Anyone visiting modern day Athens today will see a city of three million inhabitants experiencing many of the problems endemic to urban life in the twenty-first century, Traffic, pollution, crime and an ugly urban sprawl that seems to be spreading its tentacles in every direction. The Athens of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, an era fondly referred as the "Belle Epoch," heralded the new confidence of a nation that was being Europeanized, expanding economically and dreaming of embracing the millions of unredeemed Greeks beyond the borders of the Greek state. A dream that eventually was destroyed like a wave crashing against the rocks in faraway Anatolia in 1922. Athens in 1900, was a city of 167,000, wide avenues adorned with mansions and imposing public buildings, but more importantly it was a city where one could walk down the street and meet acquaintances on every corner. When you returned home to your neighborhood , you were returning to family and friends who knew and loved you. It was a city of the looming Industrial era that was built on a human scale designed for its inhabitants rather than the automobile.
I was introduced to this period in Greek history through the exquisite photographs preserved by the family of Yiannis Spandonis, a journalist /novelist who has made these memories available to all of us in a beautiful, recently published book: Athens of the Belle Epoch. It came to me as a gift and unfortunately I am unable to find a bookseller that offers it although some of Spandonis novels are available at Oceanida Books.
Spandonis writes the following elegy to Athenian evenings:
"There are very few Athenians nowadays who are able to enjoy such moments (as depicted in the print below) with such a terrace, such a view and so much serenity and beauty. There are even fewer Athenians who have the courage and pride to dress like the middle figure in this beautiful painting by Jakob Rizos. She is wearing a dress influenced by the Greek national costume.....Modern Athenians would fall in love at first sight with such a woman. As they would again fall in love with their city if they could spend an evening on such a terrace...Perhaps the soldier is reciting some poem to the ladies, apart from the smell of gunpowder and the clang of weapons, he seems to appreciate peace and beauty. Like the ancient residents of this city, which though thousands of years have passed through the Golden Age, can still enchant, teach and cultivate.
All we need is to show this city some love."
I will be posting again on themes presented in this superb book. Stay tuned.