A five-block square in the middle of downtown Athens sits perniciously. Every inch within reach is covered in graffiti and street art. Political posters announcing strikes and demonstrations compete with music posters for space and any empty storefront is fair game. Some burnt-out vehicles lay sprawled upside down from a riot just days before. A raging bonfire is stoked around the clock in the center of the stronghold.
You have reached Exarchia.
Just blocks away, 2 large, armored buses sit, full of men in various states of relaxation. Some brave the cold, chatting softly in their bullet-proofed vests. Semi-automatic weapons rest against their chests. Others sit inside, sipping on steaming beverages and enjoying the break from wind chill.
Though I thankfully didn’t experience any violence, I heard stories from various travelers about armed robberies, muggings, and other crimes against ignorant travelers. This is not a place I would walk at night, nor is it a zone I would bring my valuables in.
Exarchia reached the news after a huge clash with police in the winter of 2008. A young boy was killed and violence ensued far beyond anything that the establishment could have imagined. For those who want to pay their respects or are just curious you can visit the Shrine to Alexander Grigoropoulou, the boy who was shot by the police which set off the riots of December 2008, now unofficially renamed Alexander Grigoropoulou Street and Tzabella street.
Brandon and I did walk through a few times, taking photos of the anarchist neighborhood, and even stopping for a lunch break across from the bonfire-park. As we enjoyed a traditional Afghani lunch, a very dirty man peered through the windows with both hands. He then entered the building, and I could see blood covering his face and bruised hands. He walked through and begged from the patrons, though I noticed even the owner didn’t acknowledge his presence.
Soon, a fight broke out just outside. Two men yelled at each other on the sidewalk in front of the Afgani restaurant. It must have been serious, because fists became involved. I noticed one of the men had a beer in his hand. It was only 11am.
It seems that there really are no rules in Exarchia. The neighborhood has transformed itself into a place free from law, from oppression, and from any semblance of order, and yet…locals walked through without a flicker of fear…..
That’s because, while there are quite a few addicts and other seedy characters about, most of the residents have figured out how to coexist with the rowdy youth and lack of police. Exarchia is now more of a college-age neighborhood that just happens to have the occasional riot now and again. Exarchia sits between the University of Athens and the Politechnion and is home to students, immigrants, Greek families of different economic strata, restaurants, cafes, computer shops, used vinyl and CD shops, terrific guitar shops, used bookshops, boutiques, clubs, bars, anarchists, drug addicts, stray dogs and just about every kind of person, except cops.
Baffling as it was, Exarchia has unique draw. Artists from all over the world head to Athens to practice their street art. While most stick to the train cars (which are wildly colorful already), others opt for a spare wall, corner, or any virginal space within reach. I met Michael, IG: @stepppeee / Fb: Steppestapt at our hostel. He traveled to Athens to spruce the area with his amazing art work. Check out his masterpiece:
With art, comes music! Exarchia is also full of music venues including In Vivo at 79 Harileos Trikoupi and Methonis street which has live jazz, rock and blues bands on weekends. I happened past a few people playing make-shift drums on the streets, and enjoyed live music a few times in cafes and restaurants across the neighborhood.
Ultimately, looks are deceiving. With every nook, cranny, and available space covered in graffiti, Exarchia might seem seedy at first sight, but upon a closer look, you’ll see messages of tolerance, and of hope for a better future:
I wish there were more places in the world like Exarchia.
Whats your take?