Athens 1974, A Scary Memoir.

Athens 1974

I fell in love with Greece the first time I visited the country in Athens 1974. I can’t say it was love at first sight as our arrival on Greek soil was a very scary experience. . . .

My family and I had been living in Kenya since 1969. My husband was a fuel injection engineer. Kenya had a policy of Africanisation during the sixties and seventies, and my husband was training Africans to run a workshop in Nairobi, a job he really enjoyed. We had progressed to having a yearly contract with all expenses paid for one month’s holiday a year in the UK. We took advantage of this opportunity and made a two-day stop-over in Athens, a city we had always wanted to visit.

Athens 1974

So one June evening in 1974 our Air France flight landed at Athens airport. As we glided along the runway, I looked out of the window to see tanks lined up on the edge with their turrets pointing at the plane. “Oh my God,” I thought, “We have landed in a war zone.”  Living out of Europe for so long had meant that we were somewhat ignorant of European Politics and had not realised that Greece had had a very turbulent political history. We knew nothing of the military Junta which was ruling Greece at that time and which would fall a couple of months later. Before we were permitted to leave the plane, a military official boarded, complete with a gun and inspected all our passports.

With these formalities over, we were allowed on Greek soil. After this nerve-racking start, procedures through the airport went smoothly and we were soon in a taxi heading for the city centre. We couldn’t believe the chaos, traffic was nose to tail, completely congested, moving, or rather crawling, in every direction. There was noise and commotion everywhere. We had the name of the hotel written down which was just as well however we pronounced “Omonia Square” and the taxi driver didn’t understand us. However, I produced the written script and fortunately, he could understand it although all the street signs appeared in the Greek alphabet.

Eventually, we reached the hotel which was in a side street off Omonia Square with just a bright glass door opening onto the street. We marveled at the marble floors which greeted us and the clean open appearance of the foyer. The Receptionist was very helpful and we were soon relaxing in our family room.

The children were soon asleep after their long day and we went to the dining room to eat. The room was quite dark and only one other table was occupied but we were tired and wanted a simple meal before joining the children in sleep. We weren’t sure what wine to order with our meal but the waiter highly recommended a retsina. The food was good but we decided that the retsina was definitely an acquired taste.

The next morning we were up bright and early and at the Reception asked for directions on the best way to the Acropolis. “Oh that’s easy,” said the Receptionist, “I’ll call you a taxi. You don’t want to walk in this heat”. The heat of Athens, especially this early in the morning was refreshing after the heat of Africa but we did as were bid and clambered into the taxi only to be dropped a few minutes later at the base of the Acropolis.

We clambered to the top to view the Parthenon, marveling at the workmanship and wondering how they could have built such a temple so long ago with such craftsmanship and with no mechanical tools. We took photographs and leisurely wandered down and were relieved that we had visited early in the morning as the tourist buses had started to arrive and there were now several hundred people on the path, climbing up to the Parthenon.

As we reached the bottom my husband realised that he had left his camera at the top so he hastily climbed back up and thankfully the camera was still sitting on the rock where we had rested. He commented “People around here must be pretty honest, the camera would have gone in a flash in Kenya,”

We decided to have a wander around the little streets and came upon a street of market stalls with copper and brass glinting in the sunshine. After some haggling, we purchased a beautiful brass balance which I still own. Later we came upon stalls selling lace items and crocheted bags made out of cotton string. These can still be found in Greece but tend to be crocheted from nylon now. Another purchase was made which proved to be useful for many years. We then came across the jewellery stalls, and my husband treated me to a gold ring with the Greek key design cut out of it, to remember our visit. But I already knew that this was going to be a couple of days which I would never forget.

We stopped for a coffee and had our first taste of the Greek coffee served in little cups complete with coffee grinds, again something we decided had an acquired taste. A taste which I have now acquired and genuinely enjoy my “sketo Hellenico”.

After our break we started to make our way back toward Omonia Square,  stopping at the bright colorful fruit stalls to purchase fresh strawberries and cherries. Every stall holder was calling out his wares and admiring the children’s bleach blonde hair, it was so obvious we were tourists. The stall holders were thrusting cherries and strawberries at the children which they really enjoyed so we purchased bags of fresh delicious fruit to sustain us through the day.

Eventually, we reached a quieter part of the city where there was a restaurant in a square with tables set out under hibiscus trees. We decided we would have an early lunch and then head back to the hotel for a rest. We wondered how we would be able to understand the menu written in Greek but we should not have had any concern as it was quite simple. Once we settled ourselves at the table the owner beckoned us into the restaurant to see the food on offer. There were beautiful large peppers and tomatoes stuffed with rice, dishes of mousaka, meatballs in tomato sauce, french beans in a sauce, and many others. We decided on the mousaka with a salad and it proved to be a good choice.

