This is a view of Athens in autumn from the Acropolis, looking towards the cone shaped mountain of Lycabettos with the city centre crammed, rather than sprawled, beneath the two pinnacles. How beautiful, you say. The Greek capital in all its Hellenistic glory. Stately neoclassical buildings with red-tiled roofs, autumn sun glinting off white buildings scattered like dice. Athens, including Greater Athens has a population of just over 3 million. It’s one of my home towns and I love it dearly. Until I drive in it.
Yup, it’s just another ugly morning on Vouliagmenis Avenue driving into the city centre. I’m going to to a Pilates class on a tree-lined street in the central suburb of Kolonaki, nestling on the slopes of Lycabettos. The journey is 11.1km. Ideally, it should take no more than 15-20 minutes. Any thoughts of an easy drive are screwed. The Troika have been in town.
That’s Greece’s international creditors who regularly fly to Greece and meet finance officials at the Greek parliament in the centre of the city.
There’s a no-go zone around Parliament.
Greece and the so-called Troika of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank have yet to reach an agreement on how to deal with non-performing loans in Greek banks, crucial labour and insurance sector reforms. And details of the draft 2015 budget.
When they’re here, the centre goes into lockdown. Traffic is diverted away from Syntagma (Constitution Square). Usual traffic madness turns into fucking gridlock, with lanes of traffic diverted up narrow one-way streets. Yes, there’s the ancient Temple of Olympian Zeus up ahead. It should give me a small thrill but a taxi has cut in front of me as I prepare to turn right and the blur of yellow and a power pole are competing for my attention. Driving in Athens Tip Number One: Like NYC cab drivers, Athens’ taxis have their own rules. And they rule, OK?
I cross Vasilissis Sofias Avenue and negotiate narrow streets up to the formerly uber fashionable district of Kolonaki. At this stage traffic is still flowing down towards Syntagma. A cat streaks in front of the red car and then runs under the bus. I look away. There’s an animal squished every minute somewhere on an Athens road. Although last week I watched a dog calmly run under a semi-trailer and emerge unscathed on the other side.
The Greek economic crisis ripped the heart out of Kolonaki. Boutiques and fancy shops closed like dominoes falling. But it takes more than the worst economic crisis in decades to kill off Kolonaki completely. Some elegant stores defy economic woes. Kolonaki Square cafes hum with life. Cool new cafes have opened up. They’re buzzing too. But some streets remain as empty as a ghost town and as derelict.
Oh, look! Here’s a woman in her smart car with her designer pooch in the other seat and she’s talking on her smart phone as she slows down and waits for traffic to move.
She breaks off her conversation to brush the dog away when he tries to interrupt. Now it’s NO hands. Cars move again and she eases forward, with one hand patting the dog and the other still on the mobile.
Fifty minutes after setting off I get to the Illium Center of Light, a Kolonaki fixture for well over 30 years. It has miraculously escaped the fate of many other businesses. Owned by Jenny Colebourne, who is one of my closest friends, it offers pilates, reiki, yoga and a wide range of therapeutic treatments such as the Bowen Technique and Cranial Sacral Therapy. It is an oasis of calm in the chaos of central Athens.
Pilates is awesome, thank you Jenny. I feel very zen. Then it’s a crap drive back to the coastal suburbs. Not so zen. Three lanes southbound on the avenue are blocked from driving into Syntagma. Police are redirecting, lorries, buses and cars up that ultra-narrow side street. The one pictured with the red car driving up it, that I negotiated earlier. Three lanes. Into that.
I do an illegal U-turn in the middle of the avenue (following other drivers’ example) and divert through the inner suburb of Pangrati, which also has streets so constricted you breathe in, if as it might help. I need a junk food stop.
If you’re a visitor to this city, do yourself a favour.
- Take the train. Or a bus.
- Public transport here is very good these days, and it’s super cheap. If you have an eligible concession card, it’s half price.
- The Metro particularly is clean, runs on time and runs often, seven days a week, early until late.
- It also gets you there faster than you could drive it.
- Or you could always get a cab.