Exarcheia Athens Greece – Flashpoint of Anarchy or Community Activism?

graffitit of fish monster head with four eyes and whiskers in exarcheia athens

Mention Exarcheia to Athenians and you’ll get a quizzical eyebrow in return. Its beautiful yet ramshackle, neo-classical buildings, oversized graffiti and reputation for riots entice nervy photo-journalists. But, do its hip restaurants, thriving markets, burgeoning AirBnB industry, and assured man-bun cafe culture call the casual visitor?

Exarcheia Athens in Greece is the location of a cruel and bloody massacre of students at Athens Polytechnic almost 50 years ago. In 1967, a military group staged a coup d’état that Greece endured for seven years. Tired of the restrictions imposed on the freedoms of all citizens, a couple of dozen students gathered at the university, somehow got hold of broadcast equipment and went on air to distribute anti-government messages. Within a few days, they were joined by several thousand protestors who locked themselves behind the gates of the university. To quell this surge of support, the military sent a tank into the grounds of the university. The following days witnessed the killing of 40 participants and observers. And, exactly one year later, the state was overthrown and democratic elections were held for the first time in ten years.

The killings are commemorated graphically on the site with a monumental head sculpture created by Agamemnon Markis to represent his friend Marxist Nikos Scoronos, who was part of the Greek resistance during World War II. The sculpture’s face seems frozen in confusion and sadness. In dramatic visual fashion, the university’s gates that were knocked down and twisted out of shape by a tank sent in during the massacre were also left in their exact position to remember the loss of life, and new gates put in their place.

athens polytechnic monument
Athens Polytechnic Monument, Athens, Greece – Image credit: blogger’s own

The day we visited the university was a quiet one, though the university was open. Many bloggers suggest visiting only in the day-time, due to rumours of drug deals happening at night. But we often passed this corner on the way to other sites in the city and never saw it open at night-time anyway. The site and statue have become a symbol for Athenians, who treat 15th November as a memorial day and visit to lay red roses. On 17th November, a service is held during which the names of those who fought in World War II for the resistance are read out.

Is Exarcheia an Edgy, Artistic Neighbourhood or Dangerous Non-Conformist Enclave?

Exarcheia is a curious area of the city of Athens. Outsiders don’t often seem to venture there and its past representation in the news gives more than enough cause for its troublesome reputation. It benefits from an alternative characterisation as a centre for students, activists and intellectuals. And, it’s true that you will see run-down buildings and pavements that have not been maintained, as well as homeless people living on the street. But, once you walk around, look up, talk to people, and dig even a little beyond your own comfort, prejudices or neat, dismissive MSM clichés, there is surely more to Exarcheia than its apparent penchant for riots and squats.

street art in exarcheia athens greece
Exarcheia graffiti, Athens, Greece – Image credit: blogger’s own

While there is no getting away from the people’s determination to remember the past – and why should they forget? – the resilient nature of this busy residential area is further underscored by a defiant art scene that is splashed across most buildings, shutters and anything else within reach.

Modern Coffee Houses Mix With Quietly Confident Restaurants

Yet, visit during a busy weekday morning among the streets of the Exarcheia district and you’ll find the usual mixture of people heading to work, pensioners popping out for a bag of groceries or students mooching around stores bursting with books, art and print supplies. On Saturdays, there is the celebrated Kallidromiou Farmers Market right at the top of Exarcheia just below St Strefi Hill.

market stall with lemons, limes, grapes and fruit juice

Weekends are when Exarcheia shopping comes into its own. Kallidromoiu Street is full of delis, mini-markets, butchers, bakers and stores of all kinds. Record stores sit side by side with little boutiques offering homemade preserves, conveniently next door to bakeries that are queued out the door and out of bread by 11 am. Nowhere else in Athens – except maybe for its more pristine neighbour Kolonaki Athens – will you encounter such a choice of food options, particularly around Exarchion Square and along Kallidromiou Street.

coffee, water and croissants on a table

And, the choice is also reflected in the wide-ranging clientele. You’ll find many students in their twenties; mums and kids out for a break from their apartment; groups of older couples meeting up to catch up on each other’s lives; older men chilling over a habitual espresso and the papers while waiting on friends to join them later; and younger couples out for an early evening restaurant date and drink. I saw no drunkenness at all. And, the pestilence of loud, obnoxious street music is simply not the Athenian way.

For all its reputation for bluster and chaos, the residential street on which I stayed, a 1 minute walk from Exarchion Square, was mostly quiet at night. Those who prefer a sedate evening meal followed by long conversations over coffee and dessert will love the streets and streets of choice.

