KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
When Anil woke up the first thing he said to me was, “It’s Remembrance Day today.” I thought about it for a minute and then reminded him that it was the anniversary of Dr. Cormack’s funeral, an easy day to remember his former boss, mentor, and friend.
We were tired from the flight the previous day so we decided to forgo seeing the Acropolis right away, but thought it might be good to get the lay of the land by doing the Lonely Planet Walking Tour first. The guidebook described the walking time as one hour, but the sightseeing time as three to four hours with stops along the way.
Our hotel offers a hearty breakfast and we fortified ourselves for the walk and then took a deep breath before passing through the front doors and into the wholesale market directly opposite. It had been closed when we arrived the previous evening, but it has smelled so strongly of fish that we dreaded having to face all the seafood and fish on display first thing in the morning. To our surprise, all the stalls were filled to overflowing with fresh fruit and vegetables, a feast for the eyes as well as the nose.
We learned that the fish and meat market is located in the huge market just to the east of the vegetable market and I can only imagine that when they hose down the stalls at night, that the water flows out into the street and over to the drains at the end of our block, the very corner that we rounded when we first arrived. Without the terrible smell, I was only too delighted to be located in the middle of the ‘real’ Athens, and not the ‘plastic’ Athens where all the international brand-name shops are situated.
The walking tour start point is located one metro stop east of the metro stop we used when we arrived, so we started up the pedestrian street and noticed that there were few other people out and about. We arrived at the Syntagma Metro Station and took the stairs down to the first level, the area before we had to pass through the entrance gates. We had read that there were displays of some of the treasures that had been unearthed during the construction of the metro for the Olympic Games in 2004.
When we came up the stairs at the other side of the metro entrance, we found ourselves near the former Parliament Building, housed in what once was the royal palace. We learned that syntagma means ‘constitution’, and that Greece’s constitution had been declared on September 3, 1843 from the balcony of the building in front of us.
We had read that visitors could watch the changing of the guard in front of the Parliament, but we didn’t realize that it was done in front of the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier, in the forecourt of the building. The ceremony takes place every hour but we had arrived a little early and while we were waiting for it to begin, I looked at the clock and realized that it was November 11th and it was almost 11:00a.m. Remembrance Day. The significance of the date and time was not lost on us for a moment, especially as we were also standing in front of Athens’ war memorial.
We studied the elaborate uniforms of the two evzones (presidential guards) while we waited. They wore red caps with black tassels and dark navy-blue jackets with a pleated-skirt trimmed in red braid. The white tights only serve to compliment the heavy leather shoes with huge pompoms attached to the toes. The shoes appear to have rows of metal studs on the bottoms, because you could see them flashing in the morning sunshine and hear them slap against the marble when they took their high steps and slammed their feet on the marble underfoot.
It was a simple ceremony; the two new guards arrived with an escort and met with a military officer dressed in camouflage and a blue beret. Once he was satisfied that their uniforms were ‘presidential’ enough, the two guards who were to be relieved began an elaborate high-stepping drill and eventually changed places with the new arrivals. It was very dramatic to watch, and solemn at the same time, seeing that it was done in front of the war memorial.
There were very few other people watching with us, perhaps a dozen or so. I read that there is a more formal extended ceremony on Sunday’s with the guards in ceremonial dress accompanied by a military band. Perhaps we will make a point of returning on Sunday. The uniforms we saw looked pretty ‘ceremonial’ to me, I can’t imagine what the more dramatic formal uniform looks like.
We set off along the walking tour once again and our next stop was the Zappelo Palace, significant to us because it served as the Athlete’s Village during the second modern Olympic Games in 2004. There was a military band practicing in front of the palace, and I wondered if they are the ones that perform on the Sunday changing of the guard ceremony.
We carried along to the next stop and stood looking at the massive marble Penathenaic Stadium. It was restored in 1895 by a wealthy Greek business man shortly before the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Apparently, it is a faithful replica of the original stadium built on the same site in the 4th century B.C. Every year, including during the 2004 Olympics, the marathon finishes at this stadium, a most fitting place.
For the rest of the afternoon, we followed the route outlined in our guidebook moving from one historic site to another, through some of the city parks and along many quaint and picturesque streets in the city center. We climbed several different staircases that took us to the base of the Acropolis, but we did not proceed to the top. We wanted to save that for another day. By the time we were almost done, we had passed by many of the most historic sites in Athens proper and we had a good overview of what we wanted to visit in more detail in the coming days.
We passed many vendors selling distinctive Greek foods and dozens and dozens of souvenir shops selling all kinds of kitsch. Anil’s attention was drawn to a shop selling dozens of different kinds of unusual wall clocks and we stopped in to examine them more closely. Alas, no room in the suitcases or perhaps almost everyone near and dear to us would have found a clock, especially chosen for them, in their bulging stockings this Christmas.
We had a long chat with the Greek owner of the shop, about the state of the economy and the dearth of shoppers this summer and fall. We told him how much we regretted not helping out in any way other than by staying in the local hotels and eating at neighbourhood restaurants, but he seemed to understand that it isn’t really people like us who have already done a life-time of shopping that he relies on. The economies of the entire world have to recover before people have the extra funds to purchase fantasy wall clocks.
The end of the route finished back near the Parliament and the Syntagma metro station. As we approached the huge plaza there, we noticed the presence of a large number of police officers on foot and on motorcycles. A few steps further and we could see a huge crowd of demonstrators carrying massive banners moving towards the Parliament. It was quite a change from the quiet peaceful square we had visited earlier in the day.
We were a little worried that things might get out of hand, so we headed straight back to our hotel. I wanted to give you a sense of the scene, but didn’t want to get close to the demonstration, so I pointed my camera at a group of police officers discussing the situation. Just as I snapped the shutter, one of the officers turned to point to something in our direction, waving his walkie-talkie in his hand. The photo looks like he is staring right at me, and that he’s none too happy either, but I can assure you, I didn’t even get a second glance from him.
We turned and carried on, and when we turned on the television back at our hotel, we saw nothing on the news about the demonstration that evening. It was Remembrance Day, and for sure, we will remember all that we saw and did today.