About Athens

Life & Style Views of the City History & Monuments Museums  

Life & Style

Bathed in the light of Attica, Athens is a crossroads: a place where mountain meets sea, East meets West, a turbulent history meets the contemporary business world. Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the city should have its own vital rhythms, which never fail to astonish other Europeans. Athenians pour the same intense energy into their entertainment as into their work, and they have developed the temperament characteristic of the citizens of any great modern Mediterranean metropolis. A city like Athens - chaotic, non-conformist, free - is not an easy place to come to grips with. A city where an ancient sense of measure co-exists with the chaos of the modern world, and the relaxed Mediterranean temperament with the inhuman rhythms of international business. Why this should be so, of course, is obvious: Athens is and always has been a busy crossroads. Since its first settlement it has never, despite myriad historical adventures and tremendous population fluctuations over a span of more than five thousand years, ceased to be a city. And a crossroads, particularly a busy one, is not the place to look for order and tranquillity...

Perhaps it all begins with this magical situation: the centre of Attica, a whole cosmos wherein everything exists and everything - mountains and sea, East and West, the soft curves of the landscape and the straight line of the horizon - intersects, to create at their epicentre a basin protected by 'friendly' mountain massifs and punctuated by hills. And the most visible of all is that on which stands the emblem of the city: the Parthenon.

The basic ingredient in the city's magic is light. The light of Attica. The characteristic dryness of this part of the country imparts a crystalline clarity to the atmosphere (even if it is now all too frequently clouded by the infamous nephos, or smog) and the sun, reflecting off the marble and limestone of the surrounding mountains, gives the sky a special luminosity. Especially at sunset, these mountains are tinged with a particular purple hue, a colour that made the poets of the 19th century speak of "violet-crowned Athens", the city that Henry Miller gazed upon from the Acropolis - and that gave him the setting for "The Colossus of Marousi" - as he sat there with George Seferis, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who summed it up in two lines: "There is, I believe, an incarnative function in the light of Greece".

And it is this light that precipitates - how else can one put it? - a release of energy. Light carries a sense of fullness, well-being and zest for life, sentiments widespread among the Athenians when the skies are clear (particularly on certain winter mornings). And by the same token, the absence of light brings on the dismals that we all feel on days when the sky is overcast. In the final analysis, it is the sunshine and the diffuse light that distinguish Athens from other Western capitals.