Beyond Athens

The opening scene of my next armchair travel composition begins with a dialogue. In her 1957 travel book, Beyond Athens, Monica Krippner imagines a conversation in the Prologue between herself and a well-heeled Athenian gentleman. Almost like a scene in an old black and white film, he happens upon her as she is sitting on a fallen column in front of the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis. Dialogue begins by a question ascertaining the purpose of her visit to Greece. To write a book, she replies. As to what type of book, that would need wait until she has travelled the country and met the people. The exchange continues and the Athenian gentleman remarks:

“Sometimes, Kyria, I feel it to be in my country’s advantage to break up the Parthenon and plough it into the soil of the Acropolis hill. It has become a symbol, a false symbol, by which we, the people of today, are judged. Truthfully speaking we bear little relation to the ancients who built these temples. Our history has had little continuity and, despite what the classicists might like to wishfully think, we are a new people….”

“What you are really telling me is that you wish foreigners would look at Greece, not the remnants of the former Athenian empire?”

“Yes, Kyria. Tell me honestly, do you go to Italy to assess the Italians by Roman or Renaissance standards alone? Should I go to England expecting the people to look, think, and act as through they have stepped from the pages of Chaucer or Shakespeare?”

This Prologue sets the tone for Krippner’s book. This attitude is very different from most earlier travellers to Greece. Travellers of previous eras, well versed in the ancient Greek texts, had preconceived notions of Greece as as a relic of the Classical past. They tended to use Pausanias (and other classics) as a guide and looked for the past in the present. Because of this, they were often disappointed when reality did not live up to expectations.

Krippner, on the other hand, is an example of a new sort of traveller to the Aegean that emerges in the mid-20th century. These travellers arrived in the country with a different set of attitudes. According to David Wills in The Mirror of Antiquity, a history of Greek travel in the 20th century, this changed discourse of British travellers to Greece was shaped by a number of factors – positive attributes (heroic, hospitable, pastoral, etc.) used to define a former WWII ally, the rapid spread of tourism in post-war times (which alters the interaction between locals and travellers) as well as the change in educational systems that no longer stressed Classical texts (hence, no presumed knowledge).

Beyond Athens: journeys through Greece
by Monica Krippner
London: Geoffrey Bles 1957

Krippner (1923-2013), born and raised in Australia, spent most of her working life as a professional journalist in Europe. Her travel writing was concentrated in the mid-20th century when she was in her late twenties and thirties. She began with African Way (1952), a individual account of seven months travel 1949-1950 from Cape Town to Algeria. She also wrote a number of conventional guide books filled with useful information and lists of sites to see, arranged by itineraries in a series called Invites – Yugoslavia (1954), Greece (1955), Austria (1956), and Norway (1958). It was during her 1954 travels in Greece, she gathered data for Greece Invites as well as compiling notes for a more personal narrative published a few years later that became Beyond Athens.

In Beyond Athens, Krippner begins and ends her journey in Athens. Soon after arriving in the country, she had an epiphany while visiting the Kerameikos. The Kerameikos (the ancient Athenian burial grounds northwest of the Acropolis) is a walled oasis in a suburban neighbourhood surrounded by industrial buildings. Here she came to the conclusion that travellers must see both historical and modern in order to have a full understanding of a country. She also got the sense that Athens, although it billed itself as the essence of Greece, presented a false picture – a sophisticated and an outwardly appearing wealthy city was the exact opposite of most of the country where old customs, primitive lifestyles, and poverty were more the norm. Modern Athens, she tells us, was only formed in 1834 out of a dusty oriental town, when the newly established nation transferred its capital from Napflio. The naming of Athens as the new capital was due in large part to the symbolism of the Acropolis, tying the city to the grandeurs of its Classical past. This, of course, harks back to that opening dialogue in the Preface.

Krippner starts her journey to find the real Greece beyond Athens going north by train. She travelled through the same places as Dame Ethel Smyth some 30 years before (A Three-Legged Tour of Greece), but on a faster modern diesel train in the opposite direction. More than half of the book is set in Northern Greece. She initially based herself in the metropolis of Thessaloniki, but made extensive excursions out to surrounding areas.

