A tale of two cities (1)

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Athens, 6 June 2012


 Noon.     29° C.    A hotel bedroom somewhere in Athens.

The phone rings.

“Sir, I am in hot water,” says a man’s voice.

All thoughts of the economic crisis vanish from my mind.

“Sir,” the voice repeats, “I am in hot water.”

I am desperately trying to come to cope with this unexpected new insight into the Greek predicament.

“Well, I’m…well, I….,” I struggle to come up with some kind of a response to the  poor unfortunate at the other end of the line. “Well, I’m…I’m very …sorry to hear that.”

My words elicit from the caller a nugget of additional information.

“Sir, I am in hot water for 45 minutes.”

Perhaps this man is being boiled alive. In these circumstances, any thing could happen. I have been in Greece for only a day and I am beginning to think I had better get out again fast.

The surreal refrain starts up again. “Sir, I am in hot water….”

By now my mind is rapidly beginning to take leave of its moorings. I decide to bid a hasty farewell to my new but troubled friend. “Good luck,” I tell him, “….and goodbye.”

I put the phone down and lie on my bed for half an hour.

I need a stiff drink.


Athens is a tale of two cities and nowhere is this more evident than in Syntagma Square.

Today we shall attempt to convey the classic face that  Syntagma presents to the world. Tomorrow we shall tell another story.

It seems to be fitting that the central square in Athens, where western democracy originated 2 500 years ago, should be named after the basic law which underpins modern Greek democracy – the constitution.

Syntagma (Constitution) Square is the geographical, political and cultural centre of Athens.  It is fitting too that the grandest building in the square, the pale-apricot palace, perched on a commanding dais, that houses the Boule, the Greek Parliament, should form a theatrical backdrop – taking up the whole east side of the square – to the mundane comings and goings of the citizens of Greece as they go about their everyday business in the busy concourse below.

The Boule is flanked by dark green orange trees, the fruit temptingly low-hanging.

In the first stanza of his most famous lyric poem – Mignon: Kennst du das Land? (Darling, do you know this country?) –  the classically educated German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) wrote:

Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn,

Im dunkeln Laub die Gold-Orangen glühn,

Ein sanfter Wind vom blauen Himmel weht,

Die Myrte still und hoch der Lorbeer steht?

Kennst du es wohl?

Dahin! dahin

Möcht ich mit dir, o mein Geliebter, ziehn.


Do you know the country where lemons bloom,

Where gold oranges in dark foliage grow,

Where out the blue welkin a soft wind blows,

Where stands still the myrtle and lofty the laurel?

Do you really know it?

There, there would I fain go with thou, my beloved.

Goethe is generally thought to have had Italy in mind, but surely Greece has a greater claim to the sentiments expressed? Anyway, that is what we thought when we saw the orange trees flanking the Boule. Perhaps someone could put this question to Angela Merkel or Wolfgang Schäuble? Might take their minds off less important matters like the economy.

Troops from an elite infantry corps forming the presidential guard – the legendary evzones – stand to attention at the base of the dais. They are dressed in full ceremonial fig: round red hats, black-and-red shoes, white leggings, a beige tunic with pleated kilt (the fustanella), and black-and-red shoes with prominent black pompons on the toe. They carry black-and-white rifles with bayonets fixed. Their purpose in the square is to stand guard around the clock over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is marked by a flat slab on the parvis just under the dais. Cut into the stone above the tomb is the bas-relief of a dying hoplite, naked but for his helmet.

The retaining wall of the dais sports an irregular array of plaques containing solemn inscriptions, many recording battles in which Greek troops took part, including El Alamein, Rimini Rubicon, the Dodecanese, Korea, Cyprus and Crete.

The most moving plaques, however, particularly for those having endured the pangs and pleasures of a classical education, are two quotations from the History of the Peloponnesian War by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides (460 – 395 BC).

The quotations are from a speech made by the Athenian President Pericles (495 – 429 BC) at the funeral ceremony for Athenians who had died in the first year of the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404), which pitted Athens unsuccessfully against Sparta. The speech, glorifying Athens’ achievements, was intended to boost war-time morale.

The plaque to the left of the dead hoplite contains the words:

Μία κλίνη κενὴ φέρεται ἐστρωμένη τῶν ἀφανῶν (“One bier is carried empty, prepared for those unknown”).

The plaque to the right of the hoplite contains what is possibly the best-known quotation in the corpus of classical Greek literature:

Ἀνδρῶν ἐπιφανῶν πᾶσα γῆ τάφος (“In the case of heroes, it does not matter where they are buried”).

