A day out in Athens with Cosmo, Part 2

It became clear, as he whizzed us around, pulling in under monuments, while the traffic banked up honking behind, parking in clearways, seizing spaces from tourists coaches and idling with impunity on pavements, that Cosmo belonged to Athens and Athens belonged to Cosmo. 

Kaiseriani Monastery, Athens
Kaiseriani Monastery, Athens

We swept across the city, past the Hospital Evangelissmos (the best in the world, according to Cosmo, where his friend was diagnosed, treated and cured of a condition which had baffled doctors across three continents) We cruised through elegant up-market Kolonaki, where trendy young Atheneians flock to hip cafes (drinking coffee which, according to Cosmo, disgraces the name) We idled in traffic outside an avant garde gallery (filled with sculptures which, according to Cosmo, would have had the ancients turning in their graves) We sped away again past a row of chic international fashion boutiques (charging a fortune for clothes, according to Cosmo, which are out-dated in one season) We climbed steadily upwards and the town fell away behind us

High in the folds of Mount Hymettus, Cosmo turned into a rough driveway, pulled his secret “parking rock” from under a bush and wedged it behind the back wheel of his car. We followed him up through the overhanging trees to Kaiseriani,  hidden, like a secret treasure, among the cypress and olive trees. In ancient times,  Kaiseriani was the  Sanctuary of Aphrodite . Later, Athens earliest Byzantine Monastery was built  on the site,  The name Kaisierani, meaning healing waters, comes from the spring, tapped here by the goddess of love, before mortals walked these hills, and famed for its curative powers (especially for afflictions of desire, potency and infertility) In the time of the Emperor Hadrian, the Romans channelled water from the spring to supply the city of Athens below. When the monks established their monastery in the 11th century AD, they funnelled Kasiseriani water through a stone Ram’s head in their courtyard.

While the monks have long since abandoned Kaisierani, the monastery is still imbued with their austere, disciplined and deeply religious presence. The simple life they led is stamped on the place. Plain crucifixes hang on the walls of the small, dim cells. A bare, scrubbed table runs the length of the refectory. Business-like earthenware urns and pots stand neatly next to the stone oven in the kitchen. There’s a lingering smell of yeast, with an overlay of dust and ashes.

If the monks living quarters are Spartan, their places of worship are most certainly not. There’s a rich scent of beeswax and incense. Light beams in from high arched windows. The main chapel, dedicated to the presentation of Virgin Mary at the temple, is strikingly and lavishly painted with images dating back to the 16th century, of the Holy Trinity,  Christ, the apostles, the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, on black backgrounds. Next to the main church stands the exquisite, intimate Chapel of St Antonios.

Although the era of the gods is long gone, the spirit of Aphrodite is still strong in Kaiserani. Befittingly for the sanctuary of the Goddess of love,  it has highly romantic and deeply sensualambiance. It is the perfect setting for proposals, weddings, trysts. In the secluded courtyard the air was still, heavy and scented with pine, rosemary and bay. Heat shimmered on the flagstones. Low, mid-morning shadows softened the sun-whitened edges of the buildings. Bees droned from bush to bush, dry leaves rustled to the ground and birds called from tree to tree. Water trickled from the ram’s head pump.

I could have stayed there lost in contemplation forever …

Next post Part 3, A day out in Athens with Cosmo; Coffee in the hills

 

A day out with Cosmos in Athens, Part 1

We stood on the steps of the hotel and took in the panorama of blue and white – the sun-bleached stone houses rising in thick layers across the slopes of the low, rocky hills and above them, against a flawless, early morning sky, the pale cliffs of the Acropolis, crowned by the towering columns of the Parthenon. We had one day, one frustratingly, almost insultingly, inadequate day to explore Athens. How could we cram thousands of years of civilization, history and culture into twenty four hours, less if we planned to sleep? Where should we start? How should we start? As luck would have it, the doorman had an uncle, who had a taxi…

The Parthenon, Athens
The Parthenon, Athens

The doorman’s uncle was an imposing, bronzed figure, with a head of thick white hair, a gravelly voice which rang with conviction, a hearty laugh, an enthusiastic handshake and a profile which would have looked well on an antique medallion. His name was Cosmo. As a young man, Cosmo had worked, married and raised his family in Australia. He had returned to Greece twenty years ago, to settle and enjoy the prime of his life, sharing his home in the hills or his villas in the islands with friends and showing his city to tourists. He knew Athens. He knew Australians, New Zealanders too. He knew what we liked and what we wanted to see. He knew what would make us happy. No worries!

He gave us Athens, its ancient monuments, their history and their stories; the Arch of Hadrian, the gateway to the benevolent Emperor’s new Roman Athens; the mighty Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest in the ancient world, conceived by Peisistratus and completed by Hadrian 700 years later; the beautiful marble Panathinaikon Stadium, built in the 4th century, where the first modern Olympics took place in 1896. He gave us the Acropolis, the ancient citadel, propped up with scaffolding now, still but dominating the cityscape and still haunted by the spirits of the ancient gods. He left us to wander at leisure through the ruins of the “glory that was Greece”, to the architecturally perfect Parthenon, the sanctuary and the theatre of Dionysus, birthplace of drama; the theatre of Herodeion, home of the annual Athens festival; the Agora, the political, commercial and religious centre of the ancient city;  the high slippery limestone rock of Mars Hill, once Athens’ highest court, where St Paul first preached the Gospel in AD 51. He gave us the  cemetery of Kerameikos, the oldest and largest in Attica. He gave us the capricious gods, the mighty kings and the super heroes who shaped this great city.

It became clear, as he whizzed us around, pulling in under monuments while the traffic banked up honking around us, parking in clearways, seizing spaces from tourists coaches and idling with impunity on pavements, that Cosmo belonged to Athens and Athens belonged to Cosmo.