Athens: Introduction

  • © MPOnlineRedaktion

    © MPOnlineRedaktion


Even as you're coming into land in Athens, the Greek metropolis reveals a side of its beauty. All planes, whether from elsewhere in Europe or further afield, swoop in over the islands of the Aegean. Peering out of the window, in view are high mountains and rocky shores, and a predominantly white sea of houses that is home to a good third of the Greek population.

Thanks to the excellent transport links from the airport to the city, it will be only a couple of hours before you are sitting down at the heart of this lively and ancient city. The street cafés in Odós Adrianoú, right opposite the ancient Agorá, provide a particularly pleasant introduction to life in Athens. Here, you can see the park-like area of the ancient market place, where great philosophers like Socrates and Plato once strolled around, and gaze at the Thiseion, Greece’s best preserved ancient temple, otherwise known as the Temple of Hephaistos. Behind, rise the bare rock of the Areopagus and the steep cliffs of the Acropolis, crowned with its ancient temples. Between the cafés and the Agorá, a train rattles along one of the city’s oldest metro lines every couple of minutes, while, on the other side of the promenade, traders sit and sell their knick-knacks. Street musicians entertain by playing passable renditions of ‘A Ship will Come’. Behind them, trade at the fleamarket, with its many inexpensive shops, is experiencing something of an upturn thanks to the economic and financial crisis.

You won't need a car in Athens

As you set off on your first city tour, you will soon realise that nothing in central Athens is very far away. Most of the important historical sights are very close together and so too are the different districts, each with its own particular character. The shops and entertainment quarters are correspondingly accessible. You definitely won‘t need a car in Athens, and only rarely will you need to use one of the three metro lines, a low emission bus, a trolleybus or a tram.

You can easily get everywhere on foot – and there are no long, boring stretches. Nor do you need to worry about the once notorious smog that so plagued the city. The 2004 Olympics brought some massive changes. The air is now much cleaner, thanks to the introduction of numerous traffic restrictions and the installation of mass rapid transit systems, and more and more roads have been pedestrianised. There is an increased environmental awareness among the Athenians, with more and more people recycling their waste and installing solar panels on their roofs.

Ancient buildings amid dense greenery

A walk through Athens is fun and never boring. On the way from the Thissío district, as you skirt the northern and western flanks of the Acropolis heading towards the Acropolis Museum, you will hardly feel like you‘re in a big city. The famous landmarks of the Acropolis rise up to your left, as you stroll along the broad, pedestrian promenade that used to be a four-lane highway; over to the right, the low hills covered in greenery conceal more ancient buildings: the Pnyx, site of the ancient Assembly of the People and the Philopáppos Monument.

In the modern Acropolis Museum, an architectural attraction in its own right, the various exhibits will teach you all about Athens‘ most famous landmark. You can also make for the outdoor terrace of this world-class museum, where, in its smart but inexpensive café, you can face the ancient temple of the Parthenon as you savour specialities from all over Greece. You might get cheese from the islands of the Aegean or sausage from Mykonos or Léfkas, washed down with a glass of Greek wine or a traditional cherryade.

If you continue your walk around the Acropolis, you’ll duly arrive in Pláka, Athens’ Old Town. This is the core of the new Athens, that was reborn after the war of liberation against the Turks (1821–29). When Athens became the capital of liberated Greece in 1834, it had only 5000 residents, many of whom lived among the temple ruins on the Acropolis. Increasing industrialisation from the end of the 19th century and the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Greeks from Asia Minor to the Athens area after the failed campaign of the Greeks against Ankara (1922–23) resulted in a huge population growth. Today, the greater Athens Metropolitan Area has a population of about 3.7 million, while the city itself has around 655,000 inhabitants.

Houses in various shades of ochre and with tiled roofs, as well as handsome 19th- and 20th-century neo-classical villas, line the mostly pedestrianised streets and alleyways of Pláka, accommodating little museums, galleries and historical archives. In contrast to the busy Syntagma Square with its luxury hotels and the parliament building, Plaka is more intimate, more of a community, with lots of pretty little squares and small hotels where you can stay right at the heart of this historic city. The main thoroughfares are lined with shops and tavernas but, just a few metres away, cats laze on walls and windowsills, and you almost feel as if you’ve been transported to an Aegean island village.

