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With Rick Steves in Athens

Rena, Matt Barrett and Rick Steves in Kypseli, Athens, GreeceThe other day I was at the apartment in Kypseli answerng e-mail when the phone rang. It was Kostas from the front desk at the Hotel Attalos.

“Hello Matt. There is someone from your site staying at the hotel who asked me for your phone number” he said.

“Did you give it to him?”

“No because I did not know if you want people to have your number or you like to keep it private”, he replied.

“You did the right thing” I told him. “If someone wants to contact me or asks for my number just send them to the computer room and they can e-mail me and I will reply and if it is someone who really needs to talk to me by phone then I will send them my number.”

“Yes. This is what I told him and he went upstairs to the computer room”.

“Thank you Kosta. You did good. If everyone who wanted to talk to me had my number I would not get anything done and mostly the people who want to call me just want to thank me and ask me out for a drink or a coffee, or some ask me questions that they could easily find on the site if they just read it. What was the name of the person who wanted my number?” I asked.

“Rick Steves.” He replied.

“Kosta. Give him my number”.

Rick called twenty minutes from the office of Athens Walking Tours where Despina did not have a problem with giving up my number, probably because she knew who Rick Steves was. Rick and I have met a couple times and spoken on the phone many times. He had asked me twice to write his Greece guide with him and twice his publisher torpedoed the idea, preferring to keep it in house. He asked if I wanted to meet for coffee. I didn’t. It was too hot and I did not feel like walking around looking for a cafe with decent shade or air-conditioning. I had a better idea. It was August and Athens was empty of traffic. I would pick him up at the hotel and we would drive around and see some parts of the city he didn’t know. He said that sounded great. An hour later I was parked at the Attalos, explaining who Rick Steves was to Kostas, when Rick came down the stairs.

“Your people are very protective of you.” he said, smiling at Kostas.

“I am sorry Mr Steves. I did not know who you were or if this was OK” said Kostas looking kind of embarrassed.

“No don’t apologize. It is good that you protect Matt’s privacy.” Rick answered.

We greeted each other and got in the car. “Matt, have we met in person before?”

“Yeah. We met in Chapel Hill when you did the donation drive for UNC public television and again at the NY Times Travel show.” He seemed to remember. He could not believe how hot Athens was. It was impossible for him to walk around and visit everything he wanted to see. I explained that this kind of scorching heat was rare in August when we usually have the Meltemi winds from the north that cool everything down. Last August they never stopped. This August they never came and it was the hottest in memory. Whether this was global warming or not I did not know. I assumed it was and that it was something we were going to have to get used to.

There was no traffic in Athens so we drove up to Syntagma. I did not have a plan. I was just going to drive and go wherever came to mind. We started with Psiri, where I would never drive normally but today it was empty of cars and people. All these buildings are cafes and bars and restaurants but they are closed for August. As people begin to come back from the islands they will begin to open and by October-November the place is jumping and will stay that way until August.

Rick wanted a small unpretentious hole-in-the-wall restaurant to put on his site in the neighborhood behind the Acropolis Museum since many of his readers stay at the Hotel Hera nearby. There was a restaurant on Makrianni that he had recommended but he felt it was too touristy and they had put out a huge sign in front that said “RECOMMENDED BY RICK STEVES!!!!”

“You are in luck. Last night we met my friend Phil La Vere, a web designer, rock singer, at this place he was raving about where the guy grills these big fish called tsipoura and sells them for 8 euros each. He makes all sorts of things on the grill and has great wine and home made tsipuro-raki and it really looks like a dive.”

“Great!” he said. “Let’s go there.”

Rick Steves at To Kati Alo Restaurant, Athens, GreeceWe parked right behind the Acropolis Museum on Hazichristou Street in front of the restaurant To Kati Alo where we had eaten and drank the night before. As soon as he saw the place he loved it. “Do you have a menu?” he asked Kostas, the young owner.

“Yes it is right here”. He pointed to the chalk board outside on the street. "And in here." He pointed to his head. I change it every day and I base it on what I find that is freshest at the market.

“Perfect” said Rick.

Kostas wanted to serve us a meal or at least have a drink with us but we both wanted to get back in the car and explore. But it was exactly the kind of place Rick was looking for and I assured him the food was great.

