At first glance, Athens may not seem the prettiest European capital. Its centre is small and scruffy, its traffic chaotic and its short-lived neoclassical soul was sacrificed on the altar of Mammon in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving the city teeming with five-storied apartment blocks whose only decoration is graffiti. Yet, despite everything, this city of four million people is compelling like few other European capitals. It’s the heartbeat of the indomitable Greek nation and a fitting stage for the verve and vivacity of its culture. And when you know which side streets to saunter through, you soon discover that Athens can be beautiful after all.
I’m standing 20 feet below ground, beneath the Athens Museum of Islamic Art, staring at a massive apricot-coloured wall. Fifteen feet tall, it’s made from well-chiselled rectangular stones and is greening at the bottom from the damp. Yet, this isn’t just any wall.
“This is the best preserved part of the Athenian defences from the fifth century BC,” says Dimitris Savvatis, one of the museum curators. “It was constructed by Themistocles. We discovered it when we started renovating this building.”
The museum is also not just any building. It was my mother’s family home and she’s with me, gazing at the wall. When I ask her how she feels, having spent her childhood above the best preserved part of the Athenian defences, she shrugs. “This is Athens. If you dig deep enough, you’ll find something.”
Yet, this is not just Athens. This is Kerameikos and the eponymous ancient cemetery is opposite. As the dead were buried outside the city walls, this is where you’d expect those walls to be located. The archeologists had guessed, but the locals hadn’t. They were a mixed bunch: lower middle class households, students renting digs, gaswork workers, all living in charming neoclassical buildings with crafted wooden doors, pleasingly symmetrical windows and flat balustrated rooflines. It was a multi-cultural area, with the Athens Synagogue only a stone’s throw away, still soaring proudly despite last century’s vicissitudes.
Next to it, one of the most beautiful edifices in Kerameikos houses the Athens Hammam, a private venture that has painstakingly recreated an Ottoman Turkish baths with all the hipster trimmings of the 21st century.
Yet, the only sign of life is graffiti in the side streets, as the people aren’t around any more. And that’s exactly because wherever you dig here, you’ll find something. No owner could sell or renovate without the archeologists butting in, and eventually, the only buyer became the state, which started renovating the buildings, converting them into museums or donating them to charities.
Somehow though, by accident or design, the hammam, the Islamic museum, the synagogue, the detached neoclassical houses, the street art and the ancient cemetery glide seamlessly into a tantalising jigsaw. Kerameikos is a flaneur’s paradise.
“Plaka is too touristy for us,” says Tina Kyriakis from Alternative Athens. “We provide an unconventional view of the city; the street art, food joints and hip spaces you won’t find here. But if you only spend a few days in Athens, then yes, come to Plaka.”
Athenians have a love-hate relationship with Plaka. It’s an Instagram-friendly tourist flytrap teeming with tat, yet these same narrow alleys snaking around the Acropolis comprise the glorious centre of classical Athens. Then again, its small village feel is a reminder of the city’s decline, reviled as it was by the Byzantines for being the centre of pagan learning.
Chance away from the main drag, however, and there are signs this is a living, breathing neighbourhood. At Kayak, a gourmet ice-cream shop, Tina and I join a queue of locals hankering after its signature frozen yogurt. A couple of streets in, Brettos serves the best tipple in town, from ouzo to brandy and fruit liqueurs. Meanwhile, at Lulu’s bakery, a strong cappuccino can reanimate the ghosts of the French Capuchin monks who used to inhabit the monastery.
Then Tina takes a left and we’re eerily alone. The only thing we see is our shadow on the flaky plaster of houses draped in drooping burgundy bougainvillea. As we walk further around the Acropolis rock, the familiar Athenian neoclassical gives way to an unexpected Cycladic whitewashed structure. We’ve reached Anafiotika, the (once) illegal houses built overnight by migrants from the island of Anafi, brought in as construction workers to the capital in the 1860s.