Thessaloniki is portrayed as a sophisticated modern city. Nevertheless, it contains markers of its history. Numerous ‘Turkish’ style houses filled the city including the birthplace of Kemal Ataturk (the reformer of modern Turkey), harking to its Ottoman past. The city is well known for its many domed Byzantine churches, including the church of Ayios Demetrios, Thessaloniki’s patron saint. In fact, Krippner calls ‘Salonika’ the ‘Hidden Byzantine City’. And, further back in time are Late Roman monuments – the Rotunda (which she calls ‘a dovecote to the city’ because of the numerous pigeons occupying the empty shell), and the Arch of Galerius commemorated by a cruel Emperor who (ironically) was responsible for the martyrdom of Demetrios.

Further afield, she saw a mix of folklore-religion-superstition in the fire walking ceremony at Langada, came face to face with the Orient in Thrace with its mosques and minarets, met a relic of the old silk and spice trail in the form of a camel train in Komotani, and ventured into the Rhodope hills in the far Northeast to find the Pomak people who speak a hybrid form of Turkish-Bulgarian-Greek. In the fur town of Kastoria she spent time learning provincial ways – social and economic customs that she felt kept young people from advancing. In fact, every town, village, or rural area she went to, Krippner tried to learn from people: how they responded to larger issues such as education, the plight of women, race and religion, immigration (primarily to Australia), foreign missionaries, health and medicine, and the inevitable politics particularly in relation to current affairs.

Krippner also spent quite a bit of time in Epirus and Thessaly. Here she travelled through areas where nomadic shepherds roamed – the realm of the Vlachs – and into Ioannina where modern comforts were to be had in this major silversmithing centre. But, there was no escaping the elements of its past as the domain of the despot Ali Pasha – where stories abound and his fortress and its mosques remain. On the edge of the vast plain of Thessaly, Krippner visited the ‘flying monasteries’ of Meteora where she described time stood still in the medieval past.

Venturing further south, Krippner travels next to Mount Parnassus, passing Arta (once the boundary between Greece and Ottoman territories), to Delphi, Levadia, and Missolonghi (of noted Byron fame) – areas ‘saturated with history, legends and myths’. And, after a brief return to Athens, the islands came next – whiling away the summer at Mykonos from where she visited Delos, on to Rhodes, and then Crete. Finally, a select number of places in the Peloponnese rounded off her travels before retuning to Athens.

Travelling in Greece, Krippner indicates was – for her – both a nostalgic retreat and a process of self-discovery. Although she describes visits to places of archaeological significance – the temple at Dodona in Epirus, the Pythian sanctuary at Delphi on Mount Parnassus, the island sanctuary of Delos off the coast of Mykonos, the Minoan palaces of Phaestos and Knossos on Crete, and the ancient city of Corinth just across the isthmus from Attica on the Peloponnese – they seem incidental. She tended to delve into history wherever she went, particularly dwelling on Byzantine, Medieval and Ottoman periods and investigating the monuments and buildings that remained from those times – the mosques of Ali Pasha in Ioannina, the Byzantine town of Mystra near Sparta, the fortress of the Crusaders on Rhodes.

Krippner’s main goal, however, was to meet people and find out the real Greece from them, although she acknowledges that antiquities and history played their part in shaping modern culture. She was also keen to stress that as a genuine traveller she could not ‘harbour national or racial prejudices’, and that ‘frontiers are geographic boundaries … tiresome things to overcome but never regarded as barriers between people’. It is an interesting observation that has some relevance in today’s anthropological and sociological investigations in the wake of forced migration of many displaced peoples.

In a nutshell, this book is an earnest account of contemporary (mid 1950s) life of a country on the cusp of change to modernity. David Wills in The Mirror of Antiquity describes travel narratives to Greece after Krippner’s time as highlighting sea and sun. In other words, in the 1960s Greece is beginning to be billed as a pleasure destination – a philosophy more in keeping with the 1930 travel book Labels by Evelyn Waugh. Beyond Athens is not a travel guide, but a fascinating social commentary by a journalist travelling in the country at a particular point in its long history.

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