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Greece may be going through some economic turmoil, but Athens remains a dazzling city that boasts the historic beauty of The Acropolis and wild nightlife for LGBT party animals, says Stewart Who?
The first time I went to Greece was in 1987. It was my first holiday as an independent teenager and unlike prior trips to Ireland with the family, promised vistas more alluring than the rain lashed farms and stony yards of Irish aunts and cousins.
As a kid, the chickens, mud and mash of Monaghan were a rural respite from the yawning suburbs of London. However, adolescence brought the obligatory scorn for kin, hunger for escape and a range of experimental hair styles.
I bleached my hair white, in homage to Billy Idol and headed to the Cyclades with my best mate, Stuart Laing. In the late ‘80s, Ios had a reputation as SUCH a wild island that NOBODY could stay there for longer than two days. We heard this assessment from a notorious rock promoter that Stuart’s sister was dating.
Wishing to impress him and test this theory, we decided to go to Ios for a week. It did nearly kill us, but we rose to the challenge. The pair of us returned with tales, tans and a Pavlovian retch response on hearing the word retsina.
Fast forward three decades and the world is a very different place. I have no hair to bleach. There’s direct flights to the Greek islands- we had to backpack and ferry from Athens.
Today, you don’t have to wait weeks to get your holiday snaps back, ‘cause they’re on your phone and probably on Instagram. Stuart Laing is no longer a teen pin-up, but a married, celebrated actor (and still my best mate).
In 2016, the Euro is ruling, not the drachma (for now) – and there are ATMs everywhere. In ’87, the cashpoint had yet to flourish. You took a wad of cash and prayed it would. Oh, and Greece, well they’re in a spot of bother aren’t they?
I’ve pondered the progress of the Greek economic crisis with interest, disgust and confusion. Fiscal expertise and business acumen aren’t skills to be found on my CV, but you don’t need a maths degree to detect duplicity and sewage when it’s seeping from the media.
Much of the pompous, quasi racist rhetoric around the crisis made me side with the Greek people long before I’d grasped the finer details of the situation. The economic punishment inflicted on the working class made me want to kick the banks, punch the City and stamp on the establishment.
Instead, I went to Greece for a holiday.
Predict a riot?
Despite my instinctive sympathy with the Greeks, the effect of all that bad news and bitching was that the country appears to be in turmoil. On the news, we saw riots, protests, outrage and destitution. It no longer seemed like the kind of place you went to ‘escape it all’.
My friend George, who hails from Thessaloniki, suggested the trip. This changed everything. The guiding hand of a native can soften blows, open doors and widen one’s perspective, so I gave him the reins and headed to Athens.
Hash and hipsters
We stayed in a sensational Airbnb apartment, bang in the middle of Psyri, one of the edgier nightlife districts of Athens.
The ‘hood was once home to revolutionaries during the war of Independence and it’s long been a bohemian magnet, famed for raucous tavernas, hash and rembetica.
Today, it’s a lively mix of working class industrial business, high-end hipsterism and dive party debauchery. In the space of a two minute mince, you’ll see ‘Fuck the Police’ graffiti, tiny hardware stores and cool cocktail bars.
Ioannis, the owner of the apartment we lodged in happens to be a celebrated designer. His talent and personal style can be seen in every interior detail, making this pad a unique and thrilling place to stay.
Boasting kitsch and slick in equal measure, you can play a grand piano while a swishly dressed mannequin watches over your shoulder. I also loved the fact that with the windows open, you could hear the raving action on the street below.
Almost every night, our party started at Klouvi (cage in Greek). It’s adorned with a menagerie of empty cages and owned by George’s friend, Xenofondas, an ex-basketball player boasting an impressive beard. He’s a towering, genial Zeus who mixes a mean cocktail and presides over the bar like a Hellenic ringmaster.
We drove to Klouvi on the first night. As we hovered outside, seeking somewhere to park, one of the bar’s revellers offered assistance in finding a space. He hopped in the back of the car with a martini in his hand. He wasn’t much help, but it was a sure sign that Athens was gonna prove affable, if a bit bonkers.
Klouvi’s a neighbourhood bar that’s inspired a social transformation in the Petralona district, an excellent Thai restaurant sits on the opposite corner and the crowds from both venues spill onto the road forming a nightly street party.
By day, the bar plays rock and indie, while after sunset, DJs spin jazz, vintage funk and rare groove. Klouvi’s open ‘til 4am nightly, so while we usually started the evening at Klouvi, you could easily end the night here too. Possibly in the gutter.
