Modern Athens - 1872 from "The Greeks of To-Day" by Tuckerman
Read “MODERN ATHENS” chapter online from The Greeks of To-Day by Charles K. Tuckerman - 1872
The city of Athens is like nothing but itself. Though frequently compared to Edinburgh, there is little resemblance between the two cities beyond the fact that each terminates in a precipitous rock, surrounded by bastioned walls. Old and new Edinburgh are separated by a deep fissure, and the various epochs at which the buildings were constructed, and the different elevations of the streets, give to the Scottish city a picturesque effect that is wanting in Athens. The Greek Capital lies for the most part on a flat plain, and is wholly new, being the growth of the last forty years; and the houses, of yellow-washed stucco, give a fresh and light appearance to the town, which bears the traces of the Bavarian architects, who, under King Ortho, constructed many of the public edifices. Excepting the broad and upper part, Athens is a compact mass of buildings, clinging to and spreading out, fan-like, from the Acropolis at its northern and eastern base. This singular rock rises abruptly from the plain to a height of about three hundred feet above the level of the city. It is bold and inaccessible excepting at its western end which slopes gradually to the site of the ancient Agora, -- probably the heart of old Athens. The surface of the Acropolis is flat and oblong, measuring one thousand one hundred by four hundred and fifty feet; and on it stands the Parthenon, the sublimest ruin of ancient Greece, with the remains of the Propylaea, the Erectheum, and the Temple of Victory. The precipitous sides of the Acropolis are partially clothed with rank vegetation; but the bare and unadorned rock is its chief peculiarity, which is only impaired by the masses of debris that from time to time have been thrown over the parapet, and which give to the “Rock of Pallas,” on its southern side, very much the appearance of a modern stone quarry. Other natural elevations around Athens somewhat detract from the imposing effect which would be produced, if the Acropolis alone broke the monotone of the plain of Attica. As it is, the attention is divided between that and its neighbors – the closely connecting rock of the Areopagus, or “Mars Hill;” the massive range of the Pnyx; the hill of the museum – crowned with an unsightly observatory – and the hill of Lycabettus, which pierces the air in a sharp cone at the northeast extremity of the city.
But what makes Athens sui generis, is its relation to the templed rock which overshadows it with a moral and physical grandeur that no other city on the surface of the globe can aspire to. From the streets below, the upper portions of the ruined Parthenon can be seen projecting above the bastioned walls of the Acropolis, as if ever asserting its hereditary claims over the innovations of to-day; as if ever declaring in majestic muteness unto the restless city at its feet, - I, - I, am Athens. Nor can the modern life below it be disassociated from that stupendous throne of rock which upholds the monuments of a past age, whose glories all subsequent ages have but reflected or imperfectly copied. The silent city on the hill, which can never be hid, is linked to the bustling city at its feet, which is ever trying to be seen. It is a live man bound to a corpse; but the man is mortal, and the corpse is immortal.
With the exception of the olive groves, commonly regarded as the scene of Plato’s retirement, which stretch along the plain a couple of miles from the city, and the few acres of trees in the “Queen’s Garden,” there is little foliage to refresh the eye in Athens or its vicinity. Even “Flowery Hymettus” is bare of verdure; and the wild thyme which still supplies immortal honey to the bees, gives but a cold, grayish glow to the surface once thick with olive trees. The goat, classically the enemy to the vine, is in modern times the “scape goat” for all the devastation on the hills; but he is not the real offender. What the vine said to the goat in the fable:
“If you can eat me to the root,
I shall still bear fruit,”
Is no longer applicable, for the peasants dig up the roots of the olive trees, and cut down everything else in the shape of fibrous substance to supply their own firesides and the wood markets of Athens.