We drove the back streets of Koukaki towards Petralona. I wanted to show him he restaurants and cafes on Troon street but the one way streets had me going in circles. The whole time I was talking about Athens and the crisis and the future so I don’t think he noticed when I gave up and we circled Philippapos Hill on the ring road and then headed back towards Syntagma and down Panepistimiou street towards Omonia. “This is where the demonstrations are held I said, pointing to the Parliament building in Syntagma Square. If your readers are worried they just need to avoid this area for the few hours it is going on. When the demonstrators leave the city workers sweep up the streets and it is back to normal and they can go watch the evzones or have a coffee at one of the cafes in the square.”

I pointed out the University on the right. “This is probably what ancient Athens looked like. I am surprised that it is not more of a tourist attraction because it is an amazing example of neo-classical Greek architecture.” I sounded just like a tourguide.

We drove into Exarchia. “This is the student area and the home of many of the ‘anarchists’ who create all the problems during the demonstrations. It is directly between the University and the Polytechnic School of Athens. A lot of young people live and hang out here. The neighborhood is full of bars, cafes, cheap restaurants, rock clubs, rembetika music clubs and great used CD and Record stores where you can find all sorts of stuff you can’t even find in the states. And the cops are not allowed in here. The neighborhood polices itself. A few weeks ago they came out with megaphones and told all the drug dealers they had to leave. They kicked them out. They told the junkies they could stay as long as they behaved. This is Exarchia Square. They have live rock concerts here, karagiozi puppet theater, and of course rallies and demonstrations.”

Exarchia, Grigoropoulou Memorial Wall, Athens, GreeceRick was amazed at Exarchia. “They say Athens is the new Berlin. A Mecca for artists and musicians. Just look at the amount of graffiti, some of it crap but much of it beautiful. This is where the Grigoropoulos boy was shot by the police in December of 2008.” Rick jumped out of the car and began taking photos of the wall that had become a shrine to the 15 year old boy who had become a martyr to the youth of Athens. There was a plaque on the wall with his picture and the ominous slogan you see all over Athens “Remember, Remember the 6th of December” along with the caricature from the movie V is for Vendetta.

“This is just fantastic!” Rick Steves said. “I didn’t know this even existed.

“The US government warns Americans to stay out of this neighborhood because it is dangerous. But it is really only dangerous to cops. There are people who believe that this is the future of Greek tourism. Once young people find out about this they won’t be able to keep them away. This makes an American college town or even the East Village look like a golf community.”

“It is like a state within a state.” Rick said.

Exarchia Graffiti“Yes but it is still just an Athenian neighborhood at heart. There are families and old people living here too. Not just young people and anarchists. It is a real community. You see this park on the left. The city wanted to make a parking lot. The people seized it and made this park. The brought in the trees. They made the paths. And they made the little area where they can hang out and drink coffee so there is always someone here to sound the alarm in case the city tries to take it back. There is another one in Kypseli, where I live.”

“If Greece wants to revive their tourism all they have to do is legalize pot. The country will be flooded with college students like Amsterdam was 40 years ago. This idea would horrify the Greek National Tourist Organization but they are too short sighted. Those kids who would come to Greece with their backpacks, staying in youth hostels, would be back in ten years with their families, staying in nice hotels. That’s how you build tourism from the bottom up. Its like building a baseball team from the minor league farm system instead of going out and buying expensive free agents. Greece wants high-class tourists but have no idea how to get them besides expensive advertising campaigns that just lose money.” I told him.

As we reached the fringes of Exarchia we stopped at a traffic light. On every corner were heavily armed police in military style uniforms wearing bullet proof vests, carrying plexiglass shields, some with automatic weapons.

“These guys are here to keep groups of anarchists from leaving Exarchia. Individuals can come and go as they please. They are on every corner.”

Exarchia GraffitiOne of the cops was looking at us with curiosity. “It’s quiet now, isn’t it?” I called out to him in Greek.

“Very quiet.” he replied with a big smile. He said something to the other cops and they all nodded and looked at my car. It’s the 17 inch wheels I have on it that makes the Grand Vitara look bigger than it really is. Every time I am approached by a cop or port police or an officer on the ferry it is about the car. They all want one and those who have been thinking about it for awhile notice the wheels right off. But few cops can afford a Suzuki Grand Vitara. They are the lowest paid civil servants and yet they have the most dangerous job. Most of them are fresh out of high school, many not even from Athens, and given minimal training and then put on the front lines, battling kids they may have been playing football with a couple years before.

