Athens – the capital of Greece and one of the oldest cities in the world. The first time I set foot in that timeless metropolis, in the spring of 1985, I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It was a curious hybrid place – European and Oriental. Eastern and Western, Parthenon and priests, hookahs and hamburgers, rock and religion, Artemis and Dionysus, Jesus and Mary, ancient and modern, a blending of opposites, still today.
Backpackers – 2022
The kids with itchy feet flock to ‘Athens Backpackers’ conveniently located next to the Acropolis, where you can find a spotless dorm bed for 18 Euros a night, breakfast included.
That place is renovated to a high standard and kitted out with supersonic Wifi. In true Greek party spirit they provide a 24-hour bar service with a DJ spinning the coolest sounds of the day.
Nikos owned a crumbling 19th century townhouse in a side street, off of the main drag, near to the port of Piraeus – a globe-trotter’s paradise – basic but clean. No bed bugs, only seasoned backpackers. I met a pint-sized Kiwi sporting green hair, and tie-dye trousers, travelling solo, her huge complicated rucksack contained all her worldly goods as she hiked through Europe like a little ladybug, weighted down under the pack.
Her tip for survival was ‘never chuck anything away’ – instead, trade it in with a fellow traveller. Sustainability in action, long before Greta Thunderberg hit the road with her icy lectures on global warming.
Niko worked the bar ’till dawn, plying us with beer, and bread. The stereo pumps out the sounds of the day – Culture Club, Stranglers, Kim Wilde, Springsteen. Nikos adores the blue-collar rock hit, “Born to Run”. The tiny Kiwi drinks like a sailor, knocking back draught after draught, and spouting her signature phrase, “I was passt as a newt last night mate! Passt!”
That year, we journeyed through France, Switzerland, Italy, Yugoslavia and Turkey, Israel, Egypt – without any means of transport other than our thumbs. Our one rule was to stick together no matter what.
We only broke that rule one time, when we were trying to figure a way from Yugoslavia to Istanbul. Some young Turks offered us a lift in their LGVs, two in one, and one in the other. I drew the short stick and had to go it alone. I’m not sure why I took the chance, maybe it was the Byzantine cross glued to the dashboard, or just an innate sense of adventure. Whatever, I arrived unharmed with the others. That was then. I’m not sure about now.
I remember a train ride from Cairo to Aswan, costing the princely sum of one Egyptian pound, (around 10 pence) to share a doorless carriage packed with chattel – wives, chickens and goats. The guard harried the women into the carriage, poking at them like cattle, and those women sat in silence, chewing on chat leaves. One of the husbands was kind, allowing his spouse a seat on the hard, wooden bench. The other wives sat isolated from their menfolk. To us (the three Europeans) they displayed a chivalry-of-sorts, graciously offering blankets to cover our bare legs, and even handing our bags off the train. A touching attitude toward the (as yet) unchained.
It was a ten hour journey in that rattle box, and after experiencing the convenience of public transport, we figured it’s all it’s cracked up to be – especially in those parts, and went back to hitchhiking.
People swapped things, sweaters for sneakers, shorts for tee shirts; a cassette for a book, cigarettes for alcohol, soul companions. Someone gave me a dog-eared copy of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories. I couldn’t put that tattered Penguin down, feeling like a fly on the wall in those Brooklyn apartments, listening to his characters speaking in Yiddish. From that point on, I was a disciple. (Years later I would stumble upon the restaurant on West 72nd Street in Manhattan where that writer lunched each day).
America and Athens
In ’85, Athens was having a love affair with America. McDonald’s had just launched in the city. Nikos raved about the American Bar so one evening we took the metro there. The train was half-empty and spotlessly clean. I recall turning up around sunset – opening hour, and following a sign with demotic script, ‘American Bar’ down some steps into a fan-cooled room. I looked around, it was simmering with history, every object rooted in the glorious past. De-mobbed airmen sat on empty stools at the bar, a colored light spilt its glittery-guts onto a vacant dance floor, and high up in the pulpit, an apostle spun Joplin’s wild, petrifying vocals, blowing our minds, and our earlobes.
Today you can visit ‘The Speakeasy’ and listen to Jazz, and the cocktails are to-apparently, to die-for, or so the legend goes. It’s located somewhere in Syntagma – address private – until you enquire via Facebook.
Getting to the city of Athens from the airport
Our flight with Aegean airlines lands, bang on time, but the journey of ‘forty- minutes’ from the airport to Athens is a complete myth. Why? Two hours later we are gazing at an unfathomable web of wheels from our taxi-cab window. Today, the population of Athens is nearly double that of 1985. Five million people chug away at life, competing for space on the narrow walkways and car-choked roads.
Finally, we reach the city centre and the driver plugs away through congested roads, inching along, haltng every few hundred yards, or so. A police car is on the side of the road with flashing lights, they wave us on. We pass King Otto’s Palace, also known as the Greek Parliament, where an Athenian guard is on parade. We gaze at his uniform, a strange garb of tunic and tights. We watch, mesmerised by the balletic movements, like Marcel Marceau, a raised leg, an arched foot, and the slow descent of the pom-pom toes. Pure art theatre.
We sail past the ancient amphitheatre of the Herodian, a second-century outdoors theatre, eerily nestling in the moonlit round, under the shadow of the Acropolis. Our hotel is a stone’s throw away.
“Is there something happening?”
“I don’t know, is very bad tonight.”
We couldn’t wait to arrive at our hotel. It was almost nine-thirsty! The road to Plaka was closed off for some random police reason and the taxi driver was getting agitated. He kept getting calls on his mobile, so we figured he wanted to dump us out. Finally he did just that, advising us to use Google Maps.
“The exercise would do you good,” he said.
(Charmed, I’m sure!)
A group of women peer at us in the darkness. Who are these curious creatures tapping at phones, while their cases sit abandoned on the kerb? Civic minded, they take pity and come to our aid. “No, no, this is hopeless. You will never find this way.”
With good old-fashioned ‘analogue’ directions, we make it to Monastiraki Square, magical with fairy lights stringing in the tree branches, and a long strip of Alfresco restaurants. The walk took twenty minutes with luggage. At a cosy table under an olive tree, we sit down, shoving our suitcases aside, noses twitching with the scent of char-grilled lamb. I remind my companion that we’ve been on the go since dawn with nothing to sustain us but toast.
“What about that snack thing on the airline?” Jo reminded me.
Aegean Airlines provide economy travellers with a morsel that evaporates even as you are raising it to your lips. Then again, in olden days overseas travel involved perilous, ocean-going vessels, after which you could expect bumpy rides over rough, mountainous terrain, filled with highwaymen and wolves. Why complain?
Tip number one: When travelling to Athens try to avoid getting snarled up in the Minotaur’s maze of traffic, and aim for the earliest flight available, ideally before the sun comes up.
Tip number two: Please don’t rely on Google Maps, or you’ll wind up back where you started.
How fortunate the Athenian matrons directed us to Monastiraki Square, and from there, to schlep to our Hotel on Ermou Street, uphill with suitcases in tow.
Tip number three: Take a taxi everywhere, pay over the odds and don’t complain about being ripped off, believe me, it’s worth it.
Plaka is the old town of Athens, it is a village consisting of narrow walkways, brightly-lit stores and traditional old buildings sheltering under the watchful eye of the Acropolis, built in the 5th century BC.
Next, the incredible lightness of souvlaki
Read more by Alice Frances