Alternative Athens: Air BnB and Exploring Exarchia

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.

Night Cafe: mkhalili, Flickr

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

Five of the Best Cafe/Bars in Athens

Athens is very good at cafes. It needs to be; as my friend Yannis says, Greeks like nothing more than gathering together over a good espresso and putting the world to rights. Which means than not only are there a lot of cafes, but that cafes need to be more than just place to grab a drink and a snack in order to attract the crowds. Cultural centres in their own right, if you will.

It’s also fair to say the lines between cafes and bars are quite blurred in Athens; bright homely places where you might go for lunch and a catch-up seem to transform as the sun sets into dark, atmospheric spaces where the music gets louder and the drinks get significantly stronger. So, for no other reason than because it’s impossible to separate them, I’ve bundled cafes and bars together here.

You’ll see what I mean. Here are my top five.

1. The Art Foundation (website) – Monastiraki Metro

‘TAF’ is a bit of a challenge to find; located around the back of Monastiraki on a small laneway and through what I seem to remember was an unmarked door. This of course makes the whole experience of actually getting inside all the better – the cafe section is set up in a beautiful outdoor courtyard (covered over in winter) surrounded by old townhouses housing art installations, which you are free to wander through while enjoying any number of strong cocktails or a spirit-fuelled hot chocolate. While I was there they were hosting an exhibit called The Blog Diaries, where local bloggers were invited to exhibit work from their personal blogs, but the programme includes everything from theatre to live music.

2. The Black Duck (website) – Panepistimio Metro

A self-proclaimed ‘multiplarte’, the Black Duck is a slightly classier kind of establishment, with a cafe on the ground floor, a restaurant on the first floor and a gallery in the basement. It’s slightly upscale without being in any way pretentious; very much the kind of place you could feel very comfortable spending hours typing away on a laptop, then meeting friends for coffee followed by food and wine from the gorgeous Euro/Greek menu. The filo feta with honey and poppy seeds is definitely worth stopping by for. And like TAF, the Black Duck isn’t short of live music, book tours, poetry readings and intellectual talks to keep you entertained.

The Art Foundation

3. Bliss (website) – Syntagma Metro

Bliss is just lovely; a caring, sharing, brightly coloured, slightly hippish kind of place serving Indian yoghurt, buckwheat muffins and ‘theraputic’ herbal teas. The cafe is a riot of pinks and oranges with tables covered in what seemed to be fruit inspired wrapping paper, while the back section is all big comfy cushions and low tables. They also have a packed seminar programme, covering a huge range of ‘good living’ topics from Mexican cooking to laughter yoga.

4. Floral (website) – Exarchia, Omnia Metro

Housed in a Bauhaus inspired blue building on the corner of anarchistic Exarchia square, Floral is part cafe, part university common room. The place is usually packed with students from the Polytechnic enjoying standard cafe staples like omelettes, crepes and of course good coffee, while the alternative bookshop downstairs gives the place an intellectual vibe. Definitely the sort of place you could feel comfortable sitting in for hours reading Chomsky or Sartre. Again; music, talks, debates. You get the picture now.

5. A is for Athens (website) – Monastiraki Metro

The rooftop cafe/bar at the A is for Athens hotel is quickly getting a reputation among locals and tourists alike as being one of the few places in the city you can enjoy the incredible Acropolis view without spending a fortune or booking a table. That said, by early evening the place is packed, so it’s probably worth going down as early as possible to secure a prime spot. Again, in summer the place is open air, but in winter the temporary roof gives the place a warm and cosy atmosphere.

Photo Credit: Tilemahos_E

Interview: A guide for visiting Palestine

Every day, Fred Schlomka’s Green Olive tour company picks up a car full of Jerusalem tourists and guides them through the Separation Wall into the Palestinian West Bank, visiting refugee camps, social enterprises and – in what’s been seen by some as a controversial move – settler communities.

Having joined one of these tours earlier this year, I recently interviewed Fred to find out first hand why he set up Green Olive Tours, and what he sees for the future of Palestine.