The guard changed as we were there. It was not unlike the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, which brought us down to earth with a bump. A good-humoured family from the Embassy of Northern Sudan – whose ruler Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court at the Hague on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – was posing for photographs alongside the Evzones. It all began to seem a bit touristy. We snapped out of our musings on the Glory that was Greece. Time to move on.

Hardly less resonant than the Boule, if inevitably less impressive, are the two grand hotels that sit side by side along the north side of the square: the Grande Bretagne and its hardly less impressive neighbour, the King George Palace.

Pride of place must inevitably go to the Hotel Grande Bretagne – the name having a certain English connotation, perhaps, the language quaintly Gallic  –  the Grande Dame of the city’s many five-star hotels, a hostelry steeped in historic associations, which stands proudly on a corner of the square, no fewer than three flag-poles hoisting high the gut-wrenching blue-and-white striped flag of the Hellenic Republic. It seems a bulwark of the Ancien Régime, apparently oblivious to and disdainful of the tide of political turmoil that has washed back and forth across the square beneath ever since the moment that an economic tsunami crashed down on the shores of this country eighteen months ago.

From the rooftop bar and restaurant of this famed hotel it seems as if the whole of Greek history is laid out before you in one vast panorama.

To the east you can see the tiny church of St George atop Likavitos Hill, the highest point in Athens, and beyond the great ridge of Mount Ymittos, where the Hellenes kept bees for honey in the time of Pericles. Nestling in its foothills is the Stadium, still pristine, that was built for the re-launched Olympic Games in 1896, the first time that this contest was held since the Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great closed it down in 393 AD on the grounds that, a relic of a pagan past, the games had no place in Christian Byzantium.

To the west the great mound of the Acropolis crowned by the Propylaia, the Erectheion and the Parthenon towers majestically over the plain precisely as it has always done since Ictinus and Callicrates, Mnesicles and Phidias put up this nonpareil of world architecture 2 400 years ago.

To the south the horizon is bounded by the Peloponnese at Troezen, the legendary birthplace of the hero Theseus, while closer to hand, in the glittering waters of the Mediterranean, sits the island of Aegina, renowned for its temple of  Aphaea – and the production of pistachio nuts. Aegina was the earliest state in European Greece to use coins for money, which it did about 650 BC.

“Vedi Napoli e poi muori”, the saying goes. This could surely apply with equal justification to the Athens one views from the rooftop of the Hotel Grande Bretagne.

The first hotel on this site was opened in 1842. The list of famous visitors is legion: Pierre de Coubertin, Winston Churchill, Hitler, Rommel, Archbishop Makarios, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren and so on. You name them, they were here.

Inevitably, however, in today’s globalised business milieu, this emblematic Greek hotel, like so many of its iconic counterparts elsewhere, is now in American hands,  having been swallowed up by the giant Connecticut-based Starwood Hotels chain (Sheraton, Westin, etc).

Back out in the square, we find immaculately groomed ladies-who-lunch taking afternoon tea in the smart Ethnikon café across the road. It is three-quarters full.

In the middle of the square four young bucks, all aged about 20, are trying their luck. They have thought up a wheeze to enhance their “pull” factor. They are walking about carrying boards offering “free hugs” in large coloured lettering. Presumably, this operation was aimed at the opposite sex. Sadly, we saw no one take up their kind offer but they seemed to be very pleased with themselves nonetheless.

A key feature of Syntagma Square is that it is at the nodal point where two of the city’s three metro lines intersect. And, boy, is this station busy! The underground at Oxford Circus in London has nothing on the crowd here. It has to be said too that the huge underground concourse that the Greeks have constructed at Syntagma can hold its own with any we have seen around the world. The giant space  – the minimalism of the decor mitigated only marginally by a mural of stones from the ancient city – reminded us in its vastness of the great hall at Grand Central Station in Manhattan. There is no way that a city with an underground station like this can go down the swanee.

This then is the Athens that we know and, mostly, love.

Nothing much has changed and that’s how we like it.

At the excellent hotel Athinais in the Ambelokipi district the desk manager tells us, to our surprise, that the economic crisis has not much impacted on the number of visitors. We had the same story of business as usual from the owner of the equally excellent Vlassis restaurant in the same district.

However, as British Prime Minister James Callaghan said in 1979 a few weeks before his government collapsed:

Crisis, what crisis?”


Oh yes, that business about the hot water. The cloud of unknowing was lifted later in the day by a notice posted up in the hotel lift. It seems that my cold caller, presumably the hotel manager,  had been ringing round guests to alert them to a temporary cut-off in the water supply. What one assumes he had been trying to say was: “I have no hot water”. The hotel’s hot water supply was cut off for three-quarters of an hour.


 You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

 1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)

2. Das Vierte Reich/The Fourth Reich (6 Feb 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)

4. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)

5. What would Gandhi have said? (30 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


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