The Place Where Beautiful Myths Start: Wandering In Athens
Despite the adversity it has faced in recent maybe even because of it—Athens has become an incredibly fun place to wander.
But when I reached the Acropolis, I kept walking’ past the stands selling archaeological schlock, past the spectators on Segways, into the park that surrounds Philopappou Hill. I took a seat on a rock ledge overlooking olive trees, where a few smart Athenians had strung hammocks to watch the sunset. Someone was playing abouzouki. Someone else was practicing the trumpet. Everywhere there were ruins. The yawning sun cast the whole park in a strange sepia glow.
I followed ancient stone pathways to the western edge, clambered down a dirt trail, and emerged in Petralona, a neighborhood that felt like it was in an entirely different city. It had bougainvillea, jasmine, cats, funky 1960s apartment buildings. Everyone was on their terraces, on the street. I had that pleasant sensation, unique to urban travel, when you find your neighborhood, relax your shoulders, and think, I could live here. I sat down at a sidewalk cafe and asked for an ouzo. “No, we drink raki,” the waiter said with a smile, “because we are from Crete.” An icy pitcher arrived. The sharp, anise-flavored liqueur went down smoothly with what I had ordered: sausage marinated in vinegar, tomatoes sprinkled with oregano, olives, cheese.
Soon it was dark. I was pleasantly drunk, wandering again. Every restaurant was flung open, the interiors empty, the tables and chairs spilled onto the street. You could not tell, based on the confusion of small plates arriving and departing, whether people were just starting dinner or almost finished. No one, as far as I could tell, had any intention of leaving.
I approached an old red building with film reels mounted on its facade; ZEFYROS, the sign said. I knew it was a cinema, but I didn’t realize until I was inside that it was open to the night sky. I took a seat at a patio table in the garden. The air was cool and vaguely botanical, the walls covered in vines. The film was black-and-white, Italian with Greek subtitles, and the only thing I understood was that I did not want it to end.
WHEN MARK TWAIN arrived in Athens, in 1867, his ship was quarantined, so he sneaked ashore after dark. Ashe recounted in his grouchy travelogue The Innocents Abroad, he bribed his way into the Parthenon, stole a “gallon of superb grapes” from a nearby vineyard, and then completely bypassed modern Athens while dismissing its inhabitants as “pirates,” “villains,” and “falsifiers of high repute.” On his boat the next day, having visited only moonlit ruins, Twain concluded, “We have seen all there is to see,” and set sail for the islands.
To this day, Twain’s attitude persists with too many travelers.
The rap on Athens is that it’s ugly, dirty, even dangerous, that you should just get in and get out. See the Acropolis, eat a gyro and hop a ferry to Santorini. The Greek capital may be many things—chaotic, complicated, enthralling—but a layover should not be one of them. This city demands attention.
It deserves it, too, especially right now. Years of economic catastrophe and political fecklessness have instilled in its residents an almost heroic fatalism. I recently spent a week in the city talking to everyone from soup-kitchen volunteers to anarchist waiters to local art- and fashion-world denizens. No one I met believes a real recovery is coming. But what’s inspiring is that Athenians are getting on with their lives anyway. They’ve stopped waiting—for the government to get its act together, for the EU to bail them out. They’re finding ways, small and large, to move forward.
This process, however painful, has unexpectedly dynamized Athens. A desperate creative energy has gripped its art world. Chronically underemployed young people are launching cooperative restaurants and cafes. And an audacious generation of entrepreneurs is investing in locally made luxury products. All of this creative bootstrapping has coincided with an unexpected surge in foreign tourism. A record 27 million people visited Greece in 2016. Suddenly, the city’s cafes are full, restaurants are opening and hotels are going up.
At the same time, Athens has experienced an eruption of high culture. In recent years, it has become a hot spot for avant-garde performance, like Katerina Evangelatou’s staging of Euripides’ Rhesus as a Sleep No More-style journey at Aristotle’s Lyceum. The prestigious German art festival Documenta began a three-month run here in April, its first-ever event outside its home country. And last fall, after more than a decade of management fiascoes, the National Museum of Contemporary Art opened in a once-derelict l950s-era brewery south of the Acropolis, showcasing leading Greek artists and international stars like Shirin Neshat and Bill Viola.
Even more ambitious is the €600 million Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, the new home of Greece’s national opera and library. Designed by Renzo Piano, this waterfront temple to the arts sits atop an artificial hill in the working- class neighborhood of Kallithea, overlooking a rambling park filled with aromatic herbs. The building at once references and defies Athens’s classical architecture: its scale is epic, but the columns and canopy roof are built out of a paper-thin concrete that makes it look like it’s about to float out to sea.