The final stop of the latest European tour was a destination that I have been keen to explore for a while. A city that has influenced languages and culture around the world, and is still regularly in the news, albeit for very different reasons. One of the oldest and original super-cities of the world: Athens.
It is common knowledge that Greece is steeped in ancient history, and many ideas that are fundamental to Western society today were developed in Athens. The first notions of democracy, and listening to the will of the people, were established here. Though it is true that ‘people’ who could vote excluded women and non-Athenian citizens, and those who could vote actually had to vote rather than exercise a right to abstain, it showed that allowing the decision of many to become the final decision could work practically as well as in theory. This is just one example of how Athens’ history and influence can still be seen today.
The most spectacular sight that still remains from the ancient era sits dominantly atop the Acropolis hill in the heart of the city. The Parthenon can be seen from much of central Athens, and acts as a reminder of the influence the city used to exert on Greece and beyond. The reason that it was constructed on the top taps into the spiritual and mythical side of the age; birds would never fly over the rock, making it seem special. A short hike leads you up this hill to the majestic, crumbling wonder of the world that was erected here.
The Parthenon was actually in decent shape until a war with the Venetians in 1687. The Greeks decided to store their gunpowder and explosives in the monument. You can imagine, and see, the damage caused when a Venetian bomb landed upon the building. It has changed over the years, from a temple to a tourist attraction via church and mosque, and it currently undertaking a painstaking restoration process. One unfortunate side effect of this project is the cranes which prove to be quite an eyesore and distraction at the top.
The Parthenon is by no means the only major historical site still visible in Athens; indeed, the city is a hotbed of historical ruins and spiritual sites. It is home to the ancient and Roman agoras, which were the market areas and trading hotspots. Every location has a story behind it, which I learnt about on an entertaining walking tour of the city.
Amongst the temples and pillars is the Panathinaiko Stadium, where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896. They were a world away from the global and commercial operation that represents the Olympic movement today. Only 10-15 countries took part (records can’t prove the claims of certain countries), women were not allowed to compete, and they only participated in nine sporting disciplines.
The Greeks apparently approached this event with a degree of arrogance. My tour guide cheekily informed us that the Americans swept the board owing to their magical theory…of training. Only one Greek athlete actually won a gold medal in 1896, Spyridon Louis winning the marathon. His trophy is shown below, and can be found in the impressive Acropolis Museum. That long-distance race, one I would like to do in the next couple of years, is derived from Greek history and the legendary tale of Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens to deliver a message to not give in to Persian forces that were soon to arrive, as the Athenians had defeated them 26.2 miles away. Louis’ achievement is recognised by the national stadium, hosting the 2004 Olympic Games, being named in his honour.
This provides me with a nice link to talk about modern Greece. A country, and a capital, in crisis, according to the international news outlets. The problems are well-documented. Unemployment of 27.6% as of May 2013, with the rate for Greeks aged 15 to 24 at a staggering 64.9%. Public debt of 305.3 billion euros, or 160.5% of GDP. An 11% drop in real wages according to a recent study. An angry public regularly protesting against what they see are injustices resulting from bad governmental decisions.
The question really is whether this is visible as you stroll through the historical centre of the city, and whether it is enough to scare away potential visitors. There is clear evidence that Athens is a city that has been struggling, from the sheer volume of graffiti and protest posters to the mass of boarded-up buildings that used to thrive as shops. Yet there were no protests during my time in the Greek capital, and people that I saw seemed more positive than one would expect given the dystopian statistics portrayed above.
What Athens is doing is promoting its tourism and using its history to attract people, and therefore money, towards Greece. There are benefits to visiting this metropolis home to over 3.5 million aside from the obvious cultural profit. Athens is cheaper than other major European cities, particularly its Roman counterpart. Food is cheap – souvlaki, spiced meat on a stick, is rarely more than a euro. The metro is one of the best legacies left by the 2004 Olympics.
I was pleasantly surprised with Athens. It is a bubbly and active city with more to see and do than would initially be expected. It possesses some stunning views, particularly from the top of Lycabettus Hill, and an aura of grandeur and former glory. Greece’s sorry financial predicament should not put anyone off visiting Athens – it is certainly worth your time and much-needed euros.
Love you all