Athens: Old ruins and new

Originally uploaded by apes_abroad.

We were warned about staying near Omonia station in the “bad” part of town. Colin was nervous about arriving at midnight and walking through there with all our worldly posessions, so he meticulously planned our route from Syntagma square to the hotel. It took us along two wide roads lined with upscale shops… sort of. Every third or fourth storefront was abandoned, smashed up and/or burnt out. Graffiti covered every available surface. The word that came to my mind was “wounded”, like this part of the city had been beaten up, whether by riots or the economy in general.

Omonia didn’t look much better in the light of day, and the damage stretched all the way to the old town around the Acropolis. It was hard to tell where the modern ruins ended and the ancient ones began. The grafitti was even further spread, mostly short phrases written with fat black markers on the ubiquitous white marble. We’d desciphered the Greek alphabet earlier using an in-flight magazine, but none of the words were familiar.

We strolled over to Lykavittos hill and took the furnicular to the top (not a thrilling ride, but it was a hot day). From the top we could see Athens stretching out in all directions, uniformly beige 4-8 story buildings packed in tightly by the surrounding hills. No skyscrapers or obvious downtown, but there are several big parks and at least a dozen 2500-year old archeological wonders just plopped around the city.

On our second day we met with a couple of local independent game developers from Flipped Horizons to get their perspective of the city and Greece’s local games industry (namely, that there isn’t much of one). Their 20-some person studio produces more games every month than we have made in our entire professional careers. It’s like they’re in a permanent state of game jamming, and it seems to have fostered a strong feeling of camaraderie (not unlike soldiers at war).

We had a late tour of the Parthenon and watched the sun set over a much nicer view of the city bordered by olive groves. We had dinner at an outdoor tapas place (what do they call tapas here?) and ouzo at a very cool little bar called Loop down in Thiseio. One thing we loved about Athens was the amount of outdoor seating. And the Athenians seem like a pretty hip and happy bunch all things considered.

Our flight was delayed until the next evening, but I suspected the posters pasted all over the city with a picture of a fist clenching a wrench and the words “something something MAH 1” were going to put a damper in any plans we tried to make. Sure enough, Athens celebrated May Day with a general strike, closing all the museums, archeological sites and trains to the airport. So instead we wandered towards Syntagma square to see what we could see.

We were immediately caught up in an enormous parade of chanting ralliers which pulled us along for ten or twenty blocks. The side streets were blocked off with hundreds and hundreds of police in riot gear. We’d noticed a huge police presence over the weekend in just about every corner of the city. We saw them in the squares, in the parks, even outside our hotel just hanging out in big groups. I’m not sure if this was normal, or if they came from out of town for this one event.

Unfortunately (or fortunately?) we did have to head for the airport but are keeping track of the Mayday protests through Twitter. I hope the 30 degree weather will keep tempers down and Athens won’t aquire any more bruises or broken bones tonight.


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