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.
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.
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