That winter afternoon in January 2017 was no reflection of the probably heated day in September 1843, when King George I had faced a military uprising and had conceded the nation’s first constitution. We looked around to see the fountain in the Syntagma or Constitution Square. People were flitting in and out of the metro station that lay beside the marble steps at the far end of the square. The flight of stairs climbed to a street and beyond that was the Greek Parliament House.
‘Follow Ermou street opposite the Syntagma Square,’ had said my wide-eyed Greek colleague, ‘you will reach Monastiraki.’
It was late in the afternoon, so we headed straight for the recommended street, towards the flea market and the eateries. Walking through the signs of lifestyle brands we passed by a street vendor selling chestnuts. The scent of Greek coffee emanated from a push cart not far from another seller offering pastries and bread.
Amidst the curtain of people and outstretched leaves of potted olive bushes lining the street, I noticed a dome ahead on the street. It was a medieval church; a home to calmness amidst the chaos of the bazaar. Later, I found out that the Church of Panaghia Kapnikaria that was built around 11th century over the ruins of an ancient temple, dedicated either to Demeter or Athena.
The Byzantine-styled church was to be pulled down during the construction of the Ermou street in 1834, but it was saved thanks to the rallying by King Ludwig of Bavaria. He was the father of Modern Greece’s first king after the nation gained independence from the Ottoman rule in 1832.
Further down the street at Monasatraki square, at the entrance to the Flea market, a few sweet-talking African touts singled us out to tie a bracelet around our wrists to invite us for some musical event. Travelling has opened my minds, especially to scams. No way they could get me.
Opposite the Flea market was the Tzistarakis Mosque that was built by the Ottoman governor of Athens in 1759, with lime prepared using a pillar from the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Following construction of the structure, he was dismissed for Turks considered the act a taboo that would unleash malevolent spirits. The superstition was affirmed by a plague epidemic that broke out not much later after the opening of the mosque. Currently, the building houses an annex to the Museum of Greek Folk Art.
Monastriki has got its name from a monastery that stood there. It was a catholicon of a women’s monastery, the Monastery of Kaisariani. Church of Pantanassa, the current church, dating back to the 17th century was once a weaving centre, and people sold textiles near it. Because of its importance, people hailed it as a Mega Monastiri (Large Monastery). With time, the commercial importance of the abbey declined, and it became a little monastery or Monastiraki.
In a family run eatery, I sat and watched my clear glass of Ouzo turn milky as the ice oozed water into my drink. The aniseed flavour drink was just as refreshing as the Greek people. Unlike other European cities, people wore neither branded clothes nor heavy make-up. After all, Athena, the patron Goddess of the city was a go-getter, not a fashion diva. And it was not till the next day when I climbed the Acropolis that I was face to face with her.