Sitting by the water in Sydney, a place that is summed up with one word, Spectacular, I cast my mind back to where it was in the world that I felt more comfortable, more at ease and immersed in the local culture as I am in Sydney at times. No, it’s not my wonderful London and Crystal Palace. No it isn’t the splendor of Spain or the Ukraine where I had been somewhat of a celebrity. I thought maybe Mytilene (my incredible ancestral home) by the harbour, second only to Sydney Harbour. It’s actually the city of Athens, my city.
Whenever I return to Athens, and in the last 5 years I went over 20 times, I feel like a new man, like a king, like a poet, like a writer, like…me.
It can be hard to explain. This city which has been continuously inhabited for 7000 years, the home of theatre, the home of politics, the home of philosophy, the home of art, the home of expression, the home of Pericles.
On my very first day in Athens, I have a ‘routina.’ I sit in a park and there are only few of them. It is usually hot. I sit there in the sun with either my cola light or frappe, my phone, my Greek newspaper and my thoughts. I immerse myself in the geitonea (neighbourhood). I listen to the people talking excitedly about politics, I survey the gypsies who look at my tan and wonder if I am one of their kind. Mostly, I feel incredibly happy to return. After making a series of phone calls to see who is about I have one last look around.
Athens, you see, is not very aesthetically pleasing. On the surface, it breaks my heart to see the city which was once adorned with columns and marbles, Byzantine stones and churches (medieval times) is now…a puzzlement. In the 1960’s or thereabout, Karamanlis the Greek Prime Minister, like many before and since, had a ‘vision.’ That vision was to wreck the beauty of Athens. To be fair, Athens was experiencing a population boom as the other regions of Greece struggled post war and post famine, and of course the city welcomed Greek refugees from Constantinople.
The Government in their wisdom would replace the majestic Neo Classical buildings (many can still be found around Ermou and the city kentro, wonderful modern Greek buildings) that adorned Athens since independence from the Ottoman Empire. People would trade in their homes for 3 apartments in a very ‘average’ designed building. They are everywhere in modern Athens and I personally find them to be offensive. The one positive is, it has allowed the growth of ‘apartment owners’ in Athens, and with the current economic crisis, it can only help.
In this context I stand at the corner of any given street. If you scratch the surface, you will find another Athens. The buildings may no longer be Neoclassical, but each street will tell me a story. I look around and I know what I find. I feel the history on any given street, more than most. It’s because I never lived here. My grandparents never visited, they were refugees, they would have had no knowledge of this city. My parents rarely visit Athens and they never grew up with this city. Yet here I am.
I find a sense of wonderment when I see the old Trolley transport or orange street lighting glowing, the frequency and noise of the motorbikes and coffee shops full of people or the souvlatsidiko cooking my favourite food. The smell wafts across my nostrils.
A Sense of Modern History
On any given street I can feel it. The sense of history in modern times is there. You can not believe how many times Athens has been at war. From the Ottomans, Italians, the disgraceful Nazis, the Civil War. Athens, my one true love, has also experienced the turbulence of famine in the 1950’s, the military Junta in the 1970’s and the ‘welcoming’ of refugees from the catastrophe of the 1920’s in Turkey and in the decades that followed. On any given street, you can feel the spirit of these people. If you are lucky to find a Rebetathiko or Skiladiko, you will hear the sad sounds of the refugees and of a poverty stricken Greece, sounds that were on the radio long before Sakis Rouvas told us to ‘Shake It.’
Athens may not have had a Masterplan. It did however end up being a masterpiece. For no city in the world can overcome adversity they way she does. Beaten by Sparta, she rose again. Beaten by Thebes, she rose again. Beaten by Philip II, she rose again. Beaten by the Romans, she rose again. She will always have a spirit that can never be beaten. When I say masterpiece, she genuinely is. Athens has a myriad of ‘cultural’ institutions to whet the appetite, and I mean bars, cafes, tavernas, eateries. They are Athens’ version of a community centre. Just about every street will of course lead you to one of these. Every street will fill your desire to be happy. It doesn’t matter if you are in any of my old spots of Keramikos or Pangrati or the villa lined Kifissia or Glyfida,.I can tell you, good people, characters in the stage play that is Athens, will await you at every turn.
And at every turn you will also find a periptero. It’s a kiosk that is small, manned by a single person and in some respects is bigger than a supermarket as it has what you really need…. Tsigara, newspapers, souveneirs and anything else you want. They also act as defacto information booths. I always get lost and ask the periptero owner for directions. Or if I want to know the state of politics, I just ask at the periptero.
The periptero will also tell you what I always knew. Athens by night, there is no comparison. This is a city that tries not to sleep. I had a girlfriend from Athens. She would work at 8 am, yet at 6 am we would still be at the bouzoukia! No city has what Athens has. Clubs and bars everywhere for everyone. Most tourists have no idea. When you learn about the hidden gems in at least a dozen parts of the city, you will be amazed. Pool parties, mountain bars, dj’s by the water, Greek singers playing every night, from midnight to the early hours.
Another Side to Athens
Athens by night can never cease to amaze me. I WILL NOT TELL YOU WHERE TO GO. You will have to discover them as I did. With locals who care not what the economic situation is at 2 am in the morning. Athens by night is where the beautiful creatures play. Sometimes, I sit at a bar with a music friend and wonder what I am doing there, it’s impossible to compete with ‘models’ and the like. Then I remember I am a guest of someone important rather than being modelesque myself.
Let me hasten to add something else that will surprise you. Athens has some of the best beaches you can imagine for a large city, which along with Pireaus, has 5 million people. Once you get close to Vouliagmeni, the coast all the way up to Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon, is amazing. Forget the islands, there are a number of sandy spots to unwind, windsurf, tan up and have your frappe.
If you ever get bored of Athens, and I doubt you will, try one of the neighbouring islands. There are five or six in the Soranikos Gulf and also Tzea, which are worth a visit. Each island is small and can be reached within an hour or two from Pireaus for a day trip or a weekender. I have been to all of these islands and I recommend Hydra for its artistic heritage, Agistri for its quiet and laid back style, Poros as the magic of the region and Spetses to reach out to your romantic side.
I can rave about Athens for hours. I won’t tell you about the ancient sites or the Byzantine churches to visit. I’m not a tourist travel writer. I won’t tell you to visit Likavitos for a concert or to sit by the church and survey Athens. I won’t tell you why cobble-stoned Plaka is one of the best and most picturesque city centres in the world and nor will it be me who will tell you that Sounio has a spectacular sun set from either of the tavernas by the water. I might tell you it has great public transport links, from the Metro, Trams, Trolley, frequent busses, taxis everywhere and if you are seen as a nice person, you will get a lift from a stranger.
A Change of Heart
I will tell you this. I hated Athens until 2004. I hated the fact it looked ‘ugly.’ It took a trip to the Olympic Games with Leonie and about 10 others to make me realise what this city can do, day or night. I have a picture from a night at a bar in 2004. There are about a dozen of us. Each of us had had a great time in Athens and listening to everyone recount stories made me proud. This city has something for everyone.
I will finish on this note. Athens is the city I truly belong in. Something about a crisis has put an end to that dream. I have met some amazing people there and my only 2 long term girlfriends live there. My cousins who are more like brothers (whom I adore very much) and the friends that remain there. I use the word ‘remain’ as many have gone from Athens. Next year when I visit it will be sad that they will not be there, after many, many years and good times together. I dedicate this article to them and I reflect on my city. Athens, just scratch the surface and you will find it.