The daily Changing of the Guard ceremonies performed by presidential guards (evzones) protects the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The guards’ serious countenances contrast with their famously ostentatious attire: short white kilts and red pompom shoes similar to those worn by Greek mountain fighters (klephts) who resisted Ottoman occupation.
Athens – Long Read

Stinking souvlaki hell

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Athens – Long Read Stinking souvlaki hell

Hello Athens, the eternal city, home of the Olympic Games, birthplace of democracy. Some call it the cradle of our civilization, others think it just a stinking souvlaki hell. In reality, it is a flirty, sexy place with a social life that destroys productivity and is perhaps the cause of an economic crisis that even the famed oracle of Delphi did not see coming.

Daphne Huineman
Daphne Huineman Travel Writer

Down at the waterfront in Mikrolimano – picturesque harbor and hide out for Athens’ hip and sometimes famous – fresh sounds from the DJ mix strangely with traditional Greek music from the fish restaurant next door. Everywhere I look I see an archetypal would-be Adonis drinking ice-coffee and a clutch of contemporary Aphrodites wearing skin-tight Juicy shirts and dipping prawns in soy sauce.

After baking in the blistering heat on opulent yachts and powerful motorboats all day, the privileged and the handsome have come to wind down until sundown. Then it is back to the city and preparation for dining and dancing that won’t stop before the sun bursts up over the horizon again.

“Hi, I’m Stelios Onassis, pleased to meet you,” says a demigod as he lies down opposite me in the open-air lounge bar. Is he related to his namesake, the late, multi-millionaire magnate, Aristotle? After all, if there is one destination for wealthy Greek families, it’s right here on the coast just outside the country’s bustling capital. A bearded priest in long black robes approaches. Onassis waves to him. “My cousin,” he explains, and nobody finds it strange that he joins us on our white bench. Sexy and authentic, this is the Athens I love.

I am often challenged. “Why don’t you give that stinking ‘souvlaki hell’ a miss?” my friends ask when I say I am going to Athens. They think they know the city because they once spent a night waiting for a boat there, merely to sail away to one of the islands and a far less frantic pace of life. For the uninformed and unfamiliar, it is sometimes hard to imagine what attracts people to the chaotic metropolis and it’s equally chaotic inhabitants, who both seem to be playing hard to get.

With some, the city has acquired a bad reputation. But ever since the Olympic Games in 2004 Athens has become a much friendlier place to visit. The centre is almost free of cars, air pollution has significantly dropped, old shabby quarters of the city have been revived to their former glory and it seems as though the taxi drivers and dustmen have been sent to finishing school. Shops and society spots have been revamped to become modern and hip, while new creations are rising like blocks of feta in a Greek salad from remnants of 1950s architecture.

These changes may have improved the city but thankfully the soul of old Athens has survived intact. The city’s charm lies in an intriguing and beguiling mix of ancient culture and the unparalleled Greek lifestyle, which has been overseen by the Acropolis for 2,500 years.

Soap-stars mix with politicians

On Saturday morning Mikrolimano hipsters shop for the sharpest local and foreign designer clothes in the stylish Kolonaki neighborhood. The area has always been well-heeled, but a facelift of nearby shops and the promenade through Ermou has made it even more attractive. The prime place to be seen or just people-watch is the terrace of the Da Capo café. Soap-stars mix with politicians, rich-kids, call-girls in designer furs and anybody else who can cut it… or wants to. The café terrace is a favorite meeting place for Greek. Meeting friends, doing business, falling in or out, of love, it all happens here.

When there’s nothing going on, the locals get vocal and shout about politics, football, cars and each other. The real heroes enjoy the scene with a cup of strong, dark, muddy Greek coffee. Don’t call it Turkish coffee: the Greek will get very emotional and point out to you that they opened the first café in Istanbul in the 15th century. The national drink, however, is frappe: frothy ice coffee. Da Capo have called their version cappuccino freddo and think that the name makes it worth the high prices they charge.

Around the north-eastern slopes of the Acropolis hill, historic neighborhoods of Anafiotika and Plaka are ideal for strolling and taking in the history of the temples and archaeology. Walking through the deserted market of the Ancient Agora you can almost hear Socrates and Plato spreading their philosophies. Even the recently-built metro stations are mini-museums and show off treasures unearthed during excavation. Athens presents itself as super-cool and romantic. And it works.

Do you want to touch the moon?

“Do you want to touch the moon?” asks a handsome Greek in a tight, white T-shirt. Greeks flirt with impeccable nonchalance. There is always an escape from unwanted advances, but a man must not lose his filothimo (honor). If he is rejected or spurned, he will just shrug and laugh it off easily, without hard feelings.

