Athens, Greece - Ancient city, modern disaster
Barely a day goes past when Greece isn't in the news. The country, and in particular its capital, appear to be in turmoil thanks to decades of poor governance. Having only ever visited the islands, my knowledge of Greece was made up of beautiful scenery, endless sunshine and making new friends. But, that was island life, I was sure Athens would be a hot, tense and chaotic place.
Surprisingly, the metro train ride from the airport into Athens city centre was flawless; slick air conditioned carriages, smooth silky ride and spotless stations made London’s Underground seem positively archaic. Perhaps I was wrong, things weren't so bad after all?
In fact, I was not wrong at all. Arriving at Monastiraci square and stepping into the street, your senses immediately come under assault from the searing heat, dusty smelly air and intense hustle and bustle of traffic, market stalls and jostling tourists. Imposing columns of ancient ruins sit alongside haphazardly placed store fronts and crumbling Classical Greek architecture, while on literally every reachable surface lies layer upon layer of graffiti.
Walking around Athens feels more like being in Beirut than a major European city. Roads are narrow and dirty, pavements crooked and broken, traffic noisy and chaotic. And the idea of authority seems completely void: Park across a pedestrian crossing? No problem. Ride your motorbike on a pavement full of people? Sure. Drive around a police car clearly parked to block the road? Why not! Drive square across the pavement to get round said police car after he's moved to stop you driving round him on the road? Hey, this is Athens!
Perhaps this is why anybody in a position of authority seems so incredibly unhappy about it. Blunt and grumpy, albeit still somewhat helpful, you feel like a naughty child for just talking to them. Not that the Blunt and Grumpy Greek is confined only to places of authority, I met them all over the place.
And then there was the Greek Unwilling to Acknowledge your Very Existence, ignoring you in the hope it will prevent you from trying to interact with them. Thankfully, there was also plenty of the Super Friendly Helpful Greek, so incredibly genuine and likeable you want to share beer with them there and then. It was a strange fact that everyone I met in Athens fell firmly into one of these three groups.
Of course having never visited Athens, it’s hard to know what it was like before all the trouble erupted. Today the anger in the air is palpable. You can sense it emanating from the congregations of young people in the squares. You can feel it as the tour bus hurtles you round so fast that by the time the pre-recorded audio commentary tells you which direction to look, the subject is disappearing into the distance. You can hear it in the voices of people chatting in restaurants and bars. And you can see it in the graffiti that provides the anarchist backdrop to every street, alley and square. Make no mistake, the city is furious.
And why wouldn't it be? Greece's economy is imploding, shrinking over 30% since the start of the crisis, unemployment rising to a staggering 25% (50% for young people). It would be easy to point to the 85% of taxes lying uncollected (the UK’s is around 5%) or the black market that is estimated to be a quarter of the whole economy, as reasons why the country has brought it upon itself, but that doesn’t change what is clear from the streets of Athens; that normal Greeks appear to be paying a very heavy price indeed. Many would argue that free-market Capitalism has brought a lot of benefits to the average person in the West, but it seems from what I saw here, that the average person is also the first to feel the brunt of it when things go wrong.
As a tourist however, it’s not all doom and gloom, there are things to like about Athens. There is a rough charm to the city, the chaos is almost endearing and when you meet a Super Friendly Helpful Greek, they really are super nice. Food wise, as long as you stay away from the main tourist trail there are plenty of cheap, delicious options (like this one or this one). There is also a huge amount to see and do, from the famous attractions like the Acropolis and the first olympic stadium, to shows of traditional Greek dancing and the lush botanical gardens. If you can bear the heat, you’ll have plenty to keep you busy for days.
When evening comes you can sip cocktails in jam jars on one of the many rooftop bars and almost forget the troubles that lie on the streets below. The lovely warm evening air, city lights and proudly lit Acropolis create an unmistakably mediterranean backdrop. Then there are the night markets and tavernas to meander through, while late night brings the legendary clubs to life.
Even just walking around the city can be a fascinating experience. Local food markets have a buzz unlike anything in London and little gems of interest seem to lie around almost every corner.There are so many excavated ruins that they almost appear an integral part of the city; train tracks run through the middle of them and modern buildings are built around them. Some have a small sign explaining what they are, others are simply left to the imagination.
But, despite all this, after four days, I can’t say I was unhappy to leave. I feel sad for the state of what is undoubtedly a great city, appearing to crumble and descend into anarchy in front of your very eyes. And I feel sad for the people here who are suffering because of macroeconomics that few of us (and likely them) really understand. But, I am glad I went. It was an interesting experience and one I would certainly recommend, not least because your Euros might just save another business from closing and another Super Friendly Helpful Greek from losing their job.
We shouldn’t take our high living standards in the west for granted. The system that brought them to us can take them away much faster than we think.