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  • Writer's pictureJanette Frawley

'Athens, the eye of Greece, mother of arts and eloquence' - John Milton

Our first sight of Athens is through the window of a cab from the port at Piraeus to the centre of Athens. It is reasonably early on a Sunday morning and the streets are almost empty. There is a sense of desolation since almost everything is closed for the day. I see a city of graffiti-covered roller shutters and graffiti-covered walls, empty carparks, and some of the most magnificent neoclassical architecture one could imagine.


Our hotel is located in central Omonoia Square, tucked in a corner with little direct access for taxis. Our taxi driver delivers a list of warnings about the area, which is perhaps not the best introduction to the city. Our accommodation is included in our cruise package, so we had no choice of hotel or the area in which it is located. However, the space in front of the hotel is open, filled with cafes, and there is a magnificent fountain in the centre of what is really a huge roundabout from which six streets radiate. I can't wait to check in and explore.


Chaos.


The lobby of Brown Lighthouse hotel is packed with faces I recognise from the cruise. Can it be possible that MyCruises has dumped us all in the same hotel? There are people sitting in the creepy black and dark teal-coloured lobby. Suitcases are packed into a corridor and down into a back space divided by a black curtain, leaving little space for queue of waiting people - a queue that has extended out the front door. The two reception staff members are patiently telling people that they cannot check in until 3pm and it's barely 10am now. The dark, dingy lobby in not welcoming nor is it comfortable, so after checking in our luggage, we grab a coffee from one of the nearby cafes and try to decide our next plan of attack.


Almost in front of the hotel is a line of hop-on-hop-off buses and we decide to take one to kill time before we are able to check into our room. Sitting on the top floor of the bus, we have a bird's eye view of the city as we pass museums, places of interest, ancient monuments, shopping and restaurant streets and of course, the magnificent Acropolis, which we decide to visit in detail on another day.


I am interested in the architecture and am alarmed to see that many of the early 20th century neoclassical style buildings are in varying stages of rack and ruin. Whilst many have been lovingly restored or are in the process of renovation, there are many more that are nothing more that edifices, the internal roofs, walls, and floors have imploded in upon themselves; something I have not seen since our last trip to Cuba.


Due to political and economic reasons, plus the Greek-Turkish population exchange, the population of Athens exploded suddenly in the early 20th century, resulting in a chronic shortage of housing for the migrants and refugees living in the city. There was no public money for housing and although a solution was needed, it did not come from the government at all. It came from a unique system called antiparochi. A contractor would approach the owner of a large neoclassical house and offer to knock it down and build a block of flats in its place. The owner would be given two or three of the flats, while the contractor would make his money by selling the remaining flats. No money was exchanged between the owner and the contractor and generally no contract was signed. Whilst the state made no money in taxes from the system, it imposed basic regulations such as height restrictions and bans on building over archaeological sites. In other words, for the time, it was a win-win situation and is the reason why so many ugly concrete blocks of flats lining even the best locations of Athens. Under antiparochi, most blocks of flats were built with a view to maximise profits without any thought for aesthetics. Today, many of these blocks of flats are tired-looking and grubby whilst others have been gutted and are being internally renovated. It's also nice to see that many of the tired old neoclassical buildings are now in the process of being restored.


As with most places around the world, COVID has had a devastating outcome. Streets of shops are closed forever, newspaper-covered windows behind iron grills or ugly roller-shutters that will not open for a very long time. Despite the number of empty shops and empty buildings, the streets of Athens are clean. The footpaths, with their many obstacles, loose pavers, and those awful ridged tiles, must be so difficult for elderly or disabled pedestrians to negotiate. We see few beggars. We see few homeless people. And whilst we are told that behind our hotel drug deals are being done in broad daylight, I am unlikely to see them for myself as I have no intention of walking down there.


My first impression of Athens is positive and whilst I have a brief overview of the centre of the city from the top of a bus, I think I am going to enjoy our days here.






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