Category Archives: Tours

A day out with Cosmo in Athens, Part 6

The best way to digest a large Greek lunch, when a siesta is out of the question, is, according to Cosmo, with a good walk. And the only way to explore the fascinating area that sprawls around the Acropolis, is according to any Athenian, on foot.

Monastiraki, Athens
Monastiraki, Athens

Close by and to the west of Monasteraki Square lies quaint, charming, picture-postcard Psiri. Zorba-esque music flows from the old taverna which line the streets. There’s an aroma of roasting lamb, warm bread, honey and strong coffee. Young Greek gods, in the guise of waiters, smile from the terraces of restaurants and cafes. Nonchalant locals and shutter snapping tourists mill in the streets. On the other side of Monasteraki is Plaka, “the neighbourhood of the Olympian gods”. Hailed as the Hellenic Montmartre, it shares the bohemian ambiance and picturesque appearance of its Parisian counterpart. Close packed houses press into the steep, narrow streets. Ancient ruins rise from the dry earth in fenced-off excavations. In shady squares local characters sit smoking in the sun and old men quarrel over card games. There are tiny shops selling souvenirs, gold, leather, furs and pottery, interspersed with neighbourhood grocers, fruit stalls, bakers and cake shops. There is a bath house. Olive trees and vines overhang bleached stone walls. Miniature gardens are crammed with lush green leafy vegetables and fat tomatoes.

Every evening just before sunset a soft purple light spreads slowly up Mount Hymettus and settles over Athens like violet crown. We watched it fade to indigo from a taverna in a back street of Plaka, high on the rocky slope of the Acropolis. A young singer crooned Demis Roussos’ My Friend the Wind”. Our wonderful day out with Cosmo had come to a close. He had taken us into his Athens, introduced us to its capricious gods, its mighty kings and its great heroes, as well its ticket and postcard-sellers, shopkeepers, chefs, baristas and waiters. He had shown us its famous places and its secret corners, shared its smells, tastes, textures and sounds. He had told us its stories. It was a sad, goodbye, with a firm, long grasping of hands, kisses on both cheeks, promises on Cosmos side to visit us down under and on ours to show him our Antipodes, to come back soon to Athens and to drop in on his sister-in-law, the best Greek cook in Australia, at her home in Mount Waverley, Melbourne.

The rosemary and bay leaves, crumbling now, are pressed between the pages of scribbled notes for this story in my diary, along with Cosmo’s card and the address of his sister in law.

Our tour of Athens cost 100 euros each. Our day out with Cosmo was priceless.

To find your Cosmo, ask the concierge or the doorman at your hotel – he’s sure to have an uncle, a cousin, a brother – Athens is like that.

A day out with Cosmo in Athens, Part 5

Downtown Athens
Downtown Athens

Cosmo swung away again, deeper into downtown Athens.

Monastiraki, where we came to rest, is a shifting, vibrant mix of tourists with day packs and runners and Athenians in their Sunday best. Architecturally, it is that blend of ancient, old, new and newer still, which makes up modern Athens. The Acropolis stands against the distant skyline, so the Golden Age of Greece is part of every Monasteraki vista. The last few columns from Hadrian’s magnificent library mark the time of the Romans. In the centre of Monastiraki Square is a beautiful little 17th century church, where black-clad widows, oblivious to the shuffling tourist crowds, pray and light candles to their icons. Nearby, an 18th century Mosque, from the time of the Turks, is now home to the museum of traditional Greek ceramics. A colourful bazaar, selling everything from reef sandals to amphorae, spills through its streets. Traditional taverna and coffee shops stand alongside pizzeria and fast food joints.

Having delivered us safely into the hands of his friends in the restaurant on the corner of the square, Cosmo disappeared. But just like Cosmo, the friends knew what we would like and what would make us happy; olives, dips and pita bread, a crisp white wine, dolmades, Greek salad, soft, sweet Greek bread, moussaka, souvlakia, a tart red wine, coffee and baklava, according to custom, with the compliments of the house. Under the watchful and encouraging eyes of the waiters and chef we ate to a determined finish. But, then Cosmo reappeared and insisted on marsala for Madame and ouzo for Monsieur, with a little halva on the side.

 

A day out with Cosmo in Athens, Part 4

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.

 

A guard at the House of Parliament., Athens
A guard at the House of Parliament., 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.

A day out in Athens with Cosmo, Part 3

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.

Looking down on Athens
Looking down on Athens

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.

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.