On trekking Hidden Trails, Eating like a Nomad, and a Meeting with Saint George at
the City’s Secret Chapel…
Let me take you now to Athens, Capital of Greece, the very centre of an ancient empire so influential, so mysterious, so captivating, its name and traditions have spread to each corner of the Earth. Not only is Athens one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities the world has ever seen, it is a jewel… a living legacy, the relic of a lost and beautiful age…
The Birth of Civilisation itself.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit this most ancient, proud and stoic city a few times in the last couple of years.
But this last trip turned out to be something quite special…
The city is named after its legendary founder – the ever-enduring Goddess, Athena. Her legend, blood and ancient pride lives on through her great people – the Athenians – who have forever been the most gracious and welcoming of hosts for me… the Wandering Englishman.
I have fast become known as Lord Byron by acquainted Athenians.
An honour I’ll graciously accept.
I’m sure it has something to do with the cloak…
My trip to the city back in 2012 saw me dodging riots, watching an unforgettable sunset on Areopagus Rock, trekking up to the unbelievable peak of Cape Sounion to the epic Temple of Poseidon, being ‘talent spotted’ for humming a Justin Timberlake song in a bar (awkward), and eventually holding up an entire plane… but that’s all a story for another time.
My favourite point of this most recent trip, however, was that having done all the “sites” I’d wanted to do the last times (that means you over-crowded Acropolis), I was able to wander off the beaten track somewhat – explore the more secret parts of the city – and discover some little known places… and stories.
I was taken up through one of the hills much-larger-than (but-almost-next-to) the hugely-famous Acropolis (literally meaning ‘high city’) – through the groves of evergreen pines and Cyprus trees – along empty pathways rarely found by even the most intrepid tourists, and walked by the True Athenians themselves. Me and my group walked as the footfalls of the city’s ancient forefathers and philosophers, all the way from the concrete-jungle outskirts of the city (where I was staying with a load of lovely Greeks) to the very centre – all the way to the Acropolis itself.
The contrast between the flood of white-washed buildings and the hills of densely-growing pines that surround the city is stunning.
I saw the weather change around me. It was first warm, muggy perhaps – then a light rain storm passed over us and we took shelter among the pines – and by the time the sacred Acropolis first came into view the sun was shining, the temperature cooler from the rain. More affable.
I learnt about these little seed pods – called Teratchia – we picked them off the trees. You can eat them.
It tasted kind of as you imagine – seedy, very earthy, a hint of aniseed – not exactly gourmet food – something the Greeks often collect up and feed to goats, in fact. But food, none-the-less. A wee nomadic snack as we made our ascent to the top, and then back down. I was rather incredulous at first, but it turned out I actually quite liked them – so I ate a goat-load.
As you eventually make it to the other side – the trees thin, the sun begins to shine and the sky turns to that famous and ever-marvelling Greek Blue – you see it ahead, that great temple, that porthole to another time – the Acropolis, with the Parthenon, the scattered remains of antique theatres and broken battlements, and my favourite temple the Erechtheion – and you are right there, marching up that great hill with the ancient Athenians themselves, amongst the Caryatids and the Doric columns, transported back to that golden age of Romance, Tragedy, Honour, Passion and Democracy – ready to dance, sacrifice and honour the Great Pantheonic Gods of Old… and you’ve reached your destination, and the end of your Pilgrimage.
Athens is a city that moves you.
Another of my favourite things to do in Athens is to walk the winding paths that lead up and around the Acropolis. At various points these pathways start – narrow foot-ways cut out into the rock that lead to clusters of tiny old houses and gardens built into the hill… a few secret spots, and a couple of soul-stirring views.
I had the chance to visit a couple of secret chapels when I was last in Athens. I say secret because they would never be found in ANY guidebooks, or on any maps (trust me, I’ve checked) and are only used locally for worship by the Athenians themselves, so unless you speak Greek you’d have a tough old time firstly finding the places, and then, well, talking with their keepers… you’d need a guide…
I’ve found that the Greeks are often proud and happy to show you their city and their country. Trying to make friends with locals is my top tip for any place. And if you search hard enough, every city has a few secrets to discover…
I was taken up to a little eklisaki, or chapel, dedicated to Archangel Michael.
The Warrior Angel.
What fascinated me so was that this chapel was built single-handedly by one lady, Marina, who is now 87 and welcomed us generously into her home… I say home because she built the chapel inside her actual home, or, to be more precise, ON her home. Her little house, resting at the top of one of Athens’s many hilly neighbourhoods now has another level, built on top of the original, and dedicated to Archangel Michael. A beautiful little chapel… modest, tiny even. But built by hand! More astonishing is that this lady had to dig into the rock surrounding the house (many of the old houses in Athens are part-built into the rock) to extend and build the chapel, a feat she achieved alone, by hand...
Now THAT’S faith.
This passion and drive the Greek people have for their faith – whether it be the Pagan religion of old, with their majestic temples, or the new, humbler Christian way – simply astounds me. And it is for this reason I love these people and their fine country! They are committed to their beliefs, they are strong, stubborn and unmoving, and yet they are kind, welcoming and open. They are a proud nation, and so they should be.
I toured round the chapel, did my prayers, had a chat with Marina which was translated by Loucas, my guide, and then had a little sleep on one of the pews.
