What makes one of the most historic cities in the world an even more vibrant place?
Diverse communities of displaced peoples.
I had to go to Italy for work (because life is tough) so I took off a few days early to check out Greece first. My Airbnb hosts, Romanos and his mom, Maria, greeted me with kisses, homemade specialities from Maria’s kitchen, and a 20-minute overview (with custom map) of must-see/must-eat places off the tourist path in Athens. Greek hospitality: A+.
As an architecture, politics, and history nerd, visiting the Parthenon at the Acropolis was pretty damn cool. My first inclination was to photograph it at every angle possible, but eventually I gave my camera a rest and just stood there, taking in the place where democracy was born.
Once I was done falling down the stone steps where Pericles used to smoke his cigarettes, I strolled across town to check out the Panathenaic Stadium, the only structure of its kind in the world to be built entirely of marble. (More slick stone for me wipe out on!) A guy named Lykourgos first built a stadium in Athens in 338 BC. Track and field events and wrestling were favorites of the day, along with the occasional man vs. beast showdown. Competitors went at it in the nude back then, for spandex was not yet en vogue. Herodes made improvements in 144 AD, installing all-marble seats for 80,000 spectators. (The athletes were still nude at this point, so the crowds were impressive.)
The competitions were largely banned in the following centuries with the spread of Christianity (the games and their rituals were linked to Greek mythology, which the new Christian emperors snuffed out best they could, along with most pagan rituals), and the stadium fell into disrepair. An archaeological excavation in 1835 uncovered traces of the ancient stadium, and plans were drawn up for its reconstruction. Evangelos Zappas was a Greek patriot and philanthropist who used his fortune to revive the games organized in the stadium. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat with a classical education, organized the International Olympic Conference in Paris in 1894 with the hopes of making the worldwide sport competition a regular thing once more.
President of that Olympic Conference and plenipotentiary (a fun word I know from my days winning Model UN competitions) of the Panhellenic Gymnastics Association was a fellow named Demetrios Vikelas — another Greek patriot, like Zappas — who persuaded the delegates that the first modern Olympic Games should be held in the Greek capital in 1896.
And that, my friends, is the history of the Olympics at this impressive marble arena in Athens: home to the first modern Olympics in 1896 and to the summer games once again in 2004.
Haven’t had enough trivia yet? Here’s another fun fact: Greek’s parliament’s official name is the Hellenic Parliament. Greece’s Third Hellenic Republic started in 1974, when the country’s military junta was overthrown and the monarchy was abolished. I was hanging out in Syntagma Square in front of parliament on my last night in town — watching street performers and listening to a brass band play Annie Lennox and Ace of Base covers — when I starting chatting with a group of 20-somethings.
Yada yada yada, we ended up in the Exarcheia neighborhood, which my Airbnb host had told me is home to the city’s socialist, anarchist, and antifascist groups. I had walked through the area during the day, snapping pictures of graffiti-covered bookstores, cafes, and free trade shops. Anyway, this group I was hanging out with told me all about life in Athens today. We talked politics and economics, both in Greece and in the States. We went to a park where we met some other friends of theirs, including a few Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Hearing their stories of how they journeyed from their respective homes and came to be in Athens was humbling, to say the least. Hearing them talking about their hopes and plans for the future was inspiring, to say the very least.
It was an incredible night. In fact, it’s nights like those that motivate me to travel more. We know the world better when we experience it ourselves. I was only in Athens a few days, but I feel I got more than just a taste of it because of the experiences I had with locals. I left Athens to head to Italy wondering if anyone I’d meet in Rome would want to talk about the bourgeoisie until 3:00 am.