixture of the old, the new, the beautiful, and the unexpected. It is not dependent on the wanderings of Selene for its style, since it cannot afford to cultivate any in the shadow of the glorious past.

I never learned how Athenians figure directions. Visitors base everything on Syntagma Square. This Constitution Square is a small rectangular park with benches, fountains, and rose trees ten feet tall. The roses smell sweet in spite of the fumes of traffic, which clanks and wheezes around the square twenty-four hours a day. The park slopes down to the west from the front of the old palace, now the parliament building, a solid, ugly structure which would look perfectly at home in any middle-sized American city. The nineteenth century seems to have indulged an international style in public buildings, producing contraptions as graceful as a corset and of invincible durability. Athens is well supplied with them.

On its three nonparliamentary sides, Syntagma Square is surrounded by hotels, airline offices, and sidewalk cafes. I settled in a sidewalk cafe on the shady side and ordered lemonade, which comes broken down — a pitcher of water, a pitcher of lemon juice, a dish of sugar, a bowl of ice, several spoons, and three glasses. It is possible to kill nearly an hour mixing the drink to taste and pouring it from one container to another in search of the ultimate chill.

While I messed about with the lemonade, I was approached by sponge peddlers, little boys selling chewing gum, older boys selling the English newspaper, and a raffish fellow with a handful of cards. Surely not naughty pictures? No. He was drumming for a fur shop, and the cards carried exuberant promises of dirt cheap mink. He was the first of a procession, for fur salesmen are almost as thick around the square as tourists.

The furs, when I went to look at them, were well sewn. Greece is still a very poor country, and there are plenty of people willing to do the slow, monotonous work of fur sewing for distressingly little money. But the pelts, on the whole, lacked the silky, live gloss that such things should have. It was perfectly true, however, that mink was a bargain if one didn’t hold out for an American complexion on it.

The side streets around the square abound in shops catering to the fancies of tourists, who can buy anything from evening dresses at the local branch of a Paris couturier to miniature caryatids made of compressed marble dust. These dust gadgets are hideous little things and a steady gall to the government agency which works to build up an export trade in Greek arts and crafts. A woman official groaned at the thought of them. “But you know,” she said, “people buy them. They really do buy a great many, and there’s quite a respectable, regular foreign trade in the things. We can’t ask this business to shut down when it’s making money producing goods that really sell.”

Like everything else I asked about in Athens, the government campaign to improve and export the products of local Greek crafts was described in extreme, and opposite, terms. I was told that it is useless nonsense, the economic salvation of Greece, the work of dedicated idealists, and the concoction of thieving politicians. Moderate middleground opinions are not usual in Greece, possibly because they don’t make for lively discussion and despite the fact that discussion of alleged deficiencies of the government is carried on in whispers and only after casing the neighborhood for snoopers.

Meanwhile, the National Organization of Hellenic Handicrafts, which is the official name of the operation, was holding a show in an airy, attractive gallery on Metropoleos Street, just west of Syntagma Square. There was a certain amount of trumpery lurking in the gallery, but much of the work was impressively handsome. The rugs, handwoven textiles, and sports clothes in a combination of knitting and fur were particularly appealing. Buying them was out of the question; these were display pieces for the representatives, it was hoped, of New York department stores, who would, it was hoped again, order by the gross. As a private individual, I would have to hunt down item by item through the shops of Athens.

MOST of the metal work, jewelry, and pottery was easily located; dozens of tourist shops around the square carry these things. Rugs and bedspreads lie farther afield, and the pursuit of the fluffy, longfleeced rugs called flokati took me into the district known as the plaka.

The plaka is the old part of Athens, circling east to north around the base of the acropolis. On the east side is a residential district of square, fortresslike houses with heavily carved doors and windows set high above the street, Turkish fashion. Somewhere in this maze of streets is the house where young Byron stayed; I never saw it because one-way signs led inexorably right out of the district, but the building is reputedly easy to reach on foot. North of the acropolis, the plaka becomes a careless, unpredictable mixture of small houses, small businesses, curio shops, restaurants, and wholesalers of various kinds. Here, opposite a row of shops heavily stocked with Hellenistic coins and retired feuding irons, I found the fluffy-rug merchants. There were a number of them, their premises packed from floor to ceiling with rugs folded into cubical parcels. The colors ranged from the soft, irregular beige of the natural wool to the fiercest reds and purples ever dyed. The rugs were sold by the kilo, so that one chosen for size and color was weighed up, like beans, and priced accordingly. This system presumably takes fair account of any variations in the pile, for three inches of plushy shag are the glory of these rugs.

