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Athens Beyond The Acropolis

Athens Is Sad

“The sculptures of Ancient Greece reflect the mood of the people at the time they were made,” our guide explained as we drove from downtown Athens to the Acropolis. “When the ancient Greeks were happy, their statues smiled.”

If the Greeks were making statues now, they wouldn’t be smiling. The mood in Athens these days is most optimistically described as melancholy. The guidebook I bought in the airport, when describing Greece’s capital city, speaks of “radical urban renewal” and “conspicuous wealth.”

Surely it was written before The Crisis, as every Greek we’ve met has referred to the current state of affairs in their country. Today’s Athens is a sad place where the dumpsters are overflowing with garbage and the parks are overgrown with weeds. Municipal services have been suspended, and now cuts are being made to the police force.

“Look at these tavernas along the sea,” our guide remarked later in the day as we traveled along the coast from the Acropolis to the Temple of Poseidon. “This is one of the most popular beach spots in this country. This is July. Today is Saturday. Yet these tavernas are empty. Two years ago, on a day like today, these tavernas would have been full. Now we have The Crisis.”

Quiet and empty…that is the coast outside Athens.

Dirty, polluted, grimy, gritty, crowded, and demoralized, that is the impression of Athens itself.

“This city built for the cult of Athena was intended for 500,000,” explained our guide. “Today, 5 million live here.”

Viewed from any elevation, the primary impression of Athens, as a result, is density. Apartment building upon apartment building up every hillside.

As our guide pointed out, this is high season. In Venice, where we’ve just come from, we battled the requisite camera-toting crowds. Here, we have the coast outside Athens nearly to ourselves. In the city, shops are closed, buildings are vacant, and windows are broken.

Regardless, just beyond and always in the background is the sparkling Aegean, suggesting, as our guide put it, that “The particulars of today’s Athens are irrelevant.” The fundamental appeals of this part of the world are eternal.

They are also both natural and manmade. For, here, in Europe’s oldest capital, Pericles and his crews built some of the most important and impressive structures of all Western civilization.

If the architects of Ancient Greece were the fathers of their trade, you can’t help but wonder as you make your way out to see their handiwork, still standing, still awe-inspiring more than two millennia later, what happened to their sons? Driving around Athens and along its nearby coastline, I didn’t see any structure of architectural note built in more recent history. Non-classical Athens is non-descript.

My guidebook describes the experience of climbing around the Acropolis as majestic. On this point, it does not exaggerate and will never be dated. Seeing the Parthenon, the Odeon, and the place where the Agora stood is worth the trip, for sure.

But, having seen those sights, would it be a good idea to stick around? Lief and I are on vacation, embracing our tourist roles. Still, we can’t help but consider each destination we’re visiting from our usual perspective. So, here in Athens, we ask ourselves the question: Would this be an interesting place to think about retiring? Or investing in an apartment?

I got the feeling that many folks here would like to sell whatever property they’ve got and that a buyer with cash could probably name his price. But cheap isn’t necessarily a good deal.

“This is my kind of place,” Lief remarked with a smile when he returned from the corner shop with sodas and snacks. “This has got to be the cheapest bottle of Coke I’ve bought in Europe since the dawn of the euro. And we’re in the heart of the tourist district.”

Cheap real estate and cheap soda pop. Reasons enough to hang around?

If we were to spend more time in Athens, I don’t know what we’d do with ourselves. After you’ve seen what this city’s founders built for themselves (and for all us tourists since), you’re left with modern Athens. We’re passing through and passing judgment quickly. But, as far as we can tell, Athens summer 2013 isn’t a place worth getting to know better.

Maybe the islands have more to offer. We’re on our way to Mykonos.

Kathleen Peddicord

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