While I would not call the city itself the most beautiful in the world, or even the most beautiful in Greece, the attacks surprise me because they don't correspond to the city I've visited three times. No, I wouldn't compare it to Venice or Florence, and wouldn't tell you to spend a week of your two week vacation there, but let's put a bit of reality into the equation.

What about those specific attacks? Let's take them up one by one.

(Note: this was written some years ago; prices are much higher now. But I still stand behind the main point of this.)

 

Pollution. Compared to what? I lived in Los Angeles, and when you come over the mountain passes into the LA basin you can literally see a wall of smog towering up at the pass. On a bad day in LA you just know your lungs are being eaten away (to say nothing of the paint on your car) by the smog. Athens has its "nefos" as well, but, Athens is no standout when it comes to top polluters. Yes, its polluted. But on a par with any modern, large city. It can have very bad days due to geography and climate, but the average is like a large, modern city.

What about the traffic? Sorry, but Athens doesn't even take first place among the places I've lived. For pure speed, go to the LA freeways; for unadulterated "I'm going to kill you!" go to Boston; for extravagant safety violations, go to Nairobi.

Yes, drivers are fast and aggressive in Greece. Yes, they park on the narrow sidewalks and cram cars in everywhere. The streets are clogged. But I have driven in Athens and lived.

Crowded? Compared to Bombay? To Cairo? This one I don't get at all - its a big city - of course its got lots of people in it. Just like all the other big cities. What do you expect? You can ignore the people - just hide in the Plaka section and avoid July and August.

Athens is attacked as ugly - an architectural disaster. This is in reference to the rapid building of the city in this century which features an epidemic of unpainted concrete buildings. Well, ugly compared to what? I agree, it won't compare to the waterfront in any other Greek town or to the skyline of New York (at a distance). But the impression is left that the place looks like the city in "Blade Runner" or something - and its not the case. First, unlike the riot of individual styles in an American city, the similarity of construction does give a unity that can be a relief for the eyes. There certainly are trees, and 19th century Italianate buildings as well.

If you want ugly, look at any American strip development area. Between the shopping mall chaos of a thousand American towns and Athens, there is no comparison: Athens is better.

Decayed? Well, they have a point here. But I think something else is going on. We see "decay" as a moral failing, but in Athens, much of it is a reflection of the lower level of wealth in Greece. Athens, and Greece itself, while certainly no third world outfit, are not as wealthy as most of Western Europe and America. Things aren't as plush. The air conditioning isn't as cold; the cars aren't as new, the walls aren't as freshly painted; the faucets aren't gold. To many Americans, whose idea of adventure is a new ride at Disneyland, Athens can look bare and bleak. While acknowledging the fact that decay exists, there is also a pleasure in the simplicity produced by relative poverty. Its can be refreshing, because the opulence of American tourist spots is so bloating.

But there are decayed buildings, far too many gray walls (why can't they import Cyclidic colors?), slick, uneven sidewalks.

More than just putting its admitted, considerable problems in proper perspective, Athens has considerable charms, and we must turn our attention to those now.

If having the foundation sites of Western Civilization (the Acropolis, the Agora, the Pnyx, the Areopagus) all within walking distance of each other and of decent hotels at $50-60 a night and dozens of restaurants just doesn't do it for you, I'm not sure what will, but let me try. Athens has significant museums both large and small that offer considerable art, history and politics for view. There are concerts and revivals of ancient plays; monasteries with amazing icons and frescoes. Admittedly, to fully enjoy those things you have to dig a bit, because they aren't always well documented, and some of the museums in particular have only the most minimal explanation, so some advance study, or a good guide will pay benefits.

It's cheap. Try getting a hotel with air conditioning and breakfast in New York for $50 a night for a double. Try eating dinner al fresco someplace else for $12 including the wine. Try getting to the airport direct from the center of the tourist sites someplace else for $1.50 on the bus.

But I would be lying if I sold you Athens on the basis of a list of "look-em-up-in-the-guidebook-and-check-em-off" attractions. Athens' charms lie in its people, its human, walkable scale, and its culture of conversation. There is an energy to the place and the people, evident in the speed of the language (they slow down in English) and the pace of life. From the Plaka you can walk to a week's worth of tourist sites. But mostly its the culture of conversation. The famous kafenions and restaurants are not famous for food or decor but for the human culture.

The book "Athens" in the series "The Great Cities" by William Davenport (Time-Life, 1978, at p. 73) recounts a paradigm evening: gathering with friends at 7; conversation and food till 9; a decision to go to the wine festival implemented after more conversation and food at 10:30; at the wine festival till 1 a.m.; hitch hiking back into town; rescue by a random motorist who (of course) invites them to join him for more food, drink and conversation - while he does business with another person - at 2 a.m.! All of it a great swirl of old friends and instant friends, food, drink (but no drunkenness) and conversation. One of the great charms of Athens is to take three hours for dinner at an outdoor cafe. In our hurried, eat on the run culture, I have found that this idea of leisure and conversation is enormously attractive to my friends.

And then there is the cultural fact that to a Greek hospitality is not just a duty, but a point of honor. True, their politics is factional and verbally violent, but they aren't that way to you as a tourist. Learn about five words of Greek, spend a minute or two treating the Greeks you encounter like human beings, and be prepared for an onslaught of hospitality.

Athens has other, subtle, ordinary, charms.

It has balconies - tens of thousands of balconies. Surely the balcony must rank among the top twenty of humanity's most civilized ways of living. With the balcony comes awnings in deep green or blue and the afternoon ritual of deploying them. The architecture and ritual make sense only if one is to sit outdoors, a pleasant prospect.

Athens does not have skyscrapers. I don't know how they managed this, but there are no skyscrapers. The Acropolis still stands above the city, and you are spared the disaster of staring down on it from some observation balcony, or watching it overwhelmed by a forest of steel. As a result, you catch glimpses of the Acropolis from around the city, and you seem to be subtly aware of it, even when you can't see it.

Again, let me be clear. If you're spending two weeks in Europe, I'm not telling you to spend a week of it in Athens. Even if you're spending two weeks in Greece, I'm not telling you to give a week of it to Athens. I'm just saying don't avoid the place or dread your visit there because you hear its a hell hole. It's not. If you prefer reality over Disneyland, if you stay in the Plaka and avoid July and August, you can enjoy it. I'd love to live there.
Last modified 1/27/12; posted 1/3/00. Original content © 2012, 2000 John P. Nordin