The “Queen’s Garden,” named from the former Queen Amelia, to whose rural tastes Athens is indebed for this luxurious enclosure of foliage, flower beds, artificial waters and winding walks, is the city’s leafy crown. It half encircles the palace, and extends along a boulevard lined with pepper trees, and containing many handsome private dwellings. The United States Legation, then sandwiched between those of Russia and France, overlooked the Queen’s Garden; and however much – or little – the three colleagues might differ among themselves on questions of public policy, they were sure to agree in this: that in possessing a key to the private entrance of this garden, which admitted them at all hours, the sovereign had bestowed upon them a privilege which cannot be too highly prized, especially during the sultry days of midsummer. The southern boundary of the Queen’s Garden abuts upon a large open piece of ground called the “Square of the Olympium,” at the extremity of which rise the ruined columns of the temple of the “Jupiter Olympius:” – the other end reaches to the King’s Palace, a ponderous edifice of white marble, which, but for the portico in front, might pass for a hospital or military barracks. The “Boulevard des Philhellenes,” running in front of the palace and its garden, extends in a circular direction past the Square of the Olympium, the Acropolis and the Temple of Theseus, where, connecting with other broad thoroughfares, and the “Boulevard de l’Universite,” it completes the circle of the entire city. The King’s Palace is separated by a small enclosure of orange trees from the “Square of the Constitution,” where the principal hotels are situated. This, and the “Place de la Concorde,” in another quarter of the city, are daily thronged with afternoon promenaders, where, also, the military bands perform twice a week. From this Square extends the “Street of Hermes,” more than a mile in length, lined with shops of every description, and leading out into the Piraeus road. Aeolus street, a somewhat similar thoroughfare, crosses the former at right angles and extends into a fine carriage drive, as far as the village of Patissia. At the junction of the streets of Hermes and Aeolus, are several cafes which, favoring the confluence of these two arteries of city life, form the rendezvous of a large class of coffee-house politicians, who, in that effervescent community, find abundant topics for incessant and exciting debate. The four right angles formed from this centre extend over a net-work of narrow and tortuous streets, between buildings possessing little claim to architectural beauty, and filled with a dense population. The shop windows betray the meretricious taste which prevails in Oriental and unthoroughly reclaimed communities. There is a superabundant supply of cheap jewelry and German “nick-nacks,” which are so readily obtained from Vienna and Berlin. These make their appearance on the dresses of thousands of the middle and lower classes of females, who aspire to imitate Parisian fashions in their toilets and the decorations of their houses. The bookstores contain fewer volumes of standard literature than would be expected in a community of scholars like that of Athens. The number of tobacco shops is not surprising, in view of the fact that every third man is whiffing a cigarette. Cigars, worthy of the name, are a rarity; but the paper covered substitute is the almost inevitable accompaniment of every man’s walk, talk or avocation. Little books of cigar paper, the tobacco box, and brass receptacle for ashes, are seen on the table in every house. The Greek seems to think that the only good thing that can come out of the Ottoman Empire is Turkish tobacco; and this he reduces to ashes with intense relish. The native, and cheaper article, however, is what is mostly consumed in the country. In brilliant contrast to the generality of shops are a few, the show windows of which, be it the jeweler, tailor or silk-mercer, almost rival those of the Palais Royal.
With the exception of the Cathedral or Metropolitan Church, there is no edifice of religious worship which attracts attention from its external architecture or internal appointments, unless it be the three or four little Byzantine churches which, scattered about through the old city, deserve notice from their peculiar and ancient construction. The Metropolitan Church is imposing from its size; but the external coloring in stripes of yellow and red have a tawdry look to the foreign eye. If, from the thickly-settled and business quarters we proceed to the newer parts of the city, things wear a more attractive look. The streets are wide, the sidewalks cleanly, and but for certain nuisances which force the pedestrian to take to the street, would be worthy of any city. Balconies protrude from even the meanest edifice, and are regarded as a desideratum by all households, for the accommodation of the ladies of the family, who sit thereon in passive enjoyment of the street view during the long summer afternoons and evenings. The dwellings are built very much on the same model, and are mostly intended for two families; having one entrance through a gate and court-yard to the first floor apartments, and another front door conducting to the suite of rooms above. The walls are constructed of large cobble stones, roughly cemented, and are substantial enough for a fortress; but the enemy they are intended to provide against is more subtle and powerful than the armaments of war. Earthquakes are not infrequent in Greece, and have been attended with great loss of life and property. In Athens, however, they have never exceeded a slight tremblement, sufficient to arouse the sleeper at night, but not endangering even a chimney pot.
The dwelling-houses are generally furnished with great simplicity, and there is an absence of that comfortable home look which the abundance of drapery and furniture gives to an English parlor or French salon. Even in the best houses, carpets are sometimes deemed superfluous, or are visible only in the shape of rugs before the sofas, or a square of tapestry in the middle of the floor. But the nakedness below is atoned for by the gorgeousness above. Every ceiling, from dining-room, bed-room, is decorated with colored designs, and the salon is sometimes so gay with arabesque, as to suggest the idea that the carpet has been spread by accident on the ceiling instead of the floor. The sofa is the seat of honor, and on it the guest is invited to seat himself. Two rows of chairs are generally seen at right angles to the sofa, which, when duly occupied, give rather a formal appearance to a social gathering. Black coffee or sweetmeats are invariably offered to visitors in many of the Greek families, as in the days of the Turkish regime.
