With a history that dates back more than 2,000 years, Athens, known as the City of Gods, has never been short on history and culture. The past few years, however, haven’t been easy on the city as it bore the brunt of a headline-grabbing financial meltdown. But a resilient Athens is now putting the past behind it, as the city primes itself for a remarkable comeback.
This revival is underpinned by the recently unveiled Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC), which hopes to re-establish the city’s global cultural prominence.
Previously neglected neighbourhoods now stand at the crossroads of old and new, attracting Greek entrepreneurs and artists who want to be a part of the cool buzz.
Kallithea, which means “the best view” in Greek, is a quiet precinct between Athens’ city centre and the coast that, ironically, didn’t have a vista to boast of – until now.
The SNFCC (above), built by the foundation bearing the name of the late Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, has changed that completely. “Kids play here now. People want to be here and why not? It’s beautiful,” says long-time Kallithea resident, Vasilis Vrachnis. “This new view is like rediscovering Athens.”
Built on an abandoned horse track, the SNFCC is one of the largest construction projects in recent Greek history. It spreads over a carefully planned Mediterranean oasis of green, a 170,000 sq m park complete with playgrounds, sports fields, a pool, gardens, cafes, a man-made river of filtered seawater and a lawn for concerts and film screenings.
An artificial hill gradually slopes up to reach a massive glass complex. There, side by side in two separate spaces, stand the new contemporary Greek National Opera (above) and the latest National Library of Greece, which has capacity for up to two million books.
Famed Italian architect Renzo Piano, known for designing the Centre Pompidou in Paris, has incorporated green elements and subtle touches that pay homage to Athens. For example, the building’s massive solar-panelled photovoltaic canopy meets much of its energy needs. But its sleek surface also reflects the city’s bustling artery, Syngrou Avenue, which borders to the north-east.
Under the canopy’s shade, south-facing views to the Athens Riviera stretch out to the Aegean Sea. The opposite end opens up to the site’s expansive grounds, past residential apartments, and the city’s eternal monument that remains higher than anything else built since: the Acropolis.
Elpidoforos Pappas, the SNFCC’s deputy chief operating officer, says the project, made possible with a €596 million (US$655 million) donation, is a stimulus not only to the economy, but also to creativity. He adds that the timing couldn’t be any better. “Great projects, art and the creativity a community needs, must come during this crunch situation. The opportunity is now,” says Pappas.
State of the art
The new view from Kallithea stretches towards the city core to Kolonaki, a central district known for its well-heeled residents, upmarket boutiques and independent gallery scene.
When Gogo Kolivira, took on her former role at Depot Gallery (above), she says her decades of experience met new challenges and rewards because Athens is going through an artistic transformation.
“Artists are creating more freely. They need to express themselves, and their art has a voice here. Now, it’s not so much about marketing their art anymore,” says Kolivira. “They say they prefer to create what they feel, rather than eat. Times are different.”
Opened about a year ago, the modern art gallery celebrates the fine line between art and design in its whitewashed space. It features both established and up-and-coming Greek and international artists.
While the gallery is a passion, Kolivira also stays focused on another movement: street art. She is one of the organisers of the Athens Street Art Festival, an ongoing open project that connects public entities, such as schools in need of inspirational art, with talented street artists.
“The walls of a city are its public skin,” says Kolivira. “It’s a social conversation about what we are feeling.”
Such feelings are prevalent in neighbouring Exarcheia. Depending on who you ask, the district is labelled anarchist or alternative. However, the message is loud and clear as entire city blocks have been transformed into colourful works of art with a strong sociopolitical theme.
Recently, street-art tours run by Alternative Athens have gained traction by walking travellers through Exarcheia’s graffiti-ridden streets (above) and farther out to the bordering districts Psyrri, Plaka and Monastiraki, where the change continues.
Where the action is
The gentrified pocket of St Irene Square in Monastiraki throbs with a new energy. Once run-down and empty, the church square now bustles with locals and occasional travellers who stumble off the beaten path.
Hip Athenians sit here for a view of revitalised neoclassical buildings, which house dessert shops and cafe-bars, such as Throubi (Plateia Agias Eirinis 2) and Zaf (Plateia Agias Eirinis 8; above), that serve authentic Greek coffee. Lukumades is known for its traditional Greek doughnuts with creative new toppings. Manas Kouzina-Kouzina recreates classic homemade delicacies with local produce sourced from small businesses.
“Perhaps, it’s both the need of the hour and competition that have spurred eateries to get more creative and go back to our roots for inspiration,” says Flora Kollia, a local resident and waitress.
Past 10pm, the pace quickens as bars such as Noel (59 Kolokotroni) and Faust fill up, pointing to a lively nightlife scene. Closer to Syntagma Square, the revelry at Drunk Sinatra bar (16 Thiseos) spills onto a pedestrian walkway. Steps away at The Clumsies (above), housed in a restored old building, creative cocktails helped it earn the No. 22 spot on the World’s 50 Best Bars list last year.
In nearby Metaxourgeio district, the view alternates between refurbished galleries and crumbling 19th- and 20th-century homes. It’s where a push and pull among immigrants, hustlers, artists and hipsters defines its edgy yet creative reputation.
“The diversity and the fact that some of the best contemporary art galleries are here give the area an amazing potential,” says Rebecca Camhi (above), founder of her eponymous art space, Rebecca Camhi Gallery.
Here, even the local spots flaunt diversity in creatively renovated spaces. Some of the mainstays of this culturally vibrant district are the American-inspired sandwich joint San Francisco, Seychelles Greek restaurant (Kerameikou 49) and Tamarind (above), which dishes up authentic Thai fare.
“Athens has a very special identity. We’re outside the main centres of the art world, so we offer a unique perspective to visitors who want to experience our world,” says Camhi.
– TEXT BY MARISSA TEJADA
PHOTOS: GEORGIOS MAKKAS, ALTERNATIVE ATHENS, SNFCC, GEORGE DIMITRAKOPOULOS, THE CLUMSIES FACEBOOK
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.