There is a parallel reality to the one that all tourists experience when they visit Athens, a reality that is perfectly reflected in a very curious neighborhood: Exarcheia. A tremendously interesting place…
In this article we will talk about its relevance in modern history, its social movements, the different myths surrounding the neighborhood and, of course, we will recommend several places worth KNOWING (I will explain later why I use this specific word).
I have gone a bit out of the ordinary with this blog post, since in addition to providing content of “tourist interest”, I have also added certain criticisms and reflections related to topics that may be sensitive. Dear reader, I could not avoid doing so, however I think that after reading the article you will understand. We would also be delighted to hear your opinion on the matter, whatever it may be.
Looking for something specific?
About the neighborhood
Also known as the alternative neighborhood of Athens; today it is a favorite home for artists, volunteers and students from all over the world. Among its many qualities I would highlight its solidarity character, since there are many citizen movements that are responsible for providing housing and food to the less fortunate. Generally these are people who have fled from the wars taking place in their respective countries.
Exarcheia is a humble neighborhood full of street art, which is undergoing a process of centrification and gentrification. Due to the growing number of tourists and people who want to live in the capital, this neighborhood that has always been considered “conflictive” is increasingly in demand. Thus, in recent years a lot of bars, fast food establishments (not franchises) and traditional food restaurants have opened here.
If you want to know more about Greek gastronomy, what dishes to try and where to try them, you can take a look at our article of What to eat in Greece.
Come and stroll through these streets where so many demonstrations have happened, contemplate its spectacular graffiti, eat Greek food at a very good quality/price ratio and have a beer at night in an alternative bar..
Exarcheia is changing
It is worth noting here, as this is essential to understand what is happening in the neighborhood, that there are many political and economic interests that play a key role in this process of gentrification.
Exarcheia is in the now considered center of Athens, however, it has been an area perceived (sometimes not without reason) as dangerous by the public opinion, which minimizes the profitability that can be obtained with the rental housing business. In addition, there are many landlords who want to jump on the Airbnb bandwagon. The latter, if anything, is causing rents to rise even more in price, very difficult to afford for a local salary.
Could it have something to do with the Greeks becoming independent so late?
Anyway. On the other hand, in a context of a great (and constant) economic “crisis”, which leads to the discontent of a large part of society, the conditions for the creation and proliferation of hate speech are perfect:
Of course, an enemy had to be found for all the ills that Greece had… you got it right, the answer was found in immigration and refugees. I’m not going to kid you, painfully true it was becoming quite a dangerous area and with too much drugs involved….
The humiliating minimum wage, the huge VAT applied to basic necessities, the deficiencies of public health, the misery pensions, the exorbitant prices of rents, the high general cost of living, the labor precariousness, the non-compliance of working conditions by the companies, the brain drain….
Are you going to tell me that all this (or even a single one of the things mentioned) is the result of some people, who have been denied permission to work legally by the way, dealing drugs in a neighborhood in Athens?
Let us remember that these people do not receive a single euro of public money, contrary to a false belief widely spread also in Spain. They have no papers, so it is impossible that they are receiving any government aid. Besides, the places where they lived in Exarcheia (I will explain later why I speak in the past tense) did not receive any public money either.
Still, and I don’t blame the citizens for this, such hate speeches towards refugees permeated the society quite a lot, to the point that the main political party that intentionally repeated them won the last elections.
So what kind of atmosphere is there in Exarcheia today?
If you had asked me this question a couple of years ago my answer would have been a bit different… Exarcheia was home to many people who, because of the nasty wars and lack of opportunities in their respective countries, came here in search of a place where they could live (or at least survive). You can imagine that we are talking about the famous “refugee crisis“, who ended up living in various houses that had been solidarily “reconditioned” (previously uninhabited and uninhabitable).
Due to the new Hellenic government (“New Democracy“), and the fact that these people lacked the permission of the owners to occupy such a place, many of these buildings, known as “squats” in the neighborhood, have been evicted by the police. Currently all these buildings have been literally sealed, with bars on the windows and concrete blocks on the doors. All with the aim that they will not be re-occupied, but there is no intention on the part of any owner (big companies) to give any use to these places.
Meanwhile, the Hellenic state, which receives money from the EU to keep the refugees in this country (since we do not want them to reach the rest of Europe) rarely offers a housing alternative that meets a minimally humane hygienic and sanitary conditions. In addition, it is worth mentioning the little freedom of movement (none) that is allowed to refugees who “survive” in many camps, not surprisingly, many people have begun to coin the term “refugee prison“, replacing the one used in the media (refugee camps).
Forgive me, dear reader, for dealing with such sensitive issues. Also, I am truly grateful that you have read this far, really (I reiterate). If you are interested in these topics, or simply want to learn more about Exarcheia, we can reserve a place for you on our neighborhood tour.
