Eastern Europe: Athens, Greece
I arrived at Athens late in the evening but in time to get the metro line to central Athens. My time in Athens began in rather inauspicious circumstances, as I surfaced from Omonia Station I was greeted with a rather dark and uncomfortable walk to my budget hotel a few streets away. The roads were eerily quiet, just dark shadows moving amongst graffiti covered pillared buildings and the lights were dim. I found my hotel and buzzed the sleeping night guard who let me in. As I opened the door to my rather dishevelled room a sizeable cockroach darted beneath my bed. Lovely. Slightly nervously, and with my mouth reminded to sleep tightly closed I drifted off to sleep. I awoke an hour or so later with a rather uncomfortable feeling in my stomach, a consequence undoubtedly of my suspect Bulgarian lunch earlier that day. I enjoyed the company of the porcelain sink for the next few hours as well as the inquisitive cockroach who made frequent appearances to mock me as I sat on my china throne. Eventually my cockroach tormentor dashed toward the door and I duly opened it, releasing him to the hallway and maybe some of the other guests.
The sun rose and I was up annoyingly early but I felt confident that I would be fine after several ‘dry’ hours. I walked out into the baking streets and walked toward the historical Aegean centre; as I did so I was perturbed by the lack of open businesses and concerned by the zombie like junkies adorning the benches of a small park, I even saw a drug deal in a side road happening as I walked past. I couldn’t believe that this was all an effect of the Greek financial crisis, and I later discovered it was a holiday weekend, thus accounting for the lack of people, activity and open businesses, but even so my senses were already attuned to the social and economic problems around me.
As I approached the centre of Athens I was hit by a sudden surge of tourists, I was stepping into another parallel universe where Athens was flourishing and full of wealth. The first archaeological location I bumped into was the rather underwhelming Hadrian’s library, however I was able to purchase a ticket that gave me access to the numerous ruins across central Athens. I spent the day walking between them. Although the Acropolis of Athens is the outstanding feature the enjoyment of visiting it is muted by current reconstruction and preservation work, the Parthenon was shod in scaffolding and a few cranes ensured any photos were suitably tainted. That of course is if you could find room among the throng of tourists to take one; although there’s nothing more hypocritical about me moaning about other people doing exactly the same thing that I wanted to do…
This meant that I actually enjoyed some of the other less frequented sights more so than the Acropolis. I was particularly enamoured by the Temple of Olympian Zeus, of which not much remained, but what did was quite striking, grand stone pillars rising, unfathomably for the times, into the sky. The Ancient Agora of Athens was also quite enjoyable to walk around and from there the Acropolis seemed much more striking as it stood ominously on the rock above you.
After an extensive day walking around Athens impressive time-worn architectural sights I went home for a nap. In the evening I had arranged to meet a Couchsurfer, Editya. Editya is Polish and not Greek, but interestingly she was an archaeologist in Athens. If I was going to meet anyone in Athens then it has to be said that an archaeologist is a pretty good score. We went to an area called Exarcheia, merely a five minute walk from my accommodation. Exarcheia is famous/infamous for being the centre of the Greek revolutionary or anarchist. It is an area familiar with protests and demonstrations and also with disaster, a 15 year-old boy was killed in the 2008 riots by two policemen. Despite its controversial history the area is also a hub for small independent businesses, coffee shops, restaurants, comic book shops etc.. We had dinner at a traditional Greek restaurant where we could choose from an extensive list of dishes that were brought to the table before we had a few drinks in one of the bars that lined the central square and its numerous political banners and slogans. The central square was busy at night, people from all manner of backgrounds sat on kerbs, benches and swings enjoying a social drink and conversation.
The next day began quite disastrously, I had planned to visit several art galleries around the city. The Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street Annex was closed on a Sunday, the National Museum of Contemporary Art was either closed down or temporarily closed for some kind of building work and by the time I arrived at the actual Benaki museum, shortly after four o’clock, it had closed for the day, In between these wasted journeys (all made on foot in sweltering heat I might add) I did manage to get into the Panathenaic Stadium, the original home of the modern Olympics. The stadium was built for the 1896 Olympics and is made entirely from marble, it also has a small museum of images and posters from the Modern Olympic era tucked away at the end of a tunnel that is worth visiting.
After my mostly comically planned/executed day I went home for a shower before hiking up Mount Lycabettus for the sunset. I joined another throng of tourists trying to get a good view of the city as the sun went down on another day. The main area outside the little church was packed and I decided to descend the hill a little and enjoy some peace and quiet as the sun set. It was a good decision, I got some nice photos and actually took some time to enjoy the moment. As darkness eventually enveloped the city I grabbed some moussaka in a quiet restaurant near Syntagma Square, where I had just watched the changing of the guard ceremony in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier, before heading home for a reasonably early night.
The following morning I slept in as late as possible for checkout, upon which I walked to Exarcheia again and grabbed a comfortable seat in a small cafe called Floral. I settled in for a few hours reading my book and thinking about my rather diverse experiences in Athens. I think the ancient ruins of Greek and Athenian civilization that adorn modern Athens provide a pertinent reminder to its current inhabitants of the problems that the city and country currently face and the consequences that are so evidently seen in the the people and on the streets. I would even suggest that they are an ever present reminder of the folly of political and financial remonstration. I’m not an expert on Greek history, or familiar with Greek customs or people, but there are evident divides across the city; the rich, the poor, the anarchists and the government and I think a bit of unity would go a long way to begin finding some of the solutions that are needed, as at the moment the only real cost is the very apparent human one.