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Crisis-Struck Athens A Tough Draw For Tourists

Graffiti coats a statue near the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The street is often filled with drug users at night.
Joanna Kakissis

The Greek capital of Athens has suffered from an image problem since the debt crisis began more than two years ago. Media reports often show masked gangs throwing petrol bombs at Parliament or riot police dousing demonstrators with tear gas.

Many tourists are staying away as a result. Tourist arrivals to the city are down by between 20 and 40 percent, industry representatives say.

During a heat wave last week, Tobias Ejersbo watched the Greek honor guard change shifts at the monument of the unknown soldier outside Parliament in central Athens. The soldiers, in kilt-like fustanellas, marched and tapped their rifles on the ground in unison.

Ejersbo, a 22-year-old engineering student from Denmark, and his 53-year-old father, Jakob, were the only tourists standing at a spot better known for now as a site of anti-austerity protests.

"I mean, you can easily be the only people at a restaurant for a whole evening because there are only that many tourists," Ejersbo said. "And Greeks currently don't have that much money to spend on dining out."

The father and son are using a guidebook to see the Parthenon and the other usual sites, including the National Archaeological Museum.

The museum holds great treasures from antiquity, but it's an area with rundown buildings that are scarred by bad graffiti. At night, drug addicts line a nearby street.

Finding Surprises

Theodora Kappou would have taken the Danes on a happier tour.

"I always find something new in Athens," she said. "Sometimes it's a surprise for me too."

Kappou, a 43-year-old translator who speaks five languages, volunteers as a guide for This is My Athens, a free service that matches visitors with Athenians who take them on personalized tours. She gave one of her first tours to three young Spanish women.

"They said they expected Athens to be half-burned, with people going around the street asking for food or for money," Kappou said. "They thought we would show poverty or depression."

Instead, Kappou says, the women enjoyed a calm and resilient city. They ate dark Greek chocolate at neighborhood cafes and explored hidden city parks.

Kappou likes parks and botanical gardens; she often starts her tours of central Athens with a walk through the National Gardens near Parliament.

"There are some small lakes here with frogs and fish and everything," she said on a recent walk through the gardens. "That's very nice now in the summer." Cicadas chirped loudly, signaling the hot day.

From the gardens, she walks to a busy street named after a former king — Constantine — and to the artsy old neighborhood of Pangrati. It's near the Olympic Stadium.

She stops at a small, lush square named after Manos Hadjidakis, who won an Academy Award for his scoring of the movie Never on Sunday, starring Melina Mercouri.

Hadjidakis used to spend his evenings playing the piano with friends at a restaurant here called Mayemonos Avlos or The Enchanted Flute.

It's run by the family of an elegant former ballerina named Io Theofilou. She's 89-years-old, and has seen Athens suffer through starvation and two wars.

She sees the latest crisis — a manageable one, in her view — in the frowns of her customers.

"People no longer smile," she says, "and they no longer sing. We try to have music here every night."

Theofilou likes to sing "Adika Pigan ta Niata Mou," a song about lost youth. "My snow-white hair is no longer fit for kisses," she croons.

It's by Attik, an early 20th-century composer of romantic music. Though he's famous in Greece, few know him outside of the country.

Kappou takes visitors across town for a more recent local legend — Chez Lucien — a tiny French bistro known for gourmet food at austerity prices. It's run by Lucien Lescanne, a 56-year-old former computer engineer from Paris who loved cooking as a hobby.

Chez Lucien is a popular restaurant in Petralona, a central neighborhood of neoclassical buildings and outdoor cinemas. Athenians like it because it has good food at austerity prices. Chez Lucien is on a street lined by small cafes and taverns that are all packed on a hot summer night.

As diners at the French bistro eat creme brule, an Albanian clarinetist serenades them with a northern Greek folk song.

Kappou likes the detail. It's a little European moment, she says. And it reminds her that, despite a crisis of confidence, her city still has its surprises.

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