Variations are characteristic of handicrafts anywhere and naturally flourish in Greece. Elena Lorenzatos, who operates a handweaving shop that turns out enchantingly sophisticated and original materials, described her dealings with the exportencouragement people. They wanted some fourteen hundred skirts, all exactly alike, to sell in the States. “So I asked, ‘What do you mean, all exactly alike?’ And it turned out that was exactly what they meant. All ” — her voice took on a note of stunned horror — “exactly alike, a thing you can’t possibly do with handweaving. Besides, it’s dull. My girls don’t want to work so long on the same pattern.”

Since Mrs. Lorenzatos likes to make amusing wall hangings of a loose mesh into which she introduces reeds, tassels, tufts of wool, bits of rope, shells, grasses, and leather scraps from the bootmaker’s trash basket, she is perhaps a poorer candidate than most for standardization. She was nevertheless working on a fluffy rug in several shades of violet.

The rug, Mrs. Lorenzatos explained, was an experiment. She hoped to sell it in Sweden, where similar fluffy rugs are an old and treasured institution. But Sweden now has an international reputation for fine handweaving, and Swedish fluffy rugs sell abroad for so much money that nobody can afford them at home. The Greeks are therefore selling not only rugs but other handwoven goods to Scandinavians, who pay for them with the money they have acquired by selling their own handweaving in America.

This information left me economically bewildered and feeling considerable sympathy for the problems of the National Organization of Hellenic Handicrafts, which is trying to move into a field that other countries have occupied for thirty or forty years. Mrs. Lorenzatos, who weaves for love of color and texture and is not dependent for a living on profits from her shop, can afford to view the situation with detachment. She summed it up with cool logic. Italy and Germany have their own established craftsmen making similar things. France will buy nothing that isn’t French and preferably urban. (England was left out of the account.) There remains Scandinavia, where some Greek products do reasonably well, and the United States. Duties and shipping charges to the United States are high; then the retailer makes the standard 100 percent markup. Result: a Greek skirt costs about sixty dollars in a Miami shop, although it sells for about ten in Athens. Mrs. Lorenzatos shrugged ruefully and said that that was too much for anybody’s homespun.

Along with old coins and spiked pistols, the shops in the plaka made much display of icons. It’s impossible not to look at icons in a Greek curio shop without shaking the proprietor’s faith in the laws of nature. I complained of this, mildly, to a Greek friend. He cried in obvious anguish, “You bought one?” Uncertain of the right answer, I told the truth: no — I don’t like the things. Great relief on the part of the Greek. Never buy an icon, he warned, except under the supervision of a reliably disinterested expert; “The manufacture of antique icons is one of our most flourishing modern industries.” As far as I could see, the Hellenic Handicrafts people ignore this rather promising enterprise.

The dangerous itch for icons can be relieved simply and pleasantly by a visit to the Benaki Museum on Koumbari Street. The National Museum, that dizzying treasure-house over by the university, contains Mycenaean gold work, Iron Age weapons, archaic, classical, and Hellenistic statuary, jewelry and pottery of all these eras. Everything else is housed in the Benaki, which glitters with Byzantine robes and jewels, blue Persian tiles, Chinese ceramics, swords from Damascus, silks, embroideries, Arabic manuscripts, silver water jugs, and glass with the oily, opalescent surface of extreme old age. Of course, there are icons; large, small, plain, or embossed with delicate gold ornament, they line the walls with a procession of grave, dusky, unhuman faces. These are the real thing, and a careful look at them should put an end to any yearning for the dubious specimens in the plaka.

Aside from the risk of buying a bogus antique, which is no greater in the plaka than in similar districts in any country, the area is a constant Source of amusement for the prowler. Businesses operate on the sidewalk and sometimes in the street, thereby causing animated debate on whether the bicycle repairman, in situ, or the pushcart peddler, in transit, has first claim to the pavement. Alleys lead into obscure, miniature courts where there is usually some sort of tree and a tiny shop selling ouzo and beer. Buildings have crawled up the slanting base of the acropolis to such an extent that streets turn into staircases and terraces. During the day, the inhabitants of the plaka are entirely male on the street level, but women lean out the upper windows to water plants, which flourish on every shelf and balcony, or watch the traffic, or gossip from house to house. After sundown the place is fairly well populated with females — old women selling flowers enticingly bedewed with cold water and young girls strolling in groups. It was my impression that most of these girls were discreetly tailed by some sort of duenna.

