Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
You can see what it actually feels like to live in a 5000-year-old city.
Americans may well be blasé about Google Street View by now, but Europeans are only just catching up. As a result of relatively tight privacy laws in many European countries, the street viewing tool’s introduction has actually been pretty rocky and contentious over here. In Germany, the service was only let in when Google agreed to let residents opt out of having their properties shown. Three percent of Germans did so, the result being that German street views like this one in Berlin have deliberately blurred panels in them.
Meanwhile, in 2009 Greece blocked Google Street View from taking photos at all, refusing to give the go ahead until they were satisfied that Greek privacy was being sufficiently protected. Resistance to Street View stems partly from the country’s not so distant past. Given the country’s traumas with authoritarian rule and dictatorship (which many Greeks believe the United States supported), the idea of an American company logging vast amounts of visual data was seen by many as an Orwellian intrusion.
They’ve since come around. Google Street View Greece finally went live earlier this month, after years of negotiation with Greece’s Data Protection Authority finally secured Google the go-ahead. Looking around Athens with the service shows you what an amazing resource it can be. As an armchair traveler it gives you a flavor of the city that can’t quite be provided by regular photos, with their crops, frames and artful composition.
You can see, for example, what it actually feels like to live in a 5000-year-old city. See the gateway at the back of this photo? That’s the entrance to the Temple of Olympian Zeus just behind the garbage truck. It would be ring-fenced in most cities, but in monument-filled Athens it barely gets a second look. It’s only 2000 years old after all.
In fact, for anyone who has read up on Ancient Greece, it can be both disconcerting and exciting to realize that the workaday place you just walked past was once the stomping ground of Pericles or Socrates. Looking at this semi-industrial view out to the island of Salamis – well sure, it’s changed a bit, but it’s still strangely possible to imagine the Greek triremes massing here to fight the Persians all the way back in 480 BC.
This isn’t to suggest that Athens’s ancient sites have mainly been built over or left at the side of the plate for Mr. Manners. You can just step out for a quick coffee and then come across stunning views like this, of the Acropolis and Athens’ Roman Agora.
In fact, one of the things Athens is undersold on is beauty like this, which crops up unexpected on many otherwise humdrum corners. Look at this gorgeous view across to Mount Lycabettus:
Still, when you check out the sweeping views from Mount Lycabettus itself, you see that Athens' reputation for being rather starved of parks isn’t misplaced:
Walk backstreets and you’ll notice that Athens is still making some new ruins today. Central Athens possesses that brand of rundown urban charm that people tend to describe as “like New York in the ‘80s,” even though the reasons both cities got that way are pretty bleak. The physical downside of Greece’s crisis in Athens is demonstrated by a fair number of derelict buildings. This street isn’t far from the Acropolis.
There's also graffiti – lots of it – such as in this street in the Gazi neighborhood, a former warehouse district.
It’s not all just tagging and scrawling. There’s some pretty impressive street art around, such as this mural, whose single blurred face suggests one of the slightly creepy creatures it depicts prefers to be seen only in the flesh:
The overall impression isn’t dereliction, but loose planning. You can walk the streets and come across beautiful set pieces like this one…
… But the overall impression is of chaotic mixing of old and new, such as in this street where 1980s glass overlooks creamy neo-classicism.
This frustrating but lively mix-up is one reason why walking through Athens is so interesting: you can never be sure if you’re going to be delighted or disappointed when you turn the corner.