It goes without saying that I eventually made it to Crete. More surprisingly, I even made it into the centre of Athens, although not before kicking around in Piraeus for the best part of the day, cooling my heels and feeling mildly stymied by the way events were unfolding.
What actually happened was this:
After my second stint at Kafeneion O Stamatis, I packed my notebook away and went for a walk. In my experience this is a great way of getting to know the ins and outs of a place, allowing the keen-eyed traveller to seek out the hidden corners, secret treasures and what have you of foreign places. I wasn’t sure what undiscovered marvels a place like Piraeus might have in store for me, but, if nothing else, I figured a brisk walk would at least serve to set up me for lunch. It’s wonderful how much better a Greek salad, say, or a bottle of retsina, tastes after one has marched up and down a few hills.
With the harbour at my back I set off vaguely inland, setting a course along what seemed like an entire street of shops specialising in women’s lingerie. I passed a church with stained glass windows and a bulbous blue dome. Then, leaving the traffic and the crowded thoroughfares behind, I climbed into what I guess was a pretty typical Athenian neighbourhood. The streets up here were narrow and quiet and lined by uniformly drab concrete apartment blocks, each painted white or a shade thereof, and featuring cast-iron balcony railings, aluminium shutters on doors and windows and canvas awnings, bleached to a nostalgic pallor, that people rolled down when the weather became hot.
It was a far cry from the blue-and-white Kykladic dream or even the scattered remnants of neoclassical Athens. But every building was scrupulously tidy and redeeming shades of colour appeared in the rows of potted plants on balconies and the occasional elaborately hued rug hung out to air. Here and there, too, isolated among the concrete, stood tiny single-storey dwellings with roughly stuccoed walls painted a washed-out shade of ochre, a cat and a lemon tree in a pocket-sized courtyard, and timber window shutters hanging at a lopsided angle. They were relics of an earlier, more graceful and less cluttered era, dating back, possibly, to the days when places like Athens and Piraeus had been little more than villages. It required a long stretch of the imagination to visualise that now.
Meanwhile I kept climbing, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sea, and of the landforms that enfold it, from some airy perch. I have always loved the view from these parts of the mountains of the Peloponnese looming, mysterious and inky, across the Saronic Gulf. I also like how from high up one can see the island of Salamis – a large but innocuous-looking lump of palely coloured rock – where, in September 480BC, an Athenian-dominated Greek navy checked a far larger Persian fleet in a momentous battle that helped save Greece from foreign domination and arguably turned the tide of history.
There’s a good story about how the Athenian general and statesman Themistocles, having convinced his fellow citizens to abandon their city and take to their ships, tricked the Persians, sending a messenger to their camp the night before the battle to say that the Greek navy was in the strait between the mainland and the island and planning to escape. The Persians fell for the ruse: at dawn next morning they sailed en masse into the narrow body of water, where their large and unwieldy ships were no match for the smaller, faster and more agile Greek vessels which, manned by dedicated sailors who knew the sea and were fighting for their freedom, completely routed them.
Themistocles went on to have a long and illustrious career, laying the foundations for the glories of the Periclean age – he it was who built up the strength of the navy and instigated the construction of the long walls from the city to the Piraeus – before dying in exile somewhere in modern-day Turkey. As for me, I came up against a playground and an assortment of other buildings that halted my trajectory and, as I wasn’t really fussed about seeing the Peloponnese or Salamis, I turned around and retraced my steps down the hill.
On the way I encountered an outdoor fruit and vegetable market. This was a truly wonderful sight, the colourful and abundantly stocked stalls occupying a lengthy portion of an exceedingly narrow and seemingly endless street. I lingered awhile, chatting to the vendors and taking a few photographs. Among the people I spoke to was a rather dour Bulgarian fellow and a pair of effervescent Pakistanis. I didn’t get much out of the former, who appeared to resent me photographing his cabbages. The Pakistanis, on the other hand, were quite chatty. One of them was very happy, telling me how he had moved here from Islamabad, how he loved his job, made good money and enjoyed living in Greece. The other, although claiming to be not dissatisfied, seemed far less sanguine about his prospects. Indeed, we had no sooner started talking than he asked me to expedite his migration to Australia.
