In late June 2011 we were spending a few days in Athens at the end of a cruise down the Aegean Coast of Croatia and Greece, disembarking at Piraeus. On our first afternoon we went for a walk around Athens, ending up in Syntagma Square in front of the Greek Parliament. It was a very busy place at that time of day as there were stalls selling fruit and vegetables and ‘Bric a Brac’ everywhere and lots of locals and tourists wandering around. There were also plenty of banners proclaiming ideas and concepts that I had no understanding of…they were certainly not advertising fruit sales for local housewives. I couldn’t read the signs but the atmosphere of the square seemed to be pretty friendly so we didn’t suspect the chaos that would occur the next day. We made our plans for the next day which was to catch the Red Tourist Bus around town and get a sense of this famous old city.
As we left our hotel the next morning, the gentleman at the desk asked us where we were going today. We explained about the tourist bus and he said that would be fine but all other public transport was stopped from 10am due to some unnecessary protests in Syntagma Square. That was a bit concerning. We caught our bus and made away up to the Acropolis. We spent a few hours strolling this wonderful place before decided we would head down the hill and have a look at the Temple of Olympian Zeus. To my consternation and surprise, it was closed. So we continued to walk down Leoforos Vasilisis avenue and passed Hadrian’s Gate. We were on the right hand side of the road as we passed the gate to the impressive Zappeion building in the National Gardens and I took the photo below before I realised what I was looking at. Along in front of the building were large numbers of motorcycles with policemen standing around, apparently waiting for a call up. Moving inside the gate for a little way, there were lots more police and their motor bikes hanging around the other side of the Fire Engine. We moved on quickly.
By now we were starting to notice that further up the street there appeared to be a lot of unusual activity. One of our party decided that it would be a great idea to go for a stroll in the nearby National Gardens so we headed for a gate a bit further down down the street but we were locked out. The sign on the gate read… “Today all the exits will remain closed until the end of the protests”.
As our hotel was on the other side of the centre of town, we decided that we had no choice but to get around Syntagma Square. There were lots of tourists and citizens on this generally busy street and our walk was slow, having a look around and wondering what was going on up in the main square. We soon gathered that serious stuff was going down as from behind us, a sizeable group of police were jogged up the road and closed it off at the next crossing. There was no going forward, we would have to take a side street to circle around the demonstrations.
We turned left at the closed off crossing and went a few blocks before we turned right again (See map above), hoping we would get past what ever rioting was happening up in Syntagma Square. The closer we got to paralleling the main square, the more citizens were gathered in the streets. I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of them were wearing face masks and some were wearing gas masks. Watching a riot apparently was becoming a spectator sport in Athens at the time. I also couldn’t read the many similar posters attached to trees lining the street but I got the idea that they were calls for some sort of revolution.
By the time we got to a street where could look up towards the Parliamentary square, it was clear that the gathering was turning nasty. The noise was horrendous and there appeared to be loud bangs and a fire had started in the square as can be seen in the image below. It was time to make a bolt for our hotel many blocks away from the city centre.
We had clearly been on holidays but we hadn’t been keeping up with the news about the problems in Greece that appeared to have brought normal citizens as well as those on extremes to gather in Syntagma Square to protest about what the Parliament was doing about their difficult economic conditions. Here is an extract from a newspaper at the time discussing the events
“Angry protesters pushed the Greek government close to collapse Wednesday, putting Europe on notice that deep budget cuts to tame the region’s debt crisis face heavy public resistance and could crash on the rocks of national politics.
Thousands of people packed downtown Athens in an effort to block lawmakers from debating brutal austerity measures that European finance officials say are essential if near-bankrupt Greece wants their help to pay its bills. The gathering descended into violence — with some protesters hurling water bottles, rocks and firebombs — that took riot police hours to quell and helped spark a dramatic offer by Prime Minister George Papandreou to quit in favour of a unity government.
Things were serious in Greece in June 2011 as the aerial photo below illustrates…it captures the events in the square as we were trying to move around it. While some pretty dangerous activities were happening in the square, the spectators around us seemed to be pretty calm…there didn’t appear to be revolution in the air. I noticed in the paper a journalist at one of these protests commented… “This protest ended the way all protests end — street fights btn police + anarcho-leftists. Yet portrayed as mass Athens riot.”
The other thoughts that were going through my brain at the time was the nature of tourism in a city that was struggling to look after itself, let alone the large numbers of tourists getting off boats at Piraeus and Athens International Airport. Should the authorities have asked us to stay in our hotel for the day and mind our own business? Should we have made broader attempts to get around the social actions that were breaking out in Syntagma Square?
While this day wasn’t a normal day, the period between 2010-2012 was a time of significant upheaval in Athens due to the austerity measures brought on by Greece’s economic crisis. The Greek parliament finally formed a Unity Government in November 2011, appointed a central banker as the new president and agreed to the EU conditions for bailing the country out. Syntagma Square is reasonably quiet these days. However I recall that on my way back to the hotel, I had been inexplicably humming a song made famous by the British rock group, ‘The Who’ from back in the early 70s. Maybe I was becoming a revolutionary tourist?!