Living Dangerously in Athens

Travel Diary #8

We hesitated when booking our flight to Athens.

According to reviews online, Athens doesn’t feel safe. I read statements like these:

This (centrally located) hotel is in a sketchy area.
I wouldn’t walk around here at night.
Women should be very cautious here.

In fact, when you look up ‘dangerous areas’ in Athens, half the city center lights upon the map. What were we supposed to make of that? In the end, we decided to risk it. If we felt unsafe we’d hide out in our hotel, or leave.

Living Dangerously in Athens

When we arrived in central Athens, we were hit by a wall of sounds and smells, as well as colors and textures. The city has an energy you can feel, it’s like the humming of bees, both contented and active. The crowds are constantly in motion, talking and walking, laughing at cafe tables, smoking, or ushering their kids down the sidewalk.

We popped up out of Monastiraki station and into an immense open-air market, filled with nuts, dried fruits, colorful spices, olive oil soaps, evil eye talismans, and tourist schlock. Cramped bazaar stalls overflow with silver and bronze curiosities, musical instruments, and the kind of quirky treasures you’d expect to find in your great-grandmother’s jewelry box.

That cheerful chaos! Those smiles and shouts! Delights for the senses. We hadn’t even checked into our hotel yet, and I was wowed.

Still, it would be a mistake to think of Athens as a polished tourist experience like you might find in London or Paris. Instead think of it as a mosaic where some pieces are new, and some are cracked and crumbling, but where the overall picture is authentically beautiful.

Over the course of a few kilometers you’ll see streets with beautiful cafes and blooming flowers, graffiti-filled roads long neglected, and ancient sites full of tourists. The ruins in Greece are far older than those in Rome, and are scattered across the city like discarded toys. Some of them are breathtaking, while others are little more than crumbling walls surrounded by a high fence.

I never felt scared in Athens. It’s the kind of city where people hold the door at the train when they see a stranger rushing to make it in time. There was no malice that I felt, no sense of being watched or singled out. I was cautious, like I always am when traversing unfamiliar terrain. But honestly, the most dangerous thing I saw there was right inside the welcome packet at our hotel. Bungee jumping. Just call the front desk and they’ll set it up for you!

Crazy, right? That’s way too dangerous.

Staying Safe on the Road

We travel as safely as we know how to, although it’s impossible not to “look like a tourist” when you’re schlepping your big backpack from the airport to a hotel. We check the US State Department website for warnings, and we register with the SMART traveler program. We read up on a place before we go, not only how to get there, but also any recent news that may indicate a dangerous atmosphere. And whenever we’re separated from our baggage (when it’s stowed on a rack on the train, for example) we transfer our essential items to a small bag and keep it on our person.

In the case of Athens, the reviews were concerning enough that we took extra precautions. We booked a hotel with a restaurant, so we could eat dinner there rather than walk around after dark. We took a taxi to the train station instead of walking, because it was early and the streets were deserted. Were those steps necessary? Probably not. We were cautious anyway.

We also gave up some privacy, in the interest of safety. Our parents have a copy of our itinerary, but when we go off-script, as we sometimes do, we use a Facebook check-in to let them know where we went.

Hey! In case we die, here is where the bodies are! That might sound morbid, but I call it practical. I like leaving a trail, in case something goes wrong.

But I try not to get too wound up about safety, beyond those basics. People die in my hometown while crossing the street. Travelers occasionally die in freak accidents on their first round-the-world trip. Shit happens! Criminals exist. People die. I hope I won’t, anytime soon, but I’m not going to stress out over it either.

If I had let those fearful, tight-assed reviews on the internet dissuade me from coming to Athens, I would have missed out on one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever been to.

I’m glad we gave it a chance.

Next Stop: Meteora