But soon after, as always, it was time to move on…
I love any chance to get down into the city itself – to wander almost aimlessly through the cobbled streets of marble. Areas like Plaka captivate my mind, like Rome – layers of civilization built under and over one-another. Temples, market places and ancient libraries brought down to make way for little Christian churches. The bustling squares, the flea market where I bought an ancient coin baring the head of Zeus on my first visit. The temple of Zeus is absolutely worth a visit too – unfortunately not much of its former might remains, but with a little imagination the sheer scale of the thing will blow you away. I walked round it alone, on a previous visit, in the blazing late Summer sun. Nobody else was really there – so I ambled around lost in dreams of ancient Greece…
Yes, if you ever get the chance you must wander round the centre alone – areas like Monastiraki – get yourself perfectly lost in the magic of it all
– the little shops, the sellers on the streets, the bakeries, THE CATS, the churches, tiny monuments, crumbling walls, columns eaten up by newer buildings, beautiful doorways and windows, the little details and idiosyncrasies of an ancient world.
My favourite churches open to the public are Panagia Kapnikarea and Panagia Gorgoupekous.
Panagia Gorgoupekous is built entirely of marble and you have to see the frescoes inside Panagia Kapnikarea – so old, haunting – enough to bring anyone to silence.
The last time I’d been in Athens I’d desperately wanted to go and see the Temple of Hephaestion. Going across the city to the Ancient Agora, however, I found the whole thing to be closed. “Next time,” I thought. There’s no point in doing everything you want to do the first time you visit a place – you always need a reason to go back, of course.
When I walked up to the Agora this time it was not only open, but they let me in free of charge – see, sometimes it’s worth waiting!
The Hephaestion is the best preserved temple in mainland Greece. How wonderfully evocative it is to see the marvellous old thing standing there, amongst the greenery, almost perfectly-preserved, almost unchanged since the days of our forefathers. A glorious relic indeed – time, the Ottoman Empire and naughty rich Britishmen have treated the Hephaestion much fairer than its poor sister, the Parthenon. The Parthenon is nothing but a sad, shattered memory. The Hephaestion endures…
On my last trip to the city recently, I was with my beautiful Mumma and my Mbamba in a taverna in the centre (Plaka) called Makriyianni 3, named after the famous freedom fighter of 1821 General Yiannis Makriyiannis, when our friend and family member Alex started to tell us a fascinating story.
So, in brief, after World War II Greece suffered a Civil War, which came to a head early on in Athens – the areas around Plaka being the main battlegrounds. A Communist party was on the move, trying to take control of a country broken by the war, whilst the Democratic and Governmental armies were trying to regain control of Athens – the seat of their country. Athens had been broken by Nazi occupation – I heard some terrible stories from some of the locals. The Germans allowed no food to be brought into the city – the city’s resources dried-up. Athens is technically a desert – being unable to grow enough food to survive, the people of Athens had to literally EAT CATS AND DOGS to survive. Can you imagine??
These proud people being reduced to such a state?
Then there were the Communists and the Civil War. How much can one country be battered?
But Greeks survive.
And they do not give in.
This “civil battle” erupted on the streets of Athens, bloody and horrid with many deaths, and the resistance was eventually cornered in a single building in Plaka, surrounded and crippled, the Communist forces ready to take their capital, as the British forces, stationed on the Acropolis above, watched, waited, but looked on…
Then they saw him.
A horseman riding up to the building alone one morning. They hadn’t been expected any soldier, certainly not a cavalryman. He was dressed in ancient garments, with full armor, a white horse.
As the soldier stationed on watch that day turned to tell his fellow men the man on the horse simply vanished.
But the Greeks knew who it was – it was a vision of St. George. An apparition perhaps, but a sign.
St. George the patron saint of all Greece.
This vision alone gave the resistant forces the courage to fight on and win the battle. A tiny chapel, Alex told us, now stands on the site where St. George was seen. I’d never heard of it – not many have.
“I’ll show you it,” said Alex, stating that he knew the Father well.
We walked about a minute from the taverna through some gates to this little garden full of lime trees. I couldn’t believe how unseen it was from the road. I must have walked passed it a hundred times before without ever knowing.
We walked around the garden, admiring its quaintness, simplicity, the lush little gardens that surrounded this secret chapel, thinking about the story.
But it was closed. We were disappointing, and started walking away. I was last in the line.
Suddenly I heard the sounds of keys coming from somewhere, then the sound of a door being unlocked. And, behold! Standing in the doorway was the Father Alex had been talking about!
Recognising Alex, the Father immediately invited us inside.
I felt very privileged.
The place was covered inside by beautiful, fresh murals.
We each lit a candle for a loved one.
The Father was a strong, but very gentle man. He embraced us all, gave us each a blessing.
We then each kissed his hand – a tradition in the Greek Orthodox church.
Somehow, I felt honoured. Especially with Alex standing next to me translating the Father’s kind words, of faith and goodwill on my journey through life.
As we were leaving he put his arm round my shoulder and almost pulled me over – he was so strong!
I didn’t really understand what he was saying, but smiled, shook his hand again, and smiled more.
“Efharisto” I kept saying, hoping he understood what I was really thanking him for.
Sometimes, a language barrier isn’t strong enough to withhold an exchange of love between people.
Thank you, Athens, for always being so open to me.