Morning light after last nights life in Athens…
I awoke suddenly on a cold stone floor, my back was aching and my butt numb from laying on it for far too long. My mouth was dry and my head pounding as the realisation hit that I wasn’t so much hungover as I was still totally drunk; afterall, I had only left the last bar at around 7 am and judging by the Athenian sun now creeping through the blinds, it could be no later than midday. As I stood, I felt myself stumble as the room around me continued to spin.
Most things were a blur and I could barely even recall the name of the Grecian beauty now stirring beside me (I had initially nicknamed her Athena, patron goddess of Athens, but quickly dropped upon remembering that Athena was a virgin goddess whereas my companion was certainly no such thing…). I took a moment to retrace my steps. I had left my hostel some 12 hours earlier with the intention of having one drink and a quick taste of the Athens nightlife before bed. One drink soon turned into two (as one tends to do) which then became gyrating with the bronze-mained goddess now rising from slumber. We had left the bar together that morning and screwed for hours on the floor of her empty, unfurnished apartment until we’d both passed out with exhaustion. Whilst I still strained to piece the nights’ events back into an exact chronological order at least one thing was certain; Athens was my new favourite city.
I had decided to visit Athens rather casually. I was actually headed to Lebanon to backpack around the country but as there are few direct flights available from the UK to Beirut, decided to fly to Athens, spend the weekend and then head onwards. It actually worked out very economical to do this as flights from the UK to Athens can be picked up pretty cheaply partially owing to a recent decline in Greece’s tourism sector.
Cradles and Graves
Greece has had something of a hard time over the last 10 years or so. It bore the brunt of the Eurozone economic crisis, plunged heavily into debt and required several IMF bailouts. This has resulted in severe austerity and mass unemployment and in fact, the very word Greece has become synonymous with economic, political and ideological failure. Many commentators say that the IMF is being unduly harsh with Greece and others accuse the EU of exploiting the situation to levy more power and erode the nation’s sovereignty but today’s post is not about politics, it’s primarily about partying so I won’t go on…
As the birthplace of democracy, Athens was the cradle of western civilisation and may well now be heralding its demise becoming its symbolic tomb. The initial ripples from the Eurozone crisis have stirred themselves into rising tidal waves which now threaten to drown and destroy the entire EU dream and. There are daily & nightly political demonstrations across the city many of which turn heated. Furthermore, the human traffic on the city streets tells the sorry tale of the international migrant crisis and walking the streets of Monastiraki I pass desperate Syrians, mischievous Roma children & sub-Saharan Africans all of them hustling, busking or peddling wares. The atmosphere is somehow tense and I feel my hands instinctively thrust themselves into my trouser pockets to prevent my wallet from being picked.
The “failings” of Athens are written across the dirty facades of the city buildings where every available surface is covered in graffiti overlooking stray trash bags piled high in the streets; the city simply lacks the budget to clean itself. In my view, however, this adds colour where otherwise they would be only grey. Perfuming the stench of the rotting trash, the air mercifully hangs heavier with the scent of delicious gyros frying on every corner sending tantalisingly seductive aromas down the city streets. Then the kerbside kiosks (despatching bottles of cold Alfa beer for $2) pump out loud trance music with wanton disregard for noise levels. Despite the tangible tensions and the undercurrent of menace, the prevailing air is one of absolute vibrancy and there is something utterly intriguing about the gorgeous chaos of it all. In fact, it is utterly intoxicating and its energy fuels like some drug and any traces of my travel fatigue soon dilapidate.
The glorious carnage of the Athens nightlife is all played out against the stunning backdrop of the Acropolis, the ruins of the ancient city which occupy the hill rising above Monastiraki. Looking down from the complex, the ancient stone statue of Athena herself oversees the melee just as she oversaw countless civilisations before come and go. First there was the Athenians themselves then supplanted by the Romans. The last century brought the brutal Nazi occupiers and latterly, the so-called “Eurozone” which now lays in a million malleable shattered shards at Athena’s feet.
The square around the Monastiraki metro perpetually throngs with life as people from across the city descend for an evenings merriment. A group of African twenty-somethings crowd around a portable amplifier as one of their number raps and beatbox’s whilst across the way local girls dance the traditional “Zorba” dance right in the middle of the road (approaching cars simply have to wait).
With its ever pleasant climate and liberal approach to public drinking, Athens is the perfect city for some pre-bar-pre-loading and one can easily find a hypermarket, grab a beer for $2 (Athens is amongst one of the best value for money capitals in Europe) and wander around the streets enjoying it, taking in the life around and conversing with other. Upon arrival I do just this, smiling to myself at the thought that I had left Manchester that very morning sheltering from a callous rain that would make enjoying a crisp beer beneath the stars impossibly deadly.
Traditional Athenian social life seems to centre around meals enjoyed with friends or relatives and each night there are countless packed out, intergenerational tables sprawling onto the pavements from within the countless tavernas & restaurants. Greek food is delicious, mostly healthy and easily adapted for vegetarians making it a firm favourite of mine. It is also often served in “tapas” style little dishes making it perfect for sharing and therefore maximising social interaction (although I guess social interaction is further facilitated by the abundant pouring of cheap and delicious it Grecian wine). If one is sampling the Athens nightlife with friends then this is a great, affordable way to start out. As it was though, I was flying solo and so contented myself with a street falafel.
