I’m an Athenian. I first came here in 1980. No other city has ever challenged me so much. It’s richly cultural yet abrasive and tumultuous. I’ve had my fair share of love-hate with the ancient Greek capital. My Athenian-born children spent most of their childhoods in Australia. But I keep coming back. So do they.
Many visitors to Athens treat it as a two-day springboard to the islands. Athens is worth much more. The city centre is immensely walkable. Public transport is now excellent. The crime rate is low compared to other European cities. Many residents speak English and/or other languages. It’s wall-to-wall culture.
Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis told the TBEX bloggers conference held in Athens late October that mainstream foreign media had damaged the city’s reputation by focusing on violent demonstrations in the centre and ignoring real life going on only streets away.
TBEX is the world’s largest gathering of travel bloggers (some pictured below chatting with locals), writers, content creators, and social media savvy travel industry pros.
Athens has a campaign to beef up its image to travellers, asking them to share the phrase: I’m an Athenian too. And there’s an app for that. I support the campaign because I’d like this city to get better press.
Scroll down and see a slice of real life Athens through my eyes.
When you’re an Athenian you, uh, also occasionally walk past the Parthenon and look at your phone instead. The cranes have been up there for many years, helping painstakingly renovate the 2,500-year-old temple.
When you go to the Acropolis Museum and realise that precious marbles that belong in it are in the British Museum, you may get indignant. That alone will earn you the I’m an Athenian tag. All the Parthenon marbles belong in Athens. Half a statue of Poseidon here, the other half in Britain. Unjustified on so many levels. UK actor Stephen Fry says that giving the treasures back would be a classy act. To support, after you’ve finished reading this post, please go to: British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles.
Freddo cappuccino – espresso coffee over ice with low-fat whipped milk – is the chic drink of summer. You know you’ve arrived and you’re settling in when you down one of these. For old style hardcore, try a frappe made with Nescafe. A guaranteed heart starter, and not kind to sensitive stomachs. Freddo prices start from 1.4 euros.
On streets shadowed by the Acropolis, the colours of a gyspy woman stand out against bitumen and sunbleached stone. Truth be told, they’re not the most popular Athenians. They’re the junk collectors, musicians and singers. Some gypsies drug their children and beg on street corners saying they’re sick. “It’s their long-term business plan,” quips a young Athenian friend. Gypsy kids beg at tavernas. I hate this child abuse. It’s been around for generations. One evening in Plaka I see a waiter give a thirsty little gypsy girl a glass of water. She gulps it. Then he shakes his head. The signal to leave. The look on his face is regret and sorrow.
At Mezedomakies, in Kypseli, it’s early evening and customers have yet to arrive. There’s plenty of kefi (the Greek word for party hard, basically) in the wall art. This older inner-city burb has better green spaces than newer districts. Eat and drink outdoors. Play. Bicycle. Stroll. Walk your dog. Please pick up your dog’s poo. Keeping Athens clean is a huge job. Everyone needs to do their bit. Athenians have become recycling converts.
That dog asleep in central Syntagma Square as hundreds of people walk past, he’s an Athenian too. Neutered and tagged for registration. He lives on the square, but is well looked after. This wasn’t always the case with street dogs. Or cats. There’s still plenty of hardship for strays. Animal welfare groups do their best.
Tourists and locals on bustling Mitropoleos Street just up from the Monastiraki Square. Souvlaki joints and traditional style tavernas. Tourists and Athenians eat here. The yeero with everything costs from only 2 euros.
Being an Athenian means you can take a nap in the afternoon when business is slow and hot streets somnolent. Not many people can afford this siesta luxury any more. Shopping hours conform to EU regulations, although small businesses will still close at 3pm Mondays and Wednesdays. It’s tradition.
City centre streets are very narrow. This is trendy Kolonaki, with lots of boutiques, stretching up the cone-shaped mountain of Lycabettos. Finding a park is hell. Driving isn’t fun. Thank God for the Metro, built for the Athens 2004 Olympics. The urban train system is clean, fast, efficient, cheap. Easiest way to get around, by far. Many of us use it regularly. Only here will you see copies of ancient treasures in a train station. We Athenians are as proud as hell of our Metro.
Wine bars are increasingly popular, offering a wide range of Greek wines as well as imported. This is Brettos, in Plaka, at 41 Kythanaion Street. Open 10am-3am. Our kind of closing hours.
Athenians love to shop at weekly suburban produce markets, and buy fruit, fish, flowers, herbs, veges… and underwear. Produce is freshest right here. Open from about 8am-2pm. Can’t guarantee the big knickers will fit.
Old men chill in cafes talking sport and politics because that’s what Athenian men of a certain age do. And have done for generations. Brazilian Café, at 10 Valoritou St, is one of the best known in Athens, where literati, intelligentsia and movie stars used to hang out. The Brazilian introduced Athenians to the joys of espresso.
Lottery man, pomegranate man and balloon dude selling dreams, fruit and a bit of fun. They support families with jobs like these, and it’s not easy. The economic crisis changed the city. Some people dumpster dive, sleep rough and line up at food kitchens daily.
Athenian bakeries are one of the joys of living here. Like the French, Greeks shop daily for fresh bread. Mountains of pastries, cookies, and kritsinias – bread sticks in myriad flavours: Cheese, sesame, carrot, spinach, and extra delicious!
The Glyfada marina, 12km from the city centre, is so tightly packed it looks like Athens peak hour traffic. Take the light rail from Syntagma and it will drop you off right here. You’ll see fishermen mending their nets, the way they have for hundreds of years. In the coastal burbs, eating kalamari is almost mandatory. Baby squid dusted in flour and flash fried. Crunchy, tender, tasty. At the end of the light rail line, there’s good swimming at Voula, in the cleaned up Saronic Gulf.
If you’re an Athenian, you don’t bat an eyelid at ridiculous amounts of mock cream on hot chocolate and mille feuille in upmarket Sloop Cafe, Ermou 1, Vouliagmeni, further down the coast from Glyfada. Swimming at nearby Akti Vouliagmeni jetty, is strictly an Athenian thing. Come and join us!
We’re all Athenians
TBEX travel bloggers enjoy a party on Pandrossou Street. Family businesses in the downtown Monastiraki/Plaka district operate a regular street market, with live music. We drink, eat, dance and shop. So much of Athens life is lived outdoors.
Yes, Athens, you are (almost) divine
Athens has a proliferation of ugly graffiti, and also uber cool street art. The economic crisis prompted a new spirt of creative energy. Even the New York Times calls Athens a “contemporary mecca for street art in Europe”. Alternative Athens does tours. Or you can simply walk around the areas down from Omonia Square, at Keramikos and industrial chic Gazi to see what young Athenians are up to.