Drawing together Athens’ Present and Classical Past:1
|View from the south side of the Acropolis- 2016
Most of my entries into this travel-history-archaeology-art blog will be, of course, about those things. This entry is a little different. Athens holds a dear place in my heart for many reasons. I have watched with bated breath as events over the last few years have reached fever pitch politically and economically within Greece. This January, I visited Athens for the first time in 8 years with my co-pilot in tow. Since I was last in Greece, a lot has changed. I want to share some experiences, but as well encourage people to go to Athens. This will be the first of several posts about many aspects which visiting Athens is all about. I have such a love for Greece, and a few posts about some marble buildings wouldn’t do it justice.
|Hadrian’s Library, Athens 2016
December 6 2008, I returned to Athens after a three-month archaeological field school in Kefalonia, and riots had erupted following the fatal shooting of teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulos by the police. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the protests happening around me were receiving support in several other cities – at this, the beginning of the 2008 global economic crisis. The massive shut down by public sector employees meant that I could not leave Athens for a few days.
It was a genuinely shocking experience to find myself in. Given the intensity of the protests during the night, it did not seem like a good idea to stick my camera in peoples’ faces.
In the light of day, the city was quietly taking stock of what had happened the night before. At the time I had no idea about the economic downturn that had already begun affecting Greece and it’s youth employment rate.
|I tried to document how quiet, still and strange the city looked in the wake of the unrest and protest.
|In the shadow of the Acropolis, very few people could be seen.
|Even the Zappeion Park was very quiet and empty.
The streets in major tourist areas were almost empty. All historic sites were shut, and the people I spoke with were bristling with frustration.
|Hadrian’s Library 2008
Eight Year Later:
Since then, as I mentioned before, quite a lot has happened to Greece. From 2011 till just last year there have been ongoing austerity measures imposed on Greeks to (theoretically) correct the lopsided credits and debits of the economy. To anyone watching the news last year, none of this will be a surprise, but new rounds of protests, debates and social upheaval has resulted from further austerity measures. Culminating in August of last year, unhappily, Greece complied with its’ creditors to a third bailout, to avoid Greece being forced to exit the Eurozone.
All these events have given rise to the current government in Greece, the Syriza party who won on a platform of anti-austerity.
Rising unemployment and incoming Syrian refugees on a massive scale have put more pressure on this country than could have been imagined a decade before. Rising alongside this massive civil disharmony has been right-wing fundamentalists, The Golden Dawn party, a trend being emulated in other European cities (yes, even Britain!).
Sounds like a Molotov cocktail right?
So, what is happening in Greece?, you may ask.
For the burgeoning class of gastro-tourists, the food alone is worth a visit (Greek food in Greece is diverse, and unlike what you are fed in North America). They have an impressive variety of craft beers, hip coffee bars, and restaurant-bars which service guests till sunrise.
I didn’t even mention the beaches.
However, despite the gorgeous weather, culinary delights and ruins, it has been the kindness and hospitality of the people I have met, all over the country, that makes it a no-brainer!
Athenians are active and politically engaged. Athenians are producing, consuming and investing in their city. A drive through the suburbs of Athens last month showed me a whole new perspective of the city.
In the five or so times I had visited Athens, I had never really gotten down and around to the residential areas which have nothing to do with tourism.
Why would I?
I’d come to see the Stoa of Attalos…
|Stoa of Attalos, reconstructed 1950s- May 2008
… or the beautiful mosaics in Byzantine churches, right?
|The Church of Panagia Kapnikarea, 11th century BC – 2016
Like any city, Athens is worth a wander. For the art historian in me, it tends to be a 50-50 split between chasing down street art in strange alleys as much as historic buildings.
Letting the glint of something interesting catch your eye and take you down a street you’ve never seen is one of my favorite parts of exploring.
As most of my travels have gone, I have done so alone, I tend to forget that perhaps this style of exploration isn’t for everyone. Luckily, my traveling companions, so far, have been terribly indulgent to my wandering eye and tendency to stop and sketch.
|My co-pilot, 2016
I can understand why people are surprised when they first arrive. The graffiti is everywhere. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so much, save maybe in the south of Italy. It likely contributes to the image of a downturn, but poverty, drugs, and graffiti can be found in most cities, and their prevalence in Athens is a testament to the financial difficulties, but not its character.
