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Athens reborn: the gritty gay elegance of the Greek capital

Athens reborn: the gritty gay elegance of the Greek capital

The Acropolis: an icon of Athens

I’ve pondered the progress of the Greek economic crisis with interest and confusion. Much of the xenophobic rhetoric around the crisis made me side with the Greeks long before I’d grasped the finer details of the situation.

The austerity and injustice inflicted on the working class Greek people made me want to kick the banks, punch the City and poke the establishment. Instead, I went to Greece for a holiday.

A view of Athens from the Acropolis. Photo: Léa-Ly Roussel
A view of Athens from the Acropolis. Photo: Léa-Ly Roussel

Greek tragedy

The media have largely portrayed a country torn apart and crumbling. On the news, we saw riots, poverty, outrage and destitution. Greece had seemingly lost its Shirley Valentine shine.

My friend George hails from Thessaloniki and suggested a trip to his homeland. Despite my reservations, the wisdom of a local made the prospects much more inviting. He suggested a few nights in Athens, then a jaunt to one of the islands.

A typical street in Psyrri. Photo: Dimitris Kamaras
A typical street in Psyri. Photo: Dimitris Kamaras

Hip and feisty

In Athens, we stayed in a sensational Airbnb apartment, bang in the middle of Psyri, one of the edgier nightlife districts of Athens. The neighborhood was once home to revolutionaries during the war of Independence. It’s been a bohemian magnet for years, famed for raucous tavernas, hashish and rembetika.

Today, Psyri’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, bustling hardware stores and speakeasy cocktail bars.

The owner of the apartment is a celebrated designer. His talent and style can be seen in every interior detail, making this pad a truly unique place to stay, boasting camp kitsch and modern minimalism in equal measure.

The moodily-lit Klouvi bar in Athens. Photo: Facebook
The moodily-lit Klouvi bar in Athens. Photo: Facebook

Caged cocktails

Almost every night, our party started at Klouvi (‘cage’ in Greek). It’s a bar adorned with a menagerie of empty cages and owned by Xenofondas, an ex-basketball player with an impressive beard.

We drove to Klouvi on the first night. As we stalled outside, seeking somewhere to park, one of the bar’s revelers offered assistance. He hopped in the back of the car with a Martini in his hand and chatted like a drunken sat nav. He wasn’t much help, but it was a sure sign that Athens was going to prove very affable, if a bit bonkers.

Klouvi’s a neighborhood 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.

Mount Lycabettus, in the distance to the left. Photo: Tobias Van Der Elst
Mount Lycabettus, in the distance to the left. Photo: Tobias Van Der Elst

Wolf hill

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 neighborhood 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 peppered 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.

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.

A street in the Exarchia district. Photo: Dimitris Kamaras
A street in the Exarchia district. Photo: Dimitris Kamaras

Anarchy and cocktails

We descended Lycabettus via the funicular and headed for Exarchia. This area’s a few blocks from the Polytechnic, where, in 1973, students were killed while protesting the ruling junta. The district’s home to a knot of anarchists, artists and anti-fascists. Anti-establishment activism crackles in the air and can be seen in the street art, posters and placards.

Like most big cities, Athens goes about its business regardless of the underlying issues, but in Exarchia, the fight’s in your face.

The Technopolis of Athens before nightfall. Photo: sixtwelve
The Technopolis of Athens before nightfall. Photo: sixtwelve

Gay raving

Athens’ gay scene is mostly found in an area known as Gazi. The district is dominated by the industrial shell of an old gasworks, now converted into a cultural center known as Technopolis. It’s not the prettiest part of Athens, but nobody goes there to admire the architecture. People come to Gazi to party. It has the air of London’s King’s Cross in the early 90s, before the current corporate makeover.

On most nights we ended up in Sodade, apparently the most popular late night bar in the area: it features two rooms, one playing charty R&B and pop, the other, open at the weekend, spinning excellent progressive house.

Shamone is a gay cocktail bar and restaurant that’s heaving with hot, aloof men, occasional circus acts and swish party girls. It’s well worth a look.

A dragtastic show at The Partment in Athens. Photo: YouTube
A dragtastic show at The Partment in Athens. Photo: YouTube

The 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 favorite 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 a zoo and was sexy, depressing and compulsive. I loved it.

Dark arts

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 in London and is definitely a name to watch. Humble, hilarious and quite the party boy, it was a privilege to sip beers, gossip and watch an artist at work.

Stewart in Athens. Photo: Stewart Who
Stewart in Athens. Photo: Stewart Who

Cheery vibes

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.

Photo: Juan Verni

Non-stop party

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 what the rest of Europe thinks. When I’m down to my last few Euros, I’m gonna spend them on a cocktail.’

For me, that summed up the unexpected and cheering spirit of Athens – things may be a struggle, but that’s no reason to stop the party.

@DJStewartWho

Photos published under CC BY-SA 2.0