The ghostly marble ruins of Hadrian’s Library, the Roman emperor’s gift to the city of Athens, are theatrically illuminated as we stroll cafe-lined Adrianou Street between Monastiraki and Theseion metro stations. Tourists having taken over the Plaka, this is where the Greek action is now. It is 11 p.m., dinner hour. Tables and rustic wicker-bottomed chairs spill out of the restaurants, crowded with people eating mezedes, drinking wine and conversing animatedly. A continuous parade of Greeks flows by — groups of attractive young women, guys out with their friends, middle-age couples walking hand in hand, families with children — strolling by the monuments of classical antiquity. I comment to my wife, "I’m glad we ignored the doom-and-gloom articles. This doesn’t look like a country in the grip of an economic crisis." We choose a table close to the flow of humanity and order salata horiatiki, a plate of mixed grilled meats, and a carafe of house wine, settling back to enjoy the experience that is al fresco dining in Athens.
» Getting there: United Airlines has morning departures from Honolulu connecting in San Francisco with Virgin Atlantic flights to London-Heathrow, getting you there in 17 hours. Summer round-trip fares are $1,695. From Heathrow, Aegean Airlines flies directly to Athens for $247 round trip. Flight time is three hours, 45 minutes.
» Accommodations: I recommend staying in the Plaka, the historic neighborhood within walking distance of many sites from classical antiquity. The Plaka’s best hotel is the Elektra Palace on Nikodimou Street. Price for a standard double is $262 per night and includes all taxes and a fine buffet breakfast. www.electrahotels.gr/electra-palace-athens/index.html. The Plaka also has many budget hotels with doubles at $100 to $125.
» Dining: For authentic Greek fare in the Plaka neighborhood, you can’t beat the ambience and prices of O Platanos, next to the Tower of the Winds. Sit at an outdoor table under the trees with the locals and enjoy delicious mezedes. You might also try Sholarhio, also known by its owners’ family name, Ouzerie Kouklis.
We were back in the city after a long absence, eager to see how Athens had changed since our sabbatical year there in 1990. We remembered being both delighted and frustrated by the city then. Two decades ago it was a unique admixture of the First and Third worlds, charming, dismayingly chaotic and astoundingly humorous. We especially relished the traffic altercations. Because Greeks parked in a random fashion, with cars pointing in various directions, half on the sidewalk and half on the road, it frequently became impossible for drivers to pass one another on two-lane streets. Instead of one car backing up, drivers would begin honking their horns, leaning out of their car windows while arguing and waving their arms excitedly. More cars would pile up behind the first two, and those drivers also would begin blowing their horns or getting out of their vehicles to gesticulate and verbally berate the oncoming drivers.
When the noise started, we always dropped whatever we were doing and ran out on our apartment balcony with our young daughters to enjoy the show. These scenes escalated until our neighbors on nearby apartment balconies joined the fracas, shouting down to the drivers who would reciprocate in kind back up to them. The whole spectacle was street theater, glorious Mediterranean cacophony that Americans and Northern Europeans found absurdly hilarious.
Would we find such scenes in Athens today? I knew that in the intervening 20 years, Greece had joined the European Union, abandoned its venerable drachma — the world’s oldest continually used currency — adopted the euro and recently experienced a wrenching economic crisis that led to a bailout of the country by its Northern European neighbors. We wondered what had been gained and what had been lost with the passage of time. Would we enjoy contemporary Athens despite Greece’s budgetary woes?
I won’t leave you in suspense: Government fiscal crisis notwithstanding, Athens today is a far more delightful city for the visitor. I’ll begin with the traffic. As our Greek friend Rhea remarked, drivers are more "civilized" and "European." They no longer honk their horns incessantly or freely make vulgar gestures to other drivers. They mostly stay in their lanes rather than weaving in and out, and metal stanchions spaced every three meters on main roads curtail parking on the sidewalk. I was amazed at how orderly it had become, and how much more pleasant for pedestrians, though I admit to nostalgia for the altercations of yore.
Cigarette smoke used to be inescapable in restaurants, hotels, public transportation and all indoor spaces. Now all smoking has been moved outdoors and can be mostly avoided if one is careful to sit upwind in sidewalk tavernas. Air pollution is visibly diminished; in 1990 I could wipe our kitchen table in the morning and in the afternoon draw a line in the dust that had fallen since breakfast. Now the rain of particulate matter from autos and petrochemical plants has been curtailed by EU regulations, and Mount Pentelikon, where the Parthenon’s marble was quarried, is no longer perpetually wreathed in brown smog.
