Athens, then and now

Of all the places I’ve travelled to over the past few years, Greece has always been a bit of a special one to me. I first visited in 2007, right in the middle of my big solo trip of Europe. I caught a ferry over from Italy and spent two weeks there that were so perfect that I wish I could replicate them and enjoy them again, exactly the same as the first time.

For me, there was something about Greece that just clicked. I was halfway through my trip and had finally gotten into the groove of travelling; I wasn’t checking on the location of my passport every thirty seconds anymore. I was relaxed, finally seeing a bit of sun and I was coming from Italy, a country that took me a while to like.

In comparison, I loved Greece from the get go. When I was waiting for a train in Patras to whisk me to Athens, a little old lady dressed in black accidentally dropped a plastic bag at my feet. The bag was moving, and inside was a very alive little lamb. Dinner, I figured with a smile.

Unlike many, I found myself really liking Athens. It’s not like I’d put it in a top ten or anything like that, but I appreciated the place. For three days I stuffed myself full of moussaka and gyros, walked up and down countless hills, checked out the two Olympic sites and got lost in the little neighbourhoods in the shadows of the Acropolis. It was April, right in the middle of spring and the city was full of the brightest flowers, seemingly all in full bloom during my visit.

athens 2007 Athens, then and now

Overlooking Athens back in 2007.

Sure, there were some downsides to Athens. Two girls in my dorm were victims of crime – one lost all her cash after we went out one night and had to get more wired from the US, and another had her passport stolen. There was a grittiness to the city, but I found it no dirtier than Barcelona or Nice. It was only three years after the Athens Olympics, so the metro was shiny and tourist infrastructure was pretty much perfect. I headed off to the islands after three nights, content with what I’d seen and experienced.

I hadn’t been back to Athens, and Greece more generally, until I headed back last summer. Things had happened in Greece since those wonderful, carefree days in 2007. A Global Financial Crisis and a Greek Debt Crisis, namely. I would hear of today’s Athens from fellow travellers and passengers I’d guide elsewhere in Europe and it wouldn’t be good. They’d talk about the graffiti, the crime, the strikes and the rip-offs. In my two years of guiding in Western Europe, I don’t think I heard one good thing about the Greek capital.

acropolis 1024x768 Athens, then and now

So when I went back in May last year, I expected the worst. I kind of didn’t want to go back actually, I didn’t want to see what such a proud and historic city had become. I wanted my memories to remain pure, and not be tainted by any changes I’d witness this time around.

And yes, Athens had changed. It strikes you straight away as the change is visual; it’s the graffiti. It is everywhere downtown, and it’s not just confined to alleyways, train corridors and abandoned buildings like elsewhere in the world. It’s on every flat surface conceivable, layer upon layer. It was the first time I’d seen countless cars graffiti-e. Shop windows and even the road weren’t spared either. And it wasn’t street art; it was mindless scribbles and tags. I’m sure Athens had its share of graffiti back in 2007, but I can’t remember it. This time it was the first thing I noticed.

graffiti building 1024x768 Athens, then and now

Graffiti in downtown Athens.

I spoke to one of our walking tour guides one day about the graffiti. She was a local and of middle age, and she hung her head as soon as my question sunk in. ‘It’s horrible, we hate it,’ she sighed. ‘The kids, they have nothing to do, no prospects, no future here in Greece. They’re bored and here, we can’t afford to clean it up.’

It was something I heard many times from the Greeks I met last summer, plus the Greeks I’d met during my Masters studies at Leiden. They were the biggest grouping in terms of international students and one day I asked one of them why they thought that was the case. Again, she talked about having no future in Greece. She was a trained music teacher, and nobody was paying for music lessons anymore. Instead, she was taking advantage of her EU passport while it lasted (she was sure time was limited) and living in the Netherlands. She was studying a Masters, learning Dutch (her English was perfect) and looking for local work.

I asked her if she would ever go back to Greece. ‘To visit, yes,’ she told me. ‘But not to live. There’s no future there.’

I contemplated this many times last summer, the future of Greece. Despite the graffiti and the general defeatist attitude, I still loved the country. I still really enjoyed my time in Athens. I was lucky enough to have almost a full day off there every two weeks, and I’d spend my free time wandering around the city. I checked out some of the sights I’d seen in 2007; the Acropolis, Syntagma Square and the Plaka, trying in vain to find that perfect taverna from last time, which served me the best moussaka of my life.

archaeological museum 768x1024 Athens, then and now

The Artemision Bronze, a perfectly preserved sculpture at the National Archaeological Museum thought to be up to 2,500 years old. Apparently it’s supposed to be either Zeus or Poseidon.