If it weren’t for the spectacle of Mount Lycabettus in the distance, this could be Paros, Mykonos or Naxos. Cicadas sing overhead hidden in the surrounding pine trees. The strong aroma of jasmine creepers overwhelms our senses. Cats lie lazily in the shade of oleanders, blocking the winding walkways that all too occasionally lead to someone’s backyard. The houses are so blindingly white it feels like we’re meandering in a mirage. Tina smiles. We’ve now walked — what, half an hour? — without a souvenir shop or tourist taverna in sight. She promised me an alternative Plaka and I got it.
The grandiose neoclassical palace of King Otto, first monarch of modern Greece, defines Syntagma Square, which in turn defines Greek political discourse. Recent demonstrations, eagerly filmed by the world’s TV crews, have raised its profile. But the day I visit there are no angry anarchists about. I’m confronted instead by dancing blue bins. I can’t believe I wrote that, but yes, there they are promoting recycling. Regular commuters are baffled, but at least kids love them.
Because of that Habsburg-yellow, ex-royal palace, the Greek psyche associates Syntagma with prestige. No wonder that the first — and until very recently, the only — McDonald’s had to open on its south side. The only other building of note is Greece’s top heritage hotel, Grande Bretagne, dating from 1874.
I meet its manager Tim Ananiadis in the hotel’s retro interwar lobby. There are intoxicatingly luxurious armchairs with Italian upholstery. White marble columns on green marble bases. And a new atrium with tall palm trees, embalmed, because Athenian palm trees are dying: a stowaway weevil on trees imported for the 2004 Olympics for decoration is killing them.
Tim is talking on his mobile, fretting, because South Korean statesman Ban Ki-Moon is in town, staying at the hotel.
All dignitaries are offered a choice, but most choose the exclusive Grande Bretagne. We visit the hotel’s roof bar, packed with TV cameras during the Greek crisis, empty now. What happens to the VIPs when there are demonstrations outside? Tim dismisses me with a hand gesture. “The vast majority are peaceful. Journalists take the exception and present it as a rule.”
But, determined to meet some of those elusive VIPs, I make my way to the Citylink, a redeveloped commercial block just off Syntagma. The shops belong to Hermés, D&G or Cartier. The Attica department store claims equivalence to Harrod’s. In the corner stands Zonar’s, a historic cafe, at whose tables the country’s fate has often been decided sotto voce. I sit down under black-and-white photos of past habitués — Melina Merkouri, Sophia Loren, Lawrence Durrell — look around and, bingo, I spot an elderly gentleman ready to leave. He’s the ex-President, Karolos Papoulias. I order a freddo summer coffee and lean back. Mission accomplished.
When in Athens
In the summer-long Athens Festival, you get to see top dance, music and theatre performances sitting on the marble blocks of the Herod Atticus Theatre (opened 161AD) at the foot of the Acropolis for a bonkers €10. Nary a roped off area in sight.
Theriná (Open-air cinemas)
Open-air cinemas are a summertime Athenian institution. Watch a film, sipping a drink and munching salted pumpkin seeds under the night sky at Cine Paris in Plaka — it’s much more than a movie experience.
Tyrópites (Cheese Pies)
Need a fast-food fix? These savoury snacks, in puff or filo pastry, rolled and fried or flat and baked, with cheese alone or accompanied with ham or spinach, are all delicious. The best? Most Athenians will point you towards Ariston (Voulis 10, Syntagma) that’s been churning them out since 1910.
You can’t walk around without bumping into one of these tented cubbyholes, synonymous with the Athens streetscape since 1911. Stock up on water or cigarettes, skim over the newspaper headlines and buy anything from pens to postcards, calendars to condoms, sunglasses to sunscreen, on the hop.
This humble drink is as local to the Attica basin as the pines supplying the added aromatic resin. Dating from ancient Greek times, if it was good enough for Plato, it’s good enough for us.
Sunvil offers three nights’ B&B in Athens in three-star Philippos Hotel, from £465 per person (until March), including flights from Gatwick and transfers, based on two sharing. Prices start from £501 at the four-star Herodion Hotel. Both hotels are a short walk from the Acropolis and Plaka.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)