On our last trip, I didn’t spend much time down along the waterfront of Athens, so this was one of the first things I wanted to get at upon my return.
The tram stops just 3/4 of a km away from the hotel so we wandered through the back streets up to catch it. Today is Sunday and the streets are very deserted with people either in Church or sleeping in. There is a huge street market that takes place over in this area on Saturdays but Sundays are a no-go.
The tram rides down to the southwest to the waterfront where it forks off to go west or east along the coast. As we rode down through the city, I noticed many people, young and old, making the sign of the cross whenever we passed by a church. In this way, I could see who was devout and who was not. A rough looking man sitting beside me looked like he was sleeping or passed out, but even with his eyes closed, he knew when to cross himself, and he didn’t limit himself to once or twice like the others. He did it multiple times, perhaps five or six times.
We started to get closer to the waterfront, so we changed seats to the other side to get a good view, and as we spoke, the man’s eyes opened up and he spoke perfect English to me, without a hint of accent. “You were sitting beside me all that time and I didn’t know I could practice my English!” I told him he could still talk to me, and he did. He told us he has a cousin in Montreal, has always planned to visit him, and that he’s lived in Athens all his life. Half way into discussing the difference in climates between Greece and Canada, we passed another church, and he stopped mid-sentence, closed his eyes, and crossed himself another 5-6 times, his lips moving, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. As soon as he was done, he jumped up, shouted “Have a great day!” and ran out through the door.
When we reached the waterfront, the tram veered off to the southeast, following along another 10km down the coast to Voula. The shore gets very rugged in parts, with beach clubs, bars and restaurants dotting along the way. We would have liked to stop in Glyfada and look into some shops but most looked closed, and it was noon by this time, so we figured they wouldn’t be open at all today. Glyfada is a suburb of Athens, situated in the southern parts of the Athens Metropolitan Area. Many of Greece’s millionaires, ministers and celebrities live out here, so I expect the shops may be out of my budget comfort zone.
At the end of the line, we got off and onto a return tram. We were headed back up along the coast to Flisvos Park. Once there, we made our way along the seawall, with a large number of Sunday strollers.
The temperature today was 15c/60f. To us, it was like a nice Spring day. In the sun, we were comfortable wearing our t-shirts, with our hoodys available for shaded spots. The locals seem to fall into two extremes, those who consider the day cold, necessitating big winter parkas and those who consider it warm enough to sit out on the beach wearing bikinis and speedo – with quite a few swimming in the water.
There were quite a few people selling their wares, strewn out on blankets along the sidewalk, and entertainers playing instruments or showing their skills in other ways. Vendors sell roasted corn and nuts, and I was quite tempted by the corn, but we were headed down to the marina for lunch.
The Flisvos Marina has some of the most amazing yachts I’ve ever seen. They are huge and flambuoyant, and seem at odds with the failing economy here. We spoke to an older man and his son, first discussing where we were from and then seguing into the topic of the Greek Economy.
The son was concerned that we not be confused by the big billionaire yachts. They aren’t rich here, and this isn’t how real Greeks live. Greek people are having a hard time and they are very angry at what has been going on with the economy, the government, and the austerity measures that have been thrust upon them in exchange for bail-outs from the European Union. They’re angry and they love to discuss it.
As another Greek man told me on our last trip, Greek was the very first democracy, and politics are very important here. I don’t think there is any Greek person alive who would roll their eyes or yawn and complain when someone else brings up politics. It’s a discussion everyone wants to have, and I enjoy their openness about it.
I have been missing Greek food so we bypassed the sushi bar, and headed straight to the Greek seafood restaurant. We learned on our prior trip that the salads here are family sized, so we usually order a salad and one meal or appetizer that we share. We chose a Greek salad and cold octopus in vinegar. I had wondered before coming here if it was probably just called ‘Salad’ or something else because all the salads here are Greek. But all the restaurants we’ve been to in Athens call it Greek salad. The octopus is marinated in vinegar. It doesn’t sound all that good, but it is just amazing. Some places do it better than others, but I have yet to have a bad version. This restaurant had the best one so far.
At the table next to us there was a group of 5 young Asian men and women, and one young Greek woman ordering for them all. As we watched the plates come to their table, we couldn’t help but feel envious, and wished we could have invited ourselves to join in. They appeared to order one of everything.
Most Greek restaurants end the meal with a dessert or drink “on the house”. This restaurant brought us my favourite Greek liquer, Mastika. The 3 main special liquers of Greece are Ouzo (which I love), Raki (which I abhor), and Mastika (the best!).
Whenever we are served a clear liquid at the end of the meal, my first thought is always “Please be Mastika, and not Raki!” Raki tastes like moonshine to me. It’s harsh and unpleasant. Yet I never turn it down. That would be rude.
After lunch we walked further along the marina and along the waterfront. The area begins to get rough and uncared for when you hit the old Olympic areas. It seems such a shame to see buildings and areas that cost the Greek people 7 billion Euro (almost twice their projected budget) for the 2004 Olympics, laying empty, completely unused and decaying. Due to the financial crisis, and no post-Olympics plans, the venues were all abandoned.
We really had no idea where we were headed as the waterfront got rougher. We turned into a canal way by the decaying beach volleyball stadium and were rewarded with a mish-mash of what were at one time beautiful sailboats and catamarans. Now they look barely sea-capable. One is already half submerged in the canal. I’m guessing these ships were lost to creditors and with no buyers available, they’ve just been left to rot.
