Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Welcome to Athens! (part 3)

Hello, blog buddies! This is the last and final call... err, post about Athens, the capital of Greece. Today we will be focusing more on Greek mentality and way of life. I kind of feel like a spy, because I will be giving you "confidential" and inside information but... here we go!

5 things I love about Athens
  • The first one would definitely be the climate. It is really difficult to feel down when there is sunshine for more than 300 days a year. When the colour of the sky is the most amazing and clear blue you have ever seen, how could YOU be blue? According to official studies, the Greeks have the lowest incidence for depression in the world. Well, the weather certainly contributes to that.

  • Athens is a city that never sleeps, a 24/7 city. There are always people on the streets and open places to eat, drink and have fun. Unlike other European cities, life doesn't stop as soon as the sun goes down. In fact, that's when things get more lively!
  • The Greek hospitality is not a myth. Ok, it is not as easy to come by as 50 years ago, as Athens gets bigger by the second and people are more self-absorbed nowadays. But, it is definitely there. You can see it once you will need help, directions or information. You can ask the perfect stranger in the street for those, and not only will you get an answer (accompanied with a smile) instantly, but the person may even take you to your place of interest himself/herself!
  • When you walk to the same cobbled streets that millions of people have walked before you over the centuries, you have a surreal feeling. Somehow, you feel that it is all connected - past, present and future. You feel whole, in a way that cannot easily be explained with words. Like you discover your own personal place throughout history - it's tinier than tiny, but it's there.

  • There is only one thing that rivals the amazing Greek sky, and that is the breathtaking beauty of the Greek sea. It is widely accepted that there are far more notable beaches at the Greek islands. Nobody can argue with that. But the Athenian sea can still be seen and immensely enjoyed.

5 things I hate about Athens

  • Athens is one of the few European cities that still suffer in terms of public transport, cars and traffic. The fact that the Greeks had to wait for the Olympic Games of 2004 to get metro for the first time, is rather embarassing. As you can imagine, with 5 million moving around every day, and a subway system that is still developing and cannot possibly serve more than 1 million, things can get pretty hectic. The Athenians may have come to terms with the fact that they have to wake up 2 hours earlier, because they will definitely have to face a traffic jam going to work (even if their office is only 5 - 10 kms away), but the average tourist is not prepared for this mess. And honestly, why should he/she be? Luckily, if you stick to the centre and don't venture to the outer districts, the public transport will serve you perfectly.

  • Athens is painfully expensive, especially when it comes to food and drinks. While the metro ticket will only cost 0.70 euros / 1 dollar (one of the cheapest in Europe), and most of the sites will be free, you are likely to get a heart attack when you will be asked to pay at least 5 euros / 6.5 dollars for a single coffee! And, to be fair with Ernestos and his dislike for Lykavittos hill, if you go there, the minimum for the same coffee will be 7 euros / 9 dollars! This stuff is NOT for the faint-hearted.
  • Athenian taxi drivers have a nasty reputation for ripping off locals and tourists alike. Outrageous stories, charging tourists 50 dollars for a distance of 1.5 kms, are unfortunately true. So, a little tip: Never, and I mean NEVER enter a taxi, unless you agree on the tariff beforehand. It is ok to ask how much it will probably cost, and then decide if you are ok with it.
  • Greeks have quite a temper, demand a lot from their governors, and they don't like to be treated unfairly. As a result, whenever they disagree with a government bill or a political decision, they protest and go on a strike, asking for amendments. It is quite complex to explain, but this is not the time or the place for that. As a tourist, you will face the aftermath: Closed sites, jammed streets, and unavailable public transport. If you are unlucky enough to be in Athens during a strike, there is no real tips I can give you - just try to be patient.
  • It is hard to be a pedestrian in Athens. There are no pavements at all, or those who exist are uneven and even full of holes. Add in the infuriating way in which most Greeks drive (speeding, having no respect for traffic lights and parking in the most absurd places available), and you'll realise that walking on foot at places with heavy traffic is no fun - no fun at all.

When in Athens, DO:

  • Walk the Ancient promenade, enjoy the sun and fresh air and ponder about how many generations have followed the same route as you do now, over the centuries.
  • Try the Greek specialties, and explore new tastes.
  • Enjoy the hospitality of locals, their warm smile and generous ways. When having a conversation with Greeks, it is ok to ask about personal matters, age, income or marital status - just be prepared to answer these questions yourself!
  • Dine late (Greek restaurants are quite empty before 9 pm), hop into a bar and sleep in the next morning.
  • Spend an evening at an open-air cafe, sipping a "frappe" and watching people pass by. The famous frappe is a Greek legend - to be fair, it is not THAT special, but just a frothy version of iced coffee made with an instant brew. I personally don't like it, and it's ok (although I occasionally get shunned for it). But before you make up your mind, you have to try it.
  • Be carefree, and leave your stress behind. Not only are you on vacation, but you are in a place where people just don't think about things too much - try to follow their example, even for a few days!

When in Athens, DON'T:

  • Wear sandals with socks. If you do so, you label yourself as a tourist.

  • Believe in the stereotype that wants Greeks eager to smash plates in places with live music (bouzoukia), when enjoying themselves. This was ok 50 years ago. Nowadays, if you want to do something similar, you can throw flowers (carnations) at the singer, or napkings. But beware: This is a pricey thing to do, as you have to pay for the napkins or flowers afterwards!