Each dwelling house in the better portions of the city has its garden in the rear. Thick and high walls may hide it from the passing gaze; but, there it is, a ceaseless pleasure to the occupants, and often an evidence of their cultivated tastes. In very many of the gardens, or in the court yards of private dwellings, the visitor notices small fragments of ancient sculpture set up against the wall, or inserted in it; portions of vases, bas-relieves, a trunkless head, or a headless trunk, inscriptions, etc., which were discovered for the most part on the spot where they are now seen, having been turned up in the excavations during the progress of the building. The removal of antiquities from the country is now forbidden by law; but the discoverer is permitted to retain them as his person property. During the litigation and delays which occurred while the plan for the new city was being matured, and which contemplated the entire abolishment of the narrow, crooked lanes which deformed the old Turkish town, the owners of many of the lots became impatient, and erected dwellings on the old sites. The result of this is, that the broad, regular thoroughfares were commenced after a large part of the present city was erected, and there is no doubt but that beneath the soil in the older parts of the city are concealed many precious archeological remains, which would otherwise have been brought to light.
Athens can boast of public edifices which rival many structures in the largest European Capitals. I can but glance at these. After the King’s Palace and the Cathedral, the University attracts attention from its strictly classic façade, the walls on each side of the centre being windowless, and the white columns being relieved by a deep red interior wall. The “Arsakion,” a Young Ladies’ Institute, is a commanding structure of white stucco, with marble portal separated from the boulevard by a handsome iron railing. The Varvakion, a large grammar school, the Orphan Asylums for boys and girls, the Opthalmic Institution, the Polytechnic School, the Military Hospital, and the Observatory are creditable buildings, worthy of the high uses for which they are employed. Those of the Department of Finance and of the Interior, which latter contains the Post Office, are massive, but without architectural elegance, as is also the National Bank of Greece, one of the most useful monetary establishments in Europe. Of public buildings in process of construction, are the Greek Academy, the character of which will closely approach that of the Academic Francais, a superb structure of Pentelic marble, which will cost upwards of a million of dollars; the Bouie, or Chamber of Deputies; the Polytechnic School, and an Archaeological Museum, for the preservation of Greek antiquities. All these institutions are objects of great pride with the Greeks; and many of them are founded and sustained by the munificence of private individuals, among them Baron Sina, the wealthy Greek banker of Vienna, is prominent. The material progress of this, as well as other cities in Greece, though gradual, is marked. Forty years ago not a single structure now forming the City of Athens, existed.
The vanity which induces the Greeks to name their children after Agamemnon, Alcibiades, Pericles, and other heroes of antiquity, suggests the street nomenclature. Thus we have all Athens marked and labeled with immortal names. The “Street of Hermes,” and the “Street of Aeolus,” are the great business thoroughfares; while smaller ones bear the less divine appellation of Praxitiles, Euripedes, Thucydides, Thrasybulus, and Solon. The “Boulevard des Philhellenes” is a slight tribute to the friends of Greece; and the “Square of the Constititution,” and the “Place de la Concorde,” bring us suddenly down from the mythological and historic periods to the most recent of modern Hellenic events.
The national costume is rapidly disappearing from the streets of Athens and other large towns of Greece, but prevails in the islands and the interior. The Athenian is not a whit behind other Europeans in adopting the outer signs of civilization; but the cut of the coat and the trailing silk skirt that gathers up the dust in Hermes street, do not always catch the chic of the Boulevard des Italiens; and the abundant use of poudre de riz falsify many complexions that would otherwise be fair to look upon.
