For some reason, my vision of Athens before I arrived last weekend was a dull, sunny city with a few ruins and not a whole lot else going on. Perhaps because the only person I know who’s visited the Greek capital is my nan, perhaps because I certainly hadn’t done enough research, but I’d always thought of Athens as something of an “elderly” destination (huge apologies to my older readers – and to the city of Athens!) – and was planning to spend a couple of days there relaxing without much to do besides eat moussaka and enjoy the warmer Mediterranean climate.
I couldn’t have been more wrong! From the moment I arrived until my flight home, I kept being surprised by what turned out to be an exciting, trendy, and cosmopolitan city that was far unlike anything I’d expected. There’s just so much to do in Athens! For two days I barely stopped, hurrying all over Athens and trying hopelessly to fit it all in – there was so much more to do and see than I’d anticipated, all of it fascinating.
The perfect way to start uncovering this unique and fascinating city was with a walking tour, and the four hour city walk with Alternative Athens (alternative-athens.com) was ideal. We kicked off bright and early at 9:30am, just as the sleepy Saturday morning was starting to pick up under a wintery sun, and began with a tour of Syntagma Square. Named “Constitution Square” after the constitution granted there by the first king of Greece Otto, this square is the heart of Athens; the pinnacle of the busy high street Ermou and the site of all the political demonstrations over recent years. Syntagma, as my guide Diana pointed out, makes up one corner of the isosceles triangle formed by three of the city’s major roads – Ermou, Stadiou, and Peiraios – a triangle which forms the pulsing centre of the city and connects almost everything a visitor would want to see. At the top of the square was is the royal palace, a modest neo-classical building dating from the 1830s when Greece finally gained independence after centuries of Ottoman occupation, which now houses the Greek parliament. While the building itself wasn’t particularly interesting – thanks to financial difficulties at the time of building following the war – in front of the parliament is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a memorial dedicated to the fallen soldiers of Greece’s wars, constantly guarded by soldiers in a traditional livery which includes Tsarouhi: large, clog-like shoes with studded soles and fluffy pompoms on the toes which originated in rural villages and represent the people of Greece.
The next day, I popped back to the site to get another look and was lucky enough to watch the changing of the guard, a drawn-out process with all the usual frill and fussiness which was pretty fun to watch. But on the first day, there was only time to pester a guard for a quick, dorky photo with me before heading off towards the top of the triangle, via Stadiou street. On the way, we stopped at the ruins of an ancient Roman wall which can be found at the edge of the square, silently ignoring the passing years and roaring traffic. Similar ruins can be spotted all over the city: crumbling ancient walls tucked beneath modern buildings which have had to be distorted during building in order to preserve the past, a Roman tomb protected by a glass wall in the basement level of a Zara shop, ancient shops and houses uncovered during building work for the city’s subway network… it seems you can’t start digging in the centre of Athens without discovering something. There was so much ancient architecture, lining the underground river of Eridanos which can still be seen in places, much of which you might miss altogether if not for someone pointing it out to you, and it was so interesting to see how that ancient city lingers on beneath and within the modern Athens.
Behind Stadiou, on Panepistimo street, were still more neo classical buildings from the 19th century, including the Academy, the old University, and the Library. I was particularly interested to see an eye hospital dating from 1843, allegedly built to treat the huge number of eye problems caused by the dust from all the building work at that time, as Athens was transformed from a tiny city of just 10,000 citizens into the capital of the new Greek State. As we walked towards Omonia Square, at the top of the triangle of central Athens, Diana explained how that transformation happened – and how the plans changed. Originally, the palace was marked to be built at Omonia Square, with a view to the sea to the right, the Acropolis straight ahead, and the Olympic stadium to the left, but when there weren’t enough funds to pay off the existing landowners, those plans were scrapped and the proposed city layout revised. Instead, Omonia is now an interesting public space dominated by the decaying presence of two abandoned, once-grand hotels, with a fantastic view straight down the main road to the Acropolis – Athens’ beautiful star attraction which seemed to follow me around the city.
One of the most interesting stops on the tour was not ancient history but something much more recent, at Korai 4; a one-time office building which was requisitioned as the headquarters of the Gestapo in Athens between 1941 and 1945, when the basement level air-raid shelter was converted into a ‘temporary’ subterranean prison. Temporary in the sense that most prisoners were only kept there for a matter of days before being transported to a camp or executed. The heavy, metal, air-lock doors and narrow walls create a horrible sense of being trapped, and it’s easy to appreciate how awful a place this was. Inside, the floors and walls are marred by the scars of this terrible time in Greece’s history, with ghostly imprints of the tiny cells on the floors, and writing and drawings etched into the walls by the prisoners. Some left their names and the dates of their incarceration, others scratched out doodles, self portraits, sex scenes and other drawings, and throughout was the hauntingly repetitive lament ‘Θέλω νερό’: I want water. It was a chilling insight into a terrible chapter of the city’s history, and well worth visiting to see a very different side of Athens.
