“You’re going to Greece?!” my Greek-American friends asked wistfully in the days leading up to our trip. “Opa!”
“You’re going to Greece?!” my non-Greek friends (who keep up with the news) asked incredulously. “Why?”
These days, Athens triggers a mix of emotions. Feeling nostalgic for the Athens of past years we’ve heard about or seen in books and films, but somewhat put off by the shoddiness of present day Athens, we quickly came to understand both reactions.
Greece is still in the darkest days of a long recession that has been compared to the U.S. Great Depression of the 1930s. There is a palpable tension in the air and expressions of sadness and resignation on many faces. Speaking from a street photographer’s perspective, it’s hard to take a photograph that doesn’t include graffiti, stray cats, and crumbling sidewalks.
The recession has taken a 25% bite out of the Greek economy – the largest contraction of an advanced economy in the past half century, according to the BBC.
A recent landmark deal with the European Union (of which Greece is a member) freed up a badly needed 10.3 billion euros for Greece, but painful and humiliating austerity measures are still in place. They are not in the clear and will still need to ante up a staggering $65 billion at some point.
Unemployment, the highest in Europe, is around 25%, while jobs (if they still have them) are paying as much as 40% less than they did, according to data analyzed by Reuters. Their educated kids, facing a jobless rate of 50-60% for those under 30, are fleeing their homeland in search of employment in other countries.
One out of every four professionals has lost his or her job. Doctors, engineers, scientists and other professionals are leaving the country in droves — more than 120,000 since 2010. Of those leaving, a recent European University Institute survey found that 9 out of 10 have a university degree, and more than 60% of those have a master’s degree, with an additional 11% holding a PhD.
For all these reasons, Athens was not at the top of my travel list but then fate intervened in the form of an invitation to a big fat Greek wedding.
And that, of course, was irresistible.
What we discovered was that despite the negatives — unexpected strikes (stay on top of rumblings of discontent via sites like Livin’ Lovin’ and Greek Reporter); pickpockets (which we did not encounter); public services stretched thin (the public toilets at the National Garden, for example, are closed and in a shocking state); litter and overflowing garbage bins; crumbling sidewalks; an abundance of graffiti on pretty much every surface except the Acropolis; stray cats; taxi drivers in the most touristy areas, who will protest indignantly when you dispute either the cost or direction they are driving (tip: use an app called TaxiBeat — nicer taxis, nicer drivers, and fair prices), there still are many good reasons to visit Athens these days!
1. The food is amazing
It’s tasty, fresh, and contemporary, and the prices are super reasonable, especially if you stay away from the touristy restaurants.
2. “Mediterranean bartending”
Athens is not immune to the current trend for interesting and creative cocktails and tenders at the trendy bars will enthusiastically share their knowledge of local Greek spirits, flavors and mixes. Suggestions include A for Athens or Bar 8 for exotic cocktails with a view, and Six d.o.g.s., a café bar and art space.
3. If you look, you will find new shoots of creativity, design and entrepreneurial activity in the midst of the abandoned and faded storefronts
Check out shops like Underflow Art and Music Store, Klio Creations for handmade jewelry and scarves, and industrial designer Joe Petropoulos’ Retrosexual Vintage Shop.
4. The Acropolis Museum
Having opened just 7 years ago, this museum is world class, beautiful and well worth spending a number of hours exploring. Designed by Swiss-born architect Bernard Tschumi, it houses spectacular artifacts and portions of the Parthenon frieze. Its outdoor terrace restaurant, which looks up at the Acropolis, is a popular place to eat. And there are many others, like the Museum of Cycladic Art, the Numismatic Museum, and the National Archeological Museum. We didn’t have enough time to see them all!
5. The fantastic people
I complimented a young woman at the Acropolis Museum for the deft and polite way in which she handled tourists – and in multiple languages. Her face lit up as she told me, in perfect English, how much she loves her job. (Unfortunately, it’s only part-time and she’s not sure how long she will be able to keep it.) One of our taxi drivers told us with pride about his 14-year-old daughter, a champion kickboxer. We spotted a policeman feeding homeless cats when he thought nobody was watching. From waiters and bartenders to the mother and son team hosting our Airbnb, so many Greeks could not have been more gracious or helpful.
6. Athens is the home of the Acropolis and the birthplace of democracy
And it is nothing short of magical to walk through the grand columns of the Parthenon early in the morning or gaze up at them when they’re brightly lit against the dark night sky.
If you do go to Athens, here are a few suggestions for making it a meaningful trip:
1. Help the Greeks directly.
Pick a neighborhood and stay in someone’s home. We booked a charming, centrally-located Airbnb, that was reasonably priced and everything the photographs and reviews promised it would be.
As luck would have it, our flat was adjacent to Koukaki, an up-and-coming neighborhood filled with 60’s- and 70’s-era apartment buildings, bitter-orange trees and, as the travel and culture magazine, Greece Is, describes it, “just enough cafés and bars to keep the area alive and the locals here, against the magnetic pull of downtown Athens.” With lots of greenery, a nearly central Athens location, and easy access to public transportation, Koukaki is filled with families, young couples, artists, students, and restaurateurs.
It’s where we headed each morning to the bakery for fresh pastries and breads, served with a big smile by a young woman who remembered us from one visit to the next — and then back again almost every evening for dinner, returning to our favorite restaurant, Skoumbri, several times. With an amazing bookstore, its efficient and clean pharmacy, and late night gelato, Koukaki – especially the pedestrian Drakou Street – quickly became our home while away from home.
2. Avoid the tourists.
Use my daughter’s strategy of avoiding the heat and crowds by getting to the Acropolis at 7:30 am. We did and were pleased to find ourselves third in line behind two very funny and entertaining female Canadians. We also visited the Acropolis Museum early in the morning before the lines formed.
3. Scratch the surface and talk to the locals.
Spend an afternoon in a record store filled with art, lounging on comfortable leather chairs, listening to jazz and drinking wine. Investigate the flea market on Ifestou Street, where my son was delighted to find (and quickly purchase) a vinyl record of the Smurfs singing in Greek. Ask the locals for recommendations for everything from their favorite Greek islands to their favorite bar. The answers will probably be different each time, but revealing, and you may be treated to a small barrage of mobile phone photos. These small conversations and moments were full of surprises and quickly became my favorite memories of our days in Athens.
As the summer 2016 edition of This is Greece states: “Despite its share of bad publicity in recent years, Athens has shown admirable resilience. And this summer, the city has quite a few solid reasons to be optimistic.”
Yes, it does indeed.
Oh, and the wedding?
From the brand new, Byzantine-style church to a beautiful night reception on the beach, complete with lanterns and candles, comfortable Bohemian-style cushioned daybeds on the sand, gently lapping sea water to cool our feet in, lively music, Greek dancing and amazing food — the whole affair could not have been lovelier, nor the bride and groom happier.
So, all in all, are we glad we went to Athens? And would we go again?
© Kristin Fellows 2016
This travel tale first appeared on Pink Pangea