As a result of the 2004 Olympic Games, Athens’ infrastructure is vastly improved. There is a new airport connected to the city with both a modern freeway and subway system. I especially liked the metro stations because they contain archaeological artifacts such as burials and amphora left in situ for passengers to view as they descend to the trains. Visiting the heart of the city, the Acropolis, is far more pleasant. Dionysiou Areopagitou Avenue, formerly clogged with idling tour buses belching diesel fumes, is now a marble-lined pedestrian walkway that winds past the Theater of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and up the hill to the Parthenon. Now that most of the scaffolding has been removed from the fifth-century B.C. masterpiece, walkers are rewarded with great views of Athena’s temple.
Right off the walkway is the newly opened Acropolis Museum, a stunning concrete-and-glass structure set on columns above an archaeological dig. One can view Roman mosaic floors and Greek house foundations through cutouts and glass panels in the museum entrance. Inside, three floors of sculptures and exhibits illustrate the history of the Acropolis, showing how the Parthenon replaced an earlier temple to Athena destroyed by the Persians during King Xerxes’ invasion of 480 B.C. The Persian King’s defeat at the hands of the Spartans and Athenians engendered confidence in the Greek-speaking world. Athens flourished, becoming the epicenter of classical civilization. The art, architecture, philosophy, drama and political theory that resulted from this explosion of talent have astounded and influenced the Western world ever since. Take our democratic political system, for example. Rule by the people — the "demos," in ancient Greek — is now the system of choice in Western societies, and its birthplace was the city of Athens.
After two visits to the Acropolis Museum — it has welcome air conditioning during summer’s heat, and the cafe is reasonably priced and has delicious selections — I came to view it as a political statement as well as an artistic one. The Greek government and people are passionate in their belief that the British Museum in London should return the Parthenon sculptures removed from the temple by Lord Elgin some two centuries ago. The Acropolis Museum has spaces set aside for their display if, or when, the British decide to return them.
And what about social changes in Athens over the last two decades? Well, one thing that was readily apparent to my wife and me was the erosion of the patriarchal structure of Greek society. Traditions that date back to before the rule of Pericles held that women should remain under the control of their fathers, brothers or husbands. Young Greek women today are obviously rejecting patriarchy. They seem as liberated as any other European women, hitting the town with their friends without male escorts, flaunting their sexuality in defiance of ancient traditions. As Rhea commented, "The rules are changing. Young Greek guys today are at a loss, not quite sure what to make of women their own age anymore."
So yes, we found Athens a more enjoyable city now than it was in 1990, yet change can entail losses as well as gains. What do my wife and I rue about the city’s contemporary look and feel? An obvious one is the hip-hop graffiti that now defaces so many buildings in the historic Plaka, the most interesting of Athens’ neighborhoods. I even saw it covering a new metro car, reminding me of New York at its 1970s nadir. Illegal immigration is rampant. Nigerians selling fake designer bags and Bangladeshis vending children’s toys are visible all over the Plaka. They quickly bundle up their wares and literally run through the crowds whenever the police show up, a cat-and-mouse game apparently familiar to both sides. Above all, genuinely inexpensive Greek prices have disappeared. Yes, it’s still far cheaper than Britain, Italy or France, but a taverna dinner for two — mezedes and wine — is going to run at least 35 euros, or $45 at today’s exchange rate.
Why, then, return to Athens? In the final analysis, I believe visitors come back to celebrate the glories of the city’s past. Athenians live their lives both above and among the artifacts of past civilizations. It imparts a sense of the impermanence of empires and the evanescence of human life. One realizes that this, too, shall pass.
Be forewarned, sipping a cappuccino in a cafe overlooking the ruins of Greco-Roman civilization evokes romantic melancholy, for one senses the desperation of the late classical world. The Roman Empire weakened, and the onslaught of the barbarian tribes brought pillage and destruction to the cities. Athens itself was sacked in A.D. 267 by the Herulii, nomadic warriors from Germania. The great civic buildings of the Acropolis and Agora — including the Parthenon, Hadrian’s Library and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus — were put to the torch by the marauding war bands.
With the fall of Rome, classical civilization metamorphosed into the medieval world. Yet throughout the passage of 16 centuries, the West never forgot that a great civilization preceded it. Today’s Greeks live with that history as a palpable presence in their daily lives, and visitors can experience it with them. Return to Athens, as my wife and I did, to rediscover the glories of the past and simultaneously enjoy the renaissance of this storied city.
Tom Earle is an English teacher at Punahou School in Honolulu.