The End of a Summer Odyssey

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.

25 thoughts on “The End of a Summer Odyssey

  1. I’ve been to Athens twice – once for a few days and once just for a few hours. I loved it both times. I didn’t even realise it had a bad reputation until I got home and people who had never been told me how dirty and smelly it was there.

  2. Ah, as I write these words, my husband is on Rhodes. He spent most of his childhood living there. It’s a magical place. So are many places in Greece, Athens included (my opinion). Thanks for this lovely post!

  3. LOVED this post. I lived in Bangkok for 12 years, so I know exactly what you mean about looking at a city closer. I am also going to Greece for my honeymoon next summer, and of course, I plan on spending a lot of time in Athens. So, thanks for this informative post! I will be sure to check out all the things you mentioned.

  4. Wow! This is very informative. Whenever I am opportuned to go to Athens, Greece; this will be my guide. Very detailed but also personal. I tells u little details u won’t find in tour guides. Thank you!

    Chck out my blogs and tell me what u think!.. Thanks!..:-)

  5. Thank you for the post. I have never been to Greece and your post gave such a taste of it. Good luck in Germany. I try to ignore that book but there are times I find myself wishing I was better organized. Congrats on being freshly pressed.

  6. Great post, charming writing with lots of description in long sentences!! lol (This is no criticism, I love a continuous stream of thought. I think it captures the scene better and I definitely do the same!)

    I backpacked throughout Greece for one month and I would have to say that of all the beautiful places I had seen there ( I personally adored Kardamili), Athens would have been my least favourite. I would most definitely not dismiss it entirely – it’s worth the visit and has a lot of aspects of Greece that cannot be skipped if you want to really experience the culture.

    Do they still have a dog issue there? I was in Athens about 6 years ago just as the city was preparing for the Olympics and one of the most absurd things I had experienced was the “canine society,” as I like to call it. Stray dogs walked freely throughout the city, in tight packs, always using the sidewalk which often forced pedestrians to step onto the street to avoid them. I even witnessed a gang fight, from a cafe window with a view of the Acropolis, and there, I watched as two dog gangs faced each other, barking over some canine matter. After a long period of bickering, one of the gangs finally stepped down and turned away, while the other proceeded on their journey.

  7. I wish someday i can go to Athens. I believe it`s a beautiful place. I have seen it on TV , I read some books about it, and i even took classes. The history of Greece is just fascinating. I hope someday i will be able to see it and experience it for real.

  8. It is always interesting to read about the “modern” Greece- Anthens is a vibrant cosmopolitan city- such a shame more tourists don’t stray further afield from the Acropolis..as you said-the city has so much more to offer!

  9. I am SO JEALOUS of your travel adventure!!!!

    I’ve always wanted to go to Greece! Anywhere in Greece! And my dream would be to get married with the beautiful Athenian ocean scenery 🙂

    again….SO JEALOUS!!!!!

  10. I am so pleased you all enjoyed reading this. Athens is just one of Those Cities that makes you dig a little deeper. That being said, it’s not for everyone. But the shoes ARE excellent …

  11. Great post. I agree, Athens is a wonderful city to visit. Just like so many cities, the touristy parts are rather over rated and it is the “real” city where the best experiences are to be had

  12. Great read. I’m half Greek and went to Athens this summer too, so I can understand everything you’re saying. Wasn’t having souvlaki places everywhere amazing? And I also miss the spanikopita – the bakeries were fantastic and each one was unique with different styles and recipes. Thanks for taking me back =)

  13. I’m glad you wrote this and that it got freshly pressed (congratulations!). Athens, despite its history, wasn’t high on my list of places to see, but you changed that, thank you.

  14. Thamk you very much. สะใภ้เตริก์ หรือ ว่าที่เจ้าสาว สามารถเข้าแบ่งปันและมาแชร์ความรู้สึกกันได้ค่ะ.

  15. I’ve been to Athens and Rome in the same month, a few years ago… Bad idea. I loved Rome, didn’t like Athens. Maybe I should go back sometime in summer and give it another chance.

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