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Despite our general admonition to patronize the tourist restaurants in Athens, you’ll want to try a typical Greek taverna (that’s spelled “TABEPNA” in Greek) at least once. And there’s no need to worry about the absence of an English-language menu in these establishments, because the custom at tavernas is to go into the kitchen and select your courses from the pots on the stove!
And by the way, don’t worry about the price of what you’re ordering. Hope and I had one of the thirstiest and most famished evenings of our travels when we last dined at a taverna, choosing two bowls of delicious tomato soup to begin, then two huge Greek salads, one veal and vegetable casserole, one order of moussaka, one beer, two orange drinks, and one iced coffee.
Grece Style Food and Drink
As earlier noted, virtually all the Athenian restauran ts we’ve discussed are tourist restaurants, equipped with menus printed in English or French. Because of that, and because few of our readers (induding your author) can read Greek, we have not included a translation of Greek menu terms in our menu chapter, appearing further on in this book. But we do have some menu comments:
When in doubt, ask your waiter for “moussaka”-a staple dish served in many of the Athenian restaurants and in all of the “tavernas” (smaller and totally unpretentious restaurants). Moussaka consists of baked, ground meat, covered with vegetables and spices, and sometimes topped with alayer of dough or mashed potatoes.
lts quality varies from place to place, but if you’re lucky, you’ll make a wonderfully tasty meal of it. And it’s filling: you’ll be more than stuffed if you have, for dinner, a plate of moussaka, a tomato salad, bread and wine. Eaten in the normal taverna, that combination should never cost much.
We’ve already mentioned “dolmothakia” (rice and meat in vine leaves). For a lighter snack, ask for “souvlakia,” which are roasted and spitted chunks of lamb, Havored with oregano.
The Greek table wine is “retsina” -a red wine Havored with resin (pine sap)-and it’s death to American tastes. To get it without the resin, specify that you want your wine “aresinato.”
The Greek aperitif-a before meals drink-is “ouzo,” which is terribly cheap, and is taken either straight or in water (which it turns cloudy white). A Seven-up type drink, which Hope very much likes, is “garzoza” (or at least that’s how it’s pronounced!)
The Dionysiac Theatre is the sunniest spot in Athens. The tourists know it and bring their teabaskets. The lizards know it and steal out to bask on marble chairs dedicated to priests and magistrates. The Athenian audiences of classical times must also have known it as they sat there the whole of a spring day with the sun in their eyes and the rock behind them glowing like a furnace.
The existing remains of the Theatre of Dionysos are a complex of many periods and the fundamental questions whether there was a raised stage before the time of the Hellenistic theatre and whether the stage buildings in the classical period were of a permanent nature have not yet been settled to everyone’s satisfaction.
It is generally agreed that the orchestra with its central altar of Dionysos was originally occupied by both chorus and actors. There is also fairly general agreement that no stone auditorium existed before the Lykourgan theatre in the second half of the fourth century B.C.
The actual remains on the site may be divided into four periods: 1. Pre-Lykourgan; 2. Lykourgan; 3. Hellenistic; 4. Roman.
The Lykourgan Theatre was built in consequence of a decree of the Boulé in 342 B.C. and completed before the death of Lykourgos in 326 B.C. This leaves a long period of at least a century and a half for the pre-Lykourgan Theatre.
The oldest remains are six blocks (SM 1) of a curved polygonal wall of limestone, generally believed to be sixth-century, some 100 m. eastnortheast of the Old Temple of Dionysos, which were identified by Dörpfeld as part of the original orchestra. By plotting an imaginary circle on the evidence of the stones he met a fragment of wall (J 3) on its west side and a cutting (A) in the rock on the east side, north of the six blocks, which he thought were part of the circumference.
Many later authorities have rejected the evidence of either A or J 3 or both but nearly all agree that SM 1 supported a curved terrace which formed the boundary of the orchestra itself or had an orchestra of smaller circumference placed upon it. A fragment of polygonal masonry (SM 3) similar to the six stones, which is north of the west end of the Old Temple of Dionysos may have sustained a road or path rising from the level of the Temple to that of the orchestra.
