Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Athens is cleaner, happier than they want us to believe

The Acropolis, as seen from Filopappou Hill
Even with the media fully focused on the Republican primaries and the improbable ascent of one of the world's greatest dangerous political buffoons (other notable nominees apart from Donald Trump include the likes of Muammar Gaddafi and Idi Amin) we often hear and read about the plight of Greece and its people in the face of the financial meltdown that's still ongoing, as well as the crisis brought upon by the mass exodus of near-East refugees and their subsequent arrival in Hellas. So, we expected Athens to be much less appealing than when either one of us had seen it last, back in 1978 or so. We expected filth, beggars, dour faces, and a municipal infrastructure teetering on the brink of complete collapse.
More than 5 million people live in the Athens metropolitan area
Well, in the four days that Sabine and I just spent in the Greek capital, we saw almost none of that.
Floating money
We're quite aware that the situation on the islands, where the refugees arrive, and in those sad camps on the northern border has to be completely different. Obviously, Athens is the political and economic center of this country that brought us democracy 2,500 years ago. Yep, that's how far all this goes back. There were moments when we thought we understood what the root of the financial problems might be: The men's role was to assemble in the square and discuss politics with their peers while the women took care of the householdand of course, that leaves only a few people to actually work. And maybe modern Greece still adheres to the same principles that discussing the state of one's "misery" is a more appropriate task than actually doing something about it.
Inside of Agios Dimitrios Loumbardiaris
Outside of the same church
We saw our fair share of people sitting and discussing and enjoying the day. We did not have the feeling that people in Athens are hurting too badly. The cafes and restaurants didn't lack customers, the cars weren't the old clap-trap, smoke-belching chariots of more than 30 years ago, the subway is the cleanest and most modern that I have seen in any European capital to date, and there's no dearth of expensive shops that actually seem to have customers.
Do you see all that filth in this metro station? I don't either.
Sure enough, the public parks are in a deplorable state if mowing the lawn and filling fountains with water and then actually running them is an indicator of a sound Parks & Rec department. But the sidewalks were cleaner than in Berlin or Paris no homeless people or beggars were evident, and the traffic lights worked. Undoubtedly, the truly impressive metroleftover from the Olympicsapparently brought a lot of new construction and improvements to the city, and some of this may have carried over in the form of public works that have improved the formerly chaotic city.

Olives R Us
On our first full day in Athens we met up with my friend Marlen, a CADF colleague who lives with her husband and two kids in Athens but who has obviously traveled a lot and has lived in places such as Doha and London. We spent a delightful morning in the Kallithea area right on the water, with millions upon millions of dollars in the form of grandiose yachts as a backdrop. It may be that the pain is similar to that in Egypt where, as we read in the International New York Times, rich folks "really feel the pinch" because they have to wait for months to take delivery of their new Mercedes. I suppose everything is subjective and proportionate. But I also understand why Merkel and Co. have called for Greece to finally get serious about debt reduction. The idea of a property tax was still a bit of a sore spot for Marlen.
With Sabine and Marlen at Kallithea marina
Let's put it this way: If you have been avoiding a trip to Greece because you thought that the situation might be unimaginably dire, rethink your decision and try to find more firsthand reports from others who have been there recently. Our four days don't make us experts on anything, but they were four more days than most of your peers have spent in Greece recently, I'd assume. Prices are not too bad, and the entry fees to the Acropolis (12 euro) and the Acropolis Museum (5 euro) were bargains by European capitals' standards. A ride on the metro is 1.40 euro (about half of most German metro systems' fare), and taking public transport out to the airport is $10 euros, which is about what you'd pay in Munich or Paris. For 30 euros you can have a nice meal with wine for two; mind you, that's not in a fancy foodie place, the likes of which I don't frequent. Like anywhere, you pay more for a hip location or a nice view.
Good use of glass detritusThe Runner
Plakaor Old Townas seen from the Acropolis
Believe it or not, a huge storm was responsible for this
Public parking at its bestunparking the white Jeep-like thing on the left would be interesting
Athens is a huge city, with something like close to half of the country's population (around 5+ million) living in the metropolitan area. Still, there is surprisingly little to do when you compare it to other big cities in Europe. Once you've seen the Acropolis, climbed a few of the wonderful hills overlooking the city, looked at the occasional church, and taken in the Acropolis Museum, the list becomes slim in a hurry. Sure, there are lots of smaller museums, and there is that Roman temple and that Greek theater, but it all pales in comparison to the main attraction, the Acropolis. The Plakaor Old Townwith its souvenir shops and tourist restaurants and taverns is a fun place to walk around and spend an afternoon and a few evenings, but it wears thin after a while. Four days was just right. A week? I think one would want to go on a few out-of-town excursions.
The major renovation project is supposed to be completed by 2018 or 2020
Light is new, dark is oldin 500 years you won't be able to tell the difference
We lucked out with the weather for the first two days, when spring-like temperatures and mostly sunny skies allowed us to shake off Munich's still-wintry conditions. (I had arrived about a week ago for a quick two-week European sojourn.) After those two nice days it became cloudy, cooler, and then even rainy. Greece, a Christian Orthodox country, celebrated its carnival this weekend, and we felt sorry for the kids and other revelers that would have preferred sun and warmth. We left on what is known as Clean Monday, a public holiday at the end of the carnival that is also seen as the beginning of spring. We had been told about the kite flying celebrations, but with the heavy rain we're fairly sure that revelers will have to wait another year to send up their home-made kites.
The Presidential Guard in action
All in all, it was a great and truly enjoyable city trip. We used frequent flier miles to fly for very little money from Munich to Athens, and thanks to hotel loyalty programs our stays at the Intercontinental (one free night) and Hilton (three nights with a nominal co-pay) were mostly paid for, too. All travel connections worked out perfectly, and we didn't get mugged or ripped off (actually, Athens feels super-safe). If you get the chance to spend a few days in the cradle of democracy, do so. It's a friendly, attractive city, and you will really enjoy it.
The original Caryatids from the Erechtheion temple
View from the ultra-modern Acropolis Museum toward its namesake