All over the district you’ll discover ancient ruins and little medieval churches. But the many historic buildings don’t look out of place like some isolated relics from a dim and distant past, they are very much part of the fabric of 21st-century Athens. In no other European city except Rome is the ancient world so tangible as it is here. But, while in Rome the buildings bear witness to the vainglory of the emperor, in Athens, they bear mostly impressive testimony to the first democratic state in history. Here, they first designed and built what the Romans later copied, improved and ultimately – through animal hunts, gladiatorial fights and temples, built to the glory of emperors – degraded and desecrated.

Where the present merges with the past

A number of other districts bordering on Pláka contribute to the special appeal of central Athens. Until a few decades ago, they were purely industrial and commercial areas. In the Thissío district, the youth go to see their rock idols in the former royal stables, and a gallery exhibits its modern art in the rooms of a former hat factory. In the Psirrí district, by day craftspeople still make shoes, bags and other leather goods in the many little workshops, while by night the taverns, bars and music venues attract mainly young people from all over the city. Even the old gasometer in the Gázi district has found a new incarnation as an art gallery, while the bars and restaurants in the vicinity, including some renowned gourmet establishments, lure even affluent guests.

All over Athens the past and the present merge together. You’ll cherish the time you spend just relaxing, on the park bench in the National Gardens, under an olive tree in the ancient Kerameikós cemetery or on the grass in front of the Temple of Hephaistos. The stone platform of the Areopagus is unique: it was here, more than 2500 years ago, that the highest court in Athens convened; today, it provides a fantastic, free view over the rooftops, especially impressive in the evening when the city is transformed into a sea of lights. And perhaps there’s nowhere better than the Acropolis to think about the development of mankind, about how much magnificent beauty the people of antiquity were capable of producing, without the aid of computers, concrete or modern machinery.

It can be almost as interesting to simply immerse yourself in the Greek way of life and observe all the contrasts and contradictions of the present day: the well-dressed, young people flashing their i-phones and sports car keys; the thousands of legal and illegal immigrants from Africa and Asia, hawking rip-off DVDs and cheap electronics;the traditional lottery ticket sellers with their promises of winning combinations. Roasted chestnuts on the pavement are just as much a part of Athens as the many Greek and international fast food outlets, very popular among young and old alike because of their seemingly low prices.

Athens is a city of contrasts and is likely to remain so for a long time, particularly when you consider the economic and financial crisis that has gripped the whole country since 2010. Higher taxes and cuts in wages, salaries and pensions have drastically curtailed the purchasing power of the average Athenian. Many shops in the city and the outlying municipalities (of which there were 37 until 2011 but now only 7 remain thanks to the administrative changes) have been forced to close and the spaces can no longer be rented out; restaurants and tavernas complain about serious falls in revenue. Despite this, Athenians still go out – they just don’t consume as much as before.

Piraeus is the gateway to the Aegean

The crisis is also keenly felt in another part of greater Athens: the port of Piraeus. Be that as it may, there are still more super-modern, fast ships – mostly catamarans – and huge, conventional car ferries than in most other European ports. And even in places like Cannes, Palma and Portofino, you won’t find as many luxury yachts as you do here. It’s easy to spend an entire day in Piraeus – there are interesting museums and between the two harbours of Zéa Marína and Mikrolímano, as well as in Limanáki bay, you’ll find attractive bathing beaches.

A tramline leaves Piraeus, passing more beaches, before reaching the seaside resort of Vouliagméni with its natural thermal lake. You can see the sea again, if you take the ferry to Aegina or a mini-cruise to Aegina, Póros and Hydra. By then, you will probably start to feel the urge to return to Hellas one day, to discover the islands of the Aegean. Athens and Piraeus are the gateway to that glorious part of the world.

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