Athens is a little like the hotel we stayed in while there. Not without faded charm, a ton of potential, and very friendly; but run-down, frequently broken, grim, looking better on paper than in reality, and with people hanging around listlessly. And there was nowhere to fix the shower head, but I'm not sure where that fits in with this analogy.
Of course, Athens is ancient: just hang about by the Acropolis for this to be very apparent. Even aside from the Parthenon and its fellow 2500-year-old temples, there are loads of other truly ancient, mostly ruined, structures scattered about the centre. Delightfully cute Orthodox churches, themselves over a thousand years old but seeming young in comparison, punctuate city streets, a flower among weeds. There's tons of ancient history, but that's not what makes Athens old and battered. Modern life has battered Athens.
Greece's economic problems are well-documented, and with me being neither an economist (I even keep forgetting the word, calling it an "economician") nor a politician I'm happy to say my assessment of the situation is not an expert one. The sentiment with the Greek people we spoke to suggested a lamentation of the EU - joining the EU had precipitated the mess, and being part of the EU ensured they couldn't get out of it. They felt trapped by Europe, the same way that little church above must feel trapped by concrete blocks.
Athens is not attractive. Around the centre it gets more appealing, a mixture of tight streets, busy cafes, and ancient ruins; anywhere else and it's a modern concrete mess. You'd think a city that pioneered some of the greatest architectural forms known to mankind would find a little more inspiration in their city design, but that's ancient Greece and it hangs like a millstone round the neck of modern Greece. Ancient Greece is a fantasy, modern Greece is just a regular struggling country that can't compare. And its buildings are ugly, crumbling things, covered in old air-conditioning boxes and graffiti. Graffiti especially - it's everywhere. If it's a form of protest, well, the point has been made. If it's a form of art, well, it's a dire failure.
Danielle and I arrived in Athens from Paris at around 1am on a Friday morning, having to pay the €50 set-fee taxi journey from the airport, our driver insisting it was €55 as we were slightly out of the centre. Down a side street, our hotel was silent, and very dim. A peaceful room is great, one with a single dull bulb and a window that looks onto a fire escape stairway is not. Danielle immediately despised the place.
Whether the hotel, Athens, or most likely the cold we've both had for the last week, our four days in that hotel were afflicted by a ghastly apathy. Maybe the cloudy, sometimes rainy, weather didn't help. On three of the four days, we didn't even get of bed till 1pm. Lunch was typically at 3pm in the nearby Victoria Square. (During our first lunch time, a child sauntered up to us, eating at an outside area of a restaurant, looked at Danielle and grinned, then picked up her bottle of coke, grinned again, and sauntered off. Welcome to Athens, we thought.) We'd head to the centre, traipse around, Danielle would try and spark herself up with a coffee, and we'd try and think of ways to delay our return to the grim hotel. The staff were lovely, really, really nice, but we couldn't figure out why they didn't fix some basic stuff. The hotel bar - why not put some music on? Why not put some pictures up, make the lighting less depressing, give it some atmosphere? Why not put wifi in the bar, to prevent the stairway being clogged up with unsmiling young backpackers (seriously guys, why travel if you can't even smile and say hello to people) trying to get a signal?
It's fair to say that our view of Athens was mixed then. But mixed, not bad. Because it's got some great plus points. The people we met were lovely. Hotel staff, restaurant staff, an old friend that Danielle knew from Glasgow and now living in Athens, all were friendly, genuinely so. Athens had a community feel - it's a huge city, but it didn't feel impersonal like many huge cities do. People seemed keen to banter. Almost everyone's English was good. Shamefully, we still haven't figured out how to say thank-you.
The food is cheap and straightforward, but tasty. Meat, salads, pitta: perfect. After France's tiny but expensive beers, it's a relief to return to a country that sells half-litre portions for just a few Euro. The wine - a glass of Greek stuff for just a single Euro! It might not be award-winning but it definitely did the trick. And while by day, Athens might not have felt inspiring, at night it came alive. That was when the streets filled with eaters and drinkers and chatterers, everywhere packed, and any thoughts of a depression eaten, drank, or chattered away.
And of course, there are the ruins. Buy the €12 ticket for the Parthenon and it covers entry for another six nearby sites. The best of these are the huge area that comprises the Ancient Agora, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Dating from the 6th Century BC, the Agora is a large open area, once the hub of the city, now mostly totally ruined but with a great temple perched on a hill.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus, or just the Olympieion, is a very ruined temple, but wow it would have been big. Once with 104 columns, each 17 metres high, and taking over 600 years to build, today just 15 columns remain. In its day, it was bigger than the Parthenon.
Like the Agora, like most the ancient sights in the area, they all have a clear view of the Acropolis and the buildings on top of it. You can see the ancient vision. Today, there's so much modern mess in the way, so much functional blocks and busy roads, that you can barely imagine how it would have been. But try, and it's a fabulous vision. The ancient Greeks knew what they were doing.
On our final day in Athens, we perked up considerably. We moved from the grim hotel to a more expensive one in the centre, a special treat: it had a direct view of the Parthenon. It also had a fitting for the shower head. Even better, it was light. No longer were we in the depth of dinginess, our world was suddenly brighter. Perhaps this was because we were almost over our colds, perhaps it was that we got up at a more regular time that day, but there's no doubt our improved surroundings helped how we felt. We woke on the final morning, early to get our train, with a pure blue sky and tons of light, and a beautiful day ahead of us, thinking "Good morning Athens!"
And goodbye. We may not have fallen in love with the city, but neither did it bore us. I left intrigued: I know there's more. A hotel can be fixed and so can a country. Athens and Greece have the personality to be fixed. Even their beers say so.