I replied that I didn’t think I could be of much help to him in that, whereupon he looked momentarily downcast, although he brightened up when I asked whether I could take his photograph. Unfortunately, I appear to have since deleted the image, possibly because the man didn’t prove to be particularly photogenic.
The same couldn’t be said of the produce, which came from the four ends of the country and looked quite remarkable: olives of all sizes and varieties, marvellous heads of cabbage and broccoli, exquisite-looking artichokes, and hundreds upon hundreds of oranges and lemons. Everything was in prime condition and, what’s more, going for a song.
Back in town I checked the metro again, but nothing had changed: the place was in gridlock. Accordingly, since lunchtime was approaching, I went off in search of somewhere to eat, eventually settling on a modest taverna down by the market. I don’t remember the name of this establishment, but it was long and narrow in its dimensions and, rather like Kafeneion O Stamatis, featured a host of black-and-white photographs plastered over its walls. The images in this case celebrated Rembetika, the gritty musical movement of the lower classes that rose to prominence in the 1920s, in urban centres such as Piraeus, largely under the influence of the one and a half million refugees that flooded Greece in the population exchange with Kemal Ataturk’s newly-fashioned Turkey.
I will largely remember this lunch for the efforts of the taverna owner, a mild-looking man with gentle eyes and tufts of grey hair on either side of his bald head. Not long after I arrived he sat himself down on a stool in front of the kitchen and, strumming a much-loved bouzouki, launched into a series of tunes for the benefit of an audience that consisted of myself and two other men. Over a pleasant meal of salad and soutzoukakia, or Smyrna meatballs, washed down by a half-litre of fairly bland white wine, I was treated to a lengthy procession of dirge-like but otherwise enjoyable songs about lost love, loneliness, despair, dispossession, gaol, exile and various other cheery themes – virtually the entire Rembetika lexicon, in fact. All that was missing was a waterpipe or two and the intoxicating fumes of hashish misting the air, together, I guess, with a larger and more enthusiastic crowd, including a faintly sinister coterie of fedora-hatted and idiosyncratically dressed manges with the Ζεϊμπέκικο rhythm in their hearts and knives protruding from the tops of their shiny, pointy-toed boots.
Throughout the performance the man’s wife and daughter sat at a table to one side, talking incessantly between themselves. They had no doubt witnessed this countless times before and, to judge by their demeanour, were no longer impressed. I, too, eventually finished my meal and departed, with an appreciative wave to the singer, after having arrived at the tipping point where one more song about lost, abandoned or otherwise blighted love would have had me seriously considering blowing my brains out. I headed straight to the Metro station, where I was amazed and heartened to find that the queues of people had evaporated.
In the city centre, having decided that there wasn’t enough time left to do anything much except drink, I headed to Brettos, a popular bar in the Plaka notorious for its surrealistically coloured liqueurs. Atmospherically backlit shelves lined with bottles of these lurid concoctions extend from the scuffed wooden floor to the high moulded ceiling. Together with a picturesque assembly of timber barrels, marble-topped benches, an old-fashioned cash register and, in the window, an antique copper kazano, or still, they make the place a sure-fire hit with visiting tourists, the majority of whom enter Brettos with eyes wide as lamps and jaws hanging open.
To be fair, Brettos is just as popular with locals, for whom it serves as a congenial late-night venue. It also offers far more to the palate than its gaudy liqueurs: high quality and variously graded ouzos and brandies and an excellent raki, all made according to zealously guarded recipes, plus a stupendous selection of Greek wines, make this a hotspot for any serious drinker. I can vouch for its attractions, having once become so carried away by its charms that I went within a whisker of missing the afternoon ferry back to Tilos.
On this occasion, having started on wine, I felt that it was pointless drinking anything but raki. I knocked back several glasses and, as I sipped, chatted with Christos, the genial barman on duty; although such was the nature of the occasion, that unfortunately I recall almost nothing of what passed between us.