“Now one reason you see so many cops manning the gates is because this next neighborhood is Kolonaki, which is the Park Avenue of Athens. Many of the inhabitants have moved to the suburbs but it is still the most expensive neighborhood in the city and this is where a lot of the high end shops are. A couple years ago some anarchists went on a rampage and raced through Kolonaki smashing the windows of shops and nice cars and then ran into the University for sanctuary since the police are not allowed in there either. They want to keep this from happening again. It is bad for business, though it did send many shoppers to the malls instead which is why some people believe the anarchists were hired.”

As we passed the US Embassy Rick commented on the fortifications.

“When I was a kid people loved America here” I told him. “There were no barriers, no fences and maybe one marine guard who was more ornamental than protective. There was grass and fountains and anyone could walk right into the embassy. Amazing how things have changed.”

National Bank of Greece“This building on the right is the Athens Tower which was built around 1972 and was the first skyscraper in the city. Before that you could not build anything taller than 6 stories because of earthquakes and they also wanted everyone to be able to see the Acropolis. You see this modern building across the street. They tore down a castle to build it. A CASTLE! With towers and turrets and made of stone. When they tore down the castle that is when my wife realized this country was totally fucked. They tear down and castle and replace it with a bank.”

I was telling Rick about the neighborhood of Ambelokipi and the road we were on called Kifissias Avenue that led to the cool mountain suburb of Kifissia where many rich Greeks had their summer houses even back in Roman times, and did notice the special Delta Force cops trying to stop traffic and whizzed by them, nearly taking a few of them out.

“Wow. That was impressive” Rick said.

“Shit. I didn’t even see them. That would have been great trying to explain this to a bunch of angry cops. But I could use you as an excuse. ‘Yes officer, I understand. But this is Rick Steves. You know who Rick Steves is don’t you?’”

I had wanted to go down Alexandras Avenue back towards the center but the cops had blocked it probably for some VIP entourage, someone even more important than me and Rick Steves. But this gave me the opportunity to show him Panormou.

“This is another cool area of cafes and bars and tavernas that few tourists ever see. And the best thing about it is that there is a metro station right here and they can get here easily from downtown.”

We turned down Alexandras and then took a right through the tunnel that goes under the giant Pedeon Areos Park which they have been renovating for the last several years. "When they eventually finish this it should be the most beautiful park in Athens, with lakes and streams running through it. But as far as I can tell is that it is just one guy with a bulldozer and there is only so much he can do."

“And this is my neighborhood: Kypseli” I said proudly as I navigated the Grand Vitara through the narrow streets with about 2 inches to spare on either side. There are usually a lot more cars here but it is August and I can even park on the street. Normally I have to pay 170 euros a month to keep it in a garage across from my apartment.”

I parked at the top of Platia Kanaris, also known as Platia Kypseli. The square was full of children playing, old men on benches and at the cafe tables talking and playing cards. Rick was really pleased with what he was seeing. “This is the real Athens” he said. We crossed the street to where Fokionos Negri begins.

Fokionos Negri, Athens, Greece“This is called Fokionos Negri. It was at one time a broad avenue that they turned into a park. These cafes and restaurants you see on both sides of the park go for almost a mile to Patission Street. It is pretty much where I hang out. Once I discovered it I stopped going downtown. The air is actually cooler here too. In the fifties after Kolonaki Kypseli was the most desirable place to live and the whole neighborhood was made up of two and three story houses and mansions. Most of them were torn down to make 5 and 6 story apartment buildings and it is now a neighborhood of immigrants, actors, artists, writers and musicians because the rents are low and the apartments are really nice. It is also where all the small theaters are, sort of the off-Broadway of Athens. Did you ever see the movie For the Love of Benji? It is one of the best movies about Greece ever made. Part of it takes place in the Kypseli Public Market which is a smaller version of the Central Market on Athinas Street. A few years ago it closed and as usual the city tried to take it and make a parking deck. The neighborhood occupied it and have held on to it ever since. It is now a cultural center with concerts, exhibits, an organic farmer's market on Saturday, a cafe, a library, free Greek lessons for the immigrants, an art gallery and a forem for people to speak. It is true Athenian democracy in Athens. The whole neighborhood is full of small restaurants and tavernas that are completely un-touristy of course because very few tourists ever come here. Because the neighborhood is ethnically diverse you can find Ethopian restaurants, Polish delicatessons, Indian grocery stores and African dance clubs.”

