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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 18 August 2018
DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 18 AUGUST 2018 21 TRAVEL GREECE Exarchia: an outsider’s view LORETTA BARNARD May Day 2018. My eyes were streaming, my nose running and there was a ball of sharp bitter thorns in my throat. A phalanx of police officers, helmeted and gas-masked, ran towards me before veering down a laneway off Patission St (officially named 28is Oktovriou St) in Athens. All I could see was smoke pouring from an overflowing skip. With no clue what was going on, my husband and I headed back to the apartment we'd rented for the week in Vasileos Irakliou Street to wash our faces and drink some water. It was one of the more colourful welcomes to a city I've ever experienced – we were literally in tears. It had been many years since our last visit to Athens and we'd chosen to stay close to the National Archaeological Museum, one of my favourite museums in one of my favourite cities in the world. But before we "did" the museum, we checked out the neighbourhood expanding behind it. Exarchia is an area where almost every building, phone booth, garbage bin and telegraph pole is smothered in street art, slogans, graffiti, posters and gang tags. It's a veritable rainbow of colours, as artists and activists continue to express themselves by painting on any available surface and even over the top of existing pictures or mes- sages. Our landlord, an artist himself, told us not to be perturbed by the graffiti and recommended places to eat and drink within a few blocks of our place. He assured us that explosions and other loud noises in the middle of the night were nothing to worry about. "It's just the anarchists," he said. Anarchists? We had no idea, but it turns out that Exarchia is supposedly a pretty dangerous place, a magnet for political activists, refugees, students, poets, artists, drug dealers, gang members, disaffected youth and the unemployed. It's easy to assume there's something of a criminal element there, because we'd been caught up in an afternoon tear gas situation with police bearing down on the alleged malefactors, even though we didn't spot anyone who looked even vaguely 'anarchic'. Of course, it was 1st of May, the Labour Day celebration, a day when workers and unions rally and extremists traditionally clash with the police, and while the tear gas experience was disconcerting, there was never a time when we felt we were in danger. We thought it curious that there was a constant police presence near the museum every single day. Police officers were mostly standing around near a kiosk on the main road, smoking and chatting, but we learned later that they periodically make swoops on squats in this fiercely anti-establishment neighbourhood, arresting refugees and asylum seekers who've sought sanctuary in Greece. So there's little love lost between the people of Exarchia and the local law enforcement authority, especially since a 15-year-old boy was shot dead by an officer a decade ago. bience was a bit Bohemian with a similar kind of vibe to places like Sydney's Surry Hills or Newtown or Melbourne's Northcote or Fitzroy. We patronised many of the local establishments: restaurants such as Rozalia and Atitamos served scrumptious fare like gently fried octopus and stuffed peppers. The cafés and bars had relaxed atmos- It seems fitting that the National Archaeological Museum is located on the edge of Exarchia. It’s a repository for some of humanity’s greatest and most beautiful artefacts, each item in the collection a window into the long-ago past. The street art of Exarchia, evocative and provocative, provides a window into the more recent past as well as the here-and-now. The neighbourhood is a vast canvas. But for a couple of matureaged Australian tourists who'd visited Greece a number of times before, we found it a vibrant area full of restaurants, kafenia, tavernas, jazz clubs, music shops, comic shops. It's true that some venues close to the Polytechnic looked a little dodgy. There were some neglected buildings and a couple of less than salubrious street corners, but the overall am- pheres and the local craft beer was a treat. In the mornings we'd grab a tiropita and a coffee from the little bakery fifty metres from our place. It was perfect. And the National Archaeological Museum? It's one of Exarchia's jewels, one of Greece's treasures. Housing an astonishing collection of extraordinary riches from all periods of Greek history, eve- ry piece is a marvel of craftsmanship, astounding artistry and sheer human ingenuity. The hammered gold mask of Agamemnon, striking sculpture, beautiful Akrotiri frescoes, exquisite Byzantine jewellery, graceful lekythoi and bold weaponry: for a museum nerd such as myself, visiting this place is like dying and going to heaven (or perhaps Elysium). Art has the power to move us, to awe, to overwhelm. Entering one particular gallery reignited that frisson of exhilaration I felt when, as a young woman of 20, I first laid eyes on the commanding and majestic figure known as the Artemision Bronze. Zeus or Poseidon, it doesn't matter. The workmanship is extraordinary – there's life in that bronze, vitality, divinity, dominance – and to realise it was created in the fifth century BCE… well, it just takes your breath away. It seems fitting that the National Archaeological Museum is located on the edge of Exarchia. It's a repository for some of humanity's greatest and most beautiful artefacts, each item in the collection a window into the long-ago past. The street art of Exarchia, evocative and provocative, provides a window into the more recent past as well as the here-and-now. The neighbourhood is a vast canvas, recording social, political and intellectual history. Even though we couldn't translate most of the slogans, it was clear their messages were powerful and that the area has a rich culture of its own. Exarchia is a little downat-heel, but it's a fascinating part of Athens. However radical its reputation, kids ride skateboards, people walk their dogs, buy their morning pastries, go about their business. Plus on almost every street corner, you can buy a fantastic cup of coffee. It's renowned for being unsafe and, apart from the Museum, it's not really on the tourist trail. Many Athenians also apparently avoid the area because of the anarchists. They certainly make their presence felt – explosions and loud shouting woke us in the early hours of every morning we were there – but we never felt unsafe. We strolled the streets in the evenings and back in our apartment started placing bets on what time the nocturnal noises would begin. We saw a different side of a wonderful city, always a bonus for the average tourist. And when you discover that the anarchists are actively helping refugees and the homeless, it makes you realise that Exarchia's sinister reputation is perhaps just a little overstated. Anarchists dislike the police, but don't appear to have a problem with tourists. And with good bars, great restaurants, interesting shops, intriguing street art – what's not to like?
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