The birthplace of Western civilisation may be in the grip of recession, but there's still a lot to see and do there
In days of yore, Greece was the cradle of Western civilisation: Birthplace of tragedy and comedy, the Olympics, democracy, and Dionysian orgies. Even the ancient Romans came to Athens to pick up culture and, until last year, Greece clocked in an annual 17 million international tourist arrivals. Myself included.
Today the state of Greece is somewhat dishevelled, looking more like the end of Western civilisation rather than its beginning.
It certainly has created doubts around the common European currency, I think, after an instructive visit to the Numismatic Museum, one of the lesser known—but nonetheless worthwhile—historical attractions of Athens. Located on Panepistimiou, the main drag, in the opulent former mansion of archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (famous for excavating Troy), it has a collection of over half-a-million coins, spanning 3,500 years of mercantile history.
The earliest Greek cities, centres of brisk trade, started issuing their own currencies in the 6th Century BC. Within a couple of hundred years, the drachma of Athens became—in the footsteps of Alexander the Great—one of the widest circulated coinages in history, until that great Greek Empire collapsed and was folded into the Roman one, around 31 BC.
Walking about the historical centre of Athens, one comes upon the oldest agora—with monumental public buildings for political, religious, cultural and commercial use, the oldest structures of which may well date to about 600 BC. And then there’s the ‘new’ marketplace, dating from the 1st Century BC, with a more exclusively commercial layout of shops, public toilets and a clock tower. This almost equally ancient shopping mall is commonly known as the Roman agora. With the Romans came another universal currency, the denarius, which held sway for centuries (and travelled as far as to Tamil Nadu, from where precious beryl and other products were exported to Rome).
Here, in this Roman agora, Indian gemstones and aromatic spices would be traded, for the urbanites of antiquity were as fond of imported luxuries as well-off people are today. Eventually the Roman Empire too collapsed, because its vastness was a drain on its financial resources—not just the faraway imports, but the upkeep of armies and borders combined with weak emperors and lack of realistic long-term fiscal planning. At its peak, the Empire simply didn’t generate enough money to pay for its running costs, and the actual moneys, aurei and denarii, were gradually made of cheaper metal mixtures—with less gold and silver respectively—until they practically turned worthless.
Thousands of years later, once Greece gained independence (from Turkey) in the 1830s, the drachma was reinstated as the national currency.
SINTAGMA SQUARE, the center of modern Athens. The guards patrol in front of the Parliament, dressed in national costume
By the late 20th century, the modern drachma too was caught in perpetual inflation, and when I went to Athens for the first time—in the 1990s when it was still in use—it was worth so little that I shelled out 100 drachmas for a postcard, 140 for the stamp. A basic meal set me back by 5,000 drachmas. (An elderly waiter told me at that time, that two decades before, 5,000 drachmas would have been considered a decent monthly salary.) Oh yes, and an undersized beer in the cheapest bar in town cost 1,000 then. However, walking around with wads of such high-denomination money made a tourist feel rich.
In the early 2000s, Greece adopted the euro. So on my most recent Athens sojourn, in 2011, I felt like a pauper with a travel budget deficiency. As all professional travellers know, the best and cheapest food is usually not to be had where tourists eat, but where locals go; according to ancient travel wisdom, a traveller should therefore head for the market to get the freshest grub (it works in almost every country). So it follows that the single Greek word you need to memorise is “agora” (which is a generic name for markets), and you’ll always find a good tavern. (If you’re phobic about the sights and smells of raw produce, though, you may catch, ahem, agoraphobia.)
Yet even shady basement canteens are surprisingly expensive these days. A not-particularly-lavish meal, far from the touristy Plaka (with its touristy prices), cost me some €20. The only thing that remains affordable is the cheap wine sold in jugs; at €1, even a poet can afford to get inspired in Athens.
(Top tip: At the corner of the streets named Theatrou and Sokratous, there’s a lovely wine cellar which you spot by the smell of fried fish coming up the stairs. There’s no signboard and this old-style eatery appears to have no specific name.)
History now seems to be repeating itself, as it so frequently does, with the economies of Greece and other south European countries being far overvalued as compared to the actual money you might raise if you sold off these nations lock, stock and barrel.
Part of the problem is related to public spending above public means. The showy 2004 Olympics cost Greece a bomb. From the airport, one takes the luxurious, fast, and largely empty subway into Athens. Before 2001, it would have been a slow journey on crowded, infrequent and rickety buses; today you’re in the city centre some 20 minutes after getting off the plane.
On the other hand, history is full of these ups and downs. Nowhere is it more obvious than among the ruins around Acropolis hill: The magnificent pillars and statuary remind one of the prosperity that once kept Athens afloat as a town of learning and arts, the visible remnants of what has become our common world heritage. The recent subway work unearthed more long forgotten ruins underground, which have been fascinatingly incorporated into select stations.
Unfortunately, Greece has never really been a country with a lot to export other than its philosophy and its drama. Alcoholic beverages and olives are among the few exportable agricultural products worth mentioning, and the most profitable industries are shipping and tourism. Especially for people from northern Europe, modern Greece has been synonymous with sun, sands and sloshed summer nights in cheap seafood restaurants, placing the country firmly in the top 20 of the world’s most popular destinations.
