Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A Tale of Two Cities

The Athens of 1982 was a very different place from the Athens of today. The last time I'd walked in the city was over thirty years ago and I went there last weekend with mixed feelings after all that I'd seen on the TV over the last few years. Since there has been a financial crisis in this country, there has been a rise in right wing political activism, often involving violence against racial minorities, civil unrest in parts of both Athens and Thessalonika and a rise in certain kinds of crime, the kinds that were simply unheard of back in the Athens of the 1980's. 

What kinds of crime am I referring to? Well, in the past couple of years there have been ram-raids on bank machines, drive-by shootings, armed robberies and the like. Things we've seen on our TV screens were simply of another world when I walked in Athens in the years from 1977 thru 1982. 

Something that I was kind of prepared for was the graffiti. The last time I'd been there it was non-existent. You could go anywhere in Greece's capital and see not one single incidence of spray-can vandalism, for that is what it is in my view. I fail to see any positives in it. Now, sadly, it is endemic. There is scarcely a vertical surface anywhere that's larger than the size of an A4 sheet of paper that's not simply covered in the stuff. I say that I was prepared simply from what I'd seen on national TV over the past few years. Where do these people get the money from, that's what I'd like to know? On that note, on Sunday, the last evening we were there, whilst we waited at the Neratziotissa station for the Suburban Train back to the airport, I was studying the graffiti that was plastered all over the wall just across the tracks from our platform and was rather bemused to read the following (in Greek, but here translated):

€510!! At that wage, there won't even be the cash for the spraycans anymore!

That figure refers to the national minimum monthly wage that a person up to 25 years of age should earn.  I found myself thinking, "well, every cloud..."

The Athens Metro, its underground train system, which now boasts three lines plus the suburban line that runs to the new airport, actually functions very well. We used it all the time we were there and were well impressed with the speed and regularity of the trains. Not so enjoyable was the fact that one had to deal with the beggars who patrol the carriages holding out in grubby hands cut-off plastic bottles adorned with religious icons whilst they cry out in pathetic, childlike voices, "Help Me!! Jesus and Mary, help me!! I'm hungry. Please, please, you must help me!!" or something similar. 

One could go down a long road discussing the why's and wherefore's of whether one ought to help these people, and we did find ourselves chucking the odd coin in their receptacles, but the experience of having one of these often grotesquely disfigured individuals lean against your seat for a few moments can be obnoxious to say the least. Some of them emit such body odour that it almost makes you gag. There was a young Rhodean couple on the train from the airport into the city who'd attached themselves to us as it was their first tme away from Rhodes and I felt deeply sorry for the girl, who found herself almost vomiting with the smell of one of the more persistent of these poor individuals as he leaned against her rather clean t-shirt top for a couple of minutes before he could be persuaded to move on.

On the whole, the Greek travellers on these trains completely ignored these beggars. We did find ourselves wondering whether the Police or security guards ever come aboard the trains to eject such individuals. They obviously hadn't paid for a ticket since they were begging for small coins. The entire system works on trust as you find ticket machines or a ticket booth at the stations, then validate the ticket in a machine as you pass it before proceeding to your platform. We found ourselves discussing the fact that, since we never saw an inspector for the whole three days we were there, anyone who wanted to could ride the system for free perpetually with little risk of being caught.

So, you're probably thinking that you'd prefer to go anywhere but Athens right now. But that's where you'd be wrong and I'd have misled you. See, the thing is, graffiti apart and the fact that the modern city is rife with closed down businesses whose roller shutters have become the playground of the spray-can artist, it's still a pretty safe place to be. Even at night.

A corner of Ommonia Square, early morning

The street where our hotel was situated, looking toward Ommonia. the hill in the background is the magnificent Lykavittos

Arriving on foot at Monasteraki, early evening. Fifteen minutes from the hotel

The Delphi Art Hotel, where we stayed

Another view of a corner at Ommonia, early evening

The view from our breakfast table in the hotel
We'd made a reservation online with the Achilion Hotel, in Ag. Konstantinou Street. It's right next door to the National Theatre and minutes from both Syntagma and Ommonia. When we arrived they told us they'd moved us over the road to the Delphi, which we didn't mind because a very courteous young lady escorted us over the road to see that we got checked in safely and the standards of both hotels were on a par. They're not the most luxurious hostelries on the planet, but they are very clean, well kept and the rooms comfy enough. The breakfast (included in our deal) was excellent and consisted of every type of breakfast food imaginable.