Kypseli with Rick StevesWe walked a couple blocks down Fokionos. “Matt. This is just beautiful. If people knew about this area they would want to stay here. Are there hotels?”

“Yes there are a couple really nice inexpensive hotels. One is the Hotel Dore right off Fokionos Negri on Agio Zoni, another pedestrian street. It is actually a Best Western. This is where we put family and friends so we don't have to have them in the apartment with us.”

“What about this place?” he asked, pointing to a 5 story hotel with a tattered facade.

“Well this is sort of a bordello. Not really though. In Athens every married man is having an affair so there are these hotels all over the city were you can book a room for an hour or two so you can meet your girlfriend.” This started a discussion over divorce and relationships. Rick was recently divorced and was still wrestling with it. I explained that while divorce is on the rise in Greece, you could make the argument that the fact that all married men have or have had affairs, some lasting many years, it has actually strengthened the institution of marriage. The woman accepts that the husband has a gomena that he sees and as long as he provides the security and plays his role within the family he can do as he pleases as long as it is with discretion. “I think it is a great system.” I told him.

blind paving stones, athens, greeceWe cut over to Kypseli street where Rick saw his favorite target of ridicule, the patterned paving stones that they have put all over the city for the blind people to find their way around. “They are such an eyesore. Do blind people ever use these things?”

“I have never seen a blind person using them but you don’t see many blind people wandering around Athens. It’s a good thing because these paths do all sorts of crazy things. I saw one that led right to the edge of an open pit where they were putting in pipes and didn’t cover it up. Some just stop because they pulled up the sidewalk to repair something and never replaced the stones for the path. I think the EU made them do it before the Olympics and it must have cost a fortune because they are everywhere. But they are not as bad as the red paving stones you see on Panapistimou and other major downtown sidewalks. Some mayor had them all installed and when it rains it is like walking with banana peels strapped to the soles of your feet. It takes all your energy and attention to keep from falling down. And nobody has ever thought to get rid of them. They were here when I was a kid!”

“Nothing is coordinated here” I told him. “So they will spend a fortune re-doing a street or sidewalk with beautiful paving stones and nobody will have checked with the gas or the water or electric companies whether there were any plans for the area, and a week later everything is dug up for some job that had been planned months ago. Then they have to do it again. It happens so often that you have to wonder if maybe they do it on purpose so they can spend more money and give it to their friends.”

Rick Steves at Rena's in Kypseli, Athens, Greece“I have one more place to take you and then I will drop you off wherever you like.” I told him. We turned off Kypseli street and walked up Skopelou Street and walked into a brightly lit cafeneon. “This is Rena’s. This is where I hang out.” Rena, looking beautiful in a dark blue skirt, and her husband Makis greeted us. Of course they had no idea who Rick Steves was, neither of them speaking English. In the corner Vasso, the former laika-rembetika singer who practically lives at Rena’s was playing cards and drinking with a couple of the other regulars. There was rembetika music playing loudly and when Vasso saw me moving to it she jumped up and began dancing with me. Rick was delighted with the place, as was I. “Rena used to work at the Taverna Psiri as a waitress. She bought this place when the owner retired. It was a typical cafeneon gambling house like a lot of places in the neighborhood. But she painted it these bright colors and began serving home-style cooked food and she is a great cook. It is cheap and it is good and there is always some interesting old guy who wants to talk your ear off about the America he visited back in his twenties. I wish we had more time.”

Rick took a number of photos of the place and several of Rena. It won’t surprise me if I see him in there one night knocking down some ouzos with Vasso acting as his translator.

I dropped him off near the Acropolis Museum. “This has been really great Matt and I want to be sure that my readers know that I only scratch the surface but if they want to really know Greece they should visit your site. You really have carved a niche and you did it the right way. You just go out and enjoy yourself and write about what you do. I am envious, really. I would love to come back when you are here and it is not so damn hot, and really get to know this city. I think Athens has unbelievable potential and I think in a couple years this is going to be the place to be.”

If Rick Steves says it: It must be true.

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