I took a long walk yesterday and went to the Kerameikos, the archaeological site of the potters’ quarters of ancient Athens, which also boasts a relatively large well-preserved cemetery. You can make out the outlines of the mausolea that rich Athenian families had built along the Street of Tombs and the austere funereal columns that families used to commemorate their dead once the ostentatious mausolea were banned in 317 BCE. I was practically alone it turned out, once I had passed the jammed tavernas and cafés around Monastiraki and its (quite successfully) renovated square (which has opened up the view to the Library of Hadrian and the Acropolis in the distance). There must have been very few cars out on the street, because there was an almost palpable churchlike stillness in the air. The sky was a brilliant azure, infused with the warm Sauternes light of afternoon, that enigmatic light of melancholy and nostalgia, of Wehmut, a light that de Chirico so masterfully depicted in his paintings. A fitting backdrop to the district of the dead.
I realized I had been a bit too quick to characterize Athens as a city without walks, by which I meant it offered little to distract walkers along the way to their destination. There is a marvelous walk along a cobblestone pedestrian walkway that leads from the Arch of Hadrian, skirts around the base of the Acropolis and the Theatre of Herodus Atticus before heading down to the cafés and neo-Classical homes of the Thission district and ending at Kerameikos. A favorite of locals and tourists alike, the walkway admittedly makes for a beautiful saunter and a rare chance to experience the city without the traffic and impossibly narrow and often obstructed sidewalks of the city (on my 20-block walk to the gym there is not even one block of sidewalk that you do not have to detour around some obstacle – a parked motorcycle, newspaper stand, scaffolding piers, illegally parked car humped up on the pavement, the tables and chairs of a sidewalk café). But the walkway is more park than street, and hardly indicative of the city at large.
Of course, a city doesn’t need to be aesthetically pleasing to be interesting to the urban trekker, and there are examples of pretty cities, like Bruges, that are insufferable and anything but urbane. I’m not an urban snob: I am fascinated by the water towers and industrial buildings of photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. I like old factories, whether abandoned or renovated or, in the case of more than one legendary Berlin sex bar, somewhere in between, even if I’m not a hard-core urbex spelunker who’ll infiltrate his way into storm drains, utility tunnels and abandonments (a great springboard for urban explorers can be found at the weburbanist, including their intriguing look at infamous abandonments used in famous films). Not that I’m afraid of getting arrested, I’m more worried about breathing in asbestos fumes or pigeon shit vapors.
Maybe I just haven’t been looking at Athens carefully enough. I had planned to do a series of photographs on sidewalk obstacles, but browsing through the weburbanist site gave me some ideas for a corresponding piece on Athens.