Photos from Athens - 1st half of 2011

These are the best among the Athens photos I've posted in my Twitter account during the first half of 2011. I'm re-posting them here to lure you to follow me on Twitter, esp. if you have a vacation planned in Athens or Greece in general. Enjoy!
Giant teddy-bear in an Athens square

Thunderstorm in Athens - Lightning bolt

Athens amateur running tour 2011.

Unusual Athens sunset. Panoramic half-view, from a residential neighborhood.

Impromptu notice board at the fence of a construction site.

Snowy Athens - 2011

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Panathinaiko Stadium (aka Kalimarmaro)

If you are a fan of sports and/or the Olympic Games this is a sight you don’t want to miss. It is the stadium built for the very first modern Olympic Games that were hosted by Athens, in 1896.
Panathinaikon Stadium
Panathinaiko Stadio
It is located practically in the city center, at the start of Vassileos Konstantinou Ave., across Irodou Attikou St., within a few minutes walking distance from Syntagma Square, the Parliament, Zappion Megaro, the National Garden and the Presidential Mansion.

The site –right next to Ardittos Hill– was not randomly chosen. There was an ancient stadium sitting in the same place but there was almost no sign of it left by the 19th century, so works had to start almost from scratch to uncover the old ruins and to restore and rebuild a new stadium (mainly the stands) on top of the old one. Part of the new stands were initially wooden with only a small part being marble, but gradually the whole extent was covered by marble. Works had actually started in the 1870’s in preparation for the so-called “Zappas’ Olympics”; games organized by Greek state benefactor Evangelis Zappas which paved the way for the modern (International Olympic Committee) Games.
Further funds provided by Greek benefactor Georgios Averoff, paid for the construction of the marble stands, which was completed in 1900; after the 1st official Olympic Games but in time for the so-called “intercalated” Olympics of 1906 – a major success and a boost to the Olympic Games movement but no longer recognized by the IOC as an official event. A statue of Averoff is found outside the stadium, on your right hand side as you look towards the stadium.
[It’s worth mentioning that one of his descendants was a prominent Greek politician at the 2nd half of the 20th century, who also served as chair of the conservative New Democracy party in the 1980’s. The family’s origins are from Epirus and they were involved in wine-making, owning the Katogi-Averoff winery, which has now merged into the “Katogi-Strofilia” winery, with facilities in Epirus and south of Athens]

I haven’t been inside the stadium recently but judging from what I read in its website, the people running the facility seem to have a really forward-looking and open-minded approach. Not only is there an audio guide provided (in 10 languages!) but there’s also the opportunity for a range of activities, such as jogging early in the morning (07:30-9:00am) or having your picture taken on a pedestal with the stadium behind you. Organized groups may also rent one of the halls under the stands for a seminar or organize a mini-sporting event, between them, with awards ceremony and everything. This seems like a great idea for a group of students on a school visit as well!

Admission: You may catch a view of the stadium, from the entrance, all day and night for free but to gain access inside the track and up on the stands you need to pay a 3 Euro ticket (1.5 Euro reduced fare for isolated students, pupils and seniors over 65, free for school visits and children under 6).

Opening Hours: Mar-Oct: 08:00am–7:00pm, Nov-Feb: 08:00am–5:00pm 

Public Transit: Acropolis, Syntagma and Evangelismos Metro stations are the closest ones.
More Trivia
-The stadium takes the name Panathinaikon after the ancient stadium, constructed for the ancient “Pan-Athenian” athletic games that were held here since the 4th century B.C.
The nickname “Kalimarmaro” means “of beautiful marble”, as the stands are constructed entirely of marble from Mt. Penteli (north of Athens), that also provided the marble for the Parthenon on the Acropolis.
-According to current standards, the stadium holds 45,000 people. It used to hold many more according to previous standards (and waistlines...)
-It should not be confused with the soccer stadium hosting Panathinaikos Soccer Club!
-Up until 1950 the Illissos stream was flowing right outside the entrance of the stadium, but it was then covered and paved by what is currently Vassileos Konstantinou Avenue.
-From the entrance of the stadium you get a very nice view of the Southeastern corner of the Parthenon and the Acropolis.
View of the Acropolis from Panathinaiko Stadium
Major events that have taken place at Panathinaikon Stadium:
-1870 and 1875 Zappas’ Olympics.
-1896 1st Modern Olympic Games
-1906 Intercalated Olympic Games
-1968-04-04: European Cup Winners’ Cup Final: AEK Athens vs. Slavia Prague: 89-82 [This was the first time a Greek team ever reached the final of any sport. To get a glimpse of the atmosphere of that day take a look at this YouTube video, minutes 3:30-6:00. I am not an AEK fan but the sport-casting still sends chills down my spine! But maybe just because I'm Greek...:)]
-1996-08-06: Homecoming ceremony of Greek Olympic winners of the Atlanta Olympics (see pictures)
Panathinaikon Stadium, Welcoming ceremony for Greek Olympic winners (Atlanta 1996),  1996-08-06 

