To live in Athens is to succumb to the schizophrenia of an ancient city that is actually very, very new. Cast an eye around the centre and you’ll see the old city, the modern city and little else, save for a Byzantine church or small monument.
Ironically, more remains today of the city of Pericles than of the city of Leo von Klenze, Eduart Schaubert, Ernst Ziller and Stamatios Kleanthes, the architects and planners tasked with designing modern Greece’s capital in the 1830s. Just a handful of neoclassical edifices have survived the vicious modernisation of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s as it ripped through the city’s fabric like a particularly nasty virus. It’s as if, having raised such a perfect structure as the Parthenon, the Greeks are unable to bear the sight of anything else in Athens for too long.
At ground level, the city presents a totally different picture than when viewed from the air. From a viscous concrete mass spilling into the sea, at close range the city dissolves into self-contained neighbourhoods, each with their own character. The extraordinary Attic light loses its harshness, shrouding the city with the weightlessness of a halo.
The city’s charm is its ability to surprise. A sudden flash of the Parthenon between the narrow streets or an astonishing sunset reflected in the glass façade of a modern office building can snatch your breath away, taking with it the day’s frustrations.
Athens is a city that excites passions, equally those of the philhellene seeking out the glory that was Greece and those of the weary shop clerk struggling to get home in time for dinner. To outsiders, Athens groans under the weight of cultural baggage, from the unmatched aesthetic of classical Greece to more contemporary representations of the ‘Greek psyche’ embodied in legendary figures such as Zorba, Melina Mercouri, Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas. Reality bites: what enchants on the screen or as myth can seem childish in the context of daily life. Greeks willingly subscribe to the cliché of their country as the point where East meets West, but their identification with the ‘West’ goes no further than consumer lust; the passions and perspective beneath the cloak of Armani and Donna Karan are quite firmly rooted in the East. Reason follows a wayward path, propelled by a mixture of fatalism, paranoia, optimism and insouciance characteristic of a society forged from millennia of triumph and defeat.
‘Athens is a great equaliser because there are so few genuine Athenians left. Money talks in the city, but it’s also very easy for the common person to mingle with the rich and celebrities. We’re formal, but also very casual.’
Antonis Kolonaki, waiter
Emirates Airlines flies direct to Athens daily from Dhs2,455 return, including tax.
Where to stay
Fresh Hotel, Sofokleous Street (+30 210 524 8511, www.freshhotel.gr).
Where is it?
In the south-east corner of Greece. It is bounded on three sides by mountains, with the Aegean Sea to the south.
Hot summers and late winters, with rain alternating with warm, sunny days. Athens sits in a bowl in the mountains, which causes the notorious air pollution.
80 per cent Greek, alongside migrants from Albania, Russia and the Black Sea.
Don’t miss the Acropolis (with Bernard Tschumi’s new museum), National Archaeological Museum, Temple of Zeus, Theatre of Dionysus, and Olympic stadium.
Summer club-hopping along the coast, or get into Greek music at a rebetika club on a winter Sunday.
Where’s the buzz?
Kolonaki cafés on weekdays, Thisseio and Monastiraki on weekend afternoons, Psyrri at night.
Number of stones used to build the Parthenon
Cost of the 2004 Olympic Games
€1.97 billion (Dhs9 billion).
Number of days of sunshine a year
Most frequent sight
The periptero, or corner kiosk.
Most enduring summer tradition
Taking in a film at one of the open-air cinemas.
Most famous souvlaki
Thanassis or Bairaktaris at Monastiraki.
Most annoying habit
Twirling worry beads.
Most intense sports rivalry
Olympiakos versus Panathinaikos (football).
Best view of the city
Areios Pagos Hill, the rock from where Paul preached to the Athenians.
Number of citizens per car
1.9. The city’s traffic jams are legendary, even after midnight at weekends.
Arts & culture
Food & drink
Quality of life