In our morning with Cosmo, we had steeped ourselves in the world of the ancients. It was time now to step back into modern Athens.
Back down in the city Cosmo stopped, waving off blaring horns and impassioned appeals, in Syntagma Square. Here, in 1843, the people of Greece received their first Constitution from the reigning monarch King Otto, hence the name, Syntagma which means Constitution. Today the busy square, with its shops, cafes, restaurants, shops and offices, is the centre of modern, commercial Athens.
Just across the road is the Greek House of Parliament. Completed in 1838, the grand neo-classical building was originally the palace of the first Greek kings. In front lies the tomb of the unknown soldier, watched over by the Presidential Guards or Evzones. Cosmo had timed our visit to catch the spectacular changing of the guards, when the new watch marches in and the old watch marches out, with great pomp and ceremony, in their deep blue jackets and pristine pleated skirts, on stiff high-thrusting white-stockinged legs.
Alongside Parliament, the National Gardens are a lush stretch of nature with lawns, trees, shrubs and flowers dubbed by Athenians “the green lung”. The cool shady paths and the glint of a distant pond beckoned but a stroll in the park was not on Cosmo’s itinerary and we swung away again, deeper into downtown Athens.
Surrounded by the bunches of rosemary and branches of bay leaves which Cosmo had picked for us from the gardens of Kaiseriani, we set off, higher up the mountain for “the best coffee in Greece”.
Cosmo’s friends’ (or were they family?) café was a tiny wooden cabin in a clearing among the pines. In a minute kitchen, a constantly shifting and uncountable crowd danced around one another from stove to oven. As time allowed, they came to the counter to smile and shake our hands. With a coffee that smelt like a thousand years of accumulated grinding, growing and brewing expertise in one hand and a honey-soaked cake that looked like a mortal sin in the other, we settled at a table under the pines. Around us old men harangued one another over their cards while families, on Sunday outings, seemingly with every branch and extension, laughed and shouted at the children playing on the thick carpet of pine-needles that covered the red, hard-packed earth.
Higher again, on Hymettus we stopped and looked out at the other mountains of Attica; Philopappas Hill, home of the muses to the ancients, with its monument to Philopappas, benefactor of Athens and Lycabettus, Athens highest hill, with the chapel of St George at its summit.
Behind us the hills rolled away, rocky, wild and without shelter. We thought of our fathers and uncles, their cousins and friends, wandering country like this, during the disastrous World War II campaigns of Greece and Crete. This foreign soil seems so far in every way, from the lush, green, bush-cloaked hills of their New Zealand homeland. How did they survive? The truth is that many perished. Many were taken as prisoners too. But many somehow lived through the ordeal. Many, too, were saved by courageous and generous ordinary Greek people, probably pretty much like Cosmo.