By this point in my time abroad, it could be said that I am decently well traveled. I’ve seen a wide range of countries, cities and cultures. But despite the exoticism and fascination that comes with a new place, there is always consistency – especially in cities.
A city may be full of monuments, public art, intricate and unique architecture, yet from far away and from an exterior view – they often look the same. Despite cultural details, cities from Morocco to Turkey to France to Greece are united by the common factor of infrastructure. There is always the same roads, the same bland apartment buldings, the same shabby exterior in between the heart of the city and the suburbs. Ok, scratch much of Morocco from the list, but even Casablanca and Rabat look indistinct from a distance.
Athens is one such city. You’d be hardpressed to take a panorama of the skyline that induced feelings of beauty and a desire to visit. The city is packed full of culture and wonderful things to see, but from the outside it is an explosikon of innane development, not at all pleasing to the viewer. Like books, and like people, we must not judge cities from this viewpoint clearly.
We enjoyed much of this rich cultural interior our few days in Athens, and what we saw can be divided into two categories – the obvious and the hidden. They are united by their participation in classing of inner cultural details, they are distinguished by their popularity and distance from the beaten path.
The rich history of Athens, and the physical remnants of said history are a huge draw to the city. It is fantastic to see marble columns everywhere, and remnants of every empire from the Greek to the Byzantine. The acropolis and the temple of Zeus are of course fantastic to see, despite the decay they have suffered they are such lasting evidence of a fantastic part of human history.
But you can see pretty much all of the ruins and plenty of churches in a day, stopping to eat Souvlaki, drink coffee and have sweets along the way. It is there that you must leave the beaten path to find the cultural impressions of modern life in Athens, the bars, cafes galleries etc.
Wandering around the acropolis left us hot and tired and just below the hill in a neighborhood full of flowers, grafitti and nice looking houses we came across a courtyard with tables and people drinking coffee, electronic alternative music gently playing in the background. Strolling in and noting the absolute lack of English, we found we were in a hotspot of art, there was multiple expositions of photography, painting and sculpture, and young and old alike passioniately debating upstairs over coffee. It was the spot of our first frappe and it couldn’t have been cooler. On our way out we finally found some English and saw that the cafe gallery was part of the so called Athens Fringe Network, a perfect name. Artistic excellence on the fringe of the standard, livening the bland.
Our other quite notable find was a bar just blocks from our hostel. The hostel was in a slightly uninteresting neighborhood, with many hotels, some tavernas and very seriously non touristy life. Wandering back from the sights we had spotted the bar with big windows and interesting paint in an alleyway with many flowers and noted it for later in the night.
We couldn’t have had better timing heading there that night. The bar was a living room, and everybody was among friends. You could climb a ladder to sit in the couch lounge. There was a projector showing pictures and a visualizer, but most of all there was a performance that night. A group called Spyros Pan was playing, a talented musician playing an instrument I had never heard of before, the panart hang. It is a metal saucer shaped pan that is hit with bare hands and resonates to beautiful melodies. At times in sounds as a guitar, at others a synth, and at others like nothing I’d ever heard.
There is no way to see a city like seeing it as the locals see it. It is of course important to see the art and the history, but the thrill begins when you go underground, and find what makes a place special today.