CULTURE

A new Athens guidebook -with attitude

A lively text, superb photographs and eight short stories set in Athens make Athens By Neighborhood an engaging companion for both visitors and residents. An in-depth look at the city and its denizens by a local who knows and loves them, warts and all, this new guidebook presents in compact form the kind of information that could take a lifetime to acquire by other means. Journalist Diane Shugart has organized her material in innovative fashion, dividing Athens into eight notional neighborhoods – the neighborhood of myths, monuments, protest, chic and so on. As she explains in her introduction, From the air, Athens is an amorphous gray mass; at ground level, it dissolves into neighborhoods, each separate yet each also a part of the rest of the city. The book’s structure is effective, breaking the city down into manageable walks. Each section begins with a contemporary short story, followed by a local map and overview of the principal attractions in the area, then a detailed guide including suggested walks, people-watching spots and pit stops. Refreshments of all sorts figure large in this guide, as indeed they do in the life of the city. Helpful sidebars cover everything from the obvious to the eclectic, from Greek dance to outdoor cinemas and the identity of the woman pictured on the Sante cigarette packet. Pithy observation What makes Athens By Neighborhood stand out from other guides to the city is the sheer range of its coverage. In addition to the comprehensive account of art, monuments and museums which readers expect from a city guide, it offers a well-informed introduction to the whole gamut of everyday life. Shugart gives an insider’s lowdown on football rivalries, what bars suit what people, and which areas are gradually changing character. She doesn’t hesitate to express an opinion, as in her comparison between two inner-city quarters: In Exarchia individuality is prized; in Kolonaki it is penalized. Not everyone will agree, but this is precisely the kind of pithy observation guidebooks frequently lack. Another strength is Shugart’s account of the events and people that shaped the buildings and streets of modern Athens. Again, this type of information is rarely available to visitors, and often not readily accessible to local residents. Inevitably, such a compendious book may be a little top-heavy for visitors who want a navigation aid for a brief tour, but even those on a short visit will appreciate such an informative keepsake. Athens By Neighborhood, published by Ellinika Grammata, is – at 7,000 drachmas – only marginally more expensive than the Greek competition, and streets ahead of it in every other respect, being more informative, more stylish and infinitely better illustrated. It also fits perfectly into a niche left open by the foreign competition, where the best alternatives either contain much less information (Lonely Planet) or are incorporated into guides to other parts of Greece (Dorling Kindersley and the Blue Guide). Yiorgos Karahalis’s photographs match the text in doing justice to every aspect of Athens without ever resorting to cliche. Some suggestions for future editions may be helpful. The short stories add an intriguing dimension to Shugart’s portrait of the city, bridging the gap between guide proper and travel literature, but curious readers might like to know whether they were commissioned for this volume and who translated them. As for the layout, extra headings, more subdivisions, and the use of bold type to highlight detail, for instance in the National Archaeological Museum section, would make the book handier for readers on the move. And closer proofreading is needed. That said, Athens By Neighborhood deserves a place in the luggage or on the bookshelf of anyone interested in Athens. Where else could you find the following insight? Football in Greece is held above politics; team loyalty comes before God and country. Show disrespect to a man’s mother or slur his wife, and you may escape unscathed. Insult his team and you have thrown down the gauntlet – especially if you have invoked the eternal rivalry, Panathinaikos versus Olympiakos. Greece, as Dionyssis Savopoulos sang, sighs in its football fields. I fear some moment