The city of Athens – Athina, the Greeks call it – is the cradle of Europe, home to an eclectic mix of cultures and attitudes which contribute to the city’s vivid atmosphere.
Of course, landmarks such as the Parthenon are known worldwide, but there are so many other treasures waiting to be discovered. Surprisingly, Athens is not one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations, and is usually trumped by Paris, Rome, and Barcelona in the city break polls. This seems a great shame considering its historic worth – without Athens, those places may not have existed as we know them today.
Athens is a city shrouded in negative myth. From the dark days of the military junta, through its heavily polluted and overcrowded development, and finally today’s near-bankruptcy – many will regard Athens as a meagre alternative to Rome. However, the city has done much to combat this, and should be given credit for it. The pollution levels are not as high as one might think; it’s probably the heat that exaggerates it. Athens is, after all, the southernmost capital of Europe. Nor is it ‘dirty’ – perhaps not as clean as Zurich, but travellers must accept that Greece is different to the rest of Europe and cannot be expected to conform to such standards.
… In the UK we see reports of rioting and protests, which makes Athens look unstable. It doesn’t mean there are riots all the time …
In recent times, the greatest ‘threat’ putting people off travelling to Athens is the fear of civil unrest, as a result of the recession. In the UK we see reports of rioting and protests, which makes Athens look unstable. It doesn’t mean there are riots all the time – even in Syntagma Square it feels perfectly safe. Many of the riots were in Exarcheia, the ‘anarchist’ district; the clue is in the name. Any traveller will have to take the usual city precautions, but Athens is probably less dangerous than London – it’s smaller, and the culture is more hospitable.
There are so many reasons Athens stands out from the rest of Europe. Firstly, it had so many foreign influences on its history, so the culture incorporates the best elements of Ottoman, Venetian, and of course Greek culture. A visitor to Athens will find the locals very friendly, welcoming and looking to enjoy life. Many Northern Europeans have criticised them (among other Mediterranean countries) for this, but Greeks generally work very hard during tourist season and can be seen enjoying their time off to the full. Surely if you live in a city as beautiful as Athens it’s wiser to enjoy all the brilliant things it has to offer than to stay indoors.
… Athens is so full of spirit, so full of life …
The Greeks are notoriously proud of their classical past, too, and the ancient monuments have near-sacred status. If you love ancient history, Athens is all your dreams come true. Even if you don’t (like me), you will be astonished by the sheer beauty of the Acropolis. Modern landmarks such as the Hellenic Parliament are also well worth a look. If you’re not into history at all, just walk the streets and absorb the wonderful atmosphere – breathe in the smell of honey and spices from the food shops, try a hearty Greek meal at one of Athens’ many tavernas, and people-watch as the lively locals go about their daily business. Athens is so full of spirit, so full of life that it rubs off a little of its magic on you and helps you enjoy the happiness of simply being alive.
One recommendation before you go – endeavour to learn a little of the alphabet. It’s not as difficult as people think – each letter corresponds to a sound, and Greek is mostly phonetic, so read the letters out and you have read the word. Our word “alphabet” comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet (‘alpha’ and ‘beta’), showing the impact Greek has on the English language. Plus, it really enhances your experience – every time you read a word correctly, you’ll get a brief moment of smugness that makes that little bit of effort completely worthwhile. Eavesdrop on a conversation – if you recognise any words, you’ll feel like a genius.
Athens is truly astonishing – it is the living, breathing heart of Europe.