With the proximity of islands like Lesvos to Turkey, Greece has become the safer crossing for refugees and immigrants fleeing the dangerous certainty of war, into an unknown – perhaps frosty – reception in Europe. The stress on Greece’s already stretched infrastructure and resources was visible, yet they carry on, ignorant of Greece’s already overstretched public services. It is undoubtedly a crisis situation, but nothing is perfect.
I am a huge and unashamed fan of street art as a vehicle for getting counter-culture messages and new voices a bit of visibility. Sure, they are on private property, but the rebel artist in me sees so many blank (or poorly and sloppily tagged) walls and thinks: ‘why not’? I barely scratched the surface of the diverse and popular street art scene in Athens.
There were so many incredible examples of higher level graffiti to be found in Athens. I was lucky enough to be taken to some spectacular neighborhoods which brimmed and beamed with this artistic fury, humor and vigor.
Travel Tips and Excellent Eateries
Starting with the most important topic, some of my favourite Greek specialties to indulgence in:
Food is reasonably-priced outside of the main tourist hubs and tavernas, so have a bit of a wander and if you see somewhere without tourists, there is a good chance that the food is good.
On the cheaper side of things, for a quick meal to go, ordering a gyro (beef, chicken, lamb) from most tavernas is around €2.00 each. Delicious! Or the proliferation of bakeries offering many types of Greek cheeses baked into savory pastries at under €2.00.
|Gyros, Frappe, Tiropita, Olives are some of the many delights ! – stockphotos
Cheesy Delights: essential Guide to Greek cheese pastries:
Kourou: Surrounded by a thick pastry
Sfoliata: Surrounded by puff-pastry
Horiatiki: Made in a Tapsi pan
Skopelitiki: Made in the shape of a twirl
Learn how to pronounce these names, and you will thank me when you taste them!
|My favourite from a cute little tavern near the
Frappes are the perfect light, cool and caffeinated bit of heaven. They are around
€2 and served pretty much everywhere.
These are not your McDonalds/7-11 frappes!
Bitter or sweet, these are delightful.
Keramikou 49, Athina 104 36, Greece
This tapas bar had a spectacular array of culinary options and great prices. We filled a full table with incredible meat dishes, vegetarian, and some amazing fish- all for about €12 each. I would be lying if I knew how to pronounce the menu items, but they introduced my pallet to a whole new level of Greek cuisine. The staff are very accommodating and were unbothered by us feasting and drinking the night away till well after two AM.
Imalaia (Himalaya) Hot Dog Akti Moutsopoulou 50 | Pasalimani, Piraeus
Best. Damn. Dogs. Ever.
The line up for the hot dogs and crepes was off the hook, even at midnight. The toppings are epic and generously sauced for €2-3. This was a local gem, and we were chuffed to have gotten to try it.
If you are traveling on a student budget, there are cheap beverages in kiosks (€1.10 for a pint of Mythos, €1.25 for 330ml of soft drink, €0.65 or less for water etc). If you buy them in sit-in shops you can expect to pay 2-3 times that.
Athens is one of the easiest cities I have ever visited for navigating. The signs are in English, the metro lines are clearly laid out and organized, and the ticketing is cheap and universal.
Arriving in Athens airport there are the normal options: bus, metro, taxi. As a long term student, I almost never take costly things like taxis. I trust my wits, and I trust metros. For €8 you can get a ticket directly into the centre of the city (30 minutes from the airport) on an air conditioned and spacious system which I would posit is your best option.
Like Vancouver, B.C., it is run on an honour system which means no turnstiles.
Does that mean I can scam the system, you ask? No. Don’t be that guy. Greece is broke, and a fare ranging from €1.20 to €8 is not going to end in your bankruptcy. Similarly, the trains are also part of the metro ticket cost, as are buses.
Within Athens, everything is walkable. Throughout a sprawling city – the key areas, sites and neighbourhoods which would interest a tourist – are typically in a reasonable distance you can reach by foot.
The weather in Greece is, unsurprisingly, better than wherever you are reading this from. Unless that is Italy, of course! I have visited Athens in May, June, August, September, December and January, and it can be beautiful and warm, even in winter.
Next up: Classical Athens
I’ll be visiting the picture of Classical Athens and discussing the ways in which modern conservation no longer sweeps away the other periods of this city’s development in the search for the “Golden Age” of Athens.