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Athens: A travel story about history and hope

published on 2012-05-21 by Sara
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I didn’t know anything about Athens prior to my visit. Nothing besides the contemporary political discourse, of course. Athens has a very difficult role in current EU politics, but as a holiday destination, I did not know what to expect.

I found out that Athens might be just one of the most charming, versatile and provocative cities of Europe. Stunned and stunted by our low-key prejudices, we walked around the streets of Plaka and Exarchia, lively neighborhoods full of contrasts.

The beautiful contradictions of Athens

And by contrasts, I mean there are visual extremes. Antic ruins and temples are the background of modern ruins, abandoned houses and closed shops. Graffiti is abundant and a feeling of youthful uprising in the air. There’s the Mediterranean sea right next to the mountains right next to the temples right next to the impressive port right next to the overcrowded streets, all that under a burning 30 degrees hot sun.

I suppose we believed that Athens was going to be a bit more like Florence: a bit dusty, with old stuff to look at and plenty of museums to visit. It sure is all that – and more.

Will Athens become the new Berlin?

Athens is more like Berlin than any other city I’ve ever visited. There’s dirt and grind and edge everywhere, but somehow, it’s charming. And it’s young.

Athens, like Berlin, has this strong vibe of an abandoned city, with opportunities of growth, and quite literally squatted by activists and artists, students and scholars from all over the world. There’s space in Athens.

Athens might become the first city in Europe to be taken over by a new system, just like you would expect a war-ridden city to be re-developed after the rubble. Perhaps an urban revolution?

When the money leaves, people become creative. In order to survive the bleak economic conditions, you have to be nifty. Is Athens Europe’s Detroit story?

What they create here might be able to dictate the ideals of our social and urban futures. Someday. What is Athens in 10 years? A creative hub? Another hotbed for start-ups? An artists paradise?

Navigating around Athens and its beaches

We rented out a car at the airport and we hopped from beach. We got sunburned (Marcus got sunburned). We had tasty food in lively outdoor restaurants in Exarchia and Gazi. We strolled over a random flea market, and tried to take pictures of graffiti-bombed trains while they passed.

We loved every minute and every second of our stay and we’re considering going again, because 3 days is hardly enough to see everything.

And while strolling through the Olive Gardens at the entrance of the Acropolis (which, alas, we couldn’t enter due to a holiday), just for a moment we felt all of it: Europe, Democracy, Philosophy. The atmosphere was mesmerizing.

Bars and nightlife in Athens

As for nightlife options, we went to Six Dogs, which is pretty much a place for everything: parties, drinking, hanging out, eating, exhibitions, concerts.

And we went to Bios in Gazi, which sports one of the most impressive views from its rooftop (Acropolis, of course).

We talked to many Greek cats, who led us through their nights, and told us about their hopes and dreams.

They insisted that they would never give up on their culture and their country, and despite all of the bad luck and bad planning of their respective governments, were really, really optimistic. I didn’t understand back then how incredibly high it was of them to speak like that to us: us, the Germans, who forced austerity on them.

We met an old man in Plaka on our way to the Acropolis. He told us about his shop which closed down after 50 years. His kitschy souvenir store was something you’d expect a hoarder to collect over the years. But this was a person’s personal history – poof, gone.

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