  • Get disappointed when you discover what heavy smokers Greeks are. It is frustrating, but true. There is already a law that prohibits smoking in public places, but as with everything else, it is only loosely followed. According to European union laws, smoking WILL be banned at restaurants/cafes/etc the following summer, but I personally have to see it to believe it.

  • Expect to dine peacefully when there are Greeks in the same place. We are outgoing, expressive and LOUD, and yet unaware of that. To us, the Spanish seem awfully loud and annoying. When travelling to Europe, though, my friends and I always get mistaken for Spanish, so there really isn't much difference!

  • Insist on paying for the meal or sharing, when at least one of the persons you eat with is Greek! This is considered a HUGE insult - guests just don't pay! Like, EVER! (If you want to be extra polite, you can suggest sharing, but accept the treat with no further disagreement when it is offered).

  • Our relationship with the Turks is a long and troubled one. The things is that, after 400 years of domination (1453 - 1821 A.C.), the two nations have come to share many traditions, words and habits - more than they care to admit. So, no, DON'T argue whether the baklava is Greek or Turkish, if the right term is "gyros" or "doner kebab", or if you are indeed drinking Greek coffee and not Turkish coffee. There are some things that are considered Greek, and not Turkish, and we choose to overlook their real origin. Just let it be. Nobody will be hostile after such comments in any case, but you are sure to cause some discomfort. Try to avoid it.

  • Claim to be familiar with Greek history and mythology just by watching "300", "Troy", "Hercules" and "Xena". While you may have enjoyed these films/shows, they have all greatly distorted the actual story and original data. It is ok to be unfamiliar with Greek civilisation - sadly most modern Greeks are, after all. Just don't try to sound like a connoisseur based on the aforementioned productions. You are sure to induce laughter and irony. And by the way, to us Greeks, Alexander the Great was an admirable leader who managed to conquer most of the then known world - not just a plain homo caring about nothing else than to hook up with Haephestion (no pun intended)!
  • Complain about how Greeks cannot organise things, follow schedules, take on responsibilities and be respectful to others, in terms of noise and smoke. All these are true. But, to enjoy yourselves more, focus on the positive things: That we are warm people, sincere, generous and fun to be with. We are not famous for our kindness or tact, but we are always there when they need us, no matter what. Lastly, we make great friends - friends for a lifetime...


  1. I have always wanted to visit Greece, but after reading your posts I really want to go right now!

  2. Well, that is quite a surprise! I told you all our dirty secrets and flaws, and you STILL want to go? I really don't get you, guys! LOL

  3. Willoughby, I think we should pack up and go see Gracey! ROAD TRIP!!! Well...not know what I mean! I am now, officially, absolutely and unabashedly in love with Greece...warts and all. I want to move.

  4. I'm game! I have already said Greece is one of my top destinations that I insist on traveling to at some point in my life. I just may have to try to figure out a way to finance it sooner rather than later!

  5. Great introduction to Athens, way better than a travel book. I visited as a student and loved how accessible and hostpitable everything was. Of course, prices were lower then.

  6. Count me in on that Road Trip! I think it sounds wonderful :)

  7. Awesome. I loved this little series you did. Fantastic perspective. I too am excited for a potential trip to Greece.

    One thing, I'd heard that all the stadiums that were built for the 2004 Olympics are pretty much empty and useless, and that there was a lot of anger over how those stadiums have apparently rotted away since '04. Is that true? How are the stadiums perceived now, five years after the Olympics?

  8. Yes, it's true. :( These stadiums cost a lot of money, but there was no further plan on how they would be used AFTER the Olympics, and neither was there money available for their maintenance. (At least the government didn't want to give any more) Now they are in a pretty bad condition. That's a sad aspect of Greek mentality - we give EVERYTHING for a good show, to prove that we can do it, and then we just give up. Nobody really thinks about the future - as if nobody has really perceived the concept of "organisation".

    Anyway, thanks for all of your comments. I really hope that you organise that road/boat/air trip LOL and I get to meet you! We will have a lot of fun! :)

  9. OH! YAY! I followed you home from your visit to my blog. I'm so excited I found you! I just read all your Into to Athens posts--and they were so timely! I'm going to Greece in MAY! How fun to find an actual "local" to quiz before my trip! I'm so glad you came to visit. I'll be back for more tips to the ancient city.

  10. Wow, talk about coincidences! I hope you have fun when you come here. Of course I'll be glad to answer all your questions. Are you staying in Athens or elsewhere? I just realised that most probably I won't be in Greece this May :( but I have to stop whining about moving!

  11. This series has certainly made me want to visit Greece.

  12. Gracey, This is the best tourist information I have ever read! I feel all empowered! I feel like I can visit Greece now! (Minus the socks and sandals which, lets face it, is a dead giveaway in any country!)

  13. Sunshine 300 days of the year sounds fabulous to me!!! Love this post!

  14. that is super interesting to read about the one place that I want to visit the most. Glad to know the Pro's and Con's

    and if you would do me the honor of jotting off an email about your comment at Lissaloo's blog about the GOT ORG being misleading.... I am just curious, promise :) please give me more insight to your opinion :) thanks so much