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A kaleidoscope of sights and sounds March 19, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Architecture Greece, Greece Athens, Lifestyle.
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Crossing the “border” into one of the oldest districts of Athens is like stepping into the past > Historic Kolonos neighborhood in Athens

18-03-08_kolonos1.jpg  Time stands still in courtyards such as this one on the corner of Kallipoleos and Isminis streets (above center), with its lemon trees and vines. It often appears that many residents of Kolonos simultaneously decided that there was no longer a place for them in the historic neighborhood, packed up and left, abandoning business premises and residences.

It must be some time since I last visited Kolonos. In fact I had been once to see an old school that had been converted into the now-well-established Epi Kolono theater on Nafpliou Street. All I had was an image of a quiet neighborhood of low houses, which looked ready to be renovated. I didn’t know much about the neighborhood except that it was one of the city’s oldest, that it used to be a residential area, and is now part of the city’s underbelly.

They told me to start from Petroula Square and radiate out from there, but I decided to do whatever took my fancy. Equipped with map and camera, I felt as if I were crossing a border, a feeling that intensified as I crossed the metal bridge between Larissis and Peloponnisou train stations.

The glare, worsened by the lack of trees, and an otherworldly sense, heightened by the sight of modernization work on the railroad below, made me feel as if I was in a film. On the bridge, I saw a priest who looked Ethiopian, coming in the other direction, his robes fluttering in the breeze. We walked past each other, suspended above the two faces of Athens.

Not knowing what to expect lent the enterprise an element of adventure. It was a holiday morning so the roads were empty and the cafes, one after another, were full, old-fashioned coffee shops named after small towns where men were playing backgammon, on the ground floor of 1970s-80s apartment blocks.

18-03-08_kolonos2.jpg  A tourist in my own city, map in hand, I wandered around streets that seemed mysterious because they were unfamiliar. It may have been because of the holiday, but I was struck by the lack of traffic, entire roads without cars. I photographed a single-story stone house, marked by time but very beautiful against the greenery of nearby Hippeio Hill.

Tall new apartment blocks, some the color of terracotta, others with exaggerated designs on facades painted blue like the provincial houses in the 1960s cast a little shadow on narrow streets. But no matter how aggressive the post-2005 buildings are, they seem better than their predecessors of the 1970s, as if they introduce an air of something new.

There are many sides to Kolonos. I realized this as I went toward Lenorman Street, through narrow lanes and alleyways, where unfamiliar songs and cooking smells wafted out of windows. The suds from cars being washed formed muddy puddles on the ground, children were riding bicycles, families of Gypsies and Pakistanis sat on their stoops. Housewives opened windows, and an elderly gentleman appeared with a hat and cane. Kolonos was proving to be a mosaic.

Many houses have been demolished, many more are sealed up or for sale. I saw lots of pink and yellow walls, all that was left of old houses, at the edge of grassy plots. Some two-story houses still had shiny doors, curtains in the windows, but many 1930s and 1950s houses were vacant.

On the small sidewalk of Distomou Street I stopped in my tracks. On one corner was a newly built two-story house, and opposite was another, almost finished. Both had been designed with architecture and decor magazines in mind. One had incorporated concrete and post-industrial elements into a facade that had something to say. The other was quieter, but with attitude as well, painted salmon with brown windows and a little garden. Might this be the Kolonaki of Kolonos. It didn’t matter, because the rest of the area was living at a different pace.

I found block after block that were purely residential, growing denser toward Lenorman Street. What moved me was encountering entire areas with small houses, 1970s electricity poles, and even older cars parked here and there. It was a journey into the past, as if I was in a 1960s Greek film. The light was so bright and the roads seemed so large because of the low houses and few cars, that it gave me a taste of a past that I never knew.

18-03-08_kolonos3.jpg  On the corner of Kallipoleos and Isminis streets, time had stood still. I glanced into some courtyards surrounded by walls, with their lemon trees and vines. It was all there, the canary in the cage, a plastic basin, walnuts spread out on an oilcloth, In one semi-ruined house on Astrous Street in the heart of Kolonos, I managed to get a rusted gate partially open, squeezed in and entered the living room. Bare of furniture, but with plaster decorations on the ceiling, planks coming away from the floor, a door ajar. Opposite, washing flapped on lines and everywhere brightly colored synthetic blankets were hung out to air on balconies.

A neighborhood is what you choose to see. I noted the endless, colorless blocks of apartment buildings put up by contractors, but I paid more attention to the old sidewalks. In parts of Kolonos the marble sidewalks installed by the City of Athens before the war have survived, elsewhere in Athens they are being ripped out and replaced with concrete. They show that Kolonos has been part of the city for a very long time, though now it looks forgotten beside the railways tracks.

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