Athens, Greece is just like one would expect—ancient. What one would not expect is rancid.
I arrived in the city center on Saturday afternoon—stepping out of the Monastaraki metro station (6€, one-way from airport), sweat beading off my forehead and down my spine while breathing in a mixture of dirty pavement and dry air was not the most welcoming environment I was expecting upon my first day back to backpacking, but the feeling was immediately trumped by the bustling surroundings in front of me.
Cruising down Aphrodite Street dragging behind my tattered suitcase, I was in awe of the multitude of shops flooding with trinkets and supplies—some necessary and normal, some questionable and some just plain absurd. The shops were full of shoes, jeans, army gear and suitcases, fishing poles, meat grinders, beach supplies, chess sets, Greek art, wild animals and so much more. In between the shops were kiosks capitalizing in cigarettes, snacks and (pornographic) magazines.
In between the kiosks sat disabled civilians, exposing their wounds, hoping for change of any kind. I gave into the sympathy shock the first few, but quickly realized that would make me just as broke as they appear to be.
On one side of these tourist shops is a shopper’s paradise—name brand clothing, classy cafés, authentic restaurants and clean streets.
However, on the other side is a horrifying meat market. The first challenge of this experience calls for the strength to squelch one’s insides in face of the nauseating smell. Upon entering the long corridor of animal flesh hanging by hooks, splattered on tables and blood dripping to the floor, one must stomach their gut while all the local butchers flash their smiles, puffing away cigarettes hoping you will stop at their revolting stand. The insides of lamb, chickens, cows, goats and more dangle fresh, exposed and helpless. Passing one table that people would usually share beer on lay the head of a lamb–impotent, forgotten, and wide-eyed, but lifeless. I’m vexed by the thought that anyone could buy dinner in such a slaughter-house and sickened by the amount of meat that gets wasted day after day.
I met up with Kevin, an old friend from college, at Zeus Hostel—in the past five years I have known him, he has served as my drinking comrade, running partner, chess teacher, economics tutor and now has become my bona fide travel buddy. As a self-employed web designer and photographer, Kevin has the ability to travel the world and hone his creative passion with the simple help of Wi-Fi.
We chose Zeus Hostel for its cheap accommodation (15€/night). Although it does not have a kitchen, the staff is friendly, the location is convenient and for an extra 4€, you can have 24-hours worth of precious air conditioning—what more could a backpacker ask for?
We immediately set off for the obvious site to see, Acropolis, also known as the highest city in Greece—what is left of it, that is (12€ entry fee/6€ with student ID). The magnitude of these ruins is so powerful, one cannot help but taste the history…or relive it. I channeled Athena and, with enough imagination, I felt like a Greek goddess as I grazed from every monument to archaic statue to crumbling staircase.
We relaxed in our hostel until just before sunset, then made our way back to Acropolis for some breathtaking deliverance and a photography training—this would be my first day working with a tripod, bracket settings and nighttime snapshots. We finally forced ourselves to leave after three hours of inspirational beauty leaving with a feeling of liberation and success. Clearly, this is an Athens must and surprisingly a hidden gem as there were not very many people compared to the afternoon bounty.
Our night continued on in a festive blur—grabbing our free shots at the hostel’s rooftop bar, making a swarm of Danish, Aussie and English friends on our way out the door, hopping into a cab headed to the center of Athens nightlife (3€/cab) and then dancing the night away.
Next stop: Corfu Island.