There's No City Like Athens

Every year thousands of tourists visit the capital of Greece. Athens is a lively, vibrant city of almost five million people and with a lot to give. Generally regarded as the cradle of Western Civilization, the Old Goddess has a far more oriental touch than one would imagine. Covering an enormous surface and made out of numerous quarts, each of them almost a town for itself, Athens is too diverse and full of surprises to be categorized in any way.                                                                                                        

To La Bammbiraunne.
They say nothing is black and white. I would love if everything was blue and white.

The White Giant

I was enchanted with Greece from an early age, even before having a glimpse of the country (Maybe it has something to do with the fact I wobbled in my mother’s stomach around Athens for a week or two). First, of course, came the mythology. Only later I will find out how poetically it blends into the Greek reality – how the towns and villages float somewhere in time, in some illusionary dimension, being merely physically scattered across the land and sea for us to see.

People that inhabit this magical realm, the Greeks that I came to admire through the years, are temperamental, energetic and passionate people blessed with a curious and ever critical mind. Although it is never good to generalize, I could still perhaps say with some confidence that human virtues such as generosity, openness and a certain undefinable wise ease in dealing with life, still remain at large here, despite being on the brink of extinction around our world.

In the center of this strange galaxy, there is a white giant – a phenomenon for Greece in terms of size, as Alcyone is in the constellation of Pleiades. The scorching Mediterranean heat, the omnipresent dust coming from Africa, poverty and grandeur, chaos of the streets and mediational calmness of the parks, heroic past and anarchic present – they all crash head on in Athens and form the burning magnetic core of the Greek universe.

Olympus-Row Seats

On top of Filopappou, the ancient Hill of Muses, silence has long been exiled. Everything roars and buzzes, and even the ground seems like it’s shaking from the city bustle under. Whiteness spreads as far as eye can see, covering the entire valley and firmly thrusting its nails into the dry skin of the surrounding mountains. Lingering low and twinkling on the sun like a lizard that just came out of the sea, Athens beats in an ecstatic rhythm that moves and changes, but never loses its tempo.

From the Pnyx, a most impressive view of Acropolis opens up. Not accidentally, it was on this hilltop where the Athenian democratic assembly was once held – the sight still inspires such an awe that it evokes the sense of responsibility men once must have felt when making decisions, looking at it and knowing that nothing similar exists anywhere else in the world.

Looking at it today, it is easy to imagine how the sack of Acropolis would have looked like: down at the gates, the reserve units are standing in row formation, waiting for the sign of the gatekeeper to storm the slopes; troops inside the siege perimeter are mostly organized in rectangular orders behind their commanders, which are easy to spot by their colorful waving banners and hats to match them; ones that have breached the fort stand at the Propylaea victoriously raising their phones, pardon, swords; in the chaos of battle some try to exit the siege zone, while others continue to wander unorganized throughout the lower town, around the theater of Dionysus and the gymnasium. As night begins to settle, the siege grinds to a halt and the looting is postponed until tomorrow.

On the other side, the sun sinking into the Aegean behind Piraeus and Salamis is a sight that just doesn’t go bad with age. I consumed it from the hill of Lykavittos. It arises suddenly from the ground, like a green rotunda with a rocky dome. In the blossoming, marble paved yard of a small Cycladic-style church on top, the sense of peace and harmony is often shattered by the crowds of visitors. Even then, the lower slopes still offer a lot of place for relaxation and contemplation with nothing but the city as company.

A sling shot away, almost in the shadow of Lykavittos, a smaller but none the lesser, Strefi hill peeks just above the rooftops to overlook millions of dancing city lights. I remember the first time spending a night there. We were drinking beers in infinite numbers, just sitting on a park bench and talking, smoking diligently, from time to time running down the old marble stairs through a tunnel of lemon trees to replenish our resources. Everything smelled so good.

Fists Held High

Going down from Strefi, either something interesting is going to happen or it is going to be a descent into hell – sometimes it depends on how you look at it, sometimes it just doesn’t. Welcome to Exarcheia. A dodgy, dusty, beautiful neighborhood ornamented with amazing street art and packed up with raw, courageous energy.

Exarcheia is the headquarters of the Greek anarchist movement that gives the entire area a kind of vibe both open and freeing. At the same time, it suggests a certain unwritten order of things, a collective existence far above mere survival beyond the margin. On the Exarcheia square people gather every night to protest, make performances, burn something or just talk, drink and enjoy the night. It is the heart of the district, and the square has over the years become a cultural melting pot: refugees and immigrants from all over the world, students, artists and activists, Greek and foreign, all kinds of profiles come together for an energetic discharge, streaming through the warm reeking air.