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While you’re atop the Acropolis, look carefulIy for the delicate, little Ionic TempIe of Athena Nike (to your right as you approach the main entrance to the Acropolis, located almost over the stairs), which still has same of its original friezes depicting battles with the Persians and the Gods of Olympus; the temple is dedicated to the “WingIess Victory”-wingless, else victory can fly away…
Then, walk to the Erechtheum, a temple perched on the originaI site of the even older Temple to Athena, which is supposed to have stood on the pIot of Iand where Athena and Poseidon battled it out for God-supremacy of Athens. Athena brought forth an olive tree (there is still a little tree in front of the temple!) and Poseidon smote the earth and brought forth sea-water. You’ll probably remember the Temple best for its Caryatides (or Maidens), six of them easily and gracefully supporting a heavy porch ceiling on their heads. The Erechtheum records the disasters of Athens. We do not know when it was begun, but it is recorded that in 409 it was unfinished.
The original date of the little temple to Nike Apteros (the Wingless Victory) is not precisely known. It is obvious, however, that it must date from about the same time as the other Propylaea buildings. One might suppose that the architects of the Propylaea, when they found their plans crippled by the neighbourhood of this sacred site, set themselves to make a virtue of necessity; since their entrance buildings were curtailed, they may have consoled themselves by balancing the group with this little gem of Ionic architecture.
To find a temple outside the sanctuary gates is unusual, and the fact that its position never strikes one as strange is just another tribute to the skill with which the proportions of the building are fitted to the site. The spot must have been sacred to Athena from quite early times and was associated with her in her victorious aspect as “Athena Nike.” Then, as the process of differentiation continued, the precinct was said to be sacred to Victory, and Athena’s name was dropped. But the old wooden image kept on the spot was really an image of Athena and not of a Winged Victory. So the pretty tale was invented that the ground and afterwards the temple were dedicated to a Wingless Victory who would never fly away.
Less than three hundred and fifty years ago, the little temple of Athena Nike was still standing, nearly intact, damaged not at all by men and very little by time. Suddenly it disappeared from travellers’ accounts and visitors’ recollection. It had been dismantled to its lowest courses, and the blocks had been employed by the Turks to build retaining walls and a battery at this western outpost of their fortress of the Acropolis. Smooth wallblocks and delicately carved architectural members were with equal unconcern employed for this new enterprise.
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Greece has always looked toward the sea and lived by it. Of necessity she must continue to do so. Because of her geographical position and because of the limited resources of her land, the Greeks have been a maritime people since the earliest times.
The mountains which break up the land seem to push the people into the sea, and indeed they make land travel and land communications so difficult that by comparison sea travel has always seemed simple. The land itself is so lacking in fertility that extensive agriculture is impossible. Thus the Greeks have been forced to import a large part of their food and to turn to the sea to gain their livelihood.
In Greece, the sea seems to be everywhere. The Aegean, the Ionian, and the Mediterranean all wash Greek shores, and these shores are so cut up and so strewn with islands that the sea penetrates everywhere. The coastlines and islands in turn shelter the sea and do away with the fear men have always had of vast unbroken stretches of water.
The Greeks are not such a people as would fear the sea, no matter how far it stretched. By nature they are adventurous and enterprising. Their love of adventure makes them good sailors, and added to this their capacity for enterprise makes them the best of sea-merchants.
Seamanship is an old Greek tradition. Children have been trained from the cradle to become expert sailors. It has been customary for seamen to take aboard ships and sailboats children ranging in age from 6 to 13 so as to accustom them to the sea. When an island was sighted, the children were called on deck, told the name of the island, its ports, and the most navigable routes around it. If, on the next trip, they had forgotten, they were punished. In like manner, children were thrown into the sea to teach them to swim. Nothing was overlooked in an effort to make them skillful and brave seamen.
The skill of Greeks at sea includes not only seamanship but also trading. The Greek was and is a sailor-merchant. There has never been absentee ownership of Greek ships nor have Greeks put their money in enterprises involving ships run by others. Even today, when there is a class of rich Greek shipowners owning sometimes large numbers of ships, such owners have nearly always been identified with ships and are in general successful sailor-merchants.
