To most who arrive in Athens, the city resembles something between a complex of industrial factories, and the dodgy areas of Detroit. Smokestacks shooting out dark clouds pepper the skyline, above the endless maze of concrete and cement. It is a claustrophobic monstrosity, with street after street of wearisome grayish-white buildings and sidewalks. At night, when the shops close up and the chain shields come down in front of the entrances, you walk down the vacant streets wishing you had brought along your mace.
The ground level of the building facades are coated with colorful graffiti and wallpapered with posters promoting the various upcoming strikes. Whether it’s scribbled on or painted in elaborate bubble letters, the graffiti is almost always in English, as if the artists want to ensure that all who lay eyes on their work will comprehend its message. But the content often seems random and nonsensical, given that large portions of it have been lost to the graffiti encroaching from all sides. On my way to work, I walk under an overpass with “SOCRATES” written in bold blue spray paint and spend the rest of my walk guessing at the missing part.
Perhaps half of the graffiti in Athens bears a political message, while the other half further propagates the ruthless war between the city’s soccer teams. Signifying Panathinaikos’ fan section, “ΘΗΡΑ 13” is probably the most common phrase you will see spray painted across the concrete. But often, you will see the green Panathinaikos writing crossed out by red Olympiakos font with “ΘΗΡΑ 7!!!” now written wildly across it. While some may rightfully regard graffiti as art, others look at the scrawling warily, knowing that young hoodlums lurk in the shadows, waiting to vandalize once the street empties out.
On the surface, Athens is saturated with negative aspects. The rule of thumb for returning tourists is usually to waste as little time in Athens as possible. They try to arrange direct transportation from the airport to the ports, scheduling their ferry rides to the beautiful islands as close as possible to the time that they land. And in this way, Athens is always shortchanged. It is brushed off as dirty, monotonous, cramped, and constricted. The tourist never gets to see its redeeming aspects.
I’m not trying to say that you have to put on your rose-colored glasses and see the smokestack as a blossoming lily; I just mean the city is replete with treasures that you’ll never see if you don’t spend enough time in it. I could approach this claim from a variety of different angles, but for now, I will focus on the green land that punctures the image of Athens that most foreigners have.
For starters, there is a park called Alsos Veikou in the neighborhood of Galatsi that arguably puts Central Park to shame. For example, is there anywhere in Central Park where you can find bushes of wild oregano growing? Can you pick zucchini and corn from the plants that line the walking paths? No, there is no skating rink and no Belvedere castle, but if you walk to the gazebos at the top, you will find a view that takes your breath away. And there will be no skyscrapers to block the brilliant sunset.
You won’t find a Boathouse Cafe, but you will certainly find a few quaint little cafés tucked amidst the wildlife. They have backgammon boards you can borrow and are known for their heavenly waffles with ice cream. As indicated by the bleachers continuously lined with ardent fans, the park’s main attraction is probably the soccer field. Even if the field is currently featuring a scrimmage between eight-year-olds, you will find a comical superabundance of fathers hooting and hollering from the sidelines.
You can make your way to the basketball and tennis courts, or the jungle gym, and witness a kind of parenting that you will never see in the States. There are no babysitters hovering below the children as they swing from the monkey bars and no mothers following their toddlers around to blow their noses and wipe their drool. Instead, you will see a horde of children running wild, while the parents sit off to the side chatting or playing or cards. And it might be 10:00 pm.
It is all much more natural. There is no carousel, no marionette theater, and no zoo, but there is certainly a cat under every other park bench or café table. And once, while I was jogging through the wooded trails, a gigantic tortoise lumbered into my path. Actually, this has happened more than once. I was running the paths around Lykavittos, zoned out and blasting my ipod, when I almost sent a tortoise soaring from the cliffside.
The Lykavittos mountainside is another site that is often overlooked. Every tourist guide features the magnificent viewpoint from the top of the mountain, with its charming white chapel and fancy dinner restaurant, but tourists rarely consider bypassing the funicular ride. The funicular takes you from chic Kolonaki, directly through the mountain, to this perfect vantage point, drastically decreasing the amount of calories you would have to expend otherwise.
Of course, you could find the staircase that takes you straight up, but it’s not exactly a piece of cake. Instead, you could go for a beautiful stroll that winds around the mountainside. You might not make it all the way to the top, but you are guaranteed to find breathtaking views in every direction you look. Even the base of the mountain is considerably higher than the majority of the city. Moreover, you will be snapping pictures alongside pine trees and cypress trees, rather than being elbowed and shoved by your fellow globetrotters clamoring to take pictures as well.
My favorite thing about meandering through the Lykavittos paths is that you notice a drastic change in vegetation. You start off amidst thick evergreens and then, as you make your way to the other side of the mountain where the sun beats down all day, you find yourself surrounded by prickly cactuses and the occasional palm tree. You are transported from the Swiss Alps to the Sahara and back again as you loop around the mountain. You can choose whether you’d like to sit on a bench and perfect your tan, or read your book in the quiet shade with a soft pine-scented breeze. As you weave through the trees, you will be amazed by how quiet Athens suddenly becomes and how sweet the air can be.
Same thing goes for Kaisariani. Though it’s only a suburb of Athens, you will feel as if you’re trekking through the remote wilderness as you make your way through the tree-covered walking trails. You expect to see nymphs flitting between the cypresses. The entrance to Kaisariani reminds me of the Boston Commons. The cobblestone path and stone buildings bear a strange resemblance to the transition from Newbury Street to the Commons green. But of course, the stone buildings on Newbury are not monasteries from the 11th century, like the one that stands at the entrance to Kaisariani. They contain neither icons from the Byzantine Empire, nor 14th-century frescoes. And you will be hard-pressed to find a miraculous spring of water that promises strength and fertility anywhere on the Boston Commons grounds.
The parks of Athens only scratch the surface of the unique things this city has to offer. Where else in the world can you be strolling down a high-end shopping street and find a beautiful Byzantine church sprouting from the middle of the road? Where else in the world can you glimpse a structure as elegant and dignified as the Parthenon in the distance, as you make your way across the city? While the nondescript buildings that characterize modernity might be a dime a dozen as you travel the globe, where else can you find anything like the Acropolis peeking its majestic profile between buildings?
Melanie Graf is a Greek America Foundation post-baccalaureate fellow in Athens. Visit www.greekamerica.org to learn more about the Greek America Foundation’s study abroad programs.