My wife and I were recently in Athens, Greece, for an medium-sized excursion, purchased at the stunningly cheap price of €130. Now that’s a deal. Athens had been a place on my radar for years, and both of our interests were keen for a visit to the old world.
Athens is a modern city that rests on a bed of ancient history. The city’s crushing pollution and crowded atmosphere are not doing the ancient ruins such as the Acropolis very well, but the lively, laid back attitude of the Greeks in Athens is wholly appealing. From as far as I read, the city has undergone a significant face lift since the 2004 Olympics, when it incurred an enormous amount of debt, perhaps more than officially recognized, in order to show its best to the foreigners. The results of the spending are obvious and to this point Greece has not suffered under crushing debt due to sustained economic growth. Underneath, though, there is a healthy dose of second-world chaos, as evidenced by the tight streets and rambunctious motorbikes, smoothed over by gorgeous boulevards housing €500 dresses. The healthy diversity of Greeks, European and North American tourists, Africans, and Muslims all residing amongst the population of 4 million gives the city a strikingly international feel, almost as a bridge from the ancient to the modern world as well as the developing to the developed world.
What were the results? An incredibly-walkable, relatively clean, and thoroughly accessible inner city linked with easy to reach outskirts and suburbs. The inner city’s archeological monuments, centered around the Acropolis, the Agora (main plaza), and Plaka (old city), are linked by a well-planned series of pedestrian streets creating a so-called enormous open-air archeological park. When you buy the Acropolis ticket for an affordable €12, it gets you access to seven sites around the inner city housing the Parthenon, Hadrian’s Library, the Kerameikos (old cemetery), and Greek Agora (main square area). One would not even have to leave this lovely tourist Mecca if they did not want to, feeling content to see the ancient Athens and calling it modern.
Athens, though, presents plenty of reasons to venture out. In addition to catching the old city sights, there are views to be had from the peak closest to the city center, which we of course hiked, Likavittos. The small, twisting streets in between offer tons of opportunities to browse or people-watch, and 70-degree F temps virtually require you to sit outside, even in November. On suggestion, we also ventured down to the restaurant area of Mikrolimano, or micro-harbor, where you can eat and drink and dip your feet off the deck straight into the water. Not to be outdone, either, we ventured out on a Saturday night to experience the famous Athens nightlife. After traversing through some sketchy areas (and walking very quickly), we hopped upon one of the biggest November parties that I have ever seen in the city streets. There was one square area that was mobbed with people from end-to-end, but amazingly, while every table was full, heck if you could see a bar area. It was just a grungy collection of tables filled with teenagers who were apparently getting served something by someone. But, ahh, to be there, right? We found a blues/jazz bar that was by no means inexpensive but at least played some Nina Simone to make me happy. We left somewhere around midnight as my wallet was screaming in pain, but there was no sign of the place calming down. I accept it, the Greeks can party.
One unexpected thing about the city was the urban wildlife we discovered. By wildlife, I mean immense amounts of stray dogs. Everywhere. These things littered the streets. One saw their fair amount of untagged cats, as well, but amazingly, most of the dogs and cats looked fairly well-fed and were more than happy to let folks stroll by without even a nod. Many of the dogs were tagged, as well, which we learned was a result of the attempt before the Olympics to get some control on the stray dog problem by capturing and vaccinating the dogs. They may be vaccinated, but they were still everywhere. Even in archeological parks, which of course had signs at the entrances commanding no (leashed) dogs could be brought in, the things were everywhere. Athens also had a healthy dose of turtles, but none of those were tagged.
We also had the chance to take a boat ride through some of the local Saronic islands. Now, when we were getting a suggestion for this boat ride, we heard words such as “small group” and “non-touristy.” Although this was not at all the case, the boat was scheduled to stop at three lovely little islands: Hydra, Poros, and Aegina. All were beautiful in their own rite, but we were close to mortified to be one of those people spilling off the cruise ship to go and buy cheap trinkets and overpriced scarves. We ran the other direction of the stores at each island, instead searching out the nearest backstreets or mountain top that no tourists would dare to venture to. The day trip yielded some good pictures and great hiking, but we were ready to get off the boat when, on the way home, the main attraction was traditional Greek dancing lessons that encompassed questionable Greek men twirling elderly Japanese women at 45 RPM in the middle of the song. Needless to say, we stayed on deck.
Despite the touristy nature of the trip, we survived to go and find the previously-mentioned Athens nightlife and right our ship. Sunday morning before the flight home was a visit to the fabulous Greece National Archeological Museum, which houses an impressive array of statues, sculptures, and relics dating from the Neolithic, Mycenaean, Minoan (think Trojan War) and Hellenistic Greek peoples. My favorite was when the museum descriptions wove in history from Athens itself and its city planning, but that is just me. Even better, on Sunday mornings it’s free! Long live Greece!
In all, a very impressive effort to mix an old world city with a new metropolis. Even starker, the mix of natives and migrants from all over in this crossroads of cultures makes Athens a truly unique and vibrant place. Now, it is to be seen if the Greeks can continue the growth that will allow Athens to pull out of its mortgage.