But there were new surprises this time. I found a little sandals shop in Monastiraki and had a pair custom-made for me, which I hardly took off for the rest of summer. I spent half a day in the brilliant National Archaeological Museum, definitely worth the taxi ride out to the random, slightly dodgy neighbourhood. I found some great little bars hidden down laneways and behind fading edifices. Paul met me one time and we headed out to one of Athens’ pristine beaches, just a tram ride away from Syntagma Square.

athens beach 1024x768 Athens, then and now

Beaches in Athens. Who knew?

And I spent many evenings up on the rooftop of our hostel, sipping a cider and watching the sun go down behind the Acropolis. You can’t beat that panorama; Athens’ sprawl is so white it practically glows.

acropolis close up 1024x768 Athens, then and now

Nothing wrong with that view.

There are still a lot of tourists in Athens. They’re not the same kind I remembered from 2007; back then I remembered heaps of backpackers, more than the usual amount. This time around it was mainly cruise ship passengers, who would descend on the Acropolis and the Plaka area by day and would disappear as soon as the sun went down. As a result, I’d often save my walks around the Plaka for the nighttime, where the chances of banter with restaurant owners was high and the temperatures were nice and cool.

It was one of the things that endeared me to Greece that first time, and I’m happy to report that it hasn’t disappeared in the slightest. It’s the friendliness, the banter, the chatter. The Greeks are blessed with a long history of being used to tourists, perfect English skills and a relative living in every corner of the world. Time and time again, I would reply to their greeting with only a word or two, only to get back, ‘Australian! You are Australian, yes? My [insert relative here] lives in [insert city here], he owns a [insert business here, often a fish and chip shop].’

I’ve always loved bantering and bartering, and Greece was where I was introduced to it for the first time. Some people hate it and call it fake, but as someone who travels a lot by herself, I came to delight in the little conversations with friendly strangers. Often they’d be bored, wanting to pass a bit of time, and not solely intent on just trying to sell you something.

greek parliament 767x1024 Athens, then and now

Someone’s got to stick up for this guy.

Paul’s often telling me that I stick up for the Greeks. I suppose I do; when I would give my talk about the debt crisis I would tell it from both sides, about how the Germans knew the Greek drachma wasn’t as strong as their government was making out but let them in on the euro anyway, keen for better access to the largely Greek-controlled shipping industry. I don’t think there’s one main bad guy in this. There’s a whole lot of them, and some Greeks are getting richer while my classmates leave their country in droves.

Meanwhile, horror stories of how horrible Athens is doesn’t help one iota. Sure, it’s nothing like the islands. But stop comparing the birthplace of democracy with blue domed churches and overworked donkeys! It’s a city that has its share of problems, but when hasn’t it? It’s almost three and a half thousand years old, dammit! It’s seen plenty more ups and downs than this current crisis. A bit of graffiti ain’t going to dent my appreciation for one of history’s most important cities.

Have you visited Athens, either recently or before the debt crisis? What were your impressions?

This week I’m connecting with some other travel blogs through #SundayTraveler. Click the below link for some other great stories through


sunday traveler small white Athens, then and now

36 Responses to Athens, then and now

  1. Gabor Kovacs February 16, 2014 at 12:15 PM #

    I was in Athens in 2008, just a few days before one of the big riots there! I was lucky and I also have friends there so quite enjoyed the city! I genuinely agree with you that it’s ridiculous to show graffitis and disorder as the major features of one of the most important cities of our civilization. Thanks for this nice post!
    Gabor Kovacs recently posted..We present you Pulserita Viajera, the Traveling BraceletMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 16, 2014 at 9:54 PM #

      Thanks Gabor! Gee sounds like you have great timing :) It must have been good to have friends there to show you around the city. That makes all the difference sometimes :)

  2. frankaboutcroatia February 16, 2014 at 12:48 PM #

    Very entertaining post. How about that baby lamb in the bag?!
    It’s sad when people lose trust and don’t see very bright future for their own country. And everybody’s just dreaming of leaving. I’ve been in Greece many years ago. I had a great time and I still keep very fond memories of the country and the people.
    frankaboutcroatia recently posted..Expat life: awesome things about living in IstriaMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 16, 2014 at 9:56 PM #

      Absolutely, Frank. It’s terrible to see people thinking that their country has no future, especially when they love where they come from. It’s a hard decision either way – to leave or to stay.

