On Athens

Una faccia una razza

A phrase often heard by Italians visiting Greece is “una faccia una razza“, (one face, one race) implying we look like each other, so we’re more or less the same people.

This sentence may have stemmed from fascist propaganda, but it has been embraced by the tourist industry, because one thing Capitalism is good at is recycling things. Think Che Guevara t-shirts.

And yet, one can forgive the person who made it up, as Italians do feel at home in Greece. When Greeks and Italians meet and discuss the oddities of their respective countries, the other side is generally nodding along saying yeah, we also have this.

Messy government? Check. People spending way too many years in university for no good reasons, and the concept of “refusing low grades”? Check. A bunch of leftists and anarchists§ but also popular neo-fascist movements? Double check. The sea, mediterranean diet, family, religion..? Check them all.

I also believe spoken Greek is the only language which shares a melodic cadence with Italian. If you hear people speaking but you can’t hear the words, you can easily confuse the two§.

But there’s something deeper than that.


When I was a kid, I had a deep love for classical antiquity.

This was, perhaps due to the fact that I grew up in Italy, but I think it was really because I got into competitive trivia with my best friend, trying to outdo each other in class with anecdotes and tales and such.

Plus, my mom used to say me and my brother were her jewels.

Anyway, in my child brain, Roman, Etruscan, Greeks etc.. all got mixed up together, and that has tinted my perception since, and made me feel like we share more than we may actually do.

Gave me that feeling that, sure, we share no language nor alphabet, but modern Greeks and modern Italians have a common inheritance. Deep down, while our respective countries are no longer the center of the universe, we still look at the rest of the world and somehow still feel we’re the civilized ones, and foreigners are barbarians.

In the words of the satyrical masterpiece Fascists on Mars, one can secretly keep thinking of outsiders as

people who were hunting groundhogs naked, while we were already stabbing a Julius Caesar!

Gaetano Maria Barbagli (Corrado Guzzanti)

Is this feeling justified? Of course not, Dear Reader, it is pretty obvious we are the backward countries now. But still.

A tale of two cities

So when arriving in Athens, I expect to see Rome. Old women going to churches, with a slightly different layout. Collapsed temples, albeit made from different stones. Roads that were old millennia ago, covered with cars that should have been kicked out of the city center decades ago. Shitty souvenir shops and grand architecture.

That is true, up to a point. But what I did not realize is that Athens and Rome diverged, in the last couple millennia, while I wasn’t paying attention.

Rome was still an important center of the western mediterranean, while the eastern center moved to Costantinopole Bysantium Istanbul.

While Rome was the see of the Pope and capital of the Papal States, Athens was a minor city in the Ottoman Empire. Rome got new baroque churches, while the old ones in Athens were converted to mosques, and when the greeks gained independence, they were, supposedly, demolished altogether.

That would explain why you don’t find something like San Paolo fuori le mura, but either large modern churches, or tiny ancient ones, that the ottomans didn’t bother with.

And then you have the modern developments. Downtown Rome has been a mass tourist destination for decades, and this means almost everything downtown has been restored and redone to accomodate tourists. Except public transport. Meanwhile, downtown Athens is still full of half-demolished buildings, and a stone throw from the tourist center you’ll find big ugly buildings where floors have been converted to be a Chinese import warehouse. Chinese Communism is good at recycling things, think Che-Guevara t-shirts.

I was told Athens gets 3M airline visits per year, which is about one tenth of the people who land in Rome’s main airport.

So the city feels, in some sense, still protected from mass tourism. Yes once you climb up the acropolis you will encounter a bunch of pesky foreigners, but you still have a chance of meeting some genuine greek people downtown.

Good luck finding a non-tourist in Rome’s Trident.

What is also interesting is that, as soon as you walk a bit out, you’ll find a bunch of rundown buildings which, you would assume, could be trivially renovated and turned into a B&B. But I am told this does not happen because they appear to often have no foundation.

So you’d have to build one but (like in Rome!) as soon as you dig a hole you’ll find something of archeological value, and the authorities will freeze the construction. And so no bank is giving out loans for this, and so it does not happen. Fintech is not good at recycling things.

A big hunk of stone

What might really set Athens apart from Rome, is the fact that it’s a port. I mean, the sea is a pretty distinctive thing. But you see, Athens is not named Poseidons.

A legend§ goes that the God of the Sea and the Goddess of Wisdom had a contest to decide who would be patron of the city, on the Acropolis.

Poseidon struck the ground and water sprung out. Athena had an olive tree come out of the dirt. The people chose olives.§

But the main character in this story is neither Athena nor Poseidon. It’s the Acropolis.

I did not expect the Acropolis. Rome has hills, sure. Edinburg has a pretty massive rock in the middle. Many ancient cities are built on high ground.

But the Acropolis of Athens dominates the city with an almost cyberpunk look.

Its sides have been built and rebuilt and fortified and bombarded and it has almost no vegetation, and you just look up and you see it from freaking everywhere.

Basically every accommodation in Athens has “a view on the Acropolis” in their description because it’s visible from everywhere, it’s just a matter of turning the right way!

And… it’s somewhat tiny at the top? But oh, so beautiful.

I am familiar with classical temples. I’ve seen a ton of them, both Roman and Greek. A church in my hometown has columns that have probably been stolen from some and I grew up between them.

I know, cause I studied it in school, that columns are tapered to trick your eyes to look taller. I remember the ones on the corners are bent differently to make the facade look better. I recognize the column orders. And yet, the Parthenon is such a sight that your rational brain takes a back seat and you’re left in awe.

Shadow of the Colossus

The problem with the Acropolis, and the Parthenon, is that it’s too important. The newly built Acropolis museum is literally shaped like the rock, and it was built to host the Parthenon marbles when the freaking barbarians will give them back.

But there’s so much more! For example, the Kerameikos area is absolutely awesome, but mostly ignored by weekend travelers. As someone who has shepherded people in Rome, I can sympathize, I know I’ll never get anyone to stay long enough to visit everything, they just want to put a checkmark on the Colosseum and Saint Peter.§

What about modern Athens and ancient Athens tho? Are people condemned to live in the shadow of ancient greatness, will they be constrained by that? Should modern artists measure themselves with Phidias?

I don’t think so. And I don’t think it’s happening. Athens felt like a vibrant city, where many things are happening.

But perhaps it is at risk, as mass tourism inevitably embraces it. Like Rome, its center will probably become even more overrun with shitty accommodations and pseudogreek eateries. Old people will die and their kids will rent out their places. New buildings will come and old ones will go. You’ll no longer walk on cracked stairs built a century ago, but on modern ones made with marble imported from the Far East. The soul of the city will shift.

But there’s something called the Lindy effect, which in short says, the older something is, the more likely it is it continue existing.

Do you trust the building you’re in now, to be there in 50 years? 100 years? 200? I do not. But I’m pretty confident the Etruscan tombs in my home town will still be there.

Athens will be fine too, it went through a lot, but it stood for three millennia, it’ll manage.