The quart has long nurtured a culture of resistance – since 1973 actually, when the uprising of the students that brought down the military dictatorship started, after the troops stormed the nearby Athens Polytechnic University. During the decades, this initial spark of rebellion shaped Exarcheia in many ways. The area is full of amazing bars, inspiring street performances, communal actions, art and galleries, simply said a sanctuary of alternative cultural scene and a sense of togetherness. Everything is about self-sustainable governance and responsibility that doesn’t drain its authority from the law.

Exarcheia is not a tourist hotspot – it is utopic and post-apocalyptic, untamed and unpredictable; with kind of beauty we admire in a wild animal. Never, I repeat, never park your car there.

Usually, people that don’t like Athens base such an opinion on Exarcheia and the neighboring Omonoia. Being the “official center” of the city and besides that nothing more than a traffic chokepoint, Omonoia square is always swarming with cars, running wild but doing their best not to kill the Greek pedestrians that are running for whatever and again, doing their best to find their way around tourists that are turning around themselves, staring helplessly in confusion, not knowing why they are actually there. The area, on the other hand, despite the poverty and the bad living conditions, hides some amazing bars, craft shops and very cheap places to stay. There is much more to Omonoia than what one gets from first impression, but a few streets can indeed, sometimes, spell danger.

Silk and Ceramics

One quart that is quickly reversing its bad reputation is Metaxourgio, a next door neighbor to Omonoia. Despite its immediate proximity to pretty much everything, it was one of the poorest parts of town, considered a ghetto by many. With all the ups and downs that Greece has been through in the last few decades, areas in Athens have a tendency to change very quickly and very drastically – for better, or for worse. Metaxourgio started transforming itself during the last years, and has been attracting creative people ever since with growing number of art spaces, enthralling bars and daring food venues.

The bad ass vibe of the past is still felt in Metaxourgio, but more as an attitude, than as a real sense of a dangerous hood. Romantically crumbling neoclassical architecture squeezed in a network of narrow alleys forms a labyrinth full of hidden garden oases, tiny squares and abandoned houses covered in strong, expressive graffiti and murals – a sense of laziness and ephemerality cools the place. Sweet σχόλη.

It’s all in one – inviting and threatening – little tables surrounded by recognizable Greek chairs with knitted-wood seats are scattered along the dusty pavement; suddenly, from a crisscrossing pattern of one way streets, a huge boulevard breaks through; post-industrial clubbing megastructure arises on it, with its hellish red brick chimney, inviting you to turn your back on the thousand-year-old marble pillars and arches, just a spit behind. Plug into the Athenian Technopolis. If I were to judge a city by a single impression, it would always be the arrival-departure of the last train from the central metro stations. Athens is a kind of city where people that arrive to start the party outnumber those that are leaving in a staggering proportion.

Nevertheless, when the sun comes back up, and most of us crawl back underground from where we came from, the ancient Kerameikos returns to glory. Touristy taverns encircling the Ancient Agora and the Temple of Hephaestus complex, serve as a perfect distraction for huge number of visitors and as a rare example of tasteful commercialization of the surroundings of an archeological site.

The Greeks have a long lasting tradition of high aesthetical value, balanced taste and architecture made not only to serve its purpose, but also to perfectly fit the environment, natural and manmade, in terms of materials used and something that I would again dare consider a philosophical approach to all things. It is wonderful to wonder through ancient Agora, knowing it was once the commercial center of the city, and then just step outside the complex on the other side, into the modern commercial city nucleus of Monastiraki.

The Sound of the Feast

I think I will always remember the feeling of finding myself inside the Monastiraki Flea and Antiques market for the first time. The heat was almost unbearable and even the shade of the canopies, completely blocking the sunlight in the narrow passages of this One Thousand and One Night-like-bazaar, didn’t do much of a relief. The air was standing still and infinite rows of shelfs were disappearing in a moist, sweaty mirage. A sight for sour eyes, tired of sterile headache-smelling malls. Hanging leather slippers and sandals, spices and old silverware, paintings and souvenirs, hundreds of unique treasures and billions pieces of colorful and jolly, but still worthless shit. Dig and you shall find, bargain and you shall have it.

