Disclaimer: this is a largely ruin-free look at Athens. Not because I am not completely seduced by the idea of being able to run through/touch/gaze at the hallmarks of one of the greatest civilisations, but because I feel there is more to Athens than just its past.
Writing on the run involves a lot of café chasing, as one is constantly on the hunt for wireless and caffeine, the two great deadline-meeting enablers. And so I find myself in the same Starbucks in Athens I frequented when I was last here (although my patronage then was largely due to its air conditioning) with two coffee cups in front of me and a confirmed appreciation for this colourful city, shaped as it is by layers of history and the typical Greek defiance in the face of an uncertain future.
Athens, or at least, its city centre, Monisteraki, is everything people who warn you against spending too much time there, say it is. And to those people, I say, open your eyes just a little wider – Athens may be a city that requires some work (it lacks the charm of, say London, or the overwhelming beauty of, say, Paris) but it’s worth it. Monisteraki heaves with people and voices and the scent of constant cooking. It bustles with spices and street vendors and cafes. It’s loud and grimy and in your face. It’s sort of brown. There are as many souvlaki stores as there are pigeons and everything feels old. Monisteraki is also market heaven, which explains the constant barrage of odours – a big meat hall stands next to the fish markets and both are fronted by vendors selling sacks of dried herbs and pots of vermillion spices, fresh fruit and shelves of nuts.
And so, as is the case with so many big, old, hot cities (Bangkok, anyone?) it’s a matter of knowing where to look and what to look past, when it comes to appreciating Athens. You obviously can’t go past the ruins, and you wouldn’t want to – they dominate Athens’ entire story – but they are not everything the city has to offer. You need to go past the crazy scooter drivers, the endless graffiti and the dirt. You need to duck into the holes-in-the-wall selling packets of brilliantly coloured spices. You need to keep walking down that path, with the Roman Agora watching on, to find the perfect stuffed zucchinis. You need to sift through the tourist-skewed junk in Athens’ Flea Markets to find an antique or a seriously old book. Keep following that twisty alleyway until you find that shoe shop (Athenians love their shoes, they are disproportionately represented in the fashion shopping stakes) with its entire range on sale for 9.95 euro. And once your senses have been well and truly stimulated, sit down at that café with a view of the Acropolis and the man outside ushering people in, and have a tumbler of red wine (it will be chilled, just warning you) or a Greek coffee and pastry.
If you are desperate for some greenery and beginning to form a one dimensional opinion of Athens, jump on a train (their public transport system is excellent) and visit one of the ‘rich kid’ suburbs. Leafy streets, cafes, excellent shopping. Kifissia is a terrific example, just be sure to limit yourself to window shopping, or you’ll well and truly blow your budget. Should you be so bold as to want to brave more hustle and bustle, visit Piraeus, Athens’ port, where the ferries come in from the islands and other Mediterranean countries. Or, get radical and go hang out with the students and anarchists and metal lovers in Exarchia, where there is always something happening (good or bad).
Most of all, I implore you, don’t write Athens off as a city with a few ruins and a lot of dirt. The Greeks may be lazy and could do with getting up from their coffees and doing a little Spring cleaning, but this is a city well worth taking the time to appreciate. And I say that with the nostalgia that comes with waving goodbye to spanikopita and sunshine. Because, now we leave Greece. Summer is over. After two beautiful months of the Greek life – of yelling and eating and swimming and speaking with my hands – I’m farewelling this wonderful country and immersing myself in the antithesis of Greek life. German life. Where everything runs on time, works perfectly and goes by the book (the book the Greeks glance at, wave their hand, and use as a coaster for their frappes).
So long Greece, see you next summer.