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Athens in Pieces: The Stench of the Academy

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The weekend traffic in the center of Athens was awful on the late January day I decided to visit the site of Plato’s Academy. Each of the narrow, slightly dog-legged streets in Plaka, the old city, was completely jammed, because recent angry protests, some of them violent, had forced the closing of roads around Syntagma, or Constitution Square.

Still, pedestrians were out in impressive force, filling the streets, intent on enjoying their Saturday shopping. Athenians take their weekends very seriously. Pantelis, my cabdriver, threaded his way delicately around people suddenly lurching, seemingly semi-oblivious, into the street and the constant chorus of motorcycles appearing out of nowhere and disappearing noisily into the distance.

Once past the clogged junction at Monastiraki Square, we pushed more easily along Ermou Street and headed northwest. We came to an area scattered with warehouses and former factories. The cab stopped by a huddle of abandoned buses. Ahead of us was what looked like an open area of greenery. Pantelis pointed and said, “Akadimia Platonos.” This must be the place, I thought.
Plato’s Academy is now a public park in a not particularly nice part of town. It is just next to Colonus, Sophocles’ birthplace and, according to the legend he helped to invent, the final resting place of Oedipus. The day was cool and sunny, but the previous 48 hours had been filled with storms, strong winds and intense rain.

As I entered the park from the south, the ground was muddy with large puddles. My boots slipped and slid underfoot as I made my way past a man talking loudly on a cellphone in what I think was Bengali. A couple were playing in the distance with their dog. There was an empty playground and a rather nice gravel area for playing pétanque, which is apparently popular with the locals. It was also deserted.

I oriented myself with notes and guidebooks and made my way to the ruins of Gymnasium, which is thought to have been the main building of the Academy. A large grassy hollow indicated the site of a former archaeological dig. I peered through some trees into the open, green area of the ruins. There was a solitary man standing, very reflectively, smoking a huge joint with what appeared to be a bottle of water at his feet. In fact, the only people I saw around the various ruins were doing exactly the same thing as this man: quietly getting wasted on a Saturday lunchtime. I began to doubt whether the liquid was water or some kind of clear alcohol, as these men didn’t have the appearance of compulsive Brooklyn yoga hydrators. Ah, the sacred groves of academe!

After a moment’s hesitation, I walked down into the ruins, exchanged a brief “ya sass” (hello) with the man, who didn’t seem to care in the slightest that I was there. It was very quiet, and all around was a calming, low chatter of birds. No riots here.

I began to try to imagine the Academy.

The school, founded by Plato around 387 B.C.E., was named the Hecademia and later Academia after the nearby sanctuary dedicated to the hero Hecademus. In Plato’s time, the area........

© The New York Times