They walked down the slim shaded streets of Plaka, allowing the natural downhill flow of the people to dictate the pace and direction. All the tributaries led to the famous square where they would eat. It was getting warm now and Magnus was entering every shop and asking in broken Greek for a suitable hat, pointing above the doorways to the hanging garments of clothing, motioning with his hands to his crown. This could never be a city of hell Magnus considered, and if it had been then every great city must take its turn, or indeed, it was the very presence of hell for a time that made a city great, before the hell moved on to anoint a new city, leaving its people to recover and admire the remains.
Here, in Athens, such a gentle pace of life, such a charming people must have understood (now the city was resting once more) that there is not much important in life above family, friends, eating, drinking and conversation, and this attracted the Northern Europeans as much as the ruins, though they rarely recognised this fact, refusing to take it home with them or forgetting it after the first week of their return. This allowed the city to remain as it was – the soul of the city could survive by the ignorance of its visitors as much as it could be destroyed by it, they leaving it to breathe lightly in the heat and put off everything that could be until tomorrow. Now, here, in the tiny village backstreets of Plaka Magnus and his wife Catherine drifted, drinking, eating, watching. Though they knew a tourist area could never represent the real heart of any city they were glad to be shown these streets and to be allowed the break they gave. Their city was merciless and was in hell now, though its people did not recognise as such for they were too busy in their horses masks, marching recklessly forward for unknown reasons to unknown places. The scars would be even greater and maybe the ruins would give the beauty so sorely lacking in this age. Magnus hoped the locusts would move on and devour somewhere else for he was tied to his city for the foreseeable future and if hell does indeed make cities great then it must also have its casualties.
They reached a little square, off a back-street, and took their seats under the branches of an overhead tree, before ordering some omelettes and salad. Magnus ordered some beer. They had meant to wait until Syntagma but this square was so beautiful they decided to stop and take lunch. An English couple sat on the next table, which displeased Magnus, so they said little, instead preferring to merge in with the surrounding square and listen to the idle chatter of its patrons. The white buildings were no more than two storeys high which gave a view of the clear sky that surprised Magnus with its brightness. The food and beer was good so they tipped the waiter well and then continued on towards the main square, the streets growing busier and warmed the closer they got. Magnus stopped by a wall and rolled some tobacco. Smoking after eating and in such heat was pleasurable and the smoke felt heavy in the lungs and the throat. Sleeping dogs lay on steps and in doorways, local cats ran across roads. The sun was now reddening Magnus’s forehead and he was desperate for a hat but could find none he liked. He settled on a green fishing hat and swam in the thought of wearing it when he went fishing in the valleys back home. His beard was impressively thick now so with his sunglasses, his hat and his beard, very little of Magnus’s face was on show and this kept him hidden from the heat and invisible.
Immigrants were buzzing around the crowds with expensive leather bags on each arm
They repeated, showing their wears to any lady (mainly the blonde, deep-tanned and vulgar-jewelled rich northern Europeans) in the street while the look-out voiced encouragement before the police appeared, then slipping down another side street to keep their circle going. The police glanced at the movement and then walked their military-style uniforms on through the crowds.
This was Magnus and Catherine’s second day in Athens and they had covered all the obvious attractions – of which Zeus’s Temple had impressed Magnus the most, with the Roman bath ruins lying alongside (still intact enough to show the separate bathing rooms, some tiles, the plumbing pipes and the steps to the entrance) and the backdrop of the Parthenon and the Acropolis adding to the dramatic scenery. The authorities had managed to leave the remnants of the powerful god’s temple in plenty of space allowing a walk around and up-close inspection of the two-thousand year old stone pillars, one lying on its side, spilling its history over the grass. This space meant a view from each side and the chance to compare the temple to the size of the mountains behind. From the Acropolis you could see the temple, almost reach out and trace your fingers through the grooves on the stone, or even step into the temple with the stride of zeus. The Olympic stadium was (from up there) just around the corner and these points and their surrounding greenery brought the mountains down from their home and into the city itself, which when viewed from so high looked like a pool of white concrete poured into the bowl of the valley, the mountains being the banks that kept Athens from being washed away by weather into the sea. Magnus and Catherine had seen many cities from their highest points but Magnus had never seen one seemingly resting so calmly that you could trace the outline of the edges like that of fjord. London was made up of perpendicular lines interspersed with haphazard newly built areas, Paris with its separate arrondissements, spacious river and main roads, Rome spread lightly and far, the old buildings a beauty and charm unrivalled so that it must have seen the worst of hell before it was reborn, Brussels compact and around a square, like a market, and now Athens, the home of the Gods.
Magnus liked the post-holiday for the break gave one a freedom of thought, un-controlled by ones normal environment, that meant a realistic view of ones life and its trivialities upon your return to it. It became easier to drop or forget unused and unneeded baggage, to ignore the papers and read only books, to make an effort to condition oneself to do what one had been meaning for so long but had to put off for other peoples interferences and problems. This clarity of thought was what Magnus sought in the strangest of places – books, bars, conversation, walks, the river, trains, fields, music – and bought back from Athens and when the plane would be in the sky on the long journey home he would make sure to offer thanks and a prayer to the gods for their gift to him and promise when he came back he would bring something in return. In the meantime Catherine and Magnus tipped as generously as they could afford and gave what they could to the beggars knowing some wanted time as well as euros.
