At first glance, Athens’ off-centre neighbourhoods do not look particularly enticing. Beyond the hubs around Monastiraki and Syntagma squares, neo-classical architecture quickly gives way to a mishmash of concrete buildings, narrow laneways and uneven pavements. Add in persistent strikes, protests and the occasional burning building and it’s perhaps understandable that tourists tend to hole themselves at the base of Acropolis in picturesque Plaka and Thissio, conveniently bypassing today’s Athens in favour of the spectacle of millenniums past.
Admittedly, as I’m waiting for the lift in the ubiquitous apartment block near the less than salubrious Larissa train station, there is moment where I too think that opting to stay in the city’s Northern sprawl instead of its Greek island-esque historic centre might not have been the best plan. This doubt lasts for about three seconds however, until the moment Air BnB host opens the door to the place I’ll be staying for the next few days.
The apartment is lovely, and I instantly feel happy to be here. There is a bright open plan living area, floor to ceiling windows and huge terrace all creating a warm and welcoming Mediterranean feel, while the avant-guard fashion photography on the walls looks oddly similar to that in my own Hackney houseshare. The best bit however is Eleni, my host and housemate for the next few days, who is friendly and open, immediately inviting me to make myself at home while handing me a cup of tea and an epic supply of fresh fruit from the local Carrefour. She’s just returned from a weekend in London, so we chat about how the two cities compare (Athens is smaller with better weather, beaches and outdoor cafes. London has better architecture).
AirBnB was perfectly designed for travellers who want to get a local perspective without breaking the bank. To stay in one of the large rooms in Eleni’s apartment costs just £26 a night; a bargain when you think that you not only get a home from home feel but also instant access to insider knowledge. As Eleni talks me through maps of the city, I immediately see how valuable this is in somewhere like Athens, where with the perceived turbulence on the streets it would be easy for visitors like me to play it safe and stick to the obvious tourist areas. However, as we discuss the recent riots, she smiles; “That was just one day! One hour! Those areas you saw on TV – Syntagma and Exarchia – are perfectly fine most of the time! In fact you should see for yourself, walk through them at least – Exarchia is just near here. It’s funny; tourists see that image of buildings burning and think it’s all that Athens is. It isn’t!”
She’s right of course. I’ve done enough of these trips to know that what you see on TV rarely if ever captures the real spirit of a place, and that the crisis points upon which the media so enjoys turning the spotlight are often just one small part of a much more complex picture. Keen to explore this for myself, I pull myself off the sofa and hit the streets, waving goodbye to Eleni as she heads off to work in a local café while I aim myself firmly at Athens’ anarchist hub.
Home to students, artists and activists, Exarchia’s laneways have attracted resistance movements ever since the Polytechnic uprising in 1973 – where twenty four people were killed when military forces stormed the university – in a tank – as activists barricaded themselves inside in protest against the then dictatorship. Walking down Stournari Street and past the uni it’s hard not to be reminded of the blood spilled within its concrete walls in defence of democratic ideals, though it’s also clear that this defiant spirit is still alive and well today as a group of students crouch down on the pavement painting black protest banners with white lettering; Public Enemy blasting out from some nearby speakers.
While locals complain that the area is succumbing to inevitable bohemian gentrification, as a first time visitor to the area it’s hard to see it. I veer left towards Kallidromiou Street the graffiti encrusted walls, crumbling pre-war townhouses and post-war apartment blocks still have an unkempt, gritty feel. And while Exarchia has been described by some as Athens’ answer to Dalston or Williamsburg, it still feels quiet and residential, with bric-a-brac stores, pharmacies and grocers sitting next to occasional vinyl record shops specialising in hard rock and metal.
There is, however, a sense of the usual vintage/art/music scene that you often find in the more counter-cultural, student neighbourhoods, and soon enough I’m in second hand clothes store Yesterday’s Bread – rummaging through nylon dresses and a mountain of old converse trainers while chatting to Charlie, an American student digging through the coats. I ask her about the local art and fashion scene, and while she confirms that there are other areas of Athens like Gazi and Psyrri which also have an urban edge, Exarchia is holding its own. “There’s actually a new arty-style vintage store called ‘Les Broderies Anglaises’ opening up near Exarchia Square next weekend,” she says, holding a leathery-style jacket, “There is stuff going on if you know where to look.”
Leaving several Euros lighter, she points me in the direction of the Pro Art gallery down the road, and after this, several bookshops and a fat chicken souvlaki pita wrap, my post-flight head is weary and caffeine is definitely in order.
Eleni had already told me that putting the world to rights over a coffee is something of a national pastime in Greece, and when I walk into the Floral café on the corner of Exarchia Square, I see what she means. Students are squeezed onto benches piled high with papers, buzzing with conversation and surrounded by hardbacks from the alternative bookstore downstairs. A book called ‘Debt-ocracy’ seems popular, and as I search for a seat and order a double cappuccino, a young guy hands me a leaflet advertising a meeting on ‘fighting the rise of the European dictatorship’.
It’s here that I meet Yannis, a journalist friend who moved to Athens to cover the crisis. We decide to share a fresh Greek salad and as I connect to the wifi and scan the place’s event listings on my smartphone, I note that with everything from live music to political debates Floral seems to be more of cultural centre in its own right than just a café. “This is typical in Athens,” says Yannis, “It’s just like in the time of Socrates. The food and drink is important – and of course it’s excellent – but what Greeks want are places to come together and exchange ideas. Things might be difficult, but this is part of how we manage. Art, debates, music – these things are happening everywhere.”
“Everywhere”, I smile, nodding my head sideways to draw Yannis’ attention to the table beside us, where a group of twenty-somethings are locked in an intense discussion. He gets that my lack of Greek is making eavesdropping a bit tricky, and starts talking to them, presumably explaining that the nosy British girl wants to know what they’re getting so exorcised about. Luckily, this isn’t seen as being particularly rude and a guy with folk trend beard immediately switches into English, “We are talking about food. That with this crisis we need to eat natural things. Not American burgers. Things we make here.”
Again, I smile. After all, beyond its pretty tourist centre Athens seems fairly grey and ever so slightly decaying. And yet here I am, with just one afternoon in Exarchia showing that just through the doors of the shops and cafes there is still an undercurrent of cultural action; new ventures, political and philosophical debates, art, music. That perhaps protest isn’t the only way people are responding to this crisis. And later, when I get my first glimpse of the Acropolis Hill lit up against the dark sky, it’s good to know that however breath-taking the ruins, there is something more to this city than just its past glories.
Featured Image: The memorial to Aleksandras Grigorópulo, by Jose Téllez, Flickr