Friday, June 15, 2012
Athens — “I’m very sorry sir, but I can confirm that your hotel in Athens no longer exists.” We were due to fly to Athens in a few hours, and the manager of our hotel on the Greek island of Santorini was apologetic. “It’s not uncommon these days,” he continued, shaking his head; “between high debts and the bleak economic future, many hotels are just shutting down. This is Greece today.”
So it wasn’t an e-mail scam or a bad joke — my first guess on receiving an e-mail from Priceline informing us that our Athens hotel had “closed forever.” That seemingly superfluous “forever” was not, as I had suspected, an Internet scammer’s poor English, but rather a sign of just how bearish the travel industry is on Greece’s economic future.
Police warn that e-mail fraudsters keep up with world events. Earlier in the week I was e-mailed by a business partner of the late Libyan dictator, Moammar Qaddafi, offering me 30 percent of his fortune to help retrieve some tied-up funds. All I needed to do, of course, was to give him my bank details.
We made our own booking for a new hotel and flew to Athens, albeit with some trepidation. Even in better times, guidebooks warned visitors to the Greek capital of skilled pickpockets and other thieves who target tourists. In the days before our visit, the news reports portrayed a city racked with protests and paralyzed by strikers outraged by the country’s dire economic position.
The cab driver from the airport did his best not to allay our fears. He gave gruff monosyllabic answers to our questions (we took the hint). The one exception was a warning he gave while driving down a main street in Athens: He motioned to his right and said, “This side of the city is bad. Don’t go.” Then, signaling to his left: “This side of the city is good . . . during the day.”
On our right — the forbidden zone — we saw many boarded-up shops, graffiti on walls, litter on the streets, loitering men, and police officers every few blocks (some in riot gear). On the left . . . we saw much of the same, only not quite as bad.
Why were we here anyway? Oh yes: to see the Acropolis. It’s to see these world-famous ruins that tourists like us brave pickpockets, riots, and surly cab drivers. Going to Greece and not visiting the Acropolis is considered sacrilegious. It’s like going to Memphis and skipping Graceland.
And so, heeding the warnings, we left most of our valuables at our hotel, tied our bags tightly across our chests, and stuck to the main streets. En route we passed several banks, all with stern-looking security guards outside, long lines inside, and double-door entry systems controlling passage in and out.
This made the banks more closely resemble a prison’s visitation area than a customer-friendly business. Of course few people are depositing money into Greek banks these days: Bankers are reporting that hundreds of millions of euros are being withdrawn daily. Greeks fear that their country may be kicked out of the euro zone following the June 17 election, causing the value of deposits to shrink. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the mood and facial expressions inside the banks fit the prison theme too.
The Acropolis (or what’s left of it) is highly impressive, and the views of the city below and the surrounding mountains are breathtaking. The challenge — after hearing a guide explaining the significance of the Acropolis, or reading its Wikipedia page on your smartphone — is what to do for the rest of the day. It’s almost as if Athenians stopped creating anything worth seeing after the Acropolis: How could they follow that up?
Most capital cities offer plenty to keep tourists occupied. London has Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and Buckingham Palace; Paris has the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower. Even the concierge at our hotel seemed confused when asked what else there is to do in Athens — and that’s his job! “Well, you could walk here and here,” he said hesitantly, circling a few monuments on our map. His enthusiasm was contagious and we skipped them.
Despite the lack of obvious attractions, we actually had a good time in the city during the day (we didn’t risk walking at night). The shops, restaurants, and cafés that have survived the economic downturn (so far, anyway) have done so for a reason: They’re very good. We managed to avoid all pickpockets and rioters. Most important, we can reply “of course” when people ask whether we visited the Acropolis. Even in the midst of crisis, Athens is well worth a day trip — but not a moment more.