It is rather refreshing than otherwise, to turn to the relief of color and picturesque effect produced by the long, gold-tasselled red fez which many of the Greek women who have adopted the Franc dress, still retain; and to the Albanian jacket and snowy fustanella of the men, which glitter along the streets, and attract the eye wherever there is an assemblage of people. I say snowy fustanella, which, however, is not always regarded as an essential by the wearer. When these involuted folds are not immaculate, they are apt to display the opposite extreme of filthiness, indicting that the wearer’s acquaintance with soap and water has not even approached to that of a personal introduction. It is at a distance, and in its general effect, that the so-called “Greek costume” is attractive. Closely examined, a man cannot look otherwise than effeminate, with a series of short, white petticoats wrapped around his loins, in spite of the leathern pouch, with protruding pistols, which surmount them. The blue, bagged trowsers and crimson sash of the Cretan – almost as common in the streets of Athens – is equally characteristic and far more becoming. The national costume of the peasant women is now rarely seen; but the shaggy sheep skin capote of the shepherd meets the eye at every turn, and is rather picturesque as he walks beside his little over-laden donkey, or drives before him a flock of goats, or a drove of strutting turkeys. The little patient donkey does most of the carrying trade. He is seen plodding along the thoroughfares with huge panniers of grapes, oranges, and vegetables, or buried beneath a mountain of brush-wood, which seems to move along by its own volition. Frequently the poor brute is made to carry his master, or perhaps two masters at a time, who accelerate his movements by pokes and beatings, or stop them by a peculiar rippling sound of the lips. But the transportation of bundles, packages, boxes, and articles of furniture, however large, is the exclusive monopoly of a class of humanity as patient and enduring as the four-legged animal, and not much more advanced than the latter in intellectual endowments. At the corners of the principal business streets may always be seen a group of Maltese porters, strong-bodied men, each with a length of cord hanging over his shoulder, and eyeing watchfully the movements of the passer by. If a stranger is supposed to be shopping, the Maltese “holds him with his glittering eye,” and lingering near the door of the shop he has entered, darts in when the customer has made his bargain to secure the job of carrying the article home. If the purchaser is furnishing a house, the scene becomes amusing; for unless the shop-keeper knows his customer’s residence, and an agreement is made with him to send the articles home, the stranger, as he passes through the fashionable quarter of the town, may be surprised to find himself followed by a procession of Maltese porters, in single file, the first shouldering a bedstead, the second a wardrobe, the third a washstand, the fourth a centre-table, etc., while chairs, pots, and frying pans bring up the rear.
Athens is a peculiarly quiet city, excepting in the vicinity of the market place where the cries of the street hucksters and the tumult of carts and canaille drown the air with discord. From the earliest hour of the morning, however, in all quarters of the town is heard the monotonous cry of the peddler in dry goods, as he trundles his little cart before him, dispensing his small stock to housemaid and cook and the newspaper boy with his incessant shout of “pente lepta – pente lepta” is often the unconscious teacher of the first two words in modern Greek that the newly arrived stranger acquires. The habit with many Greeks – and which is such remarked upon by foreigners – of carrying a string of glass or wooden beads in the hand, which they manipulate while walking the streets, or when engaged in conversation, has no religious significance. It is simply a mechanical relief to the nervous system, as another man twirls his cane, or a lady flirts her fan. Thus a Greek who joins you in the street, may slip the string of beads from his wrist, as he converses, pass, half unconsciously, bead after bead, between his fingers, as if he were muttering a pater noster.
Courtesy is an inborn trait of the Hellenic character, and was remarked upon by travellers as a distinguishing feature in the social manners of the Greek populations during the days of Moslem supremacy. The hat is always raised, as in Paris, when meeting and parting in the street, and when going into and coming out of a shop. The salutation, when near friends are about to part for a lengthened absence, or meet after a long interval, is a kiss on either cheek. The foreigner is often amused at seeing two Greek gentlemen with hats off and hands clasped, kissing each other violently in the open street, and if he resides in Athens long enough to form any intimate acquaintances, he may be still more surprised to find himself yielding to the same affectionate demonstration. My friend, the venerable Metropolitan bishop, first initiated me into this – with us, unusual proceeding – by drawing me towards him on the occasion of a public ceremonial, and bestowing a reverential kiss upon my cheek. Under the impulse of the moment I returned the compliment in like manner, being ignorant, or willfully blind to the fact that the hand which held mine, and which was conveniently lifted towards my lips, was inviting the mark of respect which I presumptuously bestowed upon his Holiness’ face. When Mr. Gladstone officially visited the Ionian islands some years ago, he saluted the hand of the local bishop, and bowed his head to receive his benediction. The bishop hesitated so long, not being sure what was expected from him, that the English Commissioner lifted his head at the moment when the former had concluded to bless it. The result of this joint movement was, that the head of the Commissioner came in violet contact with the chin of the prelate, to the inconvenience of both, and to the amusement of the assembly.*
Not one of the least interesting of street sights in Athens are the long files of children of both sexes from the public schools and Orphan Asylums, as they take their afternoon walk through the boulevards – the boys in gray or blue uniforms, and the girls in homespun frocks and spotless white pinafores. They are the ever-moving sign of the ever progressive educational life in Greece.