1. So, where did the idea for Green Olive Tours come from?

I launched Green Olive Tours in 2007. For many years I had been organizing specialized tours for two Israeli organizations that I worked for, Mosaic Communities and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. These tours were aimed at activists and researchers who came to Israel/Palestine to further their understanding of the political issues here and experience the events on the ground.

I decided to offer these types of tours to a broader public, and include cultural experiences and some more conventional tourist activities. The blend of experiences serves the general tourist public and enables them to go home with a more rounded view of our country.

2. And why was it important to you to set up Green Olive Tours?

Most tour companies offer a ‘Disneyland’ view of the country, from a Jewish or Christian perspective, often excluding information, experiences, and sites that conflict with their worldview. Green Olive Tours tries to offer a more comprehensive experience while gently advocating for a more humanistic and democratic perspective.

The tours serve as a bridge between my political and professional work. Through traveling the West Bank almost every day I am able to monitor the situation and stay in touch with my contacts. Through offering tourists the opportunity to benefit from my experienced guides’ knowledge, and witness the impact of the Occupation, they often are motivated to become politically active when they return home. Some return as volunteers in the organizations we introduce them to.

3. Is it important for tourists to visit the West Bank?

It is extremely important. Most Israeli tour companies offer only limited opportunities to visit the West Bank, often telling their clients that it is too dangerous. However there are many important religious and historical sites in the West Bank, and hospitable Palestinians who are eager to tell their stories. No visit to the Holy Land is complete without at least several days visiting the West Bank.

4. What’s been the hardest part of setting up and running Green Olive Tours?

Lack of capital. We are a ‘bootstrap’ operation and completely self-funded. If there was access to capital then the business could grow faster. However growing in an organic fashion has its benefits. When we make mistakes it is less costly.

Another issue is marketing. All the major tour companies that conduct day-trips have full access to the residents of tourist hotels. Our brochures and flyers are rejected by the mainstream hotels for political reasons, and we are restricted to marketing through the smaller and Arab-owned hotels.

5. What do you think is the main thing that people on your tours get from the experience?

They see the reality of life in the West Bank and Israel, and are provided with enough information to make up their own minds about the issues. People-to-people contact is also much appreciated by our clients. On most of the tours they are able to meet Palestinians and Israelis, have conversations, and often to have lunch with a family.

6. You have recently launched a ‘Meet the Settlers’ tour. Why did you decide to run this tour? Has that been controversial?

The tour was started to give visitors the opportunity to hear from the settlers themselves about their philosophy and reasons for living in the West Bank. Some Israeli and Palestinian activists are critical of this tour. Since the settler/guide receives a fee, they feel that the tour is actually supporting the settlement enterprise.

However on balance I think that it is more important to educate tourists about the settlements than to worry about a few dollars ending up in the hands of a settler.

7. What are your hopes for the future of Israel and Palestine?

My hope is that we all can find a way to live together within a democratic framework. However the present trends of settlement expansion and lack of negotiations does not bode well for the immediate future.

I believe that any possibility for the ‘classic’ two-state solution is over. The idea is a fantasy that the settlers will be removed from the West Bank and a largely Jewish-free state is formed in the West Bank and Gaza. Reality must sink in. There are now over 600,000 Israelis living in the Occupied Territories. I think the best we can hope for is a Palestinian state that allows most of the settlers to remain under Palestinian sovereignty. This will preserve the national aspirations of Palestinians, and the integrity of the state of Israel.  Of course if Israelis are permitted to live in Palestine then Palestinians should also be permitted to live in Israel.

Perhaps a solution like the European Union may emerge – a Three-State Solution, which would put a third government on top of the two states, with a hard external border but a soft internal border.

Thanks to Fred Schlomka and the Green Olive Tours team for this interview. You can find out more about the Green Olive story at www.toursinenglish.com

What Egyptians think about the revolution

I have spent the past 5 days in a quiet, peaceful corner of Egypt, where the only real signs that a revolution has occurred is the fact that is very little money left in any of the cash machines. It seems the country pretty much ground to a halt over the past three weeks, and now the army and the people are working very hard to get things (including the bank clearing system) moving again. So much so that when my iphone finally started working yesterday my first text message was from the armed forces, telling me and everyone else on the network to ‘go back to work’. It was in arabic, and the man who translated it was kind enough to reassure me that this particular instruction did not apply to me.