After our leisurely lunch, we strolled back to the hotel. We had learned that there was going to be an open-air performance at the acropolis that evening and thought that if the children slept we could all go out there again that night. Unfortunately, the children were out of the habit of having a siesta and after a while became restless and noisy. My husband was still tired after the flight and climbing up to the Parthenon twice so I volunteered to take the children out for a walk.

We were amazed to find the streets deserted. It must have been about 3 pm and the city was asleep. We walked a little way to a square. On the way, we were window shopping and admiring the beautiful window displays. Eventually, we found some seats in a small square under the shade of some trees.

We were sitting quietly there when we heard a bump, bump sound coming from behind us. On turning around we found a man dressed just in a pair of trousers and a vest, maneuvering a large wooden barrow full of oranges down some steps. He came across to show us his wonderful ripe oranges proving how fresh they were by showing us the crisp leaves still attached to some of them. Of course, they were irresistible and another purchase was made. The children and I sat on the seat in the shade peeling oranges while the sweet juice ran down our fingers.

We wandered back to the hotel just as the city was beginning to come to life again at about 5 pm. Despite all the fruit, the children were still hungry and the hotel receptionist pointed us in the direction of a cafe/snack bar where the children consumed the Greek version of sausage and chips.

The children were obviously too tired to attend an outdoor performance so we decided we would have to eat in the hotel again while they slept upstairs. We had an enjoyable meal but were a bit perplexed to find the same half-drunk retsina bottle of wine presented to us yet again. The waiter was so proud of his national drink we didn’t like to tell him we had left it because we didn’t like it, but the water tasted good. So after another alcohol-free meal, we went to our beds.

Another early start to the day. After breakfast we asked the Receptionist where he recommended we should visit, bearing in mind we had to be at the airport in the evening for our flight to the UK. He suggested the Temple of Poseidon at Suonia on the Attica Peninsula south of Athens. It would cost a fair bit for a taxi ride but he recommended the local bus and told us where to find the bus stop. We found this without any trouble and soon we were sitting on a full-size coach with Athenians off out for the day.

After leaving the city behind us we started traveling on a road that followed the coast. There seemed to be numerous hairpin bends on this narrow road and at most of them, there was at least one shrine. We just hoped we had a good driver. At various intervals, the bus stopped to let on more people. Some were off to till their fields were complete with mattock or pitchfork. Others had acquired various livestock which they were transporting back to their village. Some had boxes of day-old chickens or fully grown rabbits and I believe one lady had a young kid goat.

Eventually, we came to the end of this winding road and arrived at the beautiful Cape Suonia, where the temple of Poseidon dominates the landscape. We climbed up to the temple from where there is a beautiful view of the sea and the beach below. There were hardly any houses here just a couple of tavernas on the beach itself. It was still early in the day so we had the ruins to ourselves. We had been told that Lord Byron had written his name on one of the columns but we were unable to find this. It quite shocked me at the time to think such a revered poet was capable of graffiti on such a beautiful monument.

It was getting warmer and the sea looked inviting so we wandered down to the beach where the children did the usual things, building sand castles and paddling in the sea. We decided it wasn’t a good place to swim as there was a lot of jellyfish washed up on the shore. It was getting towards lunch time so we went to see what the taverna had on offer. We thought fish would be a good option as we were on the coast and it had been a long time since we had eaten any fresh saltwater fish. The taverna owner showed us some beautiful bright-eyed fish and then promptly weighed it on his balance to work out how much our lunch was going to cost. He then took the fish away to put it on a charcoal fire to cook.

We were surprised to see several black and white photos on the wall of the taverna showing Jackie Kennedy who had made a trip to Suonia while she was the first lady. There was also a proudly displayed letter from the White House thanking the owner of the Taverna and the people of Suonia for their hospitality. I think it is the only time I have ever eaten where “celebrities” have been entertained.

After consuming a much-needed cold drink, our food arrived beautifully cooked and full of flavor. Despite what is said about British fish and chips we decided the greek version was certainly better. Sat outside on the verandah of the little ramshackle taverna, overlooking the sea, we felt that we were in paradise.

Soon after our leisurely lunch, it was getting hot and the tourist buses had started to arrive so we decided to leave the beautiful quiet beach and return along the tortuous road by bus back to the hotel and pack ready to take the flight to the UK that evening.

As we took off from Athens airport and headed north, I promised myself that I would return to this magical place with such warm and welcoming people. Little did I know that it would be 30 years before I could fulfill that promise.

Submitted by Ann Berry

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