  3. Emma February 16, 2014 at 1:36 PM #

    I love Greece but haven’t been for years. Must rectify that soon. I really enjoyed your insightful post, thank you! :)
    Emma recently posted..Silent SundayMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 16, 2014 at 9:56 PM #

      Definitely rectify that Emma! The charm is still there :)

  4. Nancie Lee February 16, 2014 at 5:48 PM #

    I have always wanted to go to Greece and I appreciate your insights to the changes. I have an acquaintance who has a taxi service there and he has said things are difficult. I still plan to visit one day because you are correct, it’s three and a half thousand years old! I want to see its amazing history for myself!

    Thanks for sharing!
    Nancie Lee recently posted..Pyramid Climbing – Not for the Faint of HeartMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 16, 2014 at 9:57 PM #

      That’s right – there’s still plenty to show for all that history! These last seven years haven’t wiped away that :)

  5. Bianca @itsallbee February 16, 2014 at 7:27 PM #

    Great pictures. I will be in Greece this August although haven’t decide on whether to go to Athens of Santorini. Its such a shame about the prospects of the youngsters over there.
    Bianca @itsallbee recently posted..A walk in the Park | Burgess ParkMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 16, 2014 at 9:59 PM #

      It totally depends on what you want, Bianca – if you want city-hopping with culture, food and museums I would pick Athens, but if you want relaxing, sunsets and views then Santorini wins hands down. I spent a week there and loved it.

  6. Rhonda @ Travel? Yes Please! February 16, 2014 at 7:46 PM #

    I also visited Athens in 2007 and was originally not impressed at all. I was expecting something different and was (wrongfully) comparing it to Rome. I actually wrote a post about how my visit to Athens changed how I travel. Once I let go of my expectations and stopped comparing it to other places I had been, I had a great time. The history of Athens is fascinating and while it may be gritty, I think it’s an important place that everyone should visit on a trip to Greece.
    Rhonda @ Travel? Yes Please! recently posted..Ancient Olympia- Birthplace of the Olympic GamesMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 16, 2014 at 10:00 PM #

      It’s really funny you say that, Rhonda because I visited Athens before Rome and constantly comparing Rome to Athens! They are two completely different places with such different histories and people – once I figured that out I enjoyed Rome too :)

  7. Ace CB @ Life in Dutch February 16, 2014 at 8:37 PM #

    I’m glad to hear your “then and now” impressions. So much has changed in the last few years, but really, it’s changed everywhere – Greece has suffered a lot, but that almost seems like they need the tourists even more now. Thanks for sharing!
    Ace CB @ Life in Dutch recently posted..#SundayTraveler: Climbing Aboard Noah’s ArkMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 16, 2014 at 10:02 PM #

      Absolutely, they are very reliant on tourism and that seems to be still very important nowadays :)

  8. Ashley @ A Southern Gypsy February 16, 2014 at 8:49 PM #

    I haven’t been to Athens, but really want to! I wish I had seen the “then” before going, but I’m sure I will enjoy it just as much.
    Ashley @ A Southern Gypsy recently posted..My Southeast Asia Bucket List: Part OneMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 16, 2014 at 10:03 PM #

      It’s still a great city Ashley! Just leave all your expectations at the airport and you’ll be fine :)

  9. Bex February 16, 2014 at 9:27 PM #

    I am so, SO glad to read another person who loves Athens. I live here, I’m British and have lived here (through choice) for 5 years. Yes, something about Athens, and Greece, just clicks!
    Glad you’ve caught the ‘Greek buzz’ as we call it – you’re a special person to have ‘got’ this place.

    Come back and visit! We can go for a frappe. And follow all my adventures here via my site.
    Bex recently posted..“Carry on up the Kali Strata” – Author review with James CollinsMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 16, 2014 at 10:04 PM #

      YAY! I’ve met a couple of expats living in Athens and they all love the place too. It’s so good to see when it can have that effect on people. And definitely, save me a frappe!

