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Athens, 2023: recap
I found I’ve already written a more extensive version of “Athens, 2023” on Facebook. So:
I did my walking tour of Central Athens on June 17 (and at the end of it, left my Lonely Planet in the last venue I visited). Before I go on:
Things I like about Central Athens:
- The surviving book culture. Not just bookshops, but used bookshops are everywhere downtown. Greece is a couple of decades behind in the passing of the book as a cultural artefact (that’s a good thing!). Nonetheless there are fewer bookshops even in Athens than there were 10 years ago. It’s just that, unlike everywhere else (including Salonica), there were so many bookshops to begin with, that you hardly notice here.
I’ll note that that is not the only aspect of book culture that survives here longer. As I’d already noticed last visit, the book launch remains a big deal here as a social event; indeed, compared to the Anglosphere, I get the impression that it is a much more socially inclusive kind of event.
- Tsakalof St, Kolonaki, where I go to work in one of the bars along the street (my AirBnB is unusually unsuited to sitting and working: not even a couch).
- Ermou St Mall, and the less touristy bits of Plaka
Yeah, that’s it.
In Crete up to the 60s, social capital demanded you could not badmouth a place, without naming some group as an exception. “Chania is a complete hole—excepting any monasteries that might be there” (given the piety of the past age); “Iraklio is the very den of Satan—excepting the Alexiou family, those are fine people”.
So. Central Athens is dreadful, and deserves its Kaliarda name of Γκρεκοκάθικο, The Chamber Pot of Greece—excepting the linguists of the Academy down Alexander Soutsos St, they are wonderful people (and, after all, they are why I am staying in Kolonaki, walking distance from them. Athens Uni proper is out in the burbs, it doesn’t count.)
As I’ve noticed on previous visits, there are bits of Plaka that speak of a formerly more liveable, altogether more pleasant city. But the non-descript high-rises of the city? The cars weaving around people and double parked? (Last night at My Fair Penteli taverna in Plaka, what would have been the dance floor was a road, cars slowly meandering between the band on one side and the diners on the other.) The noise, the irascible drivers, the relentless grey of the residential areas? (Punctuated, at least, by endless cafe–cum–bars.) It is a stressful, unlovely place to be.
(And bits of downtown have a clear snootiness about them. I haven’t noticed it here in Kolonaki, though this is traditionally the epicentre of it. Its high-rises are just as grey as neighbouring Exarchia’s, just less graffiti’d; so I don’t know what they’ve got to be so snooty about. But I’m an oddity, someone on a laptop in a party street; so the waiters just leave me alone.)
Thing is, Salonica is not truly different to Athens. The same bad Greek urban stuff is there. It’s just that, with Salonica a third the size, the bad Greek urban stuff is still sufficiently outweighed by the nice stuff. And Athens was last the size Salonica is now sometime in the 1940s. Just before the high-rises started.
The outer suburbs of Athens, like Glyfada—in fact, even New Smyrna, an inner suburb, where my uncle and aunt live—are a lot less stressful and more liveable. And Greece does not treat its suburbs as dormitories, the way the Anglosphere does, so you can have a life there without going downtown.
Well, one can; I can’t. The books are all here, after all.