Traditionally, tourism has contributed 15 to 20 percent of the GDP. On top of what people pay for holiday packages, tourists flood shops and restaurants, and over 100,000 temporary jobs are generated in the summer’s peak holiday season, with a corresponding influx of cash to the tax coffers.
Building an economy on tourism is always a fickle prospect. If the financial crisis and political instability of last winter was a dark time, this summer doesn’t look much brighter, thanks to crippling demonstrations and the threat of “Grexit”, the looming exit of Greece from the European monetary union.
Already last year there were ominous signs: Museums in Athens had to cut down on staff to such an extent that many of the finest must close some of their halls. Partially shut museums are not exactly going to be a big hit with tourists, especially at a time when televisions show images of thousands taking to the streets and clashing with riot police.
Grecophiles from the euro countries (the very countries that have pressurised Greece to adopt serious cost-cutting measures) are, for obvious reasons, hesitant to book trips to what is rapidly turning into the black hole of the European economy. So far this year, tourist arrivals have already dipped about 15 percent from last year.
Tourists may not always be sensible, but they definitely are sensitive, and nobody wants to go to a place where you might not be welcome. For example, out of the 17 million that holiday in Greece each year, more than two million are Germans. Now Germany has taken a pretty hard line on the Greek economy, which resulted in the burning of a German flag by protesters. Generally, the Greeks resist foreign-imposed austerity measures because they feel that they have worked hard to save and behave, and it is the politicians who have ruined everything. But this particular anti-German display of hostility appears to have led to an alarming loss of German holiday bookings.
Some Greeks take it all with a pinch of humour. I heard somebody suggest that they should just sell off parts of the country; a few of the many islands so beloved to the tourists could, maybe, be traded against a debt write-off. But most people don’t see any reason for joy, and the graffiti in Athens gets angrier and angrier.
In a normal year, Athens alone attracts six million tourists, thanks to its marvellous sights. The town is a fascinating blend of east and west. There are streets where you could swear you are in Mumbai: Posh shops in crumbling buildings; fashionable people in trendy cafes but turn a corner and there’s a pucca bazaar. Crisis or no crisis, the Parthenon is still there, overlooking the town the way it always has. Unfortunately, the crisis means that the restoration work on top of the Acropolis has more or less come to a standstill, with ugly scaffolding ruining tourists’ snapshots.
Yet most of the tourists who do go to Athens return happy. Except, that is, the ones who get robbed by the notorious Athens pickpockets; an elderly couple staying in the room next to mine got picked twice in two weeks. First aunty got her handbag looted at a historical monument, and next uncle lost his wallet with everything in it in the subway.
Other than that, tourists aren’t inconvenienced much. During general strikes, money might run out in ATMs, but if you carry enough cash for a few days’ boarding and lodging you won’t starve. Taxis and buses may be off the streets, or refuse to take credit cards (as a protest against VAT hikes), but the subway usually runs so that protesters can reach Sindagma Square and join the riots. Luckily, Greek strikes are short-lived—48 hours tops—and if you stock up on salami and retsina, you’ll be fine.
One of my favourite quiet places in Athens, when I need to forget that I’m in a big and bustling city, is the forested Hill of the Muses, right west of the Acropolis. There is no entrance fee and one can walk around for half a day, find remnants of the old city wall, the prison where Socrates supposedly was incarcerated, or sit down and picnic at the Pnyx’s antique arena of public assemblies and debates. There are mystical places dedicated to not only the eponymous muses, but also the Nymphs and Pan. Plato and Aristotle, and pretty much the who’s who of Western ideas, would have walked these same paved trails through the quiet woods. It remains a popular place for romance, a kind of Athenian lovers’ lane.
Walking there one time, I discover I’ve lost my way, going in circles on the paths. Luckily, I chance upon a lone carpenter repairing the park benches, and although this Herculean task keeps him busy, he stops work when I ask for the way to the Pnyx.
“Ah, Penix! Yes, I show you Penix,” he says.
“No-no, Pnyx,” I correct him.
“Yes, Penix. Look, you go past Socrates Prison, you will see that it was his prison thanks to the bars in front, and then you will come to a church, you know what a church is?” he says and looks at me as if I might be mentally challenged. “The Penix is to the right of the church. There is not much left of the Penix.”
“No, of course, it must be a very old ‘Penix’.”
“Not penis!” he says, looks insulted and is about to lose his temper when I thank him for the advice and make haste. The Pnyx turns out to be left of the church (the path on the right lands me in a stray dog sanctuary).
All this reminded me of Mark Twain, who visited in the late 1850s, on the first American chartered tourist cruise through the Mediterranean.
He was on board to cover the trip for a newspaper, but reaching Greece it turned out that the country was in quarantine and nobody would be allowed to go ashore.
Irked at having to see the Acropolis through binoculars, Twain hopped into a lifeboat at night and scrambled on foot all the way into Athens, bribed his way into the Parthenon, stole grapes from farms, and was chased out of Greece by armed guards.
Perhaps for the first time in its history, Greece now needs tourists more than tourists need Greece. As long as we keep coming, this ancient land will bounce back to its feet. It’s been deflated by inflation, perhaps, but at the time of going to print, the country hadn’t yet gone bankrupt.
So before it’s sold off to the highest bidder, go and see what is left of the cradle of European civilisation. By taking a holiday in Greece you might actually be doing your heroic bit to save the world from a financial meltdown.