Athens is a vibrant centre of commerce, from the port of Piraeus to the walkways surrounding the Agora, the 4000 year old market whose taverns were run by the matriarchs of old.
On our last day in the city, the fever struck. An all-consuming desire for gold. But who could we trust with our cash?
City of Gold
Gold attracted people to Athens. The city was built on gold mines, and the gleam of gold was everywhere – in the temples, in the statues, and in the jewellery worn by the citizens.
When news spread of the discovery of gold in the nearby River Pactolus, soon people were flocking to Athens in the hope of striking it rich.
The gold fever continued for centuries, in the late 19th century the last gold mine in Athens finally closed down.
Despite no longer being a gold-mining city, Athens still has a strong connection to the precious metal. The city’s coat of arms features a golden owl, and gold is still used in many of the city’s traditional ceremonies.
The first piece of gold was given to me by my mother, a sweet little signet ring engraved with a star, and the centre inlaid with a tiny ruby. A small gift of love, retained in memory but lost in Egypt.
Now, in Athens, surrounded by precious artifacts, memories of other gifts awakened within, like lost souls. The sudden thirst was insane, like making up for a lost time, (or lost gold), I couldn’t leave Athens without gold in my purse.
The Metropolitan Cathedral is the main church of Athens. It is consecrated to the Dormition of the Theotokos and is located on Mitropoleos Square in the heart of the old city. Originally built in the 4th century AD, but it has been rebuilt and renovated many times over the centuries, and is home to a bewildering array of treasure and antiquities.
The most famous of these is the iconic Golden Mask of Agamemnon, which was discovered in 1876 during excavations at Mycenae. The mask is made of solid gold, decorated with turquoise, amethyst, and carnelian. It is said that the mask may have been worn by Agamemnon himself or one of his nobles on the day of his death.
The second piece of gold was a slim bangle with a delicate clasp and chain, a birthday gift from my first boyfriend. One day, a friend borrowed it for an evening event, and I never saw it again.
Then there is the Cross of the Saviour, weighing 8 kilograms of pure gold, or the silver Chalice of Saint Dionysius, that dates back to the 5th century. Or the Crown of Mary, gold with precious stones, dating back to the 18th century.
The third piece was a chunky gold bracelet, given as a leaving gift by the Hanratty clan, a family of hoteliers. I had worked faithfully in their beautiful seaside hotel for two whole years. At nineteen years old, new pastures beckoned. (That Bracelet too vanished in the mist).
If you are tempted to visit, then the beautiful neoclassical building is right in the heart of old Athens, with trees and benches offering shade and rest after all that silver and gold.
I hesitated when approaching – a memory stirred. The year was 1995. My beloved and I were among the dusty pilgrims climbing Montserrat to pay homage to the Black Madonna. Two crones in black shawls stood guard at the entrance to the Basilica. Somehow we slipped inside. On exiting, those two crones gave me a terrible tongue lashing for being improperly dressed – a sleeveless top. We laughed it off. Old crows!
In Sitges, my beloved and I lay bare skinned on the beach in the heat of the midday sun, and drifted off to sleep. Later, in our hotel room, a tango played on Las Ramblas, while inside we lay on wet sheets to cool our burning flesh. To distract from the annoyance, we switched on the TV and listened to the Spanish news. Wildfires were blazing out of control in Southwest Spain. Was there no escaping the curse of the crones?
(The fourth piece of gold was given to me by my beloved. It was an 18 carat gold necklace with the image of Our Lady – concealed among my things but not yet lost).
Greek orthodoxy is not so harsh. As we peered into the candy-cake cavern of psychadelic delights – explosions of silver and gold – a young vesper beckoned. ‘Please, enter, take your rest, as you like.’ Tee shirts not an issue.
The suddenness darkness of the interior was a welcome respite from the roasting temperature outside. I had checked the weather before setting out that morning. A sizzling 30 degrees, in late September.
The smiling vesper waved us toward the offertory – donation box free candles.
All that gluttony of gold was mind-blowing. Throughout the day, we walked in a daze along Adrianou street, gazing in at shop windows, thinking of treasure.
The profile of Goddess Athena was visible in every window on Market Hill, and behind every pane of glass she stared, implacable, with her owl. Or the exquisite Phaistos disc, expertly copied and mounted. I wanted to buy both. When you stroll into a jewellers shop in Athens be sure have several thousand pounds at your disposal. Even for a modest amount of the precious metal. As one jeweller put it, every piece you see in Athens is 14 carats, not 18.
Each time we looked at a ring or a chain through the glass display, the owner extracted a red felt tray – rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, pendants, all desirable. We tried each piece, and replaced them.
The owner extracted the green felt, everything under a thousand. Nothing stood out.
As the exasperated owner closed the door behind, I felt deflated, not a smidgin of gold in my pocket. Then we bumped into Eve, she ushered us inside her shop. We were too tired to argue.