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Smashing Plates

This is the fragment of a mostly personal guide to the Plaka, the old town of Athens. It lies directly at the foot of Akropolis Hill and has thus been part of Athens’ central places since antiquity. A large part of the houses there is built on antique foundations, which has always made the balance between interest in antique monuments and the needs of a living quarter delicate.

When Otto I. of Bavaria became King of Greece in 1832, the new authorities soon made plans for Athens to become a modern city by the then current standards. The Plaka was explicitly excluded from these plans, since large amounts of antique moments were expected to be found. Although some of the planned excavations took place and unearthed monuments such as the Roman Agora, most of the plans were never executed. This is why the Plaka today still has the complicated, small-scale structure of an old town, and not the straightforward block structure found in the rest of modern Athens.

In the years after 1832, the Plaka became a district of taverns, where Athenians and foreigners of all social strata mingled. This remained so until the years of the Junta (1967-74), when the taverns gained in importance as places of undercover political debate and resistance. After the Junta, the beginning tourist boom quickly overtook the Plaka and turned it into an area practically unbearable to live in. In 1978, the original had been lost so much that the authorities saw reason to act. Since then, measures have been implemented to ensure that the Plaka remains consistent in character. These include the removal of neon advertisements, the setting of standards concerning architectural and urban design, a ban on motorised traffic in large parts, and the protection of some specific monuments. Also, the old houses are now regarded as equal in importance to the antique structures. There is emphasis on the idea that the Plaka is not supposed to be a sort of open air museum, which I would at least partially dispute.

So why did I feel the need to start to write another guide to this place? Surely, with this kind of history, it is sufficiently well covered? No, it is not. Before going to Athens, I conducted a small experiment and read tourist guides from very different times. What struck me the most was the apparent difference between the Plaka of the early 1970s and the one of today. The former is hinted at above: a melting pot where very different strands of the culture of the day collide, yet the threat of destruction through tourism is already senseable. Today, the Plaka is apparently an idyll. Some shops, some more or less insignificant monuments strewn throughout, a lot of picturesque, quiet streets. There is quite a bit of truth to this image. But there is also significant history here in small things that point to important developments in the past, there is an everyday life that deserves attention in its difference from the rest of Athens, and there are places that fuel imagination. Thus, this is a necessarily incomplete experiment. I want to point out the small bits that form part of a larger picture, I want attention to be given to the everyday, and I want people to actually look instead of reproducing a gaze that is constructed through their guides. I know that the last point is problematic – but I think that it is possible to entice further discovery by offering fragments.
The idea of self-discovery is approached through the medium of the map as well. I give you three different areas: Tourist Plaka, Everyday Plaka, and Anafiotika, which is a rather specific part of the whole that is explained in a separate article. These are shown as mere coloured shapes, with things I discovered marked by a circle. Roads are not shown, which will cause you to inevitably get lost on your way through. What I call holes, the frozen images of antique Athens, are shown through a black veil – so you might use them (and the circles) for a bit of orientation.
The Tourist Plaka, as the name suggests, is entirely devoted to restaurants and shops, both of which evoke a folklore Greece that does not exist. Everyday Plaka is the part where actual Greeks live, though recent hikes in real estate prices suggest that this is becoming an area for the select few. There is hardly any noticeable overlap between these two, by which I mean that the living spheres do not seem to intersect anymore. Locals that I asked have confirmed this.

A lot of what I discovered points towards different aspects of Greek national identity and its relationship to places and spaces. This is treated in very different ways in the Plaka: the area that is filled with souvenir shops uses an image of Greece that has nothing to do with Athens or cities in general. Instead, it is the Greece of Antiquity or villages and islands. Funnily enough, these products cover every spare centimeter of available surface area, thus making the space they are presented in irrelevant. Then there are the aforementioned holes, which through preservation have stopped changing and are also hindering the ‘natural’ change of the city around them. The protection act for the Plaka does something similar with the area as a whole – by narrowly defining the possible developments of it, it is brought close to freezing temperature, since these standards do not really allow for modern city life. Anafiotika was a foreign entity in the first place, evoking the architecture of the islands its original inhabitants came from. Since its structure is even less suitable for modern city dwellers than the rest of the area, it is becoming more and more derelict, appearing almost forsaken. On the whole, very different images are perpetuated in the Plaka – but all of them are artificial.
Crises are, as soon there are external stakeholders involved, always a period of intense scrutiny. In the case of Greece, different narratives of a supposed Greek national identity are employed to find explanations for the current situation. As I have shown above, the Plaka offers varied approaches to the construction of such an identity. I have no interest in employing them for an agenda of any kind, though. They are, to me, interesting in themselves.

This is one of the quieter ways to enter the Plaka. The area of the Roman Agora serves as a noticeable means of separation and intensifies the situation as a whole. The place is prominently used by street musicians, who probably suffer from the lack of pedestrian traffic. Two Africans, who play music foreign to the place, can be seen frequently. Inevitably, I have to think of the specific role the Southern European states play for refugees from Africa. Especially in Greece, in its already precarious situation, this influx leads to tensions.
In the evening, the fence to the Agora is populated with young couples, lined up in a regular rhythm. Their placement lends them a self-evident quality. As if in this place, in this light, at this time, there were no other possibility.
The University of Athens was founded in 1837 by Otto I., Greek king of Bavarian origin, as the Ottonian University. Since the original building was a former residence, the young institution soon ran into capacity problems. Thus, the Danish architect Theophil Hansen was commissioned to build the neoclassical edifice still in use today.
When Otto I. was unseated in 1862, the university was renamed to National University. Today, it also carries the name of Kapodistrias, the founder of the modern Greek state.
After being in a ruinous state for a long time, the original building was reconstructed in 1987 and is now used as the museum of the university.

