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It's yesterday in Athens

It was summer, and the bizarre thing about Athens was that there were hardly any Greeks around. photo by AFP

travel Updated: Jan 21, 2010 12:59 IST

It was summer, and the bizarre thing about Athens was that there were hardly any Greeks around. Anyone who could afford it was off to their favourite island retreat. Working students, drivers, sailors, hotel and restaurant hands too were there, making an extra buck. The rest had long migrated to Australia and America. Athens was filled with foreigners who arrived in droves off cruise ships, planes and coaches. We watched them slowly schlep up the steep, crowded steps of the Acropolis in the murderous heat to see the Parthenon, a temple from 447 BC. 

Sitting in a leafy café nearby, with the ancient edifices in full view, we sipped our ice-coffee frappes, and listened to the lovely Katia Mavreli's story of circa 500BC set in these very parts. It is worth coming to Athens, even to grasp the seminal moment in the history of mankind, when an unprecedented flowering of mind took place in one place in a short span of time.

Circa 500 BC
"Let's take stock of just a handful of developments at that time," began Katia, counting on her fingers. "Pericles practiced direct democracy for the first time...Socrates, Plato and Aristotle began sophisticated thought processes, pondering upon beauty, the best way to live, the soul, the perfect Republic...Herodotus was one of our earliest historians who wrote about life in Greece (Hellas) and Egypt...

Hippocrates separated medicine from witchcraft and explained that a person with ailments was not being punished by the gods. By recording things, healers began to understand illnesses. Right around then, ritual songs and dances for Dionysus (god of wine and revelry) evolved into theatre, with the first plays written by Aeschylus and Euripedes. Pythgoras figured out maths laws. For the first time, mankind sculpted in 3D and figured out that the moon does not have light of its own and that the earth spins on its own axis." As we reeled, Katia joked that Greece lacked modern geniuses, and was suffering currently from a somewhat reduced status.

Athens today
Admiring the Athens of yesteryear at the tastefully put-together New Acropolis Museum, the private collection at the Benaki Museum and the ancient arches, temples and monuments strewn all over, we took its modern day pulse. The Greeks are a tiny nation of 11 million, and though the ancient impact was tremendous, today there is rarely a whimper on the international arena. Daily protests clog Syntagma square, the city's heart, and progress is thwarted by politics. Katia explained, "Switching from the drachma to the Euro has made everything much more expensive, and the taxes are staggering."

We explored the upmarket neighbourhood of Kolonaki with its beautiful neo-classical houses and avant-garde shops. Minutes away is older, grungier Plaka with its souvenir shops and kafenias, the ubiquitous coffee shops where the older men chat, recalling the past, still calling Istanbul Constantinople, their fingers constantly clicking rosary beads.

Katia took us to a leafy taverna for lunch. "Our food is like the Turks, but our mentality is like the Italians. We like a table full of food, are large hearted with money, but work, that's for tomorrow!" We tried some aubergine salad, tzatziki yoghurt and kebabs. We talked about Alexander the Great, who came to India's threshold with his army. Pity they didn't leave behind the recipe for feta cheese.