WORKING west through the plaka, one drifts eventually into the past. The streets all debouch into the agora, which has been cleared by years of digging and stretches out, dry stone and sandy paths, to where the Theseion rises severely at the edge of the green park beyond. The Theseion, which got its name before excavation revealed that it must actually have been a temple to Hephaestus, is exceptionally well preserved because it was long used as a Christian church. It also lies on the flat and was therefore never subjected to the bombardment that so pitifully damaged the Parthenon during the various Greco-Turkish struggles, in which both sides found the acropolis a natural fortress too defensible to ignore.

Excavations around the Theseion, which is a sturdy Doric building somewhat older than the Parthenon, have turned up the holes in which ornamental trees were originally planted. These trees have been replaced, and their light, airy, circular shapes contrast with and soften the rather heavy vertical lines of the temple. The stoa on the other side of the agora, reconstructed by the American School of Archaeology in uncompromising cement, suffers badly from the lack of any greenery to break its stiff facade.

The whole agora must have been sprinkled with trees in classical times. Records mention them, and in any case it is hard to imagine Greeks of any period tolerating a town without growing plants. Even in the busy cement and macadam center of modern Athens, it is obvious that a Greek, given a square foot of ground, plants a rosebush; given a square yard, he plants a tree.

As the best-preserved Doric temple in Greece and the site of a Latin epitaph composed by Byron for a friend unlucky enough to die in Athens, the Theseion attracts a steady procession of visitors. The building is not as large as it looks from across the agora, and the traffic problem is considerable, producing a stream of minor collisions, apologies, and photographs of startled strangers. The photographs are inevitable. Everyone sooner or later comes around a corner at the wrong moment. The collisions are the fault of the building. Not much of the sculpture of the Theseion has survived, but enough remains in place, along with traces of the paint and gilding that made the temple in its heyday little short of gaudy, to cause people to ramble around gazing straight up. They regularly bump into each other, and the air rings with cries of sorry, excuse me, and look out.

This is the condition which, along with plain sentimental romanticism, makes it desirable to visit the Parthenon for the first time by moonlight. The acropolis is a spectacular arrangement at any time, but under the full moon it becomes a frost palace, the light reflecting off the marble in a silver glow and throwing shadows like black velvet. The long climb up the cliff, first by a winding path and then by the shallow steps of the propylaca, worn to a gentle irregularity by years of usage, is well lighted by the moon, but beyond the heavy bar of shadow cast by the gateway, all footing disappears. There are enough low walls and buildings to cut off most of the light from the ground, which is, besides, extremely irregular. The only clear object ahead is the Parthenon, its immense columns, silvery white and weightless, seeming to hang against the violet sky rather than to rise from the rock. A pale-green star flickers between the columns like a ship’s riding light.

The flat impossibility of taking pictures — flash bulbs are forbidden — and the obvious possibility of a broken ankle have a beneficial effect on the conduct of visitors. Everyone moves slowly, sliding the feet cautiously over loose stones and cracks and grasping at rocks still warm from the afternoon sun. This occupation cuts down conversation, and the silence quickly becomes a bewitchment too strong to break. Shadows move back and forth across the open spaces, ghosts float quietly along the colonnades. By daylight, the trio lounging on the steps would be garrulous, camera-hung, guidebookflourishing businessmen from Hamburg, but in that cool half light they pass for Pericles and friends. The occasional whispered words could be the wind or a rolling pebble. The noises of Athens never seem to rise to the top of the acropolis, but its lights waver at the base of the rock like phosphorescence in the sea, brighten toward the hotel district to the northeast, and fade away among the trees on Mount Lykabettos.

Promptly at midnight the spell is broken. Guards arrive and chase everyone out of the place, but no good Athenian is willing to quit at this early hour. I found myself at a party which ended, at three in the morning, with a clutch of coffee cups cascading from a fifth-floor balcony. They made a pretty, crystalline tinkle in their death, but the host was somewhat alarmed. We could, he said, all be arrested for “teddyboyismos.”

What on earth is “teddyboyismos?” The invention of an Athenian chief of police. This gentleman, observing certain youths loitering about the streets to no visible purpose, foresaw a wave of juvenile vandalism of the sort reported from London and New York. Borrowing from the English, he named it teddyboyism and established it as a misdemeanor with an indefinite character (one Greek defined it as anything that worries a policeman) and a most definite penalty: headshaving. Greek youths take great pride in their thick, wavy, carefully combed topknots. Teddyboyismos has remained almost unknown in Athens.