We’ve flown from the olive lands of Kalamata to Athens, home to five million of Greece’s 12 million people. We’re staying just off Syntagma Square, where all the capital’s big demonstrations take place.
Central Athens is a surprise. It’s full of green spaces – we’re right opposite the National Botanic Gardens – and round the corner from us is the Plaka, the rambling network of little pedestrian streets at the foot of the Acropolis. Alex remembers it as run-down and neglected 30 years ago. Today it’s crowded with bars, tavernas and shops, and it’s the place to go out at night.
Traders say business is 30-40% down on last year, reflecting the drop in arrivals at Athens airport, but it still has a great buzz. The food is perhaps 50% dearer than in the Mani, where we were getting wonderful fresh meals, with drinks, for around 10 or at the most 15 euros per person. But for capital city cheap eats, the Plaka is fine. And our accommodation is good – a decent hotel in a prime location, at a cheaper rate than a motel on the Queensland coast.
We’ve begun to explore the great museums and archaeological sites. The Benaki Museum, five minutes’ walk away, turns out to be a treasure trove. The Benaki family of Greek Alexandrians donated their Athens mansion to the nation in 1931 and it houses a huge collection of objects from Neolithic times onwards, so it provides an exceptional introduction to more than 7,000 years of history.
It was a good start. We’re working our way up to tackling the Acropolis this weekend in the August heat.
VISITING THE ORACLE
First we take a bus trip to Delphi, some 190 kilometres away, to see the great temple of Apollo, god of light and music, and the home of the oracle. We pass Mount Parnassus to arrive at a place of exceptional beauty where the monuments are set into a steep mountainside around the Kastalian spring, with panoramic views down to the sea.
History and myth are intermingled here. You climb up past the temple and the treasuries of the various states of antiquity to the 5,000-seat theatre and then the huge stadium, and at every step there’s a revelation – too many to recount in this space. I’d had no idea of the importance of Delphi in the creation, from the 8th century BC, of a panhellenic culture in the years before the Classical age began. It was here, where the cities rivalled each other in their offerings to Apollo and in the Pythian games held every four years, that Greeks discovered a common identity.
The Delphi Museum at the foot of the site contains the main statues and artefacts unearthed since systematic excavation began in 1892, and it’s one of the great museums of Greece. To have it in such close proximity to the ruins is a big advantage – you begin to see what the place must have been like. Among many extraordinary items are the sixth century BC frieze from the treasury of the island of Siphnos, depicting the Trojan War, the assembly of the gods and the battle of gods and giants; a superb bronze statue of Polyzalos of Sicily, victor in the chariot race of 478 BC; a fourth century BC statue of the champion athlete Agias; and one of the earliest known examples of musical notation, since music was always played here in honour of the god.
As for the oracle – as you may be aware the Pythia, as she was known, was a woman generally over the age of 50, believed to be able to channel the thoughts of Apollo. Once a month, so legend has it, she got high as a kite on vapours from below the earth and from chewed bay leaves, and her mutterings were then interpreted by priests to answer the questions of supplicants in such an ambiguous manner that Apollo could never be said to be wrong.
You wonder how they’d be hedging their bets about the prospects for Greece today.
STUDENTS TAKE FLIGHT
As the countries of southern Europe teeter on the verge of economic catastrophe, families who can afford it are taking desperate measures to try to give their children a future. Le Monde reports a huge increase in students going abroad when the university year starts in the autumn. From Greece figures are up by 162%, from Spain by 156%, Italy 181% and Portugal 140%. Most are heading for Scandinavia, France and the Netherlands, where courses are still relatively inexpensive, while the wealthiest are enrolling in the United States or at British universities which have become highly commercialised in order to attract foreign students.
These children of the middle class are fleeing youth unemployment, which in both Greece and Spain is above 50%. But there’s no such chance for the great majority of potential students in these countries whose families are coping with reduced wages and soaring prices.
At the moment the streets of the Plaka are full of lively young people out enjoying the summer nights. When autumn draws in, the tourists and the well-off leave and the latest austerity measures take effect, it will be a different story.