ATHENS - Summer after summer, I return to Greece to spend the better part of my vacation and the reason is simple: it’s home, even if you’re not Greek.
Greece is one of those places that quench what mind, body and soul are thirsting for. It heightens the senses, awakens the spirit and makes people realize that, as the age-old Greek saying goes, “the simple life is the good life.”
Athens is a perfect example of that. It’s not a city inhibited by rules. In fact, its unorthodox lifestyle is exactly what makes it so desirable. It’s shabby, social, chic and laid-back. It’s a place where bars, cafes, restaurants and anything cultural, historic and artistic give meaning to life.
I look at my time in this Mediterranean gem as an elixir; a strong dose of life that re-energizes me every time I visit.
Above: Athens is a city of fresh fish and friendly faces.
As July nears and I begin planning my next summer visit, I’m elated to hear that Greece is expecting record tourists in 2015. I’m proud to know that tourists will get the chance to soak up the culture my parents gave to me.
When I’m in Greece, I instantly fall into the routine of beaching all day, discovering hidden city streets, overindulging in traditional Greek cuisine and falling in love with just about everything and everyone. Not to mention inhaling too much cigarette smoke, which, for some reason, doesn’t bother me because I know it goes with the Greeks’ excessive consumption of coffee.
I get an adrenaline rush every time I land at Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos Airport (stylish Greeks and aggressive cabbies will do that to you) and begin the first activity of any tourist during the summer months: excessive sweating.
Locals know how to acclimatize to the heat: spending the better part of the day showering in cold water and being outdoors half-naked. I resign myself to the fact that it will be 38C for the next 30 days of my vacation and accept it happily.
Athens is special because it’s the hub of a legendary culture and history. Despite the inescapable contrasts between the wealthy and the impoverished, the gypsies and the locals, the tradition and the new age, there is a prevailing atmosphere of hope and a craving for life.
I am full of pride that, in a time of financial constraints, Greeks continue to live, not lavishly, but bountifully with what has been given them. The people will smile, they will judge, they will lose their tempers easily, they will sing, they will dance and they will put things off until tomorrow. Why? Because tomorrow is another day.
Greeks are a unique, unequivocal breed that heals with logic and self-dignity.
Above: Athens' neighbourhoods can be gritty but they are very colourful.
Most Greeks leave Athens en route to their villages or coastal retreats for the greater part of August (to celebrate the religious feast of the Virgin Mary on Aug. 15), but the capital continues to pulse with an incredible energy.
But even if Athens happens to be a little deserted in August by the locals, it’s one of the best times for tourists to stroll through the graffiti-covered streets and soak in the neighbourhood charm.
Athenians make reference to the emptiness of their city during these August scorchers but I assure you, chaos and madness remains in full force. I recommend that foreign travellers find solace at the periptero — the little street kiosks, where anything and everything can be bought.
While in Athens, I live like an Athenian and re-energize my roots. I explore as much as possible and I’m always amazed at just how traditional, yet progressive Athens is. Some regard Athens as too crowded, polluted, aggressive and intolerant, but for me, it’s charming because it’s so raw.
Imperfections are this country’s perfections.
Take Thiseio, for instance, the Acropolis quarter of Athens where locals and tourists relish in the sky-high views of ancient monuments such as the Parthenon. At night, people sip cocktails at A for Athens and 360, rooftop terraces where you are miles away from the Acropolis but along the same latitude.
Tavernas and eateries line the pedestrian streets where live, traditional music sets the tone.
As I pour myself another glass of local wine, I sit back and lose myself in the vibe. It’s only 4 a.m., after all!
Roman, Ottoman, Bavarian, Byzantine and Ancient Greek — I’m amazed at how, in such a small city, there is such a vast representation of history. You can’t help but lose yourself in the polar opposites: a former mosque turned Orthodox church, nestled between restaurants and bars.
Above: Sit back, take your shoes and your shades off and enjoy Athens.
I move into Kifissia and Maroussi, upscale neighbourhoods where old money and nouveau-riche families reside. Here the real estate is most expensive and greenery and lush parks surround the area.
I sit alone at a cafe, order a “toast with ham and cheese” and intentionally watch people pass by. I’ve learned quickly that taking the time to drink coffee, be social and admire people and the mountains around me are part of the daily routine.
Next on the list are Gazi and Psiri, areas as authentically Greek as they are international. Former industrial factories, gas plants, brothels and immigrant slums and leather crafts shops have now reinvented this part of Athens.
They are as bustling during the day as they are at night. Here you will find true Athenian hipsters hopping from one trendy spot to another.
Unmarked doorways lead you to bars where often there are only standing tables. Music infiltrates the streets and the vibe doesn’t mellow out until the early hours of the morning.
But, if you’re more in the mood for a full-on dancing experience, there is no hotter spot than Akrotiri Boutique, a sea-side nightclub that is open and airy. The leather banquettes, hardwood floors, granite tables and floor-to-ceiling walls of glassware and bottles set the tone for a night of classy debauchery.
Although it’s been around for years, it’s a staple for locals and, international DJs. It’s midnight and the party is just getting started. Oh, and fyi, there really is no last call in Greece.
While in the company of local friends one night, we reserve a table, which implies buying a bottle of alcohol. At €90 (about $127 Cdn) for a bottle of vodka, shared among five people, the price is more than acceptable. Two bottles later, at 6:45 a.m., we call it a night — or a morning?
Shopping you ask? Hermou, Kolonaki, Plaka, Monastiraki … all you need is money and comfortable shoes. And if you forgot to pack those, that’s not a problem. Head on over to a local leather sandal maker in Monastiraki and get fitted for an uber-comfortable pair of genuine leather sandals. Then you can walk over to Kolonaki, the “little column” streets where high-end designers set up their flagship stores. All flash, all cash here.
What all Athenians, and Greeks in general love about their capital city is its ability to be the perfect and quick getaway to the seaside without the need to travel to one of its 6,000 islands (about 300 of which are inhabited).
Many of the beaches at Alimos or farther down the coast of Glyfada, Faliro, Varkiza and Vouliagmeni are perfect for a swim and an escape from the city. Rent a beach chair at one of the many beach bars such as Akanthus and let the soothing beach music, refreshing cocktails and sun rays penetrate your pores. What emerges from the waves and salt water is a natural state of happiness.
Greece, and more importantly Athens, is a bunch of juxtapositions; basic rural existence, a determined entrepreneurial ambition, old city bazaars, historical monuments, ancient churches, new city infrastructures, sugar cube villages atop mountains, toll routes, donkeys, grandmothers in black, massive clubs and western commercialism.
Somehow, Greeks make it all work and the co-existence of these elements is what unifies and defines Greece.
Greeks are powerful and allied. They are conscious of not giving up and not falling victim to bad governance during tough economic times.
Why do Greeks live long happy lives? They eat well. They drink wine. They don’t stress. They laugh. They dance. They sing. They sleep. They make time. They remain social. They don’t overwork. They go to the beach. They don’t begrudge. They let things go. They stay optimistic.
But more importantly, they know that at the end of it all, tomorrow is another day.
We all stand to learn something from a civilization that has shaped humanity and the purpose of life.