  10. SJ “Mrs Chasing the Donkey” Begonja February 16, 2014 at 10:02 PM #

    GREAT POST! We were in Greece, and stayed in Athens just 2 nights back in 2010. I never enjoyed the city very much, so much graffiti and drug use near our hotel. Although the place will never loose it’s appeal – those amazing attractions are just too fabulous.
    Thanks for linking up with us to #SundayTraveler
    SJ “Mrs Chasing the Donkey” Begonja recently posted..Vessel Charter – Planning your sailing Croatia holiday #SundayTravelerMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 16, 2014 at 10:06 PM #

      Thank you! Absolutely – I got goosebumps as soon as I saw the Acropolis for the first time :)

  11. Sammi February 16, 2014 at 10:15 PM #

    I can so relate to their feeling of lack of prospects- we felt that in the Canary Islands, and it’s the same reason that I now live at home in the UK still five year later. The € makes me mad, it benefited so few in the end. It’s such a shame we didn’t see it. There is a whole debate in the UK about whether or not we really want to be part of the European Union, never mind the currency. I am so glad we still have the £.

    Eventually, it will get better. It has to, surely?
    Sammi recently posted..Pancho Tours, SevilleMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 16, 2014 at 10:20 PM #

      Thanks Sammi. I’m not an economist so I only have a very basic understanding of what’s happened, but from what I gather the euro would have been fine if it was only confined to a few quite strong economies (Germany, Austria, and Benelux for example). It seems it got too big too quickly. I still love defending the EU in its purest sense (I think we take for granted that Europe has been at its most peaceful in the last sixty-odd years than ever in its history) but I think the euro (and a few other mindless policies) went a bit too far.

  12. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas February 16, 2014 at 10:59 PM #

    I have a very special place in my heart for Athens – it was the first European country I ever traveled to, back in 2001. I was fascinated by how old the city was, by the cheap prices (this was pre-euro zone), by how Greek my neighbors growing up were and how I loved seeing a bit of them in the locals I met. I’ve not been back for fear of how different it might be the second time around (though I have to make it to the islands!).
    Cat of Sunshine and Siestas recently posted..How Bratislava Surprised MeMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 18, 2014 at 7:45 PM #

      What a great place to start! Sounds like you’ve had a similar feeling to me about returning one day :)

  13. Jess February 16, 2014 at 11:30 PM #

    This sounds a lot like how I feel about New Orleans, where I lived for several years. Yes, it has problems. Life there isn’t perfect. But people should at least visit before deciding it’s all gone downhill!

    I’d still love to go to Athens. That view of the city at night is spectacular!
    Jess recently posted..Grand Army Plaza, BrooklynMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 18, 2014 at 7:46 PM #

      I’ve never been to New Orleans, but yes I’ve heard mixed reviews. Hasn’t stopped me from putting it on my Big American Roadtrip itinerary, which I’ll get to someday :)

  14. CarmensTravelTips February 17, 2014 at 12:59 AM #

    We were in Mykonos this summer and thought about going to Athens. I didn’t go for some of the reasons you mentioned. I still think we would of enjoyed seeing the Acropolis. It’s a shame about all the graffiti around the city.

    • Caitlyn February 18, 2014 at 7:50 PM #

      I think a lot of people are doing what you decided Carmen, and flying directly into an island. Totally depends on what kind of trip you’re after, but as you said, I think a lot of people would enjoy seeing the Acropolis :)

  15. Catherine February 17, 2014 at 10:49 AM #

    It’s sad to hear that the Greek people are feeling defeated. As you say, the country has been through worse in it’s three thousand years, I’m sure it will get through this, it just takes some time!
    Catherine recently posted..Southeast Asia Bucket ListMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 18, 2014 at 7:52 PM #

      Yep, I think they’ve had plenty of challenges in the last three millennia!

  16. Nina February 18, 2014 at 1:21 PM #

    What a shame about the graffiti around the city. The crises is a bad bad thing but I still would like to go and judge for myself. And like you’ve pointed out in your post: horror stories won’t help the city.
    Nina recently posted..Postcards from The Gambia: monkey businessMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 18, 2014 at 8:01 PM #

      That’s right Nina, you really have to go and make your own assumptions about the city – not everybody will like it but it’s still worth a visit!

  17. Samantha @mytanfeet February 21, 2014 at 4:23 PM #

    I’ve never been to Athens but I really enjoyed reading this article. It’s so interesting to come back to a place that holds a special spot in your heart and see it differently. Great article and I hope to experience what you have in Greece one day!

    • Caitlyn February 23, 2014 at 11:40 AM #

      Thanks Samantha! I hope you get there some day :)


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