Notes on...

Grim, generous, decaying and hip: the paradoxical charms of Athens

Is a ‘new’ Athens emerging from the smog of ages and the rubble of a collapsed economy? Maybe…

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

My first visit to Athens as a student gave me a set of impressions that the present crisis has only validated. The man designated to meet us at the airport did not turn up. I will never forget his name. It was Nic Katsoudis. So we got in a taxi anyway. It crashed twice on the way to our apartment in the Vouliagmeni resort south of the city. Once inside, the plumbing was Periclean in age if not in grandeur.

That was when local colonels and not German bankers were the devil. Since then I have been back often, en route to my sister-in-law’s house on lovely, neglected Skopelos — an island not so much unspoilt as unimproved in the first place. Athens is where you change planes, get on a bus or find a boat.

At the end of last year, we stayed at the Grande Bretagne, the stately old lady on Syntagma Square. Here, long ago, I learnt in the Greek way that a generous tip to the concierge could buy disproportionate access to useful facilities.

This time, our designated room stank of cleaning fluid from a recent attempt to freshen the curtains. We refused it and went out to dinner to let the hotel sort it out. On our return, we were given the presidential suite, which included a dining room for 12 and more bathrooms than could reasonably be used over a two-night stay. In its mixture of hospitality and recklessness, this gesture seemed typical.

Athens can be grim. But ambitious locals talk now about a ‘new’ Athens emerging from the smog of ages and the rubble of a collapsed economy. The Stavros Niarchos Centre, with the National Library and Opera, is due next year. There is a self-conscious hipness, too. Beyond the Plaka and Monastiraki, wine bars and amusing shops are breaking out in the Kerameikos district and the squares of Agia Irini (the old flower market) and Karytsi. Hipsters do what hipsters do on Ipitou Street. Here we looked for a recommended new bar called Kiki de Grèce. It was closed. Hilariously, a popular recent opening is a bar on Kolokotroni Street called the Bank Job.

We went for dinner at the smartest restaurant in Kolonaki, the diplomatic quarter, with its Ralph Lauren franchises and Mini Coopers. This was Papadakis on Fokilidou Street where telly chef Argiro Barbarigou serves octopus in honey to a noisy, rich, finger-jabbing, bejewelled and apparently carefree international-style crowd. However, our host was a Greco-Italian fashion photographer who has not worked for four years. While we ate, a small, rolling riot swept down the street. The policemen, by the way, ride two to a single motorbike. Whether this is for reasons of efficiency or economy, no one knows.

Norman Lewis, travelling in the Andalusian pueblos blancos, once said that poverty is a great guardian of beauty, but that’s not so in the Greek capital. Depressingly large parts of the city are grubby, fatigued and miserable. A reliable escape from urban grot is a visit to Mikrolimano, with its marinas and fish restaurants, of which Varoulko has the biggest reputation. Last time I visited, there were sunken boats in the harbour.

Returning to the airport on the swish Olympic underground, a failed suicide stopped the train. Failed suicide? Comedy or tragedy? Both are always available in ancient or modern Athens.

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    I started visiting Athens in the early 90s and from your description it is basically the same as it’s ever been. I cannot help thinking that the effects of economic collapse are difficult to notice in Greece, as they are masked by the general “bardak” that has always existed there. Greece doesn’t need an economic crisis to be littered both crumbling unfinished buildings, garbage on the streets, stray dogs and vermin running amok, and plumbing that cannot cope with toilet paper; they have always been there.

    • jim

      Agreed.I liked Greece and I liked the Greeks but Athens was always a kip.I don’t say this with any sense of glee.They deserve better.Outside of Athens things are better but……sometimes not much better.Damn shame.

  • Chris Hobson

    Athens the only city where the ruins look better than the buildings.

    • EHGombrich

      Albert Speer´s ruin value theory.


    Athens is a bit like East Berlin 27 years ago.
    Poorly organised and a misguided belief that Ru$$ians would save it from bankruptcy.

  • Benjamin Martin

    We we warned by Gen. Bill Odom, among others, that the 2003 Iraq invasion would be one of the greatest strategic disasters in US history.

  • Hybird

    Last time I was there, the streets were full of Africans selling trinkets. They even came into the restaurants and went from table to table. Not been back since. And now I read that the new government have closed down the refugee detention centres and the inmates have flooded into Athens town centre. No wonder Golden Dawn are doing well. What an absolute shambles.

    • Jean valejan

      Italy is the same. Can’t even go to the beach as it is full of Africans trying to sell fake sunglasses and mobile phone accessories. In towns you need to keep the windows closed in cars as the Roma beg and steal at traffic lights. Do not even go near tourist spots as you cannot be left alone.

      • mohdanga

        This must be the ‘vibrancy’ and ‘enrichment’ the multiculti, mass immigration, let-all-the-‘refugees’ in, mob says is so important for Europeans and the West.
        Last in Italy 5 years ago….disappointing that the local plods allowed nefarious Nigerians to set up shop on the Venice bridges thus allowing these criminals to ruin them for tourists and locals. Why do they allow this??

  • lakelander

    We stayed for a weekend in September. Most enjoyable and the city lacked the cynicism one finds in so many capitals. The amount of graffiti was incredible; as though the whole city had developed a rash, however one stopped noticing it after a while.

    I wish the Greeks the very best. They deserve’ a better state of affairs.