Destination Athens — a fresh take

With Athens in the spotlight in 2004, there has been an upsurge in the number of books about the Greek capital. One that offers a fresh take on the subject is «Athens: A New Guide» (pub. Granta), by Elizabeth Speller. Her book diverges from the conventional approach to an ancient city surrounded by modern chaos, and transmits a deep understanding of the city in a sensual portrait of a place she loves. Speller, who is Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge where she teaches Ancient History part-time, is also a published poet and a freelance journalist. She willingly responded to Kathimerini’s questions. What made you choose Athens as a subject for a new guide? I was surprised that there were so very few guides to Athens – as opposed to Greece as a whole – as it seemed to me to be a very good weekend destination. Those that existed were always about antiquity. My first book had been about the Emperor Hadrian, so I’d started to look at Athens more closely, then I’d gone to stay with a Greek friend in the city and loved it and wondered why this was such a secret to the British. Did you get to know the modern country through classical antiquity? Funnily enough, it was the other way round. I visited Greece as a child with my parents and many, many times afterward, but the first areas I went to didn’t have classical sites. As I got to know the country better, starting with visits to Crete and the Peloponnese as an adult, I became increasingly curious and stunned by the beauty and strangeness and sophistication of ancient monuments. I ended up applying to university to read classics (I had intended to read English literature) mostly so that I could understand the background. Lastly, I became interested in how a modern community co-exists, geographically, practically and psychologically, with such a weighty past. What do you think makes Athens so different from other European capitals? I think the greatest thing in its favor is that it is Greek rather than cosmopolitan – you can never forget what country you are in. It represents the whole and is a part of it, not a separate metropolitan entity (and it’s less obviously multicultural than other capital cities). Its history is fascinating too, mostly because it is so dramatic in surges, and that is clearly visible in the spirit and architecture of the city. Personally, I find the War of Independence and the turbulence of 20th century politics and war as interesting as Periclean Athens. Unlike anywhere else Athens could be a fusion of Italian and Turkish culture. Nevertheless, you found a distinctively modern Greek culture. Was it obvious at first glance? The Balkan link feels quite strong but mostly it is just unlike anywhere else and that is its joy. I also had a great deal of fun; it feels quite a young city, despite its ancient antecedents. With Athens, you have to give it time, to relax, to remain open-minded. It is not a beautifully arranged museum, like, say Florence or Rome, but I feel it is possible to interact with Athens, have a two-way relationship. It can be a very individual experience, but a lot of what you get out of it depends on what you bring to it. If you come with the preconception that the Acropolis is a marvellous aesthetic and emotional experience where you can bond with democracy and the ghost of Byron and the rest of Athens is a smog-bound traffic jam, you will be disappointed on both counts. How did you organize your material? You have included a lot of surprising details that reveal very intimate knowledge. I tried to emulate how one gets to know a city, not by arranging it in chronological order, nor by highlighting the official treasures, but by layering the wonderful, the tacky, the funny, the poignant, the mysterious, the exasperating and the frivolous, much as you come across them as you wander about any new place (it’s a bit like any relationship) and also convey the mixed responses one might have. I also tried to include a sense of people, real people, living coherently in their own city. Otherwise, again, one is just talking about a non-evolving museum or an anthropological curiosity.