Panathinaikon Stadium, Welcoming ceremony for Greek Olympic winners (Atlanta 1996),  1996-08-06 

Panathinaikon Stadium, Welcoming ceremony for Greek Olympic winners (Atlanta 1996),  1996-08-06 

Panathinaiko Stadium-Welcoming ceremony for Greek Olympic winners (Atlanta 1996),  1996-08-06 
1997-08-01: Opening ceremony of the 6th IAAF Athletics World Championship. A fake Roman gate was constructed at the entrance, to house the TV crews covering the ceremony. Vangelis Papathanasiou provided the music and artistic direction for the event. There are currently segments of this ceremony uploaded on YouTube, worth checking out (here and here).
2004-07-05: Homecoming ceremony of the Greek national soccer team, winners of the 2004 European Soccer Championship (probably biggest sports surprise ever…)

-This is also the place where each city hosting the Olympic Games receives the flame from Olympia, to start its Olympic torch relay that culminates in the Olympics opening ceremony.

-Finally, this is the finish line of the Original Marathon Course, starting in the area of Marathon and finishing in the Panathinaic Stadium. The Athens Classic Marathon takes place each year at the end of October / beginning of November.

Don’t forget to check out the beautiful bronze statue of a discus thrower across the street (Irodou Attikou St. & Vas. Konstantinou Ave.), made by Greek sculptor Kostas Dimitriadis. The original was installed in New York’s Central Park in 1926 and this is a twin or replica, placed here in 1927.

When you’re done with the stadium you may climb the stairs on the left hand side (as you are watching towards the stadium) and take a walk in the neighbourhood of Pangrati, behind it. There’s a number of restaurants and tavernas and little curiosities like this one…

Poetic Cats

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The current situation in Greece as I see it. A cracking noise...

(Updates at the bottom)
I imagine many of the people willing to travel to Greece this summer (and there are many out there from what I’m reading!) may be a bit apprehensive about the political situation in the country, and how it might affect their vacation. I’ll try to describe the situation “on the ground” for you, from the perspective of a native. To be clear, I don’t foresee anything so big that should make you want to change your vacation plans. However, for those of us living here, things are not exactly “business as usual”...

One can almost hear, or sense, a “cracking” noise throughout the country, as the old system of cronyism, corruption and reckless spending is slowly – not without a fight – coming down. What will come out of this is not yet known. Perhaps a re-institution of the old guards and mentalities that have brought the country to its current mess, with new faces but old excuses; perhaps not. For the moment, you can still see the powerful groups that have had a dominant grip on Greek society, politics and finances, trying to cling to their privileges and get as many concessions as possible out of the government for anything that they are asked to give up. These include powerful trade unions of the wider public sector (not so much government employees as employees of state-run companies), private-sector enterprises (from very large to very small) that make a profit through their affiliation with the state, professional guilds (such as lawyers) who don’t want to have anything to do with competition and have set up barriers to entry to several professions, etc. I myself am a victim of this last situation as I am not allowed to practice the profession(s) that I would have liked to and for which I was trained, since I don’t belong in the “right” professional guild. And of course there’s a good number of people who do not necessarily belong to the above categories but have been indoctrinated into believing that the old way of doing things was the “right” way.