What to see in Exarcheia
Exarcheia is a neighborhood with many interesting places that are worth KNOWING; which, in our opinion, is NOT the same as simply visiting them without knowing what’s behind them, let alone promoting the culture of taking pictures of them to upload them to Instagram along with, perhaps, a “nice” sentence.
As it turns out, there are places where, for various reasons, photos are not welcome.
Because of our respect for the Exarcheia neighborhood, and many of the social movements that were born here, we had to warn of the philosophy regarding photos. Also, dear reader, of course I am going to recommend 3 very interesting places you should visit, however….
There are also other very special places with sensitive histories that (please don’t misunderstand me) do not deserve to be approached by any kind of “tourism”, and we feel that we would be failing the neighborhood if we were to promote certain practices that go against local interests.
We love travelers, indeed, we want everyone who visits certain places to know the context and the why of things (we don’t see a blog as the right space to convey this). Nor do we see our Exarcheia free tour as a conventional guided tour, as there is no single truth; as we walk through certain places, we engage in telling relevant anecdotes of the neighborhood, expose facts of recent history, discuss issues affecting society, share different points of view….
That said, these are 3 places that can be of tourist interest and / or nothing happens to share in a blog:
National Technical University of Athens
In Greece there are two symbols of democracy: one is the Parthenon (obviously) and the other is the National Technical University of Athens. The former is well known to the public; however few people know about this university, located in the Exarcheia neighborhood. I am going to tell you about a place that played a fundamental role in the struggle to achieve modern Greek democracy.
In the year 1973, during the dictatorship of the Colonels, the students started a massive demonstration and fortified themselves inside the faculty. They also launched a radio broadcast, in which they demanded: the recovery of academic freedoms, the return of the university asylum and the withdrawal of repressive ordinances.
They held out for three days, until on November 17 the military regime decided to put an end to the revolt by sending in the army: a tank entered the university, bursting the entrance gate while there were still students on the other side, soldiers beat up the demonstrators who fled en masse and even snipers on the terraces opened live fire.
Consequences of the revolt:
Depending on the sources that can be consulted regarding fatal casualties, we find widely varying figures; from 23 deaths by those who point to the casualties, to over 83 by the less optimistic. In any case, a true and inexcusable barbarity that should never have happened.
These facts would mark the beginning of that ideology so anti-system and vindictive that characterizes today the neighborhood of Exarcheia, since there are still people and social movements that continue the same struggle (although in another very different context). The most defenders of the neighborhood defend that these events were the beginning of the end of the military dictatorship, since it came to an end only a year later.
Please visit this place, nowadays it seems to be a set of abandoned and graffitied neoclassical buildings. However, you already know its importance in history and, in addition, this place is still functioning as the faculty of architecture.
I recommend you to go to the west side of the campus, where you will see the ORIGINAL fence that the tank destroyed lying on the ground: the Greeks have not forgotten yet (see the picture above).
This university is the first stop of our free tour, as knowing what happened here is important to understand more anecdotes related to other places we visit later.
Athens, luckily for us, has several hills from which we can enjoy spectacular views of this sprawling city.
It’s also a fairly easy climb, so it’s well worth it; the sunset is very beautiful and you can climb it with a cold beer. We take a walk around the foot of the hill to show several interesting places on the hill.
Laiki (the farmers’ market)
If you are lucky enough to be in Athens on a Saturday, I recommend you to visit the farmers market in Kalidromiou street. It is a street market that takes place in Exarcheia, only once a week, from early in the morning until mid-afternoon.
Visiting a market is always an interesting option to immerse yourself in the local culture, especially when we talk about the Exarcheia market. Athenians not only, come here to do their weekly shopping, but it is also a place where people go to spend the day, as its streets are filled with a special atmosphere: there are people who bring speakers to play music, groups of people sit in the squares to drink beers, you can also climb the hill of Streffis to enjoy some nice views….
Conclusion about Exarcheia:
Exarcheia, far from (just) being that anarchist, dangerous and drug-filled neighborhood that many people criticize (thanks in part to TV); it is an interesting place full of cafes for study, bars with good music , restaurants of all kinds, spectacular graffiti, endless bookstores, music stores and even the odd quirky cinema.
Perhaps this is part of the gentrification process we have talked about before, however, and together, we can ensure that the neighborhood maintains its special character and essence. For which we consider necessary to KNOW a little of its origin, its social movements and its important role in Hellenic history.
Surely you will find very appetizing apartments on Airbnb, however I have to admit to you of the damage that this platform has done and continues to do not only in Exarcheia but in all of Athens.
Due to the Airbnb phenomenon, among other things, rental prices are skyrocketing and there is less and less supply of apartments for non-tourist use, something that greatly harms residents. That said, rather than criticizing Airbnb itself, I believe that the root of the problem lies in the lack of regulation (this is a very interesting topic that we also sometimes discuss on our free tour of Exarcheia).