The first night Magnus had sat in the hotel bar on the roof, contemplating Athens by night and drinking himself through the city and finally back downstairs until 4am. When he was gazing over Athens he had seen smoke rising from a building a mile away and the smoke was being lit up by the night lights from the city which made it easily visible. The peace and cool night air calmed Magnus and began his holiday. The following night he was speaking to the barman about Greek food when he learned that the smoke in the sky was not from a fire but from a famous grill house that was so busy it could stay open till dawn any night of the week. Magnus made up his mind to visit.
They reached the bottom of the main street that led up to the square and it was very busy and as hot as it had been since they had arrived in Athens. The shops had changed from selling souvenirs and tat to designer clothes, loud music falling onto the street and crowds of teenagers in their red or black jeans and long hair, giggling and shouting as they herded from door to door. An old man, half bent over from a cruel spine defect, was in competition with all around him, turning the wheels on his mobile wooden music box, and groaning along in syllables not words, the different sound separating him from the soulless beats of the speakers. This meeting of old and new Athens was not unusual as the city managed to maintain its past alongside its present without either looking out of place. Catherine went into many of the shops and tried on various colourful dresses, some of the young girls sneering at her, her disregard for their dress and behaviour offending their youth. Magnus smiled, watching the girls well-practiced but impotent arrogance. After a last look they stopped halfway up the main street and ducked into a busy walkway that was made up of many cafes under a huge blossoming tree, sitting and watching the shoppers, pointing out people to each other, Magnus’s nasty sense of humour finding confidence with each beer and aiming its snipe at the passing crowds.
Catherine went to bed early so Magnus sat up again talking casually to the barman until bored, then out on the veranda and staring at the city again. The beer was good and the tobacco smooth and it was late before Magnus walked the steps back to their room, mind pleasantly absent and body ready for rest.
The taxi driver raised his hand to signify 5 euros and Magnus accepted, opening the door for his wife. They climbed in and watched the sparse, scorched scenery pass by the window as the car raced down the coast.
Coming down the slope the trees hid the lake but the rock-face that enclosed it was clearly visible and impressive, its sand coloured stone cliffs sheltering the Lake and providing roost for the pigeons and gulls. Magnus paid the driver and Catherine paid for entrance to the lake. Once through they walked to the far side of the seated area, into the shade, and sat down. The lake was an ‘L’ shape, the bottom corner unseen, and was as big as a football pitch or maybe even two. The water disappeared into caves on three of the sides – the one side being the seating area – and these caves were roped off, large signs warning of danger, and there was some form of plant growing on the bottom, creating underwater gardens that were odd and felt-like to the foot. The guide had said that the lake was at a constant temperature of 25°c, which no-one could understand as there were no underground springs or other ways for it to be heated. Once they were in their swimming clothes, Magnus and Catherine walked down the steps to the transparent water. Magnus hesitated – the water was colder than he had expected – and little black fish swam towards his feet, nibbling on his ankles, the sensation like a gentle massage. Catherine was already swimming towards the middle so Magnus launched after her. The middle was the deepest part and they had to tread water as the ground was too far beneath them. Magnus soon got tired and swam to the rope at the side, holding on for a rest. The water was warmer in the middle than at the edges though Magnus could see no reason for this because the over-hanging cliffs left the middle and far side in the shade, but once swum through he noticed that the temperature changed with each stroke, indicating a warm water source coming from somewhere as the waters mixed and cooled. The guide must be wrong.
Catherine waved from further down the lake and Magnus swam to her. Once he reached her they pulled themselves along via the plants in the now shallow water until they came to the end of the lake around the corner. The cave here was unseen by the lifeguards so Magnus swam in, looking at the rock beneath the surface and the way the light bounced off the floor of the cave floor and up through the water in small shafts. After a few moments and Catherines urging he swam back to the rope.
“why do you always have to do these things?”
“it might be dangerous in there!”
They took some photos and upon their return Magnus was horrified to see his pale skin standing out against the olive locals and green/blue water, but his fishing hat looked good and this made up for some of the horror.
Later, at the table, they ordered some beer and Magnus rolled a cigarette. The cafe seemed to have pets in the shape of three friendly cats who came up to the tables begging for food or sleeping under the chairs, out of the heat of the afternoon sun. When one came over to their table it spoke to Catherine and she scratched its neck with her finger before it spotted something on another table and was off. The beer tasted good and Magnus considered having another but thought it should wait till the evening, so they paid up and left. After walking up the bypass and overlooking the many beaches with their sunbathing locals, the sea stretching out to the horizon and past, further than the eye could see, they stopped for some food, and then hailed another taxi back to the hotel, sharing it with two local women. Magnus lay down on the bed and slept for an hour while Catherine read.
After a shower they sauntered to the tram to spend the evening in Athens, waiting by the beach for the tram to arrive. Later in Plaka the restaurant was busy and the yanks either side of them were loud but not too loud, so Magnus did not suggest moving. The chicken, and the salad and vine leaves with rice were lovely and the beer even better. By Ten O’clock they had wondered around Plaka and found themselves in Syntagma square again where luckily the tram was waiting. They both sat up late drinking in the hotel bar on the roof, staring far out so sea as the boats came and went, listening to the traffic and the other people in the bar chatting. The lights of the boats were the only way of identifying them as they glided from the port across the bay. Up on the hotel roof some of the tables were exposed but the combination of sunburn, alcohol and happiness at being where they were meant Magnus and Catherine did not notice the wind and they sat and slowly finished their drinks.