Or perhaps, something new will come out of this, but will it be for the better? For the past two weeks, massive sit-in demonstrations are taking place at Syntagma Square, center Athens, and other Greek towns. These were initially organized by independent leaning bloggers, Facebook users, etc. For the most part they are impressively peaceful, with the exception of a couple of ugly incidents, propagated by extremists (of the far right and far left) some of whom also make uninhibited use of violent rhetoric and/or try to take control of the situation and maneuver the crowd their way. There is also some covert fascist rhetoric by some in the crowd (making obscene gestures against the Parliament and “the 300” MPs is a favorite pastime of theirs). However, the majority of people going there (even though they call themselves “the enraged / angry / frustrated”) seem to be peaceful and trying to just talk with each other, listen to each other and realize what’s going on. Some have referred to this, non-ironically, as “group-therapy” as people –all of a sudden– try to grasp what has happened to the country.

Elsewhere, bankrupt newspapers and media channels are staying in operation for the sole purpose of trying to blackmail their way into some final deal with the State.

Members of the Parliament (MPs) and those around them have failed to set an example and continue to act in a provocative way, still in a “business as usual” mindset. Naturally, this tends to anger people even more and whatever trust there was left between politicians and their electorate seems to have “cracked” under the weight of the recent austerity cuts, coupled with parliamentarian excesses. For example, MPs are exempt from prosecution, even for accusations under penal law and/or concerning their private businesses! For example, they have only cut their salaries by the same percentage that lower paid pensioners and civil servants’ salaries have been cut. So, if a poor pensioner gets paid 700€ a month their pension was cut by 10%. MPs who get paid around 15,000€ per month also got a 10% cut in their salary! (Oops, my mistake! MPs do not get a “salary” for their “service”. They just get a “compensation”!)

Justices, who are occasionally full of pompous rhetoric about the separation of powers (it doesn’t truly, fully exist in Greece…) were, in recent years, quick to adjust their salaries (oops again! – “compensations”) upwards, to match those of MPs …so that their institutional role is not diminished! Here you get a “crack” not having to do with the separation of powers but a “crack” in people’s trust to the current form of government, in all its manifestations.

The “government” (i.e. administration) on the other hand, has lied to get elected, claiming that there was money available (but, I’ll dare say, some of those who believed them probably wanted to be lied to…) and has now found itself between a rock and a hard place: Trying to appease our international creditors and come to a deal with them on one hand and trying to sell the whole package to their electorate on the other. Their preferred solution? Taxing everyone to death!

But there’s also a “cracking” in the streets of Athens and other towns as well. A great number of illegal immigrants have found themselves essentially trapped in Greece, partly thanks to EU legislation. They cannot go to other EU countries – or they are shipped back to Greece if they get arrested in another EU country. They cannot or don’t want to go back to their country of origin while several among them are candidates for political asylum (e.g. Iranians), but the Greek State has failed to acknowledge them and grant them political asylum to the extent that it should. So many of them just lay around, unemployed – at least legally – wondering in Athens and creating a scene of middle-eastern ghetto in several neighborhoods, esp. near the center of Athens. Some of them resort to illegal trade, laying their counterfeit goods all over the pavements and taking up public space while others simply resort to crime. The lackluster reaction of the police results in rising feelings and actions of xenophobia and racism.

Indiscriminate racist attacks against immigrants have taken place these last weeks, by racist gangs. Add a good number of drug addicts in the mix, also wondering around Athens center asking “for change”, or simply buying and selling drugs and you have the complete picture of a city in a big time crisis.

The government and the municipality of Athens have recently announced a number of measures to tackle this situation but it is yet unknown what, if any, results these measures will have.

So, it is no wonder that most tourists avoid Athens and stay here just for a couple of nights.

Having said all that, the “good thing” is that most of these things happen away from the main tourist sites, except for the area around the National Archeological Museum which is in a state of mess.

The city however remains quite lively, (many) people still go out to caf├ęs and restaurants, day and night, and most neighborhoods are still safe to walk around, day or night. But it’s not the Athens (or Greece) we used to know and still remember, some 20 years ago, where people would routinely leave their balcony doors open at night during the summer (for the cool breeze to come in), houses did not have “safety doors” and a single woman could walk alone at night at every single part of the town without even thinking about the concept of “fear”.

