See Part 1: The hotel video and review of where I stayed in this blog
I can never really make up my mind if I love, loath or am indifferent about Athens. But what I do know is that in recent years, every time that I have visited the city since the run up to the 2004 Olympics and beyond, that my impression of and feeling for the city has grown.
It seems to me that the Olympics gave the people of Athens massive energy, enthusiasm and momentum to update, invigorate and improve almost every element of this huge and sprawling city. It is a drive that seems to have kept going and is still transforming Athens.
The first time I visited Athens must have been around about 1986 or so. My impressions on that trip were not at all positive.
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Before going I had, like most people I am sure, a perception of Athens and Greece as a place that was rich with a tremendous and romantic history. A history that was seeped in mythology, with exotic legends and tales of Gods, battles between "good" and "evil" and passionate love affairs. I was familiar, of course, with the image of the famous Acropolis and the Parthenon with its massive columns – but realised that was about the only image of Athens I was familiar with. I had no idea what the city itself looked like. But with its long history I imagined it to be a bit like Paris, full of grand buildings reflecting a glorious past.
So my first trip was somewhat of a rude shock to my system! I landed quite literally with a bump. The airport at that time was very old and quite tatty. It also seemed to be a bit of a shamble and quite disorganized. The trip into town seemed to be on small roads through tightly compacted buildings versus the large motorways and avenues I had expected. I also found that the city was sprawling and large, with row after row of uninspiring beige building blocks. There was an also unbelievable amount of traffic and air that was polluted as result. I thought, at first, that this was perhaps just the route that my can had taken to where I was staying at the Hilton Athens. But soon found by staring out the high rise hotel room that this was a fairly true representation of Athens at that time.
Over 5 million people, a staggering 40% of the Greek population, now live in the city. And, if you explore the history of Athens during the late 1960s, into the 1970s and early 80s you read about just how out of control the city did get. This was a time of massive growth for the city as people poured into it looking for work and the economy as growing. Due to poor town planning growth came at the price of order and structure, and many old buildings were torn down to be replaced with the more utilitarian office and accommodation blocks.
This is why I think that the Olympics were such a positive influence on Athens. They gave the city an impetus and focus to reinvent the city.
Greece was, of course, the founders of the Olympics games and the people of Greece felt cheated and were very unhappy when they lost out to Sydney the right to stage the Millennium Olympics Games in 2000. There was a belief among some in the Olympic Movement that Athens was not able to stage the games due to its infrastructure. But I suspect that this was actually a good move for Athens as the people were so enraged that they were determined to prove that not only could they stage amazing games in 2004, but they would do it in a modernized and appealing city.
The people of Athens had a challenge to rally around, and they were determined to prove that Athens was a First Class City.
In usual Greek style though, they did it in a way that stressed out the outside world watching who were convinced that it would never been done in time – forgetting that the Greeks usually get things done but in their own time. They did literally finish on time and even weeks before the Olympics some observers were predicting chaos.
The Greek way is a more leisurely approach to life and to getting things done. The weather, no doubt, plays a large part as it is glorious weather usually, although it does get almost unbearably hot in mid summer. This is why, no doubt, the whole place pretty much closes down and everyone leaves Athens for the islands and the seaside. So if you visit, remember that mid-summer is when the city is pretty closed up.
Athens has put in place as a result of the Olympics many major infrastructure changes which makes it a better city for a visitor. The new airport is slick, modern and very pleasant to travel through. There is now an inexpensive metro system that runs from the airport into town and also on the further suburbs near the sea. There are new modern highways and every single hotel, of all classes, has been refurbished or extended.
Even the 5 star Hilton was transformed into a funky new modern hotel with sushi restaurants and hip spa. The city had new walkways for tourists and all the traditional sights have been connected in a kind of "archaeological area" and are easier to walk between without fighting through the heavy traffic. Most of the museums too have been updated, renovated and extended and the tourist services seem better, more efficient and up-to-date.
Athens has always had a vibrant night life and this remains as buzzy as ever. The people of Athens are very sociable and like to take time to enjoy being with friends. Even on a weekday it is easy to find yourself out until 1am or 2am as the evening will only start earliest around 9pm. Even if you want a quick meal you will find it hard to do that in less than 2 hours as to the Greeks this is time to relax, chat and enjoy yourself. On this trip, for example, a colleague and I who had just flown in on a Sunday late afternoon went to eat around and found all the tables still full with the lunch time crowd who were just starting to finish off their coffees.
The other good news is that Athens seems to be much less polluted, although traffic still seems to be pretty bad. Pollution used to be a major problem for the city. There are a rumoured 15000 taxis and huge car ownership and there are always zillions of young people weaving crazily through the traffic jams, although people seem to take traffic jams as a matter of course and seem to get much less stressed out about it than in other countries. However, while pollution seems to be better you cannot say the same for smoking as people still seem to smoke a lot, and restaurants and bars are very smoky.
The taxi trip in Athens from the airport is always for me an ordeal, and I pray for traffic jams a lot of the time. When there is open road the taxi drivers do seem to take you on more of a white knuckle style ride chopping and changing lanes at speed, driving on each others bumpers and driving at speed while talking and doing text message on the phone. I do find that part fairly stressful and so if not travelling with anyone will call up people on my mobile and chat to distract myself.
In Part 3: my tips for visitors to Athens
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