We had to walk inland along the canal to now unused bridge we climbed up to and walked over to the other side where we watched a group of 15-20 hobbyists fly their miniature planes and helicopters, then walked back out to the concrete waterfront where fishermen lined the shore. There are no breakers here and storms have swept all manner of garbage in here to collect. The concrete waterfront was probably gorgeous during the Olympics, but now it is cracked and wrecked, with huge holes along the way.
We started to worry that we might not be able to get out the way we were going but we kept following the way, making jokes about it being a potential Ocean Shores moment. This is in reference to a trip we made in 2010. We cycled down the Pacific coast to the bottom of Oregon. At Aberdeen, Wa, we cycled all day to get around to Ocean Shores because our book “Cycling the Pacific Coast” told us there was a pedestrian ferry that would get us and our bikes across to the other side.
We could have chosen to bypass Ocean Shores and probably would have, had we know the reality in store for us. It’s hard to imagine, but there wasn’t the amount of travel information available online in those days so we had no idea. This was just a year and a half after the 2008 financial crisis, and as we rode through Ocean Shores, it was like the whole place had closed up for business. At the end, we saw a big piece of wood, with a spray-painted scrawl across it. “NO FERRY!”
My stomach dropped. I’m sure Harold’s did as well. I refused to believe it. “Go into that motel and ask about it!” I cried out to Harold, but the motel was also boarded up. As was the restaurant on the other side. We stood there, unsure of what to do, until an old-timer came by. We asked him about it, and he told us the ferry was closed because the sands had gotten too high from storms, and there was no money to clean it up. There is no worse feeling, in our memories, than that moment when we realized we had to ride back an entire day and there was no getting around it.
So now, as we got closer to the end, we were getting more and more sure this was going to be a similar event. No longer are we optimistic about these things. We’re old and cynical (we prefer to call it wise) and we were pretty damn sure we’d have to walk back an hour or more to get out of here.
But as we approached the end of the jetty, we saw a dirt road heading off into a ditch canal. We followed it past what looked like a semi-permanent homeless camp, and out to a road along the highway. We were doing better but still had no idea if we could get out of here. It looked like all the cars were coming across a fast moving bridge with no edges for pedestrians. That was out of the question, so we cut across a parking lot, climbed through a wire fence and over a lot filled with broken glass garbage, and a weirdly arranged pile of shoes. I willed my overactive imagination to not dwell on all the feet that might still be in those shoes as we rushed by a man climbing out of the bush in behind them.
Up ahead we could see the Peace and Friendship stadium where lines of cars were piling into. It looked like there was to be a soccer-football game later. Vendors were out getting ready to sell red and white scarves with emblems on them and others were getting food all cooked up and ready for the arriving hordes. We cut down a trail, following some random people, and then hit nirvana, a pedestrian bridge over to the other side of the highway where we could catch the metro.
We decided to take the metro up to Monastiraki Square for dinner, and a few stops along, a husky, hairy man with wild eyes got on. He stood in the aisle and yelled at us all in Greek. I could see his whole body shaking, and even though we couldn’t understand a word he said, it was obvious what he was asking for. He was going through withdrawal and needed money for a hit of something. We gave him a few euro, which he grabbed from Harold and moved on quickly. As I watched him go, I noticed it was all younger people who gave him money.
In Monastiraki, we walked through the pedestrian alleyways along the Agora and found a place to stop and have a drink. We had planned to have dinner later. It was only 6pm after all, much too early for dinner in Greece. But then we saw they had a mushroom appetizer (nobody does mushrooms like Greece does mushrooms!) and the waiter talked us into bread and tzatziki, and with the bit of cake “on the house” at the end, we figured we’d had our dinner.
It was dark by this time, and we were getting tired. We figured we’d get an Uber and head back to the hotel, but were surprised to find none available. So we threaded our way through the alleyways of Monastiraki to get out by Syntagma Square where we could hail a taxi. The traffic was backed up, and that’s not unusual for this area, but it seemed heavier than usual. A few blocks away, we could hear chanting and singing. Once we got up there, we could see thousands of people marching towards the Parliament buildings where they gathered to protest the government’s austerity measures.
We stopped to take some photos and video but didn’t dare get any closer. Just two days ago approximately 40,000 people joined rallies that ended in violence when anarchist protesters hurled rocks and petrol bombs at police outside Parliament. That also happened quite a few times when we were here in November and I get the idea it’s pretty regular.
It’s easy to stay away from these conflicts because they are always heavily advertised with big posters on the streets, so I wouldn’t be afraid of coming to Athens. You can be a few blocks from Syntagma and it’s as if nothing is going on. The next day, it’s all back to normal and the only signs of the violence are the broken windows being repaired, black scorch marks on walls and more graffiti. This time, there seem to be more walls sprayed with “WAKE UP!” and “BLIND!” scrawls.
From beautiful and decadent to forgotten and decaying, the waterfront is a tapestry of extremes. As the young man we met emphatically told me, don’t be taken in by the ships. Don’t be blinded by the extravagance. This isn’t the way real Greek people live. Times are tough here and you can see it in the buildings and yachts that sit just out of sight, slipping away into the ocean.