If you've read the book "Blue Skies and Black Olives" by British journalist John Humphrys and his son Christopher, you may remember an experience that Christopher relates in which he compares the city of Athens with London. Christopher is married to a girl from Athens and, if I remember correctly, relates how on one particular evening whilst walking in the city of London with his wife and children, they were approached by a group of rather unsociable-looking young men on the pavement (uh, sidewalk, guys, ok?). Christopher advises his wife that they'd be well advised to cross the road to avoid any trouble. His wife, hailing as I said from Athens, doesn't understand the reason for her husband's caution at all.

This experience well illustrates the diiference between Athens and not only London but I'd guess many other European cities. Having just spent three nights walking the inner city streets of Athens I can testify to the fact that, despite all you may have heard in the media, we felt very safe. Yes, the modern city is tatty, scruffy and run-down. It rather put me in mind of bleak council estates in the UK in the 80's. In the US I believe you'd think of what you call "the projects". But, that aside, there are delis open, pavement cafés, kiosks on every street just as there had been thirty and more years ago, selling newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, confectionery, hats, umbrellas, cold drinks, the list is endless. Walking home late in the evening after many of these kiosks were closed, we remarked on the fact that they still left all kinds of stuff hanging outside, including papers and magazines that we were quite sure that in the UK would have in the very least been torn asunder and scattered all over the road to the four winds or, in the worst case scenario, set fire to, I shouldn't wonder.

On our first evening we found a giros place in a side street not far from Ommonia Square and sat and ate as a group of about 12. There was a duo playing Bouzouki and guitar sitting in the doorway and the tables and chairs filled the alleyway. There we were in the heart of the modern city, which - were you to try and describe it - the word picturesque would not be the one you'd call to mind, eating in the street around tables with waiter service and all the passers-by were regular folk going about their daily lives.

What I really wanted to do, though, was get down to Monateraki, which is the place where the modern city rubs shoulders with the ancient. From Monasteraki you can wander the flea markets as you go deeper into either the ancient Agora, or the area known as "Plaka" which is a maze of old streets rather like a larger Lindos, all sporting a range of eating places in impossibly pretty steeply stepped street locations.

Had this area changed? That's what I wanted to know. Monasteraki always had an amazing vibe going on during summer evenings. I was surprised and delighted to find that, apart from a burst of graffiti on the awning of the local "periptero" [kiosk] outside Monasteraki tube station, I found myself being mentally transported back thirty years, the place was so unaltered. What joy.

So, folks, for your delectation and delight, here are some photos from Saturday evening June 28th 2014, taken at Monasteraki and in the Plaka district, under the shadow of the mighty Athens Acropolis...

The many-arched building is Monasteraki tube station

The magnificent Acropolis towers above this area of Athens

Entering Plaka district

This was where we finally chose to sit and eat

I never miss the opportunity to get my Fix in-shot!!

The unexpected bonus at our taverna. Had trouble stopping her indoors from joining in though.

I'm told that a live band plays in Monasteraki Square frequently during summer time

So, then, the verdict. 
Afer more than thirty years apart, we were re-united with Greece's ancient capital, where we found the modern city to be tatty, yes, but nevertheless a safe place by and large to wander around in on foot after dark. There are many cosy hotels in the downtown district and they're certainly reasonably priced and cosy enough. They're only a base anyway.

The pièce de resistance, though, is still the Monasteraki and Plaka areas, leading up to the marvel that is the Athens Acropolis, atop which stands the Parthenon. 

Would I recommend you visit Athens? Too right I would. Two cities it may be, the modern and the ancient, but both will beguile you still and you'll want another fix. We're already thinking of trying to get away for a few days some time soon for another visit.


  1. Fascinating and wonderful photos. You have sparked my interest in returning to Athens after many years. My problem being that Athens in winter is probably almost as depressing as any other (more northern) city, whereas everybody is led to believe it's a furnace in summer. I wonder how much change I would see, after all, I last visited almost 50 years ago and King Constantine was on the throne!


  2. My abiding memory is of the smell of the drains in the area below the "Plaka" John, sorry about that. That was in the seventies mind and I have not been back since preferring the islands instead. That said, your excellent photos reminded me of a Greece I thought, for some reason, was long gone and you have whetted my appetite to return as well as Vicki's it seems. King constantine Vicki? Impressive!

    1. Pleased and gratified to hear of your response Andy. Yes I too prefer the islands, yet it would be shame for someone not to experience some of the sights and sounds (I'll draw a veil over the smells in this case!) of the capital.

    2. November 1965, Andy!

    3. Of course, I wouldn't remember that far back (ahem!!!)

  3. I'll show you the photos some day, very weird!

  4. Just seen this Vicki, I am impressed and in awe....