In the rest of Greece, it’s often said that the people of Athens live in their own universe. It’s something they’ve always done, not just since the debt crisis. And it is most apparent on the streets, where traffic doesn’t pander to such things as road regulations, opting instead to follow its own rules.
So when we asked start-up entrepreneur Orestis Matsoukas (33) and his colleague Elena Palpani (22) to show us around the city in a Mercedes-Benz A-Class, they were a bit taken aback. “You have taken out insurance, haven’t you?” joked Orestis.
Born and raised “just a stone’s throw from the Acropolis” in Athens, Orestis is now ManagingDirector of Orama Group, a company he founded in 2011, as well as President of the Hellenic Association of Young Entrepreneurs. His assistant Elena joined Orama a few months ago, having been made a job offer on the back of her internship. In Athens, job offers are about as hard to come by as unscathed fenders, but today the two colleagues stand before a freshly polished A-Class, an A 180 d ready and waiting for them to take the wheel.
Elena, Orestis, welcome to Mercedes-Benz! Who’s first?
Orestis: (To Elena) If it’s OK with you… Elena: Go ahead. You can drive in the inner-city bumper-to-bumper traffic; I’ll take over later and cruise down Poseidonos Avenue by the sea. Orestis: Dammit! I didn’t think of that.
Elena laughs out loud, opens the passenger door and jumps in, looking around the interior in amazement. She stretches out her arms, but they don’t reach far enough to touch the sleek dashboard in front of her.
Orestis gets in and examines the car’s functionality, positions the driver’s seat, studies the display. As soon as he puts the car in reverse, the dashboard’s screen comes to life, giving him a view from the rear camera.
Orestis: Amazing! We have eyes in the backs of our heads! Elena: Let’s see whether it’s of any help.
Ignoring Elena’s chiding, Orestis checks the car’s windscreen wipers, hand brake and hazard lights. To say the latter are one of the most important features of a car in Athenian traffic is no exaggeration. By switching them on you signal to the cars around you that you are about to come to an abrupt halt for no apparent reason. Orestis, don’t forget: in an emergency, the Active Brake Assist will help you out! He seems relieved. He then tests the horn, giving Elena a fright.
Elena: Was that really necessary? Orestis: Nice sound, don’t you think?
Orestis turns the key in the ignition and the A 180 d’s engine begins to purr. We are in Syntagma Square, where the people of Athens meet to chat, flirt – and strike. Our first stops on the tour are the Acropolis and the Panathenaic Stadium. Orestis squeezes the A-Class into a gap between the slow-moving cars. A couple of traffic lights later, things begin to flow more quickly.
Orestis: This is the first time I’ve driven through Athens without being continuously jolted by the city’s potholes.
Elena: You do still feel the roads though. I like that.
Athenians feel a deep bond with their city, which, more than a metropolis, is like a giant open-air museum pervaded by antiquity. When Orestis and Elena pull up at the Acropolis, and later at the Stadium – with the hazard lights on, of course – we are amazed by their in-depth knowledge. Or did you already know that the Acropolis Museum houses a replica of the Parthenon’s cella, or inner chamber, at its core? Neither did we. Athenians love never-ending conversation and, leaning nonchalantly on the car, Orestis and Elena are a veritable fountain of fascinating facts.
But there’s one thing we really want to know: what do they think of the A-Class?
Elena: When I first saw the car this morning, I was surprised. I hadn’t really looked at it before and the image in my head was much more conservative. I thought it would be a car for more mature people. Is it OK to say that? But the design is anything but conservative. I particularly like the front, with the lines running down towards the centre. That’s very cool.
Orestis runs his index finger along the tail.
Orestis: This line that begins at the rear light and swoops downward and along as it crosses the two doors – I’ve never seen that in any other car.
Right then, you two – it’s already past noon. Can we get a good gyro or souvlaki around here?
Orestis: Absolutely! I know a place that serves the best souvlaki in the whole city. Hop in!
The drive takes us around the Acropolis citadel and on to Gazi, a former industrial district now bustling with trendy bars, restaurants and clubs. At Kandavlos restaurant, Orestis orders several portions of souvlaki to take away. A short while later, parked in a side street, he and Elena are overcome with adoration for their city as they tuck into their bread. They gush about its narrow alleys and spectacular views over the Saronic Gulf, where grey and white coastal houses meet the deep blue of the sea. Down at the seafront is also where their city tour comes to an end. Elena takes the wheel.
Elena: Is the engine running? I can hardly hear anything. Orestis: It sure is – take it away!
On Syngrou Avenue, Elena presses her foot down on the accelerator. She is careful at first, but after just a few seconds begins accelerating at speed, quickly hitting the 80 km/h speed limit and taking the curves at quite a pace.
Elena: Woohooo! Orestis: Not so fast, Elena! Elena: Incredible. You can’t hear the wind at all.
Orestis grabs at the armrest with his right hand for something to hold on to. He is laughing, albeit somewhat uneasily.
Elena: It’s OK, boss, don’t you worry!
Only when Elena begins to slow down does Orestis’ tension subside. The A-Class turns on to Poseidonos Avenue, which stretches along the coast to Kap Sounion and through the seaside towns of Glyfada and Vouliagmeni. There are countless cafes to stop at along this road, but Orestis and Elena wind down their windows and drive on in silence. An integrated smartphone belonging to one of the two plays an electro-pop version of a Mikis Theodorakis song through the car’s speakers. In the rearview mirror, the old city of Athens recedes into the distance.