Every time I post anything about the Greek capital, I open with some variation of the phrase: ‘this is my favourite city in the world’. To be fair, the consistency in that repetition arguably just underlines the truth in it.
Not everybody feels the same about Athens as I do mind you; the crumbling buildings adorned with graffiti are fairly different to the blue domed churches that come to mind for most folks when they think of Greece, but the grunge and character of the place are partly why I love it.
Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of beauty to be found. You can’t walk more than a few hundred metres without stumbling upon some other beautiful ancient building, but these sit alongside and are part of a living, breathing urban entity – not simply preserved in some museum-like state.
I’ve been coming to Athens regularly since I was but a sprog, as I have Greek family – but unfortunately COVID meant that I haven’t made it out since 2018. As a result, it was nice to catch up with folks I haven’t seen in a long time.
It had been much longer for Grace, who hadn’t been in the city since we lived here for a bit back in 2014. Going to Mykonos last year didn’t quite scratch the itch – and it was fun to explore all of the well-trodden streets and see what had changed. What places were still there, and which had gone – familiar dives replaced by shiny falafel stands.
Despite the impact of the pandemic, Athens had seen a notable increase in new and varied places to eat and drink since we were last here – and we made the most of the time we had to enjoy and explore as much of that as we could – not least because the quality of things like fruit and vegetables is so much better than what we get back in the UK.
Areas that were previously a bit run-down or felt a bit sketchy had seeen some of the most significant changes, with Psyri in particular cleaned up and now bursting at the seams with trendy establishments. It felt like Athens had grown into itself a bit.
One of my favourite neighbourhoods has always been Exarcheia – which for many years has been home to both artists and so-called ‘counter-cultural’ movements. This was often the source or genesis of protest or resistance, and back in 2014, this was a place where the police rarely ventured, such was the hostility towards them from the residents.
Exarcheia Square in particular was a particular focal point, and so I was surprised to see that not only was it entirely barricaded off, but also encircled by groups of riot police – something that would have been unthinkable previously. What I learned later was that the Government had decided to take a much harder line approach to ‘clean up’ the neighbourhood, and as part of that, the Square had been ear-marked as the site for a new Metro station. This obviously didn’t go down well with residents, who – whilst supporting public transportation – view the chosen location as something of a deliberate political move, designed to symbolically weaken the anti-authoritarian left.
The issues are complicated enough already, but have been compounded by an explosion in property being bought up by land developers to use for short-term holiday rentals – encouraged by a deliberate policy to grant five year residence permits to anybody that invests 250k Euros in such a way – pushing out the very folks who made up the core of the neighbourhood before. While Exarcheia was once described as a ‘no go area’ by the US Embassy and others, it now apparently has the highest number of AirBnB listings in the whole of Athens.
I did run into a wee spot of bother with the Greek police at this point, who objected to me taking pictures. This was never something that I had a problem with before, but I suspect their sensitivity to anything going on around Exarcheia is particularly heightened. They told me to delete the pictures of them, and since I didn’t fancy getting embroiled in some dispute with the infamously aggressive riot division, I did so. Well, one of them anyway – and I simply used some file recovery software to get it back afterwards. As far as I am concerned, everybody should be able to freely photograph or film the police – especially when they are engaged in particularly controversial or politically involved situations. The erosion of that fundamental right is a significant red flag for the functioning and operation of democracy. After all, if they’ve got nothing to hide then they’ve got nothing to worry about. Right?
Aside from all of that, I generally just enjoyed being back in and about the city – and spent many hours wandering about, taking pictures. If you’re interested in a bit more of a glimpse of that, then you could have a watch of this YouTube video I’ve put together of the process…
The weather was unusually varied for the time of year, and we even got a few days of sustained, heavy rainfall – which was rather bizarre. Despite spending a good chunk of time in Athens over the Autumn/Winter before, I’d never seen anything like this. Whilst others might have despaired, I actually quite enjoyed seeing the place from a different perspective, and have something of a fascination with taking pictures in the rain. Well, when abroad anyway. It just looks so good – especially when the various street vendors appear within just a few minutes of the skies opening up, arms laden with brollies to capitalise on the freshly created market – and everywhere blooms with colourful shells.
We didn’t do any of the usual touristy things, as we’d already been up the Acropolis more times than I care to remember – and instead just soaked everything up.
As you can probably tell, I took a lot of pictures, largely with my Ricoh GR III – which is such an excellent travel and street camera. It’s kind of funny to look back over such a large number of shots, and think about how much better these are than some of my earlier efforts – particularly in relation to all of the struggles that I feel I’ve been having with photography and motivation over the past few years. Perhaps I need to just get out and about and travel more again.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. Coincidentally, Ireland were playing Greece in the Euro qualifiers, so for a few days, the streets were awash with green – and old men demanding pints of Bacardi from perplexed cocktail bars. Quite the spectacle.
I very much enjoyed being back in Athens. Hopefully it won’t be another five years before I get to visit again.
Want more? Lucky you! I’m on YouTubes.