Travel Diary: Athens is not Sarajevo

Athens street

When the Gusto Guides team were preparing for our first trip to Athens, we weren’t sure what to expect.  After all, this is the city that has suffered the most through the economic turbulence of recent years.  After the endless tales of hunger and misery and unrest on the streets, we almost expected to find a city in turmoil: a 2010s Sarajevo or something similar, but with Euros and Troika instead of guns and bombs.

Despite our expectations, we found a city that sparkled with life, and that seemed to have resigned itself to these years of hunger being just that: a few years.  It’s easy to be reminded of how fleeting life can be (both misery and happiness) in a place like Athens, where ancient monuments are scattered through the city, and while the ancient Acropolis towers over the modern city.

Our Athenian adventure started in the lively neighbourhood of Omonia, where we stayed in the convenient, arty Hotel Fresh, 15 minutes’ walk from Syntagma Square and 30 minutes  from the old city area known as Plaka.

Our guidebook spoke of Omonia as an area in which you need to keep your eyes peeled, especially at night.  We had no issues with safety, although this is a busy market area during the day and full of local people running errands and living life (and as with any big city, you should keep your wits about you regardless of where you are).  There is a whiff of the bazaar about this neighbourhood, and you can find grandpa y-fronts and leopard print suitcases and foldable umbrellas all jumbled together in the shops that spill out onto the pavements.  This is also a fertile hunting-ground for food lovers – look out for olive oil, local cheeses, artisanal sweets and turkish delight by the kilo.

Athens shop

The central market and pet shops (spot the cages of hens and pigeons on the street where Sofokleos and Athinas cross) give Omonia a bustling, lived-in feel.  There are lots of reasonable restaurants, most of which serve rock-bottom cheap gyros and (at least subjectively) less eyes on your wallet than in other big cities like Barcelona.

Another nearby neighbourhood where you can get a feel for daily life in Athens is the Exarcheia, about 15 minutes’ walk from Omonia Square and en route to the National Archaeological Museum.  Here the graffiti – a common sight throughout the city – are even more common, and wind up walls and around doors and windows like Maori tattoos.

Exarcheia has historically been the city stronghold of anarchists, and could be considered a distant, Greek cousin of Madrid’s Lavapies or Barcelona’s Gracia.  It’s hard not to be reminded of the words of writer Hernán Casciari, who visited this part of the city only to find much more life than on the streets of other, more prosperous countries.  Casciari writes:

‘Whoever said Switzerland was amazing?  Or Finland?  Amazing is Mexico, Argentina, Spain…countries that boil.’

To sate the hunger generated by all that anarchy and thinking, we take a walk down the pedestrianised Valtetsiou Street, one of the main thoroughfares of the Exarcheia where we eat like kings at one of the quirky restaurants that line the street.  Despite the graffiti on the wall outside and the traces of poverty in this area, the clientele are well-heeled and dressed in the latest designer threads – the crisis evidently doesn’t get everywhere.

Another night we wander over to the upmarket neighbourhood of Kolonaki, about 10 minutes’ walk from Syntagma square.  This area is well-groomed and has the same look as many similar areas in Spanish cities, but here you can smell the proximity of political power.  You can tell that people live well in Kolonaki, from the interiors stores and the boutiques and the pricey restaurants.  But it doesn’t have quite the charm of Omonia or Exarcheia.

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