On the exit from this arabesque tunnel, smell of boiling rotten fruit usually hits right before the psychedelic pavement of Monastiraki square. The old Ottoman mosque just intensifies the Moorish-like atmosphere. Further through, in the tangly patchwork of crowded shadowy corridors and stone flowery plateaus of the area, tavernas wrestle with crafts and sweet shops for what little space is left, and the fight goes on all the way up to the marble paved Plaka, and the Cycladic white-blue Anafiotika on the scarp of Acropolis, where in a magical staircased alley called Mnisikleous something happened that changed everything.

For me, a few things in life can rival a good Greek taverna. It is Balkans in all its poetry – an uncultivated nobility from start to end. The moment you sit, and this stands for every place in Greece, not only for Athens or tavernas, a glass carafe of icy water hits the table: boom! And the waiter is gone. Once I noticed this for the first time, the blunt rattling of ice started following me everywhere, calling me, and I came to relish this gest as a sacred nourishing ritual. Never did I order something in Greece nervously just to quickly extinguish the thirst.

After the water, comes the wine… this time in a copper-like jug along with small shallow glasses – a bit bigger than the ones used for shots, but slightly smaller than the ones for whiskey. These glasses don’t demand a serious maintenance and a cutting-edge radar attached to elbows, like the classic wine ones. No, they are made for a table that is going to shake and shake from hits, hips and sips. Jug comes full, first wave spills anyway, no matter how you pour it, rest is ours and yamas! Bacchus’s not dead! You know it when tunes of rembetika climb up your legs and over your lap, when they grab you by the collar and pull you up like a bully, so when you close your eyes and raise the hands up in surrender, a punch of bouzouki-fueled rebellion is coming.

And then the food… food in Greece makes me forget my genuine laziness to eat anything but meat and I expressly turn into a bottomless, insatiable pit that may only spit out everything, at some point, but it will never stop ingesting more. It is all about the small plates. Take the right ones and an exploding spring of tastes will follow. Fried goat cheese with honey and sesame; mashed lentils with purple onion, olives and lemon; vine leaves stuffed with rice; deep-fried zucchini with tzatziki; vinegar pickled small-fish in olive oil and spices; lamb hearts, lungs and kidneys wrapped inside crispy intestines… Where can one stop?

The Piper Under a Tree

Parks are great for digestion. Temples too, if you ask me. It’s no wonder that in ancient times, visitors of Athens would start their tour of the city not at the Acropolis, but at the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. Although only a few eroded columns are left standing and barely a handful of people gives it more than needed for a photo proof that they were there, it is pretty hard to miss out on the absolutely gargantuan scale of the shrine.

The building project was ambitious beyond our modern understanding – it was meant to be the greatest temple of the ancient world and when it was finally completed by Roman Emperor Hadrian, after more than 600 years in the making, Athens was no longer “the center of the world”. Still, Hadrian didn’t stop erecting – he filled the entire circle with temples and public spaces, finishing it off with one of the largest and by some accounts “most impressive statue in the world, after Colossuses of Rhodes and Rome”. Today, only fragments and a single gate remain out of everything that Hadrian built there. Marvelous, yet ironic monuments to both rulership and vanity.

According to a 2.000-year-old travel blogger #Pausanias, the gardens of Aphrodite used to be somewhere nearby… and I love to imagine that  that is the Zappeion park, or the National Gardens of Athens. The idyllic dream-like atmosphere of the place is opiatic in August, when the city outside is scorching and cricket voices thunder high. Looming around twists and turns of slender gravel roads, from grove to grove, over lakes and meadows, almost like Pan and the Nymphs are going to jump out at any time.

In the beginning I said how mythology and reality poetically mix in Greece. They truly do, but poetry is not all flowers, love and marble. It can also be profane, carnal, sensual or just pure terrestrial with all its filth and corruption, compliance and resignation.

The Exodus

Streets pop out like ribs out of a spine from the long and exotic Patission boulevard, forming a skeleton of a once healthy, living and breathing neighborhood. Things quickly turned bad after the economic crisis in 2008 when housing prices dropped to lowest rate in living memory. Then came the waves of migration, and refugees that found themselves stuck in Greece moved into the Patissia area in huge numbers. Without jobs or any perspective – most of them didn’t have any papers, not to mention work permits – crime started to take hold. America’s Square, one of the main in the quart, along with the infamous Exarcheia, remains among the last public places in Athens, where you can get weed at any time after nightfall.

Can’t help but remembering one time I was lying on an old mattress just a few streets from the square, ground floor crib, my head leveled with earth. Blinds were down, but the window was open and with air came the sounds of languages so various and many, bringing emotions strong and clearly felt without understanding a single word. I was wrong when talking about the Temple of Zeus. Athens was and always will be the center of the world.

Written by Novak Lukovac
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