Last year I wrote a piece about Athens on the 15th of August and how its deserted nature, especially in the morning hours, gives it this unique air, an air of silence and calm, which is extremely unique for any major metropolis, anywhere in the world.
While I would still argue that the magic of August the 15th is still readily available to any and all who search for it, the truth is it’s becoming increasingly harder to pin down. The ongoing financial crisis has led many Greeks to nip the very notion of holidays in the butt, while the recent resurgence of the Athenian downtown area as a tourist hotspot and beacon for bar hoppers everywhere has greatly increased the actual number of bodies that swim around the conrete pool on this particular day.
What this does, effectively, is narrow the window of opportunity that someone has to witness Athens at her most deserted, at her most (almost) eerily quiet time.
But it can still be done. Because there is still one thing, one hugely important factor, that will keep people off the Athenian streets on August 15th. The heat. The suffocating August heat that screams down from the heavens kamikaze-style, raining fire from above and gobbling up any semblance of shade. In the case of searching for some August 15th silence, it just so happens to be your greatest ally.
The heat you see, that terrible, suffocating shroud of utter blaze, is what most tourists fear and most locals know well enough to avoid, when it is at its peak.At lunchtime, or high noon if you prefer and are slightly western-y inclined.
And there is your major and ultimately the ONLY tip you’ll need. Looking for some Athenian silence? Head out into town when the heat is at its angriest and noon is at its highest.
While I’m well aware that this particular tip may sound slightly suicidal, its nevertheless a nearly surefire way to ensure that everyone and everything will be in hiding, waiting for the afternoon to trundle along and turn the thermostat down just a whiff. Dogs and cats lie still, footsteps are an endangered species, outside sitting areas are void of commotion and the only thing that will assault your ears will be the steady sound of the cicadas, crying out towards the sun in unison. That and the odd car humphing on by, engine gunning and tyres squelching on the tarmac.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, if you can brave the heat at its worst, the sight of an empty, almost abandoned Athens will be yours to look upon. From the grittier side of Omonoia Square, walk up Panepistimiou and make your way towards Syntagma and from there maybe head on to National Garden, right next to the parliament building, grabbing a bottle of water along the way and look for a bench ready to seat you all on your lonesome.
Alternatively just draw a line in the map you have stashed in your pocket (or indeed in your head) and just walk yourself lost, before choosing the first available cafe or taverna when you finally decided to take a no doubt heat-hazed stop.
From wherever you choose to rest, start noting how the traffic around you both in people and in cars will pick up slightly as the clock crawls past 4 or 5 in the afternoon, with the sun unclenching its teeth and the world crawling back from whatever shade it was hiding under.
It’s quite amazing to witness and more importantly it will give you a very different sense and experience of a usually busy and noisy city like Athens is in its everyday pomp.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not for everyone and the effect that the sweltering heat could have on someone with a weak constitution should not be underestimated, but even so, if you can find it in you to brave the sun, keep yourself well-hydrated and don’t mind walking, high noon is where it’s at on the 15th of August.
Because even with the temperature being so high it feels like it’s pressing against your nostrils and eyes, an empty urban sprawl feels like there’s more air to breathe and the lack of noise makes you think that you’re being let in on some age-old secret, some hidden nugget of urban wisdom only shared between those in the know.
It’s hard to explain but for someone like myself who has spent most of his adult life cruising around the Athenian streets, my 15th of August walks still make me feel like I’m getting to know the city all over again. Like we just might be getting a chance to reacquaint ourselves with one another. And that is a rare gift for anyone’s urban existence.
So don’t let the sun scare you. After all, money can buy you water, hats and loose-fitting clothing. You’ll be fine.