One cannot walk out many days in Athens without witnessing a funeral procession. Long before it comes in sight, the ear catches the low monotonous chaunt of the priests, who are preceded by boys in white robes bearing the crucifix and ecclesiastical insignia, in presence of which every head is uncovered, and every hand makes the sign of the cross. The corpse is exposed in full view in an open coffin of light material, covered with white or black cloth, with silver or gilt decorations, the cover of which, marked with a long diagonal cross, is carried before the procession. The body is dressed in the customary clothes of the deceased, the head slightly elevated, and the hands folded in front of a panel picture of the Virgin set up on the breast. If it be a female, the cheeks and lips are painted, vermilion, intended to reproduce a natural expression, but which gives to the corpse an artificial and ghastly look. Even to one accustomed to witness the exposure of the dead in Oriental countries, there is something painful in the idea of exhibiting to the glare of day, and amidst the whirl and insensibility of the public street, the features of a deceased person who in life may have been known only to the little group of mourners gathered about the remains. But there is something to be said in favor of this mode of burial, over that of our own. I confess to a feeling of the most tender reverence, when a funeral procession passes in Greece, which is not awakened by that of the stiff black hearse, the boxed up coffin, and the formal line of mourners, marching two by two in its wake, through the streets of western cities. At Greek funerals the hearse is not generally employed, and the light, open casket is borne by the hands of the nearest friends of the deceased, while the other mourners walk, not march, in a group around it. Thus they literally carry and accompany, rather than follow, their friend to the grave, and gaze upon the face which was dear to them, up to the moment when he is laid in his last resting place. The funerals of the poor are even more touching to behold. A single priest, perhaps, performs the chaunt, and half a dozen mourners, representing the little household, bear between them the coffin, which is composed of the cheapest material, and covered with white muslin. When a person of distinguished position dies, the funeral procession becomes an imposing spectacle, with the bishop and priests in their gorgeous sacerdotal robes, numerous lighted candles, and martial music. I once saw the body of a venerable bishop of the Greek Church carried in procession through the streets of Athens. He was seated in his bishop’s chair, elevated above the people, and was clothed in his canonical robes, with mitre on head and the crosier uplifted in his hand. A cloth around the forehead bound it to the back of the chair, but not sufficiently close to prevent the head from bobbing up and down, as if the dead man’s pale and rigid features were saluting, for the last time, the people among whom he had exercised his holy office for over three-score years. In this position he was placed in the grave, a peculiar honor accorded to his ecclesiastical rank. The dead – chiefly from climatic considerations – are buried within twenty-four hours of their decease. This is very shocking to foreign ideas; but the custom has come to be complied with, within a briefer number of hours than the law’s requirement. Indeed the feeling is, that the sooner the painful duty is over, and the house freed from the distressing spectacle of a corpse, the sooner will the minds of the mourners be relieved from association with what is repulsive, and return to the inward contemplation of their friend, as they knew him in their midst. Thus it often happens that the first intimation of a death is conveyed in the printed invitation to the funeral. I have conversed with a gentleman at an evening party, who appeared to be in the highest enjoyment of physical health, and the day following witnessed his interment, he having expired in the meantime from apoplexy. I had once a business appointment with a near neighbor, and on going to fulfil it, met his dead body coming down the door steps. I was sitting one evening at the bed-side of a distinguished American Missionary, who was describing to me his peculiar malady, and the next afternoon I saw him laid in the Protestant Cemetery. The modern Greek may well exclaim with the ancient Greek:
“Who knows what fortunes on to-morrow wait,
Since Charmis one day well to us appeared,
And on the next was mournfully interred!”