Large Homeless Population

Let’s first get the clichés out of the way. It is true that – due to the overwhelming and estimated 20,000 foreign, displaced and local homeless people of Athens – Exarcheia has its fair share of those who live on the street. My travelling companion and I did not find this threatening at all, only sad to see.

Across Greece, 55,000 non-Greeks were officially registered in 2017 as permanent residents during the European Migrant Crisis, a figure that puts the Athens one into perspective. Wikipedia, among many other sources, notes that asylum seekers across Europe are coming in from Syria mostly, but also Afghanistan, Nigerian, Pakistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and the Balkans. There is a complex number of reasons for this, most of which are beyond my capabilities, including the Libyan civil war, Syrian civil war, the Iraq war, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And like in many urban centres across Europe, Exarcheia residents have rallied to provide help for those suffering displacement due to war and other country-of-birth calamities.

ADYE Self-Organising Free Healthcare Clinic

ADYE, otherwise known as The Self-Organising Free Healthcare Clinic in Exarcheia, is a collective of medical professionals, clinicians and volunteers who run a free clinic in Exarcheia. It offers free healthcare including dental and mental health services (and first-aid during riots) – but is known for taking a holistic approach to users, who may have complex needs after suffering great trauma including fleeing their country during wartime. The building in which it’s housed, ‘captured by anarchists’ according to Wikipedia, receives donations of materials from the rest of Europe with the majority of its current users of the health service made up of refugees.

Squats in Derelict Buildings

Some reports suggest that many derelict buildings in Exarcheia operate as squats, where refugees are housed, though they are frequently cleared out and moved on by the Athenian police. Naturally this causes high stress clashes which attract negative journalism about the area. However, while there are many run-down, yet beautiful, neo-classical, old buildings, it would be hard to tell from the outside which were squats.

There is a wide variety of nationalities to be found all across Athens. Like many European capitals, in addition to refugees seeking asylum, it also attracts its fair share of business travellers, economic migrants and tourists.

Protests, Riots & Armed Police

The vibe of danger often attributed to Exarcheia is mostly due to its reputation for riots – and the consequential near-occupation, particularly around Exarcheia Square, by Athens riot police. According to international news bulletins, Athens endures a larger than average share of riots by disaffected residents. Journalists’ photos look dramatic with streets blocked by burning cars and objects being thrown at police. We saw a couple of small, peaceful protests outside the Exarcheia area, though apparently there were riots there the week before we arrived.

view of protest from above with apartment blocks in the background

There seem to be several reasons for riots that I could detect from local media and blogs:

  • In December every year, locals stage a memorial march for a 15-year old boy, Alexandros Grigoropoulose, who was killed by a policeman in December 2008. According to Wikipedia and other online sources, the killing followed a confrontation (the details of which are subject to much disagreement among eyewitnesses) between the Special Guards police and some teenagers. The incident triggered what is referred to as The Greek Riots involving thousands of people involved in both peaceful and violent demonstrations or protests; roadblocks and clashes; student occupation of university buildings; bodily injury; and property damage. Some of these events occurred not only in Athens, but across the entire country and beyond into 2009. The country-wide response is thought to have been fuelled by wider frustrations at government authorities over the state of the Greek economy. The guards were convicted and imprisoned in 2010.
  • More recently, Exarcheia Square has been designed by the city council as the site for a new metro exit. It is a tiny, tree-lined city park, a paltry, triangle-shaped sandwich of green between Stournari, Themistokleos and Trikoupi’s cafe and restaurant-filled streets. Construction machinery and hoarding has been moved in ready for work to begin. However, it seems that the city’s construction documentation is still chugging through government bureaucracy. And, local residents who use the park, as it’s one of the few green spaces in the area, are naturally up in arms over the plans. At the opposite end of one of the streets on which Exarcheia Square is situated is the university, site of the uprising and bloody university revolution of 1967. Only a half-century since the deaths of this group of plucky students, it is unsurprising that residents, young and old, are loathe to give up any territory.
plate of pasta, moussaka and two glasses of wine

Sitting in one of our favourite restaurants, Atitamos on Solonos & Kapodistrou street in Exarcheia, we were momentarily alarmed to see a line of tall and imposing riot police walk single file up the centre of the street. They were tooled up in full riot gear: helmets and shields; gas canisters and masks; truncheons and guns. The riot police were already stationed at all hours of the day and night on the three corners of Exarcheia Square, so we’d seen them before. But, as a visitor, it’s hard to know what’s normal, when to exercise caution, or when to leave the area completely.