(Cameras aren’t generally allowed inside the museum, so I couldn’t take any pictures, but photographer Nick Koutourinis has a very good gallery which you should take a look at here.)
From the German to the Ottoman occupation, we descended further into the city’s history next, exploring the antique district of Psirri. Here was where I fell in love completely with Athens: a colourful neighbourhood of sloping, winding streets designed to channel rainwater, maze-like narrow alleyways, crumbling Ottoman mansions, Byzantine churches, funky bars decked out in streamers for carnival, and street art. Lots and lots of street art, with some incredible murals dominating the sides of buildings, and fabulous smaller paintings tucked into just about any available spot. This was a vibrant district with a clash of cultures and histories, where a lazy, Mediterranean atmosphere vied with a modern, trendy vibe. One street was completely festooned by strips of lights in hundreds of different lampshades overhead, while another was lined with yellow and black images portraying the old Greek mafia – a bizarre but menacing gang whose ‘uniform’ included a black jacket with only one sleeve, and a long twirly moustache that wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch. It was a cool, fun and enticing place to explore, brilliantly modern at the same time as being beautifully antique. I loved it!
Just a short hop across the road took us into Monastiraki, a neighbourhood bursting with trendy vintage shops – including Kilo-Shop (120 Ermou), a cool store concept from Paris which prices clothes by weight. We nosed around the Monastiraki flea market, and the surrounding narrow shopping streets which echoed the Turkish souqs, spotting more incredible street art and some awesome vintage bargains, before diving into a beautifully crumbling Ottoman mansion. Built around a central courtyard in the traditional style, this former home was used as a prison in the times of King Otto, and later as a sort of apartment building, with whole families living in the tiny rooms surrounding the courtyard – there are still traces of kitchen tiles and bookshelves on some of the walls. Now, it houses an intriguing art gallery and a very trendy coffee shop – Matamatic:Taf (5 Normanou). Little restoration work has been done, so the decaying wooden doorframes and crumbling walls create a unique atmosphere which is a really cool place to relax – exactly what we did, taking a break from our intense explorations of the city and enjoying a much needed caffeine hit in the form of a Greek frappé. An iced, foamy coffee drink invented by a Nestle salesman during a power shortage at a trade show to advertise his wares without hot water, this innocent looking and delicious creamy drink hid a serious kick which left me buzzing for hours afterwards. In Greece, the coffee is strong and tasty, you have been warned!
At Monastiraki Square, we paused for a view which took in the four eras of the city: the ancient Greek Acropolis, Roman pillars from Hadrian’s library, a rounded Ottoman mosque, and the modern metro station, all overlapping each other just as the four layers of the city’s past intertwine throughout Athens. It was a great image to summarise the Alternative Athens tour, which aims to unwrap the layers of history and show the real city as a complex, vibrant mishmash of different eras, architectures, and influences.
Delving ever deeper into that history, we walked along Andrianou street, past the bustling restaurants and trendy tourist shops, to the Agora, an ancient Greek version of a shopping mall which has been brilliantly restored to show exactly what it once looked like, and the Temple of Hephaestus, the best preserved example of Greek architecture, both set in serene, wooded grounds which were absolutely beautiful in the bright, warm sunshine. At the final corner of the triangle which dominates the city centre, we came to Keramicos, an ancient Greek pottery site littered with traces of it’s former life. This was the second choice of location for the royal palace, a place where the the king could have the picturesque site of the Agora in his back garden and a fabulous view of the Acropolis beyond, but as Keramicos was at the time full of swamps this second city plan had to be abandoned as well, to avoid the danger of illness from the huge numbers of mosquitoes. So, finally, the palace was built at Syntagma Square instead.
Our tour ended back in the modern world, at an old gas factory which was closed in 1989 and now houses an outdoor theatre, art galleries, an occasional trendy market favoured by local artisans, and a café. The old gas drums have been converted into eco-friendly offices, the front of the site is coated in a stunning mural which recalls the days when the factory pumped out so much pollution that the surrounding area was known as “gas district”, and the now-silent chimney still stands tall against the sky, with the warped metal doors of the coal forges beneath as a lasting reminder of the factory’s previous role.
It was the perfect place to end a tour which delved deep into a history spanning more than 3,400 years, and which took me through the sprawling mess of different parts which make up Athens; a colourful clash of contradictions and cultures. The strange flow between the ancient and modern was hard to dissect, but Diana did a great job and really brought this incredible city to life for me. By the end of the tour, I felt almost like a local – at the very least I knew how to drink coffee like one – I was armed to the teeth with personal recommendations for restaurants and shops to fill the rest of my trip, and I felt like I’d been given a unique viewpoint into this beautiful, fun and fascinating city.
Alternative Athens run a number of unique city tours, including a Gay and Lesbian tour, street art tour, and shopping walk. The Alternative City Walk runs daily at 9:30am and 4pm, lasts four hours, and costs 40 € per person (children under 12 are free).
For tips, practical information and help planning your visit, head to Discover Greece – don’t miss their events calendar to see what’s on while you’re there!