Thanks to Susana for preparing this comprehensive (except that she left out the part about the eastern Mediterranean breakfasts — yummy!) report on
SUSANA AND GEOFFREY’S HOLIDAY IN GREECE AND ISTANBUL
DECEMBER 2010-JANUARY 2011
Athens’ Syntagma Square was ablaze with festive lights. The Municipal Band, clad in bright red uniforms, was entertaining the crowd before the fireworks started at midnight on December 31st. When Geoff and I started dancing to the tune of Bill Haley’s old chestnut, Rock Around the Clock, the crowd parted, forming a circle around us. What I saw through the lens of my Flip as I turned around to record the human fence were the sad faces of lonely young men. Then I realized that they vastly outnumbered the families and few tourists. Their darker skin suggested they could be illegal immigrants entering Europe through Greece via Turkey. Just for that night, they dejectedly filled the country’s most important civic space.
We would start the new year in Santorini, before going on to Istanbul. It was bereft of tourists, and very few restaurants were open, just like tourism-based villages on the Spanish coast near us, so we got to peacefully enjoy the beautiful view from our little hotel at the edge of the volcano’s caldera and the fast disappearing wine-producing landscape on the island’s east side. By the time 2010 ended, we had spent several days traveling to Mycenae, Nafplion, Epidaurus, Delphi and Meteora, using Athens as the base. Although it has about the same population as Madrid (3 million), Athens felt more provincial, its old center in Plaka retaining the flavor of the smaller town in the Acropolis’ shadow.
Unlike Istanbul, where the physical layers of history are commingled, in Athens every fragment of a ruin within the city, however small, is isolated and identified, making me think about Victor Hugo’s archdeacon’s famous phrase: “The book will kill the edifice”, meaning that the printed word would kill architecture. Clearly, Greek ruins are an example of the opposite. Were it not for the endless printed words about Greek mythology, history and the romantic experience of ruins before the advent of mass tourism, we would not be able to summon up a resonant experience from the forlorn reconstructed column barely erect on the ground littered by smaller stones waiting to be identified. The Acropolis was an exception, not only because the masterful spatial sequence followed by the Panathenaic procession to the Parthenon can still be retraced, but also because site and building collaborate into a powerful experience where perception and knowledge are indissolubly entwined.
The new Acropolis Museum, which provides all the services of a modern institution, uses the dimensions of the Parthenon to form a core around which replicas of the Elgin marbles are displayed. But, whereas the Parthenon is angled on its site so that visitors immediately see both length and breadth, the museum is a structure with heavy-handed proportions and a rigidly frontal, axial composition. Then as a gesture to acknowledge the three-dimensionality of the original, the museum’s upper floor is simply cranked to correspond to the Parthenon’s siting on the Acropolis, but with no spatial or visual connection to the levels below, making the gesture awkward rather than elegant.
The significance of place and natural landscape was reinforced at the other major archeological sites we visited, including Meteora, where six medieval monasteries continue to be occupied atop impossible rock formations of very difficult access. Some of them preserve the woven baskets used to raise people and supplies to the top, while others have modernized, using service elevator platforms to supplement the hundreds of steps carved on the rock. The monks hire staff to deal with the visitors in their monasteries, while the nuns do the dirty work themselves. Geoff was delighted to find the Archangel Michael, who causes the janissary Mehmet to have an identity crisis in his A Gift to the Sultan, depicted in one of the churches’ Byzantine frescoes, which are mostly devoted to scenes of gruesome martyrdom.
In Istanbul we were comfortably ensconced in a huge Teşvikiye apartment loaned by a dear friend. This was a good place to come back to after hours of walking in the rain and record cold weather, and to be able to imagine what if would be like to live in this extraordinary city. Geoff already had a mild flu when he presented A Gift for the Sultan to a literary circle of university alumnae. Most of them had already read the book in a pdf version Geoff had sent to the event’s organizer. It was a very pleasant and rewarding evening, with intelligent, probing questions – and a man who identified himself as a writer and translator who will try to interest his publishers in Geoff’s book. When we returned to Madrid via Athens we both had runny noses, sore throats, and happy hearts.