I’ll just say it straight out: Rick Steves is wrong about Athens.
For those who rely on his distinctive teal-and-gold guidebooks for exploring Europe, you know that Rick Steves is unsurpassed in his expertise about the Continent. In fact, he spends about four months a year in Europe, scoping out what’s new and worthy of the annual editions for each city/country/region. No matter where I’ve been in Europe, tourists are toting his books and referring to them for trustworthy advice. He makes travel fun, easy, and affordable.
Let me start by saying I’m a total Rick Steves fan–a “Ricknik,” as described in the New York Times Magazine article about him. Proof? My eight tours with his Europe Through the Back Door company, as well as a bounty of his guidebooks for my own independent travel. I faithfully follow his instruction to wear my money belt. I even use the RS Civita Daybag for my everyday purse, much to my daughter’s dismay. (She thinks it’s ugly, I think it’s handy.)
He’s an unabashed advocate for travel, encouraging Americans to get out of their comfort zones and see the world. He wants us to pack light and spend less; luxury creates an instant barrier between you and the locals. Dig in and experience the country; don’t just look at it and take selfies.
But, Rick Steves is wrong about Athens, when he tells us in the third paragraph of Greece: Athens & The Peloponnese, “Athens is a great city to see, but not to linger in.” Oh, Rick, please reconsider…
Make no mistake, Athens is not a beautiful city. If you want pretty, go to Paris. Athens is more like a gawky teenage boy who is growing too fast and trying to figure out how to manage his limbs, pimples, hormones, and future. In other words, a hot mess–but still lovable.
It takes patience to feel the heart and rhythm of any new place. You have to take time and observe the ordinary. Watch people stopping at the corner kiosk on their way to work; envy the men who sit for hours with their tiny cups of Greek coffee; smile at the young people holding hands in the plaza; follow housewives into the local grocery to see what they buy; visit the market where butchers stand smoking until the next customer shows up.
Poke down alleys and side streets. Get lost, or as lost as possible with the Acropolis always in sight. Visit small museums–Athens has dozens. Visit the big ones more than once. Grab some street food or the best gyro you’ll ever have, for about 2 Euros. Learn to love frappes, the cold coffee drink made from Nescafe. Look at the street art (or graffiti–you decide) and remember that public paintings have been around since Ancient Greece.
Sure, the Acropolis is the breathtaking landmark that defines the landscape. By all means, get there. (Especially early or late, to avoid the cruise ship crowds.) But 512 feet below the Parthenon, it’s easy to see that the Golden Age is long past…by about 2500 years.
Before Greece finally broke from 400 years of Ottoman rule and became an independent country in 1830, Athens was a sleepy town of 10,000. It wasn’t even the first capital of the new country. That would happen in 1833.
Then came the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, resulting in the forced exchange between Greece and Turkey of nearly 2 million people, 1.5 million of them Greek Orthodox Christians. Next, the Nazi occupation that caused 300 starvation deaths a day during the first winter. On to the post-World War II migration of rural citizens to cities, desperate for work. The global depression of the 1930s brought more Greeks to Athens. By 1940, the population was about 800,000.
Cheap housing led to urban sprawl. No thought was given to creating areas for public use; Athens has the least green space of any European capital. Urban planning didn’t have time to happen; the city’s first project was the Metro in the 1990s. I tell you all this because it explains why Athens isn’t eye candy. It grew out of crisis and necessity, which I think makes it even more intriguing.
In all fairness, Rick Steves wants you to get out of Athens so you can spend more time in the rest of the country. Villages, mountains, and sparkling blue waters await. Greece is astoundingly gorgeous. But to make a quick stop at the mandatory attractions and then rush away is cheating yourself of a rich experience. You may return home and tell others that Athens is just a big, noisy, dirty city. It’s not cozy and charming. But it’s a dynamic place that deserves your attention. And it may be the best example of Greek spirit of survival and pride.
And that’s why Rick Steves is wrong about Athens…
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