At a fork in the road directly opposite from the Old University, there is a terrace, ideally situated. When the restaurant to which it belonged died, the people of the Plaka decided to make this the graveyard for all the furnishings that they had no use for anymore. There is a massive lack of space – the terrace is filled to the brink with chairs, tables, refrigerators, advertising slates, parasols, and so forth.
At the highest point of the Plaka, above Anafiotika, there is a steep pathway and some benches. The fence surrounding the Akropolis Hill closes it off on the other side. In the evenings, there are small groups of mostly male youths who leisurely enjoy hiphop music, alcohol and marijuana. On the other side of the fence, there is an apparently miserable guard in a small hut. The view of Athens is particularly recommendable.

On April 27th 1941, shortly after the occupation of Greece by Germany, the flag guard on Akropolis Hill was ordered to take down the Greek flag. He did so, but proceeded to wrap himself in the flag and jump to death from the rock. This highly dramatic act of patriotism is commemorated here, at the foot of the hill, by a small plaque made of marble.
Directly below this plaque, there is a small park in a derelict state, offering a grandiose view of Athens. The park is used by some homeless people as their base.

The Monument of Lysicrates is a small monument built in the 4th century B.C. . Lysicrates, a choregos (or patron of the musical arts), donated it to commemorate a victory in a choir competition. In 1669, a monastery of French Capuchin monks bought it and incorporated it in their new building. In 1762, detailed drawings of the monument were published for the first time in The Antiquities of Athens, which caused it to become a celebrated example in philhellenist circles. Subsequently, a tradition of copying the building emerged, for example as follies in English landscape gardens. Even today, it has meaning for classicists worldwide: the Driehaus Architecture Prize, a sort of neoclassical Anti-Pritzker, uses it as his logo and trophy. Ottoman destruction of the monastery necessitated the restoration of the monument by the French government. Western governments had developed a particular interest in the antique ruins of Greece, which led them to found institutions like the École Française. This philhellenist movement was instrumental for the rediscovery of Greece’s classical heritage.
In the garden of the monastery, tomatoes were planted for the first time in Greece in 1818.

Greek shadow theatre is a tradition originating from the times of Ottoman rule. This is easily recognisable by looking at the name of the main character: Karagiozis derives from the Turkish Karagöz. The stories told in shadow theatre always follow a similar pattern. Karagiozis is a lazy, but sly man from the lower classes, who tries to get some money by more or less illegal means. He does not do this for selfish reasons, though – he needs it to feed his family. In this way, topics of concern for the poor greek peasants are voiced, especially the often strained relationship to their (Ottoman) rulers. In the 1980s, a modernised variant of shadow theatre was even shown weekly on national television. Even though there are still theatres like this one in the Plaka, the popularity of shadow theatre has steadily declined since then. Still, when the UNESCO decided in 2009 to add Karagöz to the list of Turkish immaterial cultural heritage, the Greek public protested.

Close to the shadow theatre, there are the remains of a building that was used as the setting for a famous greek movie: And the wife shall revere her husband. When plans were made to tear it down, protests emerged. Its future is as of now uncertain.

Anafiotika is a small quarter within a quarter. When Otto I. came to power in 1832, the construction boom resulting from his plans for Athens resulted in increased demand for workers. A large group of them came from the Cycladic Islands, mostly Anafi. They erected their settlement illegally, at night, in the style of their home villages. To this day, Anafiotika has no formal legality. The place has always been one for immigrants in precarious conditions: In Ottoman times, it was called Black Rock, because the slaves from Africa lived there. When the Greek-Turkish Conflict ended with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, this caused another influx of refugees from Asia Minor.
Over time, the number of buildings in Anafiotika has been decimated because of excavations and a decreasing population. As already mentioned elsewhere: the structure of this settlement seems to make it attractive only to a very specific clientele and the old people who have always lived there.
The Bath House of the Winds was originally a hammam that dates from the first period of Ottoman rule in Greece. As such, it is a reminder of a time when hygiene was the subject of ritual-like celebration and even a form social interaction. It operated until 1965. Recently restored, it is now reopened as a museum of the culture of hygiene. Strangely enough, this is one of the few instances where Ottoman culture is directly referred to and memorialized, even if only under the parentheses of a hygiene museum.

If you access the Plaka from northwest, it is quite probable that you will soon reach this transversal street. Suddenly, it is quiet. If you continue to the Old University, you see something unusual: a front garden. A couple of plants and some cast-iron furniture create a rather homely atmosphere – it is almost as if you were in a room. A middle-aged woman pursues some activity or other. This is a shop for artisanal goods, and there is an indescribable variety of them on offer. Yet, you never feel that you are in a shop, or that there is any sort of business going on. This shop is inhabited the same way the rest of the street is.

At the foot of Anafiotika, shortly before the real world starts again, there is an assemblage of ruins. A normal ruin appears as if it were slowly melting back into the ground. These ones are different: they are strangely fragile constructs, heaped up out of skeletal steel and rough concrete slabs. Something of incredible size seems to have ripped pieces from them, without any other aim besides destruction. Billowing, vibrant shrubbery grows through them like frozen clouds. In the alleys, on the walls, paintings in irritatingly fresh colours. They show scenes of a life different from ours. Who lived here, and when did they leave?