Attica was a very small country according to modern notions, and Athens the only large city therein. The land barely covered some 700 square miles, with 40 square miles more, if one includes the dependent island of Salamis. It was thus far smaller than the smallest of our American “states” (Rhode Island = 1250 square miles), and was not so large as many American counties.
It was really a triangle of rocky, hill- scarred land thrust out into the Aegean Sea, as if it were a sort of continuation of the more level district of Bœotia. Yet small as it was, the hills inclosing it to the west, the seas pressing it from the northeast and south, gave it a unity and isolation all its own. Attica was not an island; but it could be invaded only by sea, or by forcing the resistance which could be offered at the steep mountain passes towards Bœotia or Megara. Attica was thus distinctly separated from the rest of Greece.
Yet Attica had advantages which more than counterbalanced this grudging of fertility. All Greece, to be sure, was favored by the natural beauty of its atmosphere, seas, and mountains, but Attica was perhaps the most favored portion of all. Around her coasts, rocky often and broken by pebbly beaches and little craggy peninsulas, surged the deep blue Aegean, the most glorious expanse of ocean in the world. Far away spread the azure water, — often foam-crested and sometimes alive with the dolphins leaping at their play, — reaching towards a shimmering sky line where rose “the isles of Greece,” masses of green foliage, or else of tawny rock, scattered afar, to adapt the words of Homer, “like shields laid on the face of the glancing deep.”
Above the sea spread the noble arch of the heavens, — the atmosphere often dazzlingly bright, and carrying its glamour and sparkle almost into the hearts of men. The Athenians were proud of the air about their land.
The third great element, besides the sea and the atmosphere of Athens, was the mountains. One after another the bold hills reared themselves, cutting short all the plainlands and making the farmsteads often a matter of slopes and terraces. Against the radiant heavens these mountains stood out boldly, clearly; revealing all the little gashes and seams left from that long-forgotten day when they were flung forth from the bowels of the earth. None of these mountains was very high: Hymettus, the greatest, was only about 3500 feet; but rising as they often did from a close proximity to the sea, and not from a dwarfing table-land, even the lower hills uplifted themselves with proud majesty.
These hills were of innumerable tints according to their rocks, the hue of the neighboring sea, and the hour of the day. In spring they would be clothed in verdant green, which would vanish before the summer heats, leaving them rosy brown or gray. But whatever the fundamental tone, it was always brilliant; for the Athenians lived in a land where blue sky, blue sea, and the massive rock blent together into such a galaxy of shifting color, that, in comparison, the lighting of almost any northern or western landscape would seem feeble and tame. The Athenians absorbed natural beauty with their native air.
Behind each of these mountain masses is another piece of Attica not visible from Athens. Between Hymettus and the eastward sea lies the Mesogaia Plain. It is larger and more fertile than the plain of the Cephissus, and yet figures little in history, for no highroad passes through it. Attica’s back-parlour, should one say? Behind Pentelicus lies the plain of Aphidnae, lying saucer-like with a ring of hills around it and a piece of rising ground in its centre. The great plain behind Parnes does not belong to Attica but to Bœotia. Parnes is the one landward boundary of the Attic peninsula. Towards the west her soaring ridges dip to Mount Aegaleus, and behind these is the sea-girt Thriasian plain around Eleusis, now reckoned as Attic territory.
The Athenian loved sunshine, and Helios the Sun God was gracious to his prayers. In the Athens of to-day it is reckoned that the year averages 179 days in which the sun is not concealed by clouds one instant; and 157 days more when the sun is not hidden more than half an hour. Ancient Athens was surely not more cloudy. Nevertheless, despite this constant sunshine and a southern latitude, Athens was striken relatively seldom with semitropical heat. The sea was a good friend, bringing tempering breezes. In the short winter there might be a little frost, a little snow, and a fair supply of rain. For the rest of the year, one golden day was wont to succeed another, with the sun and the sea breeze in ever friendly rivalry.
The climate saved the Athenians from being obliged to wage a stern warfare with nature as did the northern peoples. Their life and civilization could be one developed essentially “in the open air”; while, on the other hand, the bracing sea breeze saved them from that enervating lethargy which has ruined so many southern folk. The scanty soil forced them to struggle hard to win a living; unless they yielded to the constant beckoning of the ocean, and sought food, adventure, wealth, and a great empire across the seas.