But there’s a positive “cracking” as well, having to do with attitudes. More and more Greeks – especially younger ones – have come to realize that trying to get a job in the public sector (which almost always comes with tenure) is no longer a promising life-choice, if it ever was. So, at least those who have some short of capital (through family savings, inheritance or a combination of both) are gradually working to find alternative ways of sustaining themselves, like starting a business [Greek banks are extremely reluctant to finance new businesses if you can’t put up some kind of real estate as collateral and venture capital firms are still in nascent form]. Many are going back to their fathers’ villages, trying to cultivate the land, focusing on new, promising farming products like organic ones, or others with high-added value and with an appeal to international markets, instead of focusing on EU subsidies and state handouts, like the older generation of farmers did. My guess is that, barring a complete collapse of the country, ten years from now Greek agricultural products will be a driving force of the Greek economy, will have earned a name in the international market and will be very highly sought after. Many independent producers are already starting to bear the fruit of their labor and are gradually making a name for themselves. A few others, younger ones, are trying their luck with software applications and the like. So, I’ll end this on a positive note. If the Greek State gets finally modernized and run in a semi-efficient way, there is hope after all, besides all the current mess, troubles and gloomy looks you’ll see in the streets of Athens.

Update 2011-06-30: I see many people are visiting the blog through this post, probably worried about the safety situation in Athens. We just went out tonight, to the Monastiraki area, and throngs of people, Greeks and tourists, were out enjoying themselves. As a rule of thumb, violent events / demonstrations almost always happen around Syntagma Sq. and the few neighboring streets (Stadiou / Panepistimiou / Filellinon). So, if you feel uneasy about finding yourselves near a demonstration (quite understandable) just avoid this central area when such an event is planned there. Your hotel should notify you on that. Elsewhere in the city -or the rest of Greece even more- you might not even know what's happening in Athens city center. 
Update 2011-07-07: Arjuna Ardagh's article in the Huffington Post totally confirms my assurances above.
Update 2011-11-02: More on the situation in Greece in a couple of pictures

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Rustic Greek grillhouse near Athens Tower

I Gonia Tou Babi (a.k.a. To Agrinio)

Address – Area: 18 Sinopis St., [Ampelokipi neighborhood], Athens,
Tel: 210-77.18.384
Date: 2011-06-06, 2010-09-13 and once more
Cuisine: Greek grill-house (psistaria)
Overall Opinion: Neutral / positive.
Methods of payment: cash
Working hours: Mon-Thu:10:30-18:00, Fri:10:30-24:00, Sat:18:00-24:00
Website: N/A
Accessibility: One short stair to get in. Fairly narrow entrance, corridor and W/C, probably non-accessible to regular wheel-chairs.

Our Order (2011-06)
2 beef patties (biftekia)
2 pork souvlaki
1 french fries
Kontosouvli for 2 (grilled, shredded pork)
2 bottles (500ml) of Kaiser beer
1 Greek salad
Price: 30.00€

Presentation / Ambience: A rustic, shack-like structure, in a side street, 3 blocks from the intersection of Mesogeion & Vassilis Sofias Avenues and very close to the Athens Tower. You cross the narrow corridor in front of the grill and cashier and enter a medium-sized hall, with varnished wood plank walls and traditional, smallish, wooden tables (10-15 of them) and chairs. A few old, framed posters are hanging from the wall, with pictures from the western town of Agrinio and its surrounding area (e.g. Rio-Antirio Bridge). Large windows let the light come in and let you check out outside traffic. I’ve only had lunch here fairly early (for Greek standards) and on weekdays, so the place was never packed with people, but neither was it empty.

Your food is not served in plates (except for the salad) but in a large, cooking sheet, spread out on the table in front of you with all the goodies in it. There are menus on the table (but in Greek!) so you may just ask the waiter for what’s available and /or just order a "variety" plater (a little bit of this and that…). That’s what we did all three times. Overall, it’s a very relaxed, informal atmosphere.

Food / Drinks: Simple, well grilled meat, served fairly warm at a reasonable (though not cheap) price. We especially like the kontosouvli (tender, well-grilled, correctly -very lightly- spiced). I also remember ordering kebob meat in a different occasion that we also liked. However, be warned that this place offers a very limited choice of goods. Do not expect a “full-scale restaurant”. This is its main advantage but may also put off some people.
Only basic beer (Kaiser, Fix, Amstel,  Heineken,...) and soda choices.

Service: Very simple, very fast. However, some people may be put off by the rustic / primitive way of serving, without plates. On the contrary, my pals and I find it part of the attraction. Our order was brought to our table almost immediately.

