Can you ever really get a true, authentic experience visiting places that have been catered to fit the needs of tourists?
Kelly Scott from Villanova University submitted the following article to ISV Magazine. Have a story you’d like to share? Click here to share your story!
Kelly shared her experience visiting Athens, Greece and questions the authenticity of her experience:
As our coach bus distanced itself from Athens International Airport, I began to take in my first sights of Greece. Rather than your typical American city skyline, smaller size buildings stretched for what seemed to be hundreds of miles. Streets so narrow, it seemed our bus might get stuck. I looked on as the modern Athenians went about their day, from hanging wet laundry on the line, to smoking and eating in the local café. So this is what Athens is like? As we neared our hotel, the look of the city began to change, streets widened, polished and bustled with activity. This area was full of tourists; it appeared different than the surrounding regions of Athens I had driven by. So which was the authentic part I was supposed to experience?
After sleeping off jetlag, I awoke for my first dinnertime in what my teacher called the Plaka. The Plaka, nestled under the world famous Acropolis and also known as Gods District, is Athens’ oldest neighborhood. It was developed around the ruins of Ancient Agora of Athens and has been continuously inhabited since. Each year hundreds of thousands of tourists flood this neighborhood in search of Greek cuisine, entertainment, and history. The Plaka also houses many of the city’s museums including, the Acropolis Museum, the Jewish Museum of Greece, the Museum of Greek Folk Art and the Athens University Museum. This historic area of Athens overflows with cafés and boutiques that made me feel as if I had traveled back in time, leaving the modern city behind. As I took step after step on Cobblestone street I felt as if I was walking on an important part of history.
The atmosphere of the Plaka is unlike anywhere else in Athens; souvenir shops are chock-o-block full of goodies for travelers to take home with them (t-shirts, post cards, shot glasses, local olive oil), boutiques sell handmade pottery, jewelry and leather goods, and you cannot go even a few steps without being begged to eat at one of the outdoor restaurants. Surprisingly, we found a place that could seat all 20 people in our group. We sat at our extended table with the Acropolis looming over, glowing in the night sky.
My menu confused me because it featured multiple languages; I quickly turned to the English pages, delighted that I would not need a translator. Our teacher went through the menu telling us about each traditional Greek dish. Moussaka, Greek lasagna made of minced meat, tomatoes, onion, spices, potato and a topping of cheese. Spanakopita, a pastry pie of spinach and feta cheese filling. Gigandes plaki, giant beans, larger than I had ever seen in my life (about the size of my thumb but thicker!), baked in sauce and herbs. I stayed safe ordering Souvlaki, chicken kabobs served with vegetables, potatoes, and tzatziki sauce. After dinner we were served Ouzo shots, a classic Greek drink flavored like licorice- it tasted like poison to me. Was I going to have to drink this every night? Do the REAL Greek people drink Ouzo every night? Leaving my first Greek meal in the Plaka, I felt like I had already learned much about the culture, but was all of Greece like this?
I quickly learned that while the rest of the country had modernized, the Plaka had preserved an old-time feel for tourist purposes. Real Athenians did not hang out here. If you looked around, all you would see was tourist after tourist. For someone who hates tourist traps — you could not pay me to spend a day at Disney World or shop through Times Square — somehow I loved the Plaka. It catered to the Greece of my imaginations while providing me with English signs and menus, shops to buy gifts for my friends back home (A t-shirt for my boyfriend, local honey for my chef-brother and jewelry for the girls in my family) and sights of ancient architecture like the Parthenon and the Propylaia. The Plaka had everything I needed.
Athens draws in millions of tourists each year, and this is largely what the economy thrives on. The shop and restaurant owners in the Plaka depend on the warm months of the busy season to make a living. Therefore, this simulated space has actually become a large part of the culture. After looking back on my experience, I still struggle to understand how to recognize an authentic experience versus one made up for travelers. This problem exists at travel destinations all over the world. For countless travelers, authenticity is key. They want to avoid tourist attractions and see how the locals live.
Indeed, A large part of authenticity has to do with depicting culture. But for numerous locations, like Greece, paradoxically tourism forms a large part of their culture. Since it is rare in 21st century travel to find an untouched civilization, maybe we have to embrace places like the Plaka as part of authentic culture. I was lucky enough in my travels through Greece to experience tourist attractions as well as less visited spots, usually equally enjoying both. In hindsight, I feel like I got an authentic experience, but was this just me being tricked by Greece tourist constructions? Is the idea of an authentic cultural experience even achievable in our interconnected world today?