Let’s get the bad news over with: the transformation of Athens from a country’s diamond tiara during the Olympics to the war zone of 2011 has been as astonishing as it has been swift. There are no-go areas in the city, where even two years ago there were trendy bars, and the hulks of empty hotels, shops and cinemas cast their shadows on the old centre of town, Omonia.
Nowhere is this sharper then on Athinas Str where I purposely cruised with a motorbike last night from Omonia to Monastiraki. The old Neoclassical Town Hall that got a facelift before the Olympics, reigns eerily over Kotzia square where drug addicts lie prostate after shooting up and where you can buy anything from heroin to a whore. Behind the drug peddlers I could just about distinguish my grandfather’s family shirt factory, once part of a bustling commercial centre, now lifeless.
There was recently a particularly nasty crime that seemed to encapsulate the drama that has been taking place in the last few years. A Greek man in his forties was killed entering his car near metro Victoria, because a gang tried to steal his videocamera. He foolishly held on; he was dashing to the hospital because his wife was in labour and he wanted to record the birth of his first child.
Two Afghan immigrants were later arrested as they tried to sell the camera; they blamed a Pakistani. The press lashed out against the unfettered illegal immigration. The right-wingers started beating up the immigrants. The anarchists started fighting the right-wingers. And the police started chasing the anarchists. As for the immigrants: they disappeared underground. Many of them had arrived during the Olympic years and found themselves trapped when the construction boom ended turning into a lumpen-proletariat.
Finally, an interesting trial is going on in Athens this week. Just before the 2009 elections, 300 extra personnel - apparently not needed – were added to the workforce of the Athens metro. Eighty per cent came from Rodhopi or Larissa. By amazing coincidence these were the constituencies of the then Minster for Transport (Euripides Stylianides) and Minister of Public Works (Giorgos Souflias). After the elections, the extra employees were made redundant, and some of them have sought redress in the courts.
It is from the submitted documents to the court that the Greek media read with relish the notes added by hand to one applicant’s CV: “Good for nothing. Fit him in somewhere”.
It’s not all bad, though. See the next post: Part II, The Good News.
Athens is still a magnet for backpackers and for good reason, but neighbourhoods have changed so suddenly, so I feel obliged to include some youth hostels which are safe. Older travellers can take care for themselves; it is the 18-26 year olds I am worried about.
I have visited and inspected every hostel below. Most have them offer dorms for €15 double rooms for €30-€40, have bars where they sell beer for €3 and can organise anything from a booze night out to trips to the islands.
Athens Backpackers Makri 12, 210 9224 044 Possibly the best of the lot.
Student and Travellers’ Inn Kydathineon 16, 210 3244 808 Huge – you will probably always find space there.
Athens Style Aghias Theklas 10, 210 3225 010 Lively and friendly
Dioskouros Guest House Pittakou 6, 210 3248 8165 With female-only dorms.