Athens, the birthplace of democracy and city of wisdom, does the modern-day flavour of the city fulfil grand expectations a third time around?
Feeling surprisingly alert considering I had spent the day roaming unsuccessfully in search of Barcelona’s botanic gardens, my flight arrived at Eleftherios Venizelos Airport around 4am. Mixed feelings encircled me concerning my return to Athens. This was my third visit to the concrete jungle, whose legacy was dwarfed in the shadow of the great historic city that once stood there before. Being a Cypriot, I often felt that I should have had a sense of ‘belonging’ in Athens, the Hellenic capital. However, previous experiences had left me agitated and unimpressed by the Athenians manners and mentality, something which many European countries are beginning to tire of. Having made these opinions known to everyone prior to the organisation of this trip, I decided to keep an open mind when booking my tickets.
With my backpack on my shoulders, I contentedly strolled past baggage collection and exited swiftly. Pausing outside of the exit gate, it occurred to me that I had entered the country without passing through immigration. Asking a nearby officer whether I was allowed to leave, he briefly glanced at me unimpressed before shrugging and turning the other way. Welcome to Greece!
A strange sense of calm gripped the city that day, almost as if it lay in anticipation of a storm. That Sunday would be the day the 2015 Greek bailout referendum would take place. Syntagma square was crowded with ‘Oxi’ (No) campaign posters and signs, against the proposed austerity measures. This was exceedingly interesting to see, especially as the majority of the media in the country had been broadcasting advertisements in favour of the Yes campaign. The atmosphere on the street was weary, but in fact the Athens of 2015 was just like I remembered it 8 years ago, the 60s buildings were underwhelming, the ancient ruins had struggled in the face of time and the crowded streets harboured little charm.
I found it difficult to be this unimpressed by a city that has given the world so much in terms of culture and democracy. At some points I even angered myself with my negativity, especially since we were there for such a short period of time. Thankfully despite all of this occurring in my head, my company was outstanding. I was so pleased to see them all learning even a little bit about Greek culture. All of us being Biology students from York had really grown close these past three years mainly as a consequence of being confined within labs and tortured with evolving formats of exams.
Rising up above the city and passing the slabs of stone surrounding the steps leading up to the Parthenon still retained some of the magic people would associate with the highly romanticised Ancient Athens. When you finally reach the top, the noble Parthenon greets you. It’s only a matter of time until disappointment strikes again, instead of being taken aback by the elegance of the structure, you end up pitying the ruin it has become. Engulfed in scaffolding, the fact that the Parthenon has endured a lot is obvious. One can imagine the greatness the temple will possess once restoration works are completed, and the awe that will engross guests when walking between the columns, yet this dream still seems a long way away. The site also offers some brilliant views across the city which are once again tainted as the majority of the views are composed of dated apartment blocks. A fire even broke out in the distance while we were there.
Our final venture of the day was a visit to the new Acropolis Museum. A modern building, where the artefacts are exhibited with minimal distractions in a clean, well-lit and open space. Knowing all of the pieces on exhibition in the museum are solely from the Acropolis is impressive, and a reminder of just how much history both the city and the country encompasses within it. I was impressed with the execution and use of the space. Yet even when I managed to enjoy something in Athens, at the end of the day, the design was by a Swiss Architect, and ultimately in the coming years, it will fade into being just another characterless glass building expressing nothing of the people of the city.
After a frappé on the roof terrace of the museum, we headed home to board the ferry to Paros the next day. This trip had left me feeling even more muddled than before. The strangest aspect of my experience is having spent only a day there, I wish to return again. I would like to take the time out to delve a little deeper in the surrounding neighbourhoods, see the city off the beaten path and seek out these elements I keep hearing about which apparently make it so great to be an Athenian. Having travelled and enjoyed so many different cities around the world, it simply frustrates me not being able to find any joy in the place. Quite confidently I can say that I do not intend on booking tickets back there any time in the near future, but when I do come back and have the time, I’m determined to search every street corner in an attempt to find something I can remember the city positively by, because it’s a shame, even after three visits, I still don’t get it.