One of the other quirks of arriving in Egypt the day that Mubarak finally stepped down is that I have fast developed a reputation for being pretty much one of the only English tourists in the Red Sea town of Dahab. Every other country in the world stopped flying here as soon as the protests started – easyjet seem to be the only airline not to have halted their flight schedule. This means of course that everyone in town seems to know my name and is keen to sit me down and share their views over several cups of Bedouin tea. Everyone is talking about the revolution, keenly aware it seems that the eyes of the world are on them.

“People need freedom,” one man just told me as we sat in his coffee shop watching protests erupting in Libya, Bahrain and Algeria on an old 24inch tv. “And now, we know we can have it. We didn’t know this before. Now, we know. And they know.”

Although, while most seem happy, the overall level of jubilation has been more under-stated than I expected. This, it seems, is not a part of the world where it pays to be overly confident about what the future might hold. For the most part however, people seem happy that Mubarak has gone, and happier still that it was the people that forced him to leave. On my first day here, I met a man called Aimon who, typically, owns an Egyptian rug shop. He was the first to tell me that Mubarak had left and when I asked him if he was happy his response was positive but measured; “it is a good thing he is gone, yes. It was very bad for the country – you cannot make money unless you know someone in government. Now, maybe, it will be better.” Aimon used to be a teacher in Suez, but because he could only earn 1200 Egyptian Pounds (around 130 GBP) a month he decided he could improve his prospects by moving to the Red Sea, opening a shop and capitalising on the ever growing tourism industry. His family, including his wife and four children, are still in Suez. He has worked here in Dahab – about a 5 hour drive away – for 11 years. “If I knew a government person, I could earn much more. Maybe now things will change. We need teachers, so it is important they can live on what they earn.”

Among the younger Egyptians, rumours of their bright new futures abound. “Now Mubarak is gone everyone will get 50 dollars a day from the Suez Canal! Before, Mubarak take it all. Now, it will be given to the people.” When we questioned them on where they had heard this news, they simply said “everyone is saying this”.

Others however are more concerned. I talked at length with a guy called Zavvi – a friend of a friend – who was asking the same question I was asking – what next? He is heading to Berlin to study for degree in electronics in March having served in the army for two years. He met Mubarak on two occasions and when he heard the news of his leader’s departure, he cried. “Yes, he should go, but why now? He said he will go in 6 months, why can’t we trust him to do this? Now we have no leader, and many people want power. It is dangerous for us, for the country. But the young people can’t see the consequences – they are not educated and they just want action now. But Egypt is too important for there to be uncertainty.”

Much like everyone else here though, Zavvi has absolute faith and trust in the army. “They are for the people. They are educated and they want the best for this country – I think we will be safe with them for a while. But they have many jobs to do; they can’t run the country forever.” Furthermore, everyone is incredibly proud of the way the people have conducted themselves in the global media spotlight. “Now, everyone knows about Egypt because of the the strength of the people, not just the pyramids,” everyone is saying.

Maybe it is easier for people to rest easily in this beautiful place. Hours away from any of the major protests, Dahab has been relatively untouched by the chaos and while the reduction in tourists is proving difficult, everyone is confident that in a few weeks the industry will be back in full flow. From what I’ve seen, it’s the people arriving here from Cairo who have be most affected. Ben, a British journalist, arrived here yesterday, delighted to be somewhere where he was going to be kept awake at night not by gunshots but by the sounds of the crashing waves. He said Cairo felt like a warzone these past three weeks, and that many people have been killed. Foreigners were targeted and quickly fled. He thinks it’s starting to settle down, but I couldn’t help but think that it’s not often you see a journalist look so nervous. It was a reminder that while Dahab remained peaceful, other parts of Egypt have had to suffer to achieve this revolution, and for some it will take a long time to recover from the experience.

Picture Credit: Denis Boquet on Flickr