I wander on to my favorite stomping ground – Psiri, where the same enthralling combination of shabby and chic makes for an ambience similar to Notting Hill in London or De Pijp in Amsterdam. Apparently, I must still look helpless as I attract the amorous attention of another flirter or kamaki. Gypsies and fire- eaters entertain the mixed crowd of students, gays and party people warming up for a night of unabashed revelry.

Evenings typically begin with the tempting colors and exuberant flavors of mezédhes (essentially the Greek equivalent of tapas): aubergine salad, grilled prawns, artichokes and cheese croquets and more. Locals and tourists collect in big groups because Greeks love parea (company). Sitting on the roof terrace of the restaurant Kouzina, it seems as though you can reach out and touch the moon and the Acropolis.

At the centre of the Acropolis sits a far more imposing sight than either the comparatively new Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty: the Parthenon, a temple built in tribute to the Greek goddess Athena, who, of course, gave the city its name. The view of the Parthenon remains amazing; visitors gaze at the white marble masterpiece, which is slowly crumbling from the exhaust fumes of the cars and scooters. Another couple of glasses of retsina, and I head off to the more hip, and less- known areas of Gazi and Rouf.

Lesser gods have been warming up the crowd

Forget the stodgy mousakka and fatty lamb dishes you find in Greek restaurants throughout the world; the young Greek chefs of Athens have done a great job reinstating their grossly underestimated cuisine. At the restaurant Apla Arestera/Dexia, you can enjoy exquisite creations such as sweet ravioli with lemon mousse. But old favorites of succulent braised beef or tender calamari from Mamacas are the best...and the views of famous guests are free.

My Greek friends explain which of their country’s magnates are doing what with which models. They point to a beautiful girl who is apparently the latest flame of popular Greek singer Yannis Ploutarchos, who will play tonight in Club Romeo, a bouzouki bar on the edge of town. On the spot we decide to go there and hail a taxi. The atmosphere is hot when we arrive. Lesser gods have been warming up the crowd but when our star hits the stage at 2.30am, the house erupts in a feel-good frenzy and every available place is used for dancing. Chairs, tables, the bar and the stage.

Even the men have an elegant way of shaking their tummies to the pacy eastern- influenced music. Everyone knows the ballads word for word. At around 5am we go back to town unable to talk. Our throats are sore from screaming, laughing and singing. Still, it seems a shame to go to sleep. New Yorkers may claim otherwise, but Athens is the real town that never sleeps.

An audience who don’t know when to stop

The traders at central market are already unloading swordfish and beef. It is just daylight and the day is starting for some. But in the Stoa Ton Athanaton, (a dark pub in the marketplace) the night hangs on. The strains of Rebetiko singer Leila Papadopoulou, signal that it's not quite time to go home. She starts on another Greek blues song for an audience who don’t know when to stop and would not if they did. Call-girls, taxi- drivers, and wasted night-people tuck into patsas, a stew of pig’s entrails; a traditional after-hours meal. One day flows into the next and one wonders whether Athens will ever rest.

In the 1990s, research claimed that the social life of Athens was destroying national productivity, so the government restricted the trading hours of cafes and nightclubs. Unfortunately for the kill-joys, words like anarchy and autonomy were not invented here for nothing. No official can take fun (kefi) away from the Greeks, regardless of the nation’s protracted economic woes.

However big your hangover, there is no lie-in on Sunday mornings in Athens. While the rest of the town may seem lethargic, Avyssinia Square is already busy with the local weekly flea market. The market fans across the area and is a great place for picking up musical instruments, rare books, antiques and war medals. Religious kitsch, inlaid backgammon boards, and handmade Jesus sandals are just a few of the must-haves. Celebrating their new purchases, 20 and 30-somethings sip the day’s first retsina in a family-run restaurant. A house band plays music from the 1930s and before we know it another evening is in full swing.

Monday is a new day; time for fresh air and reflection. Athens knows many an oasis, but none so green as Philopappos Hill. The perfumed air atop the hill immediately clears my head. Temples, ancient graveyards and pillars, from which rose our western civilization, surround me. The antique stadium from 4th century BC, also the site of the Games in 1896, is minute compared to the massive construction of the 2004 games. And just behind it, a strip of the blue Aegean Sea.

Is Athens beautiful or ugly, European, Balkan or eastern? Whether this incredible place is one or all of these things, it is one of the most magical cities I know.

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