Riots, political chaos and escalating uncertainty dominated our view of Greece in 2011, and with the economy still in crisis, Tyler Wetherall visited Athens to see how the land lies for visitors.
‘Over there! That’s where the tear gas started,’ a friend pointed out. I recognised it from watching the news back home in London. Through the safety of the TV screen, I had witnessed men flee this very spot with streaming eyes and others frantically put out the flames climbing up their clothes.
But on this sunny day in Syntagma Square there was no fire, gas or violence. Just some steps leading up to Parliament, now clean and empty, and two men in white tights and pleated skirts with red pom poms on their shoes doing some sort of slow motion quasi- aggressive can-can.
These are the Evzones, the elite soldiers of the Presidential Guard who stand in front of Parliament guarding the Monument of the Unknown Soldier. They stand here every day, and on the hour they do their coordinated march. If you stand in their way, they are allowed to march-kick you with their tsarouchia, the pom pom shoes, which weigh 3kg each and have a pointed edge. Pictures of the Evzones with tears in their eyes from the gas emerged after the riots. I can’t help but wonder if they march-kicked the first few rioters, before they were relieved from duty. It seems they did not.
I was in Athens to work with our local experts on GuidePal’s Athens City Guide. When I booked my flights in October, at the height of the economic crisis, I thought this will either be the worst time possible to see the city – prices inflated and tension on the streets – or the most interesting, with bargains to be had and change in the air.
I emerged from the metro and walked to my hotel. My map guided me up a heavily graffitied street, where street people were selling bric-a-brac on the pavement. It seemed an unusual location for what was the charming and chic O&B boutique hotel, one of the new breed of trendy Athenian hot spots to have opened before the recession. But this was just the first of the many contrasts I encountered in Athens that makes it so unique; none more striking than between the violence I had witnessed on TV back home and the city I was experiencing firsthand.
I do the same thing in every city I visit. I start at one end and walk to the other, the only way to get a feel for a place. The cobbled streets of pretty Plaka with its overpriced tourist tat shops were empty. Unsurprisingly, many weekend-breakers have been put off, which for someone who doesn’t like camera-snapping crowds, is a good thing. But as I continued through Monasteraki up to studentville of Exarchia, where many of the young protest groups are based, the atmosphere changed. The cafes were buzzing, the restaurants full and the bars overflowing. These weren’t tourists, but young, cool Athenians.
Sitting down for a jug of rakomelo – hot grappa softened with honey – I listened to the political debate going on behind me. They were talking about the relative degree of corruption between their government and the troika, as they call the EU leaders. I’m sure many across Athens were having similar conversations. For anyone with political leanings, this is a very interesting place to be right now.
Talking to young Greeks they waver between a determination to fight it out for Greece’s right to be amongst the modern prosperous countries of Europe, and a tragic despair for the future. Nowhere was this split more evident than in the city’s prolific graffiti. When Byron marked his name on Temple of Poseidon over two centuries ago, he clearly started a trend. Like a mind map to the nation’s thoughts, every surface engages in debate, and other surfaces answer back. A stone bench and a wall by the Acropolis carry the anarchists symbol and the imperatives, ‘Eat the rich!’ and ‘Profit = Theft!’ Another back street off touristville is illustrated with murals and the message, ‘I don’t cry for you Papandreou, and Greece will never miss you.’ Graffiti is a medium to empower the people. One image plays on this with a hooded youth, giving the finger alongside the words, ‘My spraycan, your molotov.’
The change in society is palpable. Of course, it had to happen. It is happening as I write. I noticed it in things like how the up-market restaurants were empty while the local tavernas were overflowing. ‘Everyone has to cut back, but people will still go out,’ Matt Barrett, who has lived in Athens for over 40-years and runs websiteGreekTravel.com told me.
‘Tavernas and restaurants are becoming souvlaki joints, so it costs EUR 10 a head rather than EUR 30. The price of coffee in the fancy cafes has dropped, and the cheap places are more popular. The expensive restaurants used to do a EUR 500,000 revamp once a year. Now they’ll have to live with the same décor, and hope people value substance over style. This may start to happen on every level of commerce, and I think it is a good thing.’
The Greece Matt describes is one adapting albeit begrudgingly to a new economic imperative.
That Sunday, George Papandreou announced his resignation. I found out while buying an ice cream. I had ordered mastic, a herb unique to the island of Chios, and the ice-cream man also George insisted I try it first, because it’s an acquired taste. It was that sort of friendliness I experienced throughout the city regardless of the world crumbling around us.
For my last meal before boarding the metro home, I went to a small taverna in the local community of Ano Petralona. Ikonomou has been serving traditional Greek food since 1920. I was the only English-speaking customer in the packed restaurant, and they were more than welcoming. With no menu available, I was taken into the kitchen to point at what I wanted. The food was delicious and dessert was free. I ate enough for a family and my bill came to less than EUR 15. Finishing off my jug of wine, I thought this taverna was here back when Greece was poor. It still survived when Greece became rich, and I imagine whatever happens next, it’s not going anywhere fast, which filled me the some sort of optimism.
I got to thinking about why we travel. I don’t travel necessarily to have a good time otherwise I wouldn’t find myself trekking for days through the jungle in torrential rain. I don’t travel to find myself either; if anything I travel to lose myself, preferably in another culture and another way of life. Visiting Athens right now, you may not see the glittering city of a more prosperous decade, but it is a city in the midst of historic change, and it’s times like these in which you encounter another civilisation at its most real and fascinating.
Tyler@GuidePal in Athens
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