It’s fair to say that Athens police enjoy neither a good reputation nor trust among some locals. However, Athenian readers, please comment and correct any misunderstandings I have written, purely from ignorance. I fully realise that as a foreigner and outsider who lived there for only one month I could never be in full possession of all the facts and nuances – and therefore have no right to pass judgement or comment. I am aiming simply to collate some of the happenings as reported by others on local blog posts, social channels and other media, and add my own observations.

Oversized & Relentless Street Art

Walking around the district, travellers who have visited countries where Roman architecture, roads and legacy remain bold and enduring as much as it does in Athens, will be aware that graffiti is older than we think. I spotted what I think must be a cat-lover mason’s in-joke a few districts over in Plaka.

sculpture of cat head in a block set into a wall

Travellers unused to visiting countries formerly under the control of communist and other cruel regimes may be unaware of the preponderance of graffiti today, even on national monuments. (In the capital of Romania, Bucharest, our walking tour guides were at pains to explain that the authorities often turn a blind eye. According to multiple, local tour guides, they are fully aware that much of it is the self-expression of a people that have long endured grinding poverty and being told what to do at every turn.) In such places, residents are defiant through brutal experience about never allowing totalitarian regimes to take power again – not even to keep the place clean and tidy.

graffitit of fish monster head with four eyes and whiskers in exarcheia athens

Viewing some of the street art, you can make your own mind up about whether it’s destructive and off-putting for tourists or a creative and harmless expression or outlet for those with genuine gripes, causes and campaigns.

Are Tourists Welcome in Exarcheia?

In Exarcheia, as elsewhere in central Athens, we saw hastily scribbled, artless slogans that expressed hostility to tourists. And, the bloggers I read, some of whom had lived in or vistied the area themselves, were at paints to complain of ‘gentrification’. For those not in the know, it’s the process by which an area is tidied up and made more attractive to investors, some of whom become AirBnB and other rental hosts. Many decry the apparent consequences, some of which are that rental prices increase, often making it difficult for local young people and others to rent or buy property.

Whether you agree with this correlation or not, the fact that many AirBnB hosts offer a convoluted route to secure the key to your apartment on arrival (in our case around 2am, due to several delayed flights) and request that you keep quiet in the apartments and hallways of rental properties, suggests that owners are aware and keen to limit the impact of their business operations on unsupportive neighbours.

tourists go home graffiti on a shop shutter viewed in between two yellow taxis

That said, we encountered no in-person hostility at all from either neighbours, locals, business people, cafe or restaurant owners, staff at historical sites, or any tourism operators. Quite the opposite. We felt welcome in most places and our custom was appreciated. One well-traveled, local coffee shop owner recognised we were from Northern Ireland (after first guessing Scotland) and said “hello” each time we dropped in for a brain-slamming freddo.

Business Hustle, Coffee Shop Scene and Lazy Sundays

Our enduring impression of Exarcheia is one of a lively weekday business hustle. We loved the variety of coffee shops, bakeries, hipster cafes, and full service restaurants offering everything from stern Greek coffee accompanied by a tall glass of cold water to multi-course meals with ubiquitous Greek salads, pork and baklava.

Greek life is lived on the street. While restaurants were comfortable and well kitted out with cool bars and squishy booth seating, two thirds of the seating was outdoors. And, though we lived there from December to January last year, patrons seemed to prefer outdoor tables. Atlantic-hardened Northern Irelanders, we melted in t-shirts while locals huddled together over strong Greek coffees in thick winter coats, boots and scarves. Everywhere that had the space for it had perspex screens around tables along with overhead and patio heaters. And, we noticed the waiters were very attentive to the shivering Greeks’ temperature preferences!

mastika chios in tiny glasses served with the bill after a meal

On the weekends, eating out in Exarcheia continues but lasts the full day with young men lounging around the bars more interested in their coffees and conversation than the sport on TV, while families promenade with buggies, and couples take photowalks for the ‘gram.

Exarcheia is a place where you can move from cafe to restaurant to cafe, sampling Greek plates, feta salads, huge desserts, intense coffee and well-priced carafes of local wine late into the evening. No-one bats an eyelid at either visitors or tourists. Everyone speaks English. And, you can lounge to your heart’s content over the reasonable bill that is presented with aplomb alongside tiny, crystal glasses of perfectly sweet, pine-flavoured tears of Mastika Chios.

Cover image credit: Photo by Jonathan Ansel Moy de Vitry on Unsplash

Dawn Baird
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