Small book on a big city

It almost seems like cheating to call a 40-pager a book, but journalist, essayist and poet Fondas Ladis’s latest, «Routes Through Athens» (Mnimes Press, 2003) packs a lot into its intensely illustrated pages. This spare though well-edited collection manages to provide personal mini-tours of 15 different central Athens spots, and does so through an appealing package of three Ps, prose, poetry and photography. Good taste reigns in these locational mezedhes, with a simple yet rich rendering of the author’s favorite if crumbling downtown haunts like Metaxourgeio and Athenas Street, as well as neighborhoods with more overtly classical allusions such as Thiseion. The first-rate black-and-white photographs (close to 100) are what first catch the eye, but the central focus remains his poems. These are translated (by Thalia Bisticas) in all but one case without the rhyme of their originals, and have been put to music by Mikroutsikos, Theodorakis and other notables, as we are duly reminded in the extensive author CV that covers both inner flaps. The prose «footnotes» combine and spell out classical, Byzantine, and more modern references, reflecting the jumble of histories found in these age-old districts, like the vegetable market at Lachanagora, which closed in 1965. Further back, we learn that the Iera Odos, 19 kilometers (12 miles) from Elefsina to Athens, had 150,000 olive trees in antiquity. Now, it merely «stands for / memory with circuits shorted.» Description takes a back seat to evocation, as at Kerameikos, where «A bit before the end of Ermou there’s a door / into Paradise you go if you pass through. / Small knolls, scattered marble and grass / and the mellifluous nightingale of silence.» Even at Gazi, «the old factories – whatever you may say – / have a soul somewhere you can never reach.» Monastiraki brings memories of two local characters (Vanias and Samson), also now gone, Tram #11 refers to the last of the old tram routes in the city, extinct by the 1950s (but now making a comeback), and a third old route remains commercial even while its old landmark shops have seen their day. He may be a romantic, but «Don’t fret one bit about today / Go deep into the black hole of Aeolou Street.» And Omonia is, to the poet and perhaps others too, «A square, so full of noise, yet forever empty.» If you want Athens in detail, keep looking. If, however, you prefer a little gem of a book on its old quarters, this is as fine as any.