Thursday, 28 July 2011

Surviving the strikes

Unless you’ve been living on the dark side of a small sub-planet in the quietest corner of Alpha Centauri, you can’t fail to have heard about Greece’s financial woes and the strikes in response to austerity measures being introduced. But, the country has not ground to a halt and residents and visitors alike can work around any disruption. In this latest of my Athens "Surviving" series, I give a few tips to visitors on how not to let the strikes ruin your stay...

So, you’ve made it to the city that gave birth to democracy more than 2,000 years ago. That in itself is a good start. It means that no air traffic controllers, port workers or other disgruntled group has conspired to prevent your arrival. Welcome!

Looking around, you may be a little surprised. The news headlines have prepared you for a city in uproar, pulsating with protestors and police, and a country crippled by constant strikes. Instead, the scents of souvlaki and jasmine on balconies are stronger than any residual whiff of tear gas. The trains, buses and trams are filled with Athenians on their way to work every morning. Folk in shops still smile and are as hospitable as ever.

Greek society has not imploded. Life goes on.

Industrial action and noisy protests have featured strongly on Greece’s political stage for months now. But strikes – be they for a few hours, a few days, or even weeks – have always been part of the way of life here. They’re as Greek as ouzo and summer sunshine. Even before the threat of radical changes and austerity measures in a bid to solve the country’s financial woes stirred up discontent, stoppages and downtown demos were a regular feature of city life.

Locals take it all in their stride, and use their wits to make a mere inconvenience from what some might consider a disaster. So, here are some tips on how to minimise the impact of any strikes during your visit.

Stay informed
A little bit of knowledge can save a whole day of heartache. Most strikes are announced in advance. In addition to TV and radio news, many Athenians rely on Greek-language websites like for regular updates, and reliable English information can also be found online. Check out or the English pages of Greek daily newspapers like
If you are staying at a hotel, just ask the front desk staff about any strikes that might disrupt your plans.

Avoid hot spots
The angry riots that have filled the world’s TV screens are the exception, not the rule, and are generally limited to a few key ignition points. The whole city is not in turmoil when BBC or CNN show protesters hurling stones and street furniture at riot police lined up in front of parliament. Just a few blocks away, it’s business as usual with people serenely sipping coffee and reading the paper in street cafes.
The main hot spot to avoid when outrage is in the air is Syntagma Square - the front yard of Greece’s Parliament, and where the ‘Indignados of Athens’ have gathered in mostly peaceful protest since late May. It has also been the scene of occasional clashes with police when a small minority gets physical.
Staff at your hotel should be able to give you an idea of what areas to avoid.

Plan B
Flexibility is key. When a strike scuppers your plans, consider the alternatives.
If you turn up at the Metro station to find the shutters rolled down, think about taking the bus or tram instead, as it is rare for the entire public transport network to be closed at the same time. The Athens Urban Transport Organisation (OASA) website – – has information in Greek and English.
If you do find yourself stuck in the centre, take to the streets. Athens is a city best seen by foot, and has a myriad of cafes and snack bars when you can stop to quench your thirst and consult your map. A day exploring the small back streets can reveal some delights that you would never discover on a planned tour.
If you arrive at Piraeus eager to board your ferry for a day on one of the islands in the Saronic Gulf, only to find they’re not operating, don’t despair. Just hop onto a tram heading along the coast road. You’ll get a stately ride in a classily-designed air-conditioned carriage, with charming views of Athens’ seaside suburbs, and you’re bound to find a beach worthy of your towel along the way.

But if you’re an adrenaline junkie who’s been lured to Athens by the scent of danger, just head for the nearest protest and start loudly expressing your views about lazy Greeks who want to carry on riding the gravy train at Europe’s expense.

That’s one sure-fire way to experience Greek passion first hand.

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