Athens: Between Grandeur and Decadence

Written by | City Break, Greece, Review

Exceptional historical vestiges in a ghetto city

I had been flirting with the idea of visiting Athens for a long time, first of all because of Acropolis and Parthenon, and then because of all the other archaeological artefacts I have only seen in history books. It has always seemed to me, from the cultural point of view, to be one of the places you have to visit at least once in a lifetime. After all, the roots of Occidental democratic society lie there!

This autumn the occasion of a visit to Athens came as a 4-day city-break.

I had booked a room at a hotel nearby the Parthenon hill and here we were landing in Athens from a Ryanair flight, on a pretty cold November morning.

At first sight, Athens welcomes you with a pretty good infrastructure. For instance, the metro reaches the airport, as a surface train.

The single ticket costs Є12,50 and the round-trip ticket costs Є21. It must be said that this is a special cost that is applicable only for the connection to the airport, the other public transport costs being significantly lower.

After a few stations, the train goes underground and follows the M3 metro line (blue), passing through all its stations. A common stop is the one at the station in Syntagma Square, the center of Athens, approximately 40 minutes away from the airport.

I knew from my friends that the area around the Omonia Square, which is similar to “University Square” in Romania, should be avoided, but there was no way we could imagine such a thing!

It was one of the most shocking experiences we’ve ever had during our peregrinations throughout the European capitals.

Basically, entire central quarters, around the Omonia and Syntagma Squares, broadly speaking, all the central area of Athens, have been turned into ghettos!! Hardly imaginable to the town people, as well, those areas consisting of olden chic streets, are now abandoned to quarter gangs, to junkies and refugees.

Dozens of homeless people, both refugees and Greeks, sleep under the open sky, sheltering themselves from the rain under the columns of the various blocks, on cardboard pieces. On these streets, a smell of human urine and dejections persists permanently. The habitants in these areas can barely make way for themselves to get out of their homes, by pushing aside some sleeping junkie leaning against the block’s door.

All house walls are painted in the various gangs’  colours up toward their roof. Basically, the facades have become, as a local man told us, actual display panels of the popular anger against the system.

The metro makes no exception for the anger of quarter gangs, the trains being painted the way the houses’ walls are.

The first evening, when returning to my hotel room by using, of course, Google Maps for the straightest way, I passed through a small park  (Exarchion, only two streets away from the Ministry of Culture!!) and, for the first time since I have been travelling, I became afraid.

We found ourselves surrounded by junkies and homeless people, with no possibility to go back. It is a feeling of uncertainty that is hard to describe.

The blurry look and wiggling step of the junkies walking in front of us send shivers down my spine even today.

In the barrels there were fires burning, next to which these poor people were warming up. To the left, a guy, probably the local dealer, was distributing drug syringes in the open.

And in this whole moral decay in which there might be hundreds of people struggling, I did not see any policeman or law representative. They probably hide in the police stations, I don’t know, or serve the local high-ups only.

I will close this brief description here, with a single personal and, of course, subjective, comment:

The centre of Athens is the decayed image of a capital that became like this because of generalised corruption and theft at the state level.

This is an iconic image that I will recall every time someone at home will tell me: “Don’t bother, it’s good enough, we’ll make a deal.” The “deal” (that is, the theft) will always have, in my mind, that sharp urine smell on the streets of Athens.

As a compliment to the local people, otherwise peaceful and welcoming people, it must be said that the ghetto ambience is only specific to the centre of the Hellenic capital and the rest of the city life unfolds normally, as in any other European city.

In the bus, people respectfully give their seats to the elderly or to pregnant women, and the public transport is extremely civilised and orderly.

In the following sections, we will present you some touristic attractions we have visited during our stay in Athens and which we warmly recommend you

National Archaeology Museum

It is located on Oktovriou avenue, at the address: 28is Oktovriou 44, Athina 106 82, Grece.

The museum includes Greek artefact collections dating back to prehistoric times up to the present.

I will not bother you with too many details. It is enough for me to say that here you can really see all the Greek and Egyptian statues and artefacts that we were only able to see in general school and high school history books.

Taking photos in the museum is allowed, so below you can find some pictures of the most well-known artefacts:

A special place among the artefacts exhibited in this museum is held by the well-known Antikythera mechanism. This is also the main reason why I wished to visit the museum.

Antikythera mechanism

I have read many things about this mechanism discovered in 1900, in the see surrounding Antikythera island.

It is the first mechanical calculator in the world, and was realized in the year 205 before Christ.

Many people stated that the mechanism is very ahead of its time and made up all sorts of theories, some of them quite fabulous, related to the origin of this artefact.

Its degree of mechanical sophistication equates that of a Swiss clock of the XIV century, being difficult to explain in relation to the technology available at that time.

The mechanism is exhibited in a special hall, in a glass case that also includes a holographic prism device. Thus, from the interior, a projection is made with, besides the original artefact, a three-dimensional animation that dynamically decomposes the mechanism in its discovered component parts.

The video below presents this amazing mechanism, the way it is exhibited.

A few modern replicas of the mechanism are also presented.

In fact, the mechanism represents a mechanic attempt at solving the correspondence issue between the Egyptian and the Greek calendars (on one side of the mechanism), probably used in parallel at the date of its crafting, with the positioning of the zodiac signs depending on the calendar date (on the other side of the mechanism).

The whole ensemble must have been joint in a wood box that had been lost over time, in order to be carried while travelling.

Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon

It is likely that Athens would not exist, from a touristic point of view, without this wonderful symbol represented by the Acropolis hill (Greek for “high city”), with the Parthenon built on its top.

The building of the Parthenon, a defining one for the Ancient Greece, a symbol of the first democracy invented by people, watches over the city from up high.

Under the Acropolis, the Athens spreads all over, like a labyrinth of small streets and white, small and irregular buildings, stretching as far as the eye can see.

Climbing Acropolis implies some preparation, depending on the season.

During the summer, it is, perhaps, so warm that, without a hat and a lot of water, you will most likely suffer from sunstroke.

However, as we visited it in late autumn, we did not worry too much about that. We even had to wear pretty warm clothes to cope with the wind and the pretty low temperature (5 – 6 degrees Celsius) on that day.

Yet, regardless of the season, as we have advised you on other occasions, it is recommended for you to buy online, for instance from Trip Advisor, a “Skip the Line” ticket, which may be picked up before climbing, from one of the touristic offices in the area. This spares you the standing in line, both for the tickets and at the access gate to the Acropolis. During high season, one can even wait for several hours, and the price difference is perfectly justified.

The road toward Parthenon winds on the southern slope, first next to Dionysos Eleuthereus Theatre, and then near a Byzantine cistern, and reaches above the Odeon Theatre of Herodes Atticus. The latter is perfectly restored, hosting even nowadays a series of cultural events.

The footpath then goes up to the right, toward the steps of the main entrance, the Propylaea, finished in the year 432 before Christ, a little bit before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian wars. The entrance was built by the architect Mnesicles.

After passing under the gate, the massive building of Parthenon is instantly visible, on the right side.

Pending restoration for about 30 years already, the Parthenon was built during Pericles’ time (5th century before Christ) by the architects Kallikrates and Iktinos, for the praise of goddess Athena. Even today it is an architectural marvel, being, after all, a huge three-dimensional puzzle that needs to be thoroughly put in place.

During the restoration, all the artefacts discovered on the Acropolis were preserved and they are exhibited within the Acropolis Museum, which we will present in the following section.

Acropolis Museum

The construction of the new Acropolis Museum started in 2003, and 6 years later it opened its gates

Despite the fact that the works had been postponed for a long time, as it is customary in the Balkans (the first attempt being in 1976), the construction has been finished however in 2009 with European funds!! following a project of the Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi and it is, in my opinion, the most beautiful and modern museum I have ever visited.

Built on a series of ancient ruins, most of the interior floors are made of glass, to allow the visitors to see the archaeological structures underneath.

The inside ambience is fabulous, the proportions and the placing of the construction imitating those of the Parthenon building. The last floor is entirely made of glass, presenting a 1:1 scale copy of the bas-reliefs and the statues on the facade of the Parthenon.

The interesting fact at the last floor of the museum is that the presentation of the bas-reliefs that had adorned the exterior walls of Parthenon is made in parallel with the description of the technique by means of which they were stolen by the British over 200 years ago.

Practically, while Greece was under Ottoman occupation, Lord Elgin was charged, at that date, with detaching these bas-reliefs together with hundreds of other statues, and sending them to England.

Even today there is a diplomatic dispute between Greece and Great Britain on the returning of these bas-reliefs to the Hellenic state, the latter considering they were stolen during Great Britain’ colonial period.

Plaka and Monastirakis neighborhoods

The Plaka neighborhood is what could be called Athens’ “premium neighborhood”.

Plaka starts right below Acropolis and stretches out to the Monastiraki subway station and the Syntagma Square. The most important arterial road is the Adrianou street.

This neighborhood is worth visiting and walked through on foot. It is, arguably, the single place in the capital that still reminds you of Greece.

There are taverns with tables placed in the street, at every turn. Bouzouki is sang and there is good food, although pretty dear for Greece’ standards.

There are also a few streets with picturesque stores where you can buy, throughout the entire year, various hand-made objects, but also a lot of cheap-quality stuff.

The Monastirakis neighborhood, adjacent to Plaka, is a “transition” neighborhood, between the elitist Plaka and the urban ghetto in the centre of Athens.

It is a shopping neighborhood, a sort of a pretty civilized bazaar, where various merchants display their products. You will find in these stores both original art items and the permanent cheap-looking stuff.

It is also the neighborhood of night clubs and of hanging gardens and restaurants. Nearly all hotels in the area have a restaurant enclosed with glass walls on their last floor (of course, at pretty dear prices).

Conclusions and recommendations

Athens is an European capital that is worth seeing, especially for its archaeological past.

After the experiences we had on this trip, my recommendation is that you hit the road without too many expectations.

Don’t ever expect that the star rating of the various hotels be observed! Usually there is no such thing in Greece, all the more so in Athens.

Moreover, avoid accommodation in the central neighborhoods of the city, except for Plaka (where the accommodation is very expensive) and, possibly, Monastirakis. Otherwise, honestly, you won’t be able to go out on the street at night.

It is much more suitable to get accommodation in a neighborhood that is remote from the city centre, but is clean, possibly in a leased apartment. In any case, the centre can be quickly reached by metro.

Go to Athens for its history and its history only! You won’t be disappointed. As with Italy, the multitude of sites and museums will live up to your expectations.

As for the rest, travel as modestly dressed as possible, without visible jewelries and with your backpack in front of you in the public transport, in order to avoid the ever-present pickpockets.

I wish you a tranquil journey and I’m looking forward to your comments, if you have any, and other Athens-related opinions!

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Last modified: 11 October 2019

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