A stroll around the blocks of Monastiraki shows all manner of bars, taverns, and clubs catering for pretty must all sensibilities. The pavements are lined with many different Shisha bars where gangs of young men pass Hookah pipes around. The phenomenon of the shisha joint has gained international prominence over the past few years and seems especially so here; perhaps not surprising considering the cities close proximity to the middle east. Then there are the generic, flashy looking bars playing loud pop music and mostly populated by over-dressed boys and girls; I have long since realised that nothing interesting or genuine ever happens inside these places so I kept going looking for another scene.
Joined at the Hip
There are a hell of a lot of bars in Athens so thankfully, it isn’t long before I stumble down a side street and find myself at Barrett, an alternative joint or “hipster bar”. Hipster bars are now almost as universally widespread as Irish bars and over the last few years, I have retreated to them in all corners of the globe. I actually have something of a love/hate relationship with the hipster movement because, in my home country, it equates to messy beards, silly hats and little else; a classic example of style over substance and vacuousness masquerading as virtue. Internationally though, it takes on another meaning for me and whenever I find a hipster bar (whether in Brasoz, Bogota or Beirut) I somehow have the feeling of being with “my own people”. What I mean here is that despite prevailing cultural differences, in this sub-culture I am guaranteed to find people who share at least some of my aesthetic values and tastes as well as some decent music. After all, the Greek wedding/Zorba dancing was fun for a while but I quickly craved some electro and classic indie (I hadn’t yet discovered Psytrance at this time). As it turns out, Barrett in Athens is a particularly good hipster bar and one my favourite bars in Athens. The decor is top notch (chess-set floor straight outta Twin Peaks), the DJ on fine form and the patrons welcoming. It was in .. that I got talking, and kept on talking, to the local girl who would kindly share her cold floor with me early the next morning.
The bar closed down at around 3 am but the Athens nightlife was just getting started and so it was time to move on.
The next place we found was not a bar or a club at all. Rather it was simply a vacant building (possibly a shop or office which went bust in the crash) in which somebody was throwing a giant illegal rave. The entire space was packed tight with writhing bodies as drum and bass pounded through the speakers and out across the street. It was the kind of unmitigated, unbridled pure unadulterated hedonistic fun which is otherwise absent is the rest of modern Europe. How can somebody stage an unashamedly illegal rave bang in the middle of a major capital city you may ask? Well, it’s simply that the Athenian police don’t have the budget, and therefore means, to break it up. And this taste of lawlessness is above all else, the real charm of Athens, the police don’t bother to break up parties because nobody pays them to do it. And nobody pays them to because when you think about it, it really isn’t all that important isn’t? The party rages all night long, nobody gets hurt, no damage is done and everybody leaves happy. It makes one question why the police in other countries devote so much time and resource to stopping other peoples fun doesn’t it? (did I say this wasn’t a political post? Sorry I can’t help myself…).
Partying Amidst The Ruins
This chaos is the same kind I have found and loved throughout the world. It seems that there is something about countries experiencing hardship that makes them exhilarating to me. For example, I spent 3 months in Venezuela during one of the many peaks of its never-ending crisis. Food became scarce, inflation was rampant and crime was frightfully pandemic and yet it was the most fun I ever had. People around me were appreciative of what they did have, determined to extract the most from every single moment and just so alive. I can’t help but compare this to my time in California, where I spent many a night drinking expensive beers in sanitised bars having absolutely no fun whatsoever.
I found the same Athenian spirit alive in Israel and Lebanon, countries where generations have grown up beneath the specter of war and the realisation that life could be unceremoniously snubbed out at any given minute. I do realise that some may question the ethics of partying amidst the chaos (playing fiddles/udes as Rome/Athens burn?) and worst of all, of being some kind of voyeuristic tourist who can take delight in the carnage and then simply board a flight and bail-out at any minute once it gets too much. My only answer to this is that the locals have always welcomed me to the throng. Besides that, whilst we in the west may not have to live amongst the chaos and can sit comfortably and tamely savouring our overpriced drinks in warm safe bars away from it but we are often enough either the cause or the profiteers of other nations’ plights’ so I will leave the sanctimoni-o-gram where it is.
The rave was perhaps a bit intense for what had now turned into an improvised first date so my companion suggested another bar a short cab ride away which would be open late. By this point, I was truly intoxicated by the magic of the evening and the cheap(ish) lager so my recollection of any precise details is sketchy. What I can remember is that the place was still playing hip-hop and electro to a busy crowd until daylight forced its way through the windows and I left at 7 am.
This Is Not A Listicle
If you were hoping for a digestible round-up of the Athens nightlife or a list of bars and clubs then sorry to disappoint, but I’ve vowed never to write another listicle blog post again. Besides that, the real magic of travelling is to simply head out, speak to the locals, keep your ear to the ground and find things for yourself. And Athens is a great city to do just that in.