The removal of the body from the house frequently excites the most painful scenes. The realization of the parting rushes upon the minds of the afflicted family before time has brought the feelings into subjection, and agonizing shrieks and wild gesticulations accompany the first movement of the funeral cortege. It is the custom, after the decease of the occupant, to drape the interior of the house with mourning. I was once the guest of a country gentleman, whose wife had died nearly a year before my visit. The appearance that greeted me on entering the mansion, was not at all enlivening. Every article of furniture, from piano to footstool, was draped in black, and even the key of the tobacco box had a small streamer of crape attached to it. As to the huge four-post bedstead upon which I was invited to repose, it was like mounting a catafalque; while to expect “sweet dreams” under the folds and festoons of its funeral canopy, and massive silver cross and picture of the Virgin suspended over my head, was equivalent to depending upon the special intervention of the blessed Mary in my behalf.
From this melancholy digression, let us return to the streets of Athens. It is in the afternoon that they wear the most attractive appearance. The squares are then thronged with promenaders listening to the music of the bands; and the principal avenues display many excellent equipages, among which the blue and silver livery of the King is prominent. The Athenian horseman is a very dashing character. The quiet trot which satisfies our Central Park riders, would be quite intolerable to a cavalry officer who is enjoying himself on the public promenade. Even there he rejoices in the suggestive rattle of his sword, and, “dashing his rowels in his steed,” endeavors to emulate that impossible equilibrium of man and beast which only bronze equestrian statues have ever been able to attain; or, he breaks into a headlong gallop, after the manner of the three horsemen who carried “the good news to Ghent,” and which, if attempted in one of our thoroughfares, might subject him to a penalty which would seriously interfere with his pecuniary resources.
It is the glorious sunlight of the winter days which makes Athens charming to the resident and the sojourner, and which should attract to it many of our countrymen in Europe, who now seek winter quarters in the fogs of London or under the uncertain skies of Florence and Rome. Winter in Athens is generally an unbroken duration of cloudless skies; and with the exception of occasional sharp winds from the northern hills, the atmosphere is as soft as are the early days of October with us. After the autumn rains, a cheerful expanse of sunlight warms the wintry air; and overcoats and shawls are worn more from precaution than from necessity. Snow falls upon the mountains, but rarely whitens the streets of Athens. The dazzling crowns of snow on the summits of Hymettus and the range of the Parnes mountains, contrasting with their harmonious slopes of varying purple, furnish one of the most charming spectacles in nature. But all of Greece is not exempt from the meteorological changes which afflict the greater part of Europe. Much rain falls in the Ionian Islands, and in Corfu the winter winds are unusually severe. Attica alone is dry, which is partially attributable to the scarcity of vegetation, which reduces the quantum of oxygen and creates what is commonly called a “nervous” climate.* There is also much fever prevalent at certain seasons of the year, and what is designated as the “Greek” fever, although mild in form and seldom fatal, is exceedingly difficult to shake off – its debilitating effects remaining in the system for years. Yet people live in Greece, as did the ancients, to an extraordinary age. It is no uncommon thing to hear of the decease of individuals who had attained the age of ninety. Notarus, who presided at the National Assembly in 1843, was one hundred and ten years old. A priest near Athens, who is chiefly noted for the number of bottles of native wine that he imbibes daily, is believed to be between ninety and a hundred, and the bishop, whose funeral ceremony has just been alluded to, was about the same age. My friend General Church, whose Philhellenic sympathies brought him to Greece during the revolution, and who now enjoys the nominal honor of Commander-in-Chief of the Greek Army, is popularly held to be over one hundred years old. He is at least ninety, and possesses remarkable activity of body and mind. No man is more punctilious in his compliance with the demands of social life. He seldom wears an overcoat, and it is boast that his parlor fire is the last to be lighted in Athens.
The social life of the Capital, although limited among the Greeks to morning visits and small reunions, is agreeable. Musical and dancing parties are much in vogue; but balls and dinners are almost exclusively confined to the Palace and to the Diplomatic Corps. One or two dinners, balls or petites soirees are given monthly by the king and queen; and the ball-room of the palace – one of the finest in Europe – is brilliant on these occasions with fair women in becoming toilettes, and the chief men of the kingdom, glittering in uniforms and with decorations. Society is very exclusive in Athens, and private parties are apt to be but repetitions of the same people transferred to different parlors: the same small talk; the same waiters bringing in the same trays of ices and cakes, prepared by the same confisseur. The Greek ladies dress tastefully, without extravagance; and there is no assemblage without many faces, which, in profile especially, exhibit the Greek type of beauty. They are calm and impassive, as compared with the French, and their deportment is marked by a sobriety of manner precisely the reverse of that abandon which is observable in the ball-rooms of Western Capitals. As yet, the words “fast” and “flirtation” seem not to have been admitted into the Greek young ladies’ vocabulary.
