Greek culture is diverse, rich in tradition and defines the national spirit. Culture itself — having it, that is — is incredibly important to Greek citizens. Many prominent Greeks, Stavros Niarchos, Aristotle Onassis, Melina Mercouri, The Benakis and Lalaounis families to name a few, have founded and contributed to major philanthropic and educational efforts that bring Greek culture across the country and to other parts of the world. We have been stoked by the various ekdromis (excursions) that Kessaris school has for the children — from theaters and music to art and science expos, museums, olive groves and sea turtle refuges, Greeks want their children to embrace cultural activities and what makes Greece, Greece.
Demetri dubbed this first week of March, “culture week” in Athens. Several of the museums in the city were free in honor of Melina Mercouri, one of the greatest women figures in 20th century Greece. She was an actress, activist, politician and stateswoman — often all at the same time. Most famous for her role in the movie “Never on Sunday,” she was a vocal opponent to the military coup and the junta in the 70s, and was appointed the minister of culture in the early 80s. Mercouri is credited with supporting and helping to finish the Megaro Mousiki concert hall, organizing Greek art and cultural exhibitions on all five continents, and helping bring the modern Olympic games back to Athens. (She and others worked hard to get them here for 1996 – the 100th anniversary of the modern games, but that title went to Atlanta. Athens hosted the Summer Olympics in ’04.) She also introduced free access to museums and archaeological sites for Greek citizens — an educational effort for the general population and especially children.
She died on 6 March 1994. And for the last many years, museums and archaeological sites are free on this day or sometime this week. We went to the Benaki for free last week, in fact. Last Sunday, March 4, entrance to the Acropolis was free, and though both boys have walked by, under and across many times, we realized they’d never been to the top. So off we went. It was a lovely Spring day and we walked and talked about the many myths about the Parthenon, the olive tree at the top, the various temples that used to stand there and how some brave youngsters climbed to the top in the middle of the night and replaced the Nazi flag with the Greek flag during World War II. From there we walked down into Monasteraki and met Papou and Sandy for lunch outdoors.
This week we also visited Kerameikos, the ancient cemetery. The name comes from the greek word for pottery (like ceramic) and in ancient times was a community of vase painters and potters. Some of this area was converted into a small cemetery which eventually grew into a large cemetery and a major ancient archaeological site. There is a little museum on site that holds many burial artifacts from the excavations some of which date back to 2700 BC. It’s fascinating to see, just like art, how burials reflected the political evolution in Greece. Places traditionally reserved for aristocrats were opened to ordinary citizens as democracy emerged. Historians learned a lot about Greek life and culture through the way people were buried. It’s a nifty site that many tourists miss. And – bonus – there were tons of turtles just hanging around. It was awesome.
Next on our list was Plato’s Academy, a huge outdoor space in a now run-down Athens neighborhood. Aristotle studied here before founding his own school. It’s also on sacred ground for the goddess Athina, as her religious ‘cult’ was located here in ancient times. There’s a cool digital museum about Plato that looks like it’s made from storage containers — its design symbolizes the road to the light, and windows exist only in the entrance and exit of the building. Inside, you learn about Plato as a person, a philosopher, his travels and his writings. And there’s a copy of Demetri’s favorite painting of all time: Raphael’s “School of Athens.” The Academy grounds would be a perfect location for wellness retreats. We pictured group yoga, horticultural therapy, meditation gardens and nature walks all year round. Wonder how we can share this idea with the benefactor philanthropists from above?
And yes, the photo below of Papou and the kids is with a roasting lamb in the background. It was boys night Saturday while the girls went to the movies.