My first visit to Athens as a student gave me a set of impressions that the present crisis has only validated. The man designated to meet us at the airport did not turn up. I will never forget his name. It was Nic Katsoudis. So we got in a taxi anyway. It crashed twice on the way to our apartment in the Vouliagmeni resort south of the city. Once inside, the plumbing was Periclean in age if not in grandeur.
That was when local colonels and not German bankers were the devil. Since then I have been back often, en route to my sister-in-law’s house on lovely, neglected Skopelos — an island not so much unspoilt as unimproved in the first place. Athens is where you change planes, get on a bus or find a boat.
At the end of last year, we stayed at the Grande Bretagne, the stately old lady on Syntagma Square. Here, long ago, I learnt in the Greek way that a generous tip to the concierge could buy disproportionate access to useful facilities.
This time, our designated room stank of cleaning fluid from a recent attempt to freshen the curtains. We refused it and went out to dinner to let the hotel sort it out. On our return, we were given the presidential suite, which included a dining room for 12 and more bathrooms than could reasonably be used over a two-night stay. In its mixture of hospitality and recklessness, this gesture seemed typical.
Athens can be grim. But ambitious locals talk now about a ‘new’ Athens emerging from the smog of ages and the rubble of a collapsed economy. The Stavros Niarchos Centre, with the National Library and Opera, is due next year. There is a self-conscious hipness, too. Beyond the Plaka and Monastiraki, wine bars and amusing shops are breaking out in the Kerameikos district and the squares of Agia Irini (the old flower market) and Karytsi. Hipsters do what hipsters do on Ipitou Street. Here we looked for a recommended new bar called Kiki de Grèce. It was closed. Hilariously, a popular recent opening is a bar on Kolokotroni Street called the Bank Job.
We went for dinner at the smartest restaurant in Kolonaki, the diplomatic quarter, with its Ralph Lauren franchises and Mini Coopers. This was Papadakis on Fokilidou Street where telly chef Argiro Barbarigou serves octopus in honey to a noisy, rich, finger-jabbing, bejewelled and apparently carefree international-style crowd. However, our host was a Greco-Italian fashion photographer who has not worked for four years. While we ate, a small, rolling riot swept down the street. The policemen, by the way, ride two to a single motorbike. Whether this is for reasons of efficiency or economy, no one knows.
Norman Lewis, travelling in the Andalusian pueblos blancos, once said that poverty is a great guardian of beauty, but that’s not so in the Greek capital. Depressingly large parts of the city are grubby, fatigued and miserable. A reliable escape from urban grot is a visit to Mikrolimano, with its marinas and fish restaurants, of which Varoulko has the biggest reputation. Last time I visited, there were sunken boats in the harbour.
Returning to the airport on the swish Olympic underground, a failed suicide stopped the train. Failed suicide? Comedy or tragedy? Both are always available in ancient or modern Athens.