The attractions of winter life in Athens culminate with the carnival, when the streets are thronged with a promiscuous crown of maskers, composed almost exclusively of the lower orders, whose efforts to produce any thing corresponding to the fetes of Rome are lamentable failures. The upper classes ignore these proceedings, or confine themselves to “surprise visits” upon their friends, disguised in close dominoes and impenetrable masks. During the carnival it is no uncommon thing for a family to be visited by several parties or maskers on the same evening, who preserve their incognito so completely as to defy recognition by voice or manner.
But if Athens is charming in winter, and especially in the spring – March and April being the most attractive months – it is simply detestable in summer. The foreigner who is compelled to reside in the Capital from May to October is not to be envied. The “sun of Greece” is then no longer a glory, but a scourge to the eye. Every particle of vegetation wilts under its pitiless rays – sultry days and sultry nights wearily succeed to each other without the relief of a single refreshing breeze or a single shower. The wind blows, but it is a hot and feverish blast, filling the deserted streets with dust – the same dust that teased the ancient Athenians – which, rolling along like smoke clouds from a field of battle, blinds the hapless pedestrian, and disgusts the as hapless individual within doors, who is left to choose between open windows with dirt, or closed ones with suffocation. But worse than the plague of dust, is the plague of mosquitoes and gnats. The former may be partially excluded by window blinds and bed curtains, but the latter defy the inventions of man. The little gnat is invisible to the naked eye, and not having the moral courage of the mosquito to announce its approach, attacks every exposed part of the human body, especially the hands and wrists, leaving the skin in a state of irritation which lasts for hours.
Those who can do so, fly from the summer torments of Athens to their country estates, or to the islands. Those who are forced to remain, seek consolation in sea bathing, and from four o’clock until ten every morning, carriages filled with bathers are heard rolling through the streets of Athens, on their way to the baths of Phalerum.
The King and Queen sojourn at the beautiful island of Corfu during the summer months, where the climate, although warm, is less dry than Athens, and where their Majesties enjoy a delightful respite from political annoyances of the Capital.
But no climatic considerations wean the Greek from his country. He may take up his abode in foreign cities for the commercial advantages to be gained therefrom, or if he can afford it, he will do as many others do, abandon himself to the illusions of the French Capital; but as a rule, foreign travel does not lessen his attachment to his native land, and the reappearance of the Grecian cliffs, are as “blissful” a view to him as they were to the wandering Telemachus. Even those who do not return to Greece, - their interests and associations being bound up in the foreign land where they have reared their families and accumulated their fortunes – do not forget her. Their pulses beat time with their countrymen, however so much scattered, and no people are more sensitive to the national honor and shame than the closely-cemented societies of Greeks in the commercial cities of Europe and the United States. The number of Americans who visit Athens is small in comparison with the vast shoal of travellers who run over Europe and distribute their gold in places of far less intrinsic interest. This is not surprising in view of the prevailing ignorance respecting Greece, and the current reports of danger to tourists from brigandage. This danger, although much exaggerated, exists, and should not be disregarded by the traveller, however adventurously inclined. Athens, however, is as safe a city, so far as personal danger is concerned, as any in the world; and those who visit it, coming westward from the greasy lanes of Constantinople and the squalid towns of the Levant, are surprised at the cheerful and attractive look which the city presents. An exalted personage, who had been the recipient of all the honors which the Sublime Porte had it in its power to bestow, remarked, on his arrival at Athens, “This is the first time I have breathed for weeks. It is positively refreshing to get into a free and Christian air again.” This is applicable as much to externals as to principles; for modern Athens is not unworthy of the language which Milton applied to the ancient Capital:
“On the Aegean shore a city stands,
Built nobly: pure the air and light the soil;
Athens, the eye of Greece.”
Excepting her magnificent ruins, upon which the eye of the classical scholar and the archaeologist may feast for an indefinite period, and which must ever make Athens a Mecca to the investigating mind, the city does not possess sufficient resources to induce the mere pleasure seeker to linger there many weeks; but not to see Athens at all, not to stand beneath her marvelous sky and breathe her “pellucid air,” and look, once at least, upon her masterpieces of Grecian art, is to be denied an experience which unites the grandest suggestions of antiquity with the realization of the simplest of present enjoyments.
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