Location / Getting there: Three blocks from 2 Mesogeion Ave. / One block from 137 Michalakopoulou Ave.
Buses and trolleys no. 3, 10, 550, X14 run along Vasilissis Sofias Ave. Get off at Ippokrateio Bus Stop or Athinaion Bus Stop and walk to the corner of Vassilisis Sofias and Mesogeion. At 2, Mesogeion Ave. turn right, into Sinopis St. and walk past the more preppy bars and grills for 3 blocks. You will see the one-storey, white painted structure housing this grill on your right hand side.

Alternatively, within waking distance (10 minutes walk) from Ampelokipi Metro Station.
See map of Athens restaurants at the bottom of this page.

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Visit to the Presidential Mansion's Garden

If you have programmed to stay in Athens for more than a couple of days, with the summer heat steadily above your comfort zone and archeological sites permanently exposed to the sun, you may start craving for the shade of a quiet, peaceful garden. The Greek "Presidential Garden" (Proedrikos Kipos) or, more precisely, the Garden of the Greek Presidential Mansion (Kipos Proedrikou Megarou) may be just the place you're looking for. It's not a typical tourist site, which is not a bad thing in itself but it's right in the center of Athens - next to the National Garden and very close to the Parliament and Syntagma Square. Even most Greeks haven't been here, as it was only opened to the public for the first time in 2010. I wrote about it in a previous post (Athens Staycation 2010), but that information was buried together with lots of other stuff so I'm writing a separate post to bring it to the front.

Where: The Mansion is located across the much bigger National Garden, at the corner of Irodou Attikou St., & Vasileos Georgiou Defterou St.. The entrance for the Presidential Garden is, unsurprisingly, from the side street (what would in past times be called the service entrance :) ), at Leoforos Vassileos Georgiou Defterou (King George 2nd Ave.).

When: The Garden is open only on Sundays (except for official holidays), from 10:00am to 2:00pm. You need to have a passport with you to enter the place but you do not need to call ahead (Update: information still valid on May 2013).

Who: Everyone, with a valid ID or passport may enter the garden. Unfortunately, that does not include people on wheelchairs, as there are several stairs, at several points, that you will need to go up and down to enter the Garden.

What: The Presidential Mansion's origins are kind of humble, as the lot it is built on used to serve as the Royal Cabbage Garden (!!!) back in the times of monarchy. In the 1890's it was decided to build a palace for the Heir to the Throne and this was the chosen lot. Construction started in 1891 and finished in 1897. Since 1909 it has served as the Royal Palace or Presidential Mansion, depending on the system of government existing each time. Today's Greeks associate images of the Presidential Garden with an annual party / ceremony given here by the acting President of the Republic on July 24, each summer. The date marks the occasion of the fall of the military junta on 24 July 1974, and the restoration of democracy.

Going past the first entrance, if you turn back and look up towards the building you'll notice two royal symbols engraved on the wall. They stand for King Konstantine and Queen Sophia, the acting royalties when the Mansion was built.

Moving on, you'll see a small orange grove to your left...

...and then you'll walk up several stairs to get to the main part of the Garden. [By the way, visitors do not have access to the upper, front part of the Garden which is open on Irodou Attikou St.]
It is designed in a rather strict, formal manner, with elements from "French Garden" design but also incorporating more "naturalist" elements and plants native to Greek vegetation such as the super-tall, more than a century-old junipers that dominate the main axis.

There are 140 different plant species present in the Garden. The most interesting feature is probably the sculptures, of various types and materials, that dot the lawns. I especially liked the "lighter" ones, such as this group of metallic rams sitting near the entrance.

Small path leading to the upper, front section of Presidential Garden; non-accessible to visitors. 

The garden is completely hidden from Irodou Attikou St., behind a tall fence and even taller trees, but on the back side you'll be surprised to see the balconies of nearby polykatikies (blocks of flats) peeking into the garden! There is also a small pool, a pavilion, a few benches and some pergolas, along with fairly large parts of lawns and terraces. But don't expect to be allowed to roll around on the grass or spread your towels on the lawn and sunbathe! This is still the residence of the President of Greece, although I'm sure the number of secret service agents and police watching your every step won't let you forget it!

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