While wandering the city, one’s eye is mostly drawn to the Acropolis, but the highest point in Athens is Mount Lycabettus (the hill walked by wolves). En route to its peak is the neighbourhood of Kolonaki, offering chic boutiques, ladies who lunch and luxury houses.
The Mayfair vibe recedes as one hits a snaking path through a hillside park filled with pine trees. It’s not a climb for the limp of leg, but it’s a great way to sweat out a night’s toxins and give the glutes a hammering.
Ruck at the summit
At the peak of Lycabettus is Agios Georgios, the tiny white-stuccoed chapel of St. George. The view is spectacular and if you’re in need of refreshment, there’s a smug restaurant with shocking prices and dreadful staff.
George gave them a tongue lashing for their slack service, while I silently sipped on a costly Coca-Cola. If you don’t know the lingo, you can’t join the wrangle.
We descended Lycabettus via the funicular and headed for Exarchia. This area’s a few blocks from the Polytechnic, where in ‘73, students were killed while protesting the ruling junta. The district’s home to knots of anarchists, artists and anti-fascists. Anti-establishment activism crackles in the air and can be seen on every corner, in the street art, posters and placards.
Anarchy and coffee
Like most big cities, Athens goes about its business regardless of the underlying issues, but in Exarchia, the fight’s in your face. Greece’s controversial finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis found this out earlier this year.
The pin-up economist was accosted in a local restaurant by balaclava-clad activists (koukouloforoi). The slick operator talked his way out of it, after being shielded by his wife. He then sped off on his motorbike.
Athens’ gay scene is mostly found in an area known as Gazi. The ‘hood is dominated by the industrial shell of the gasworks, which has now been converted into a cultural centre known as Technoplis.
It’s not the prettiest part of Athens, but nobody goes there to admire the architecture. People come to Gazi in order to party ‘til dawn. It has the air of a buzzing King’s Cross, before the corporate makeover.
On most nights we ended up in Sodade, apparently the most popular late night bar to swing your bits in. It features two rooms, one playing charty R&B and pop, the other, open at the weekend, spinning excellent progressive house.
Muscle and tussle
Shamone is a gay cocktail bar and restaurant that’s hip and heaving with the kind of aloof men who refuse to smile or meet your eye, but definitely look longingly in the mirror. Sadly, on the night we visited, despite the pumping atmosphere, I could hardly keep my eyes open. George generously thought this condition might be fixed with alcohol.
The cocktail onslaught merely led to me slurring, ‘I want to go to bed’ as pumped up cubs and muscle bears bumped into my slumped and sobbing shape. I’d like to go there again, but with a bit more pep in my step to give them bearded bitches a proper run for their money.
Apartment is the new kid on the Athens block and would definitely appeal to the international circuit crowd. Topless bar staff and burly go-go boys serve up standard eye candy, but the music was upfront, minimal and very slickly mixed.
If you’re a house-head, this is where it’s at. My favourite feature was a basement installation. It was a tawdry, domestic living room with a glass fourth wall housing a wanking stripper and a cackling drag queen. It was reminiscent of the reptile room at the zoo and was sexy, depressing and compulsive. I loved it.
Baroque and roll
One stormy afternoon, we visited the studio of Cretan artist Michail J Tsakountis. Working in oils, his portraits are dark, baroque and technically brilliant. He recently showed at the Brick Lane Gallery and is definitely a name to watch.
Humble, hilarious and quite the party boy, it was a privilege to sip beers, gossip and watch a true artist at work.
Heart and soul
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Athens, aside from the architecture and gastronomic delights, was the mood of the city and warmth of the people. When you scratched the surface and questioned Athenians, they admitted to struggles and expressed frustration at the economic climate.
The streets and squares of the city teemed with people who seemed intent on being anything but cowed by the challenges of their lives or the strictures of the European Union.
As I expressed my surprise at the lack of gloom in the city, one girl laughed and said, ‘You want to see depressing? Go to Manchester on a rainy afternoon!’ The glamorous Athenian, who I met at 2am in the basement of a speakeasy, had previously left Greece to live with an English lover in the city that gave us The Haçienda and New Order. She shuddered at the memory. No Brit was gonna tell her that Greece wasn’t in a happy place.
‘Darling,’ she said, blowing out a plume of smoke. ‘I don’t care if this country is on its knees or what Europe thinks. When I am down to my last €5, I’m gonna spend it on a cocktail.’
That for me, summed up the unexpected and cheering spirit of Athens- we might be going down, but that’s no reason to stop the party.