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The avenues of Athens 80 years ago March 27, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life Greek, Greece Athens.
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Travel guides to Greece, first published in 1930 by Eleftheroudakis, now reissued in a collector’s set.

27-03-08_travel_guides.jpg  Views of Athens change rapidly, as travel guides published since 2000 demonstrate.

I enjoy reading what people say about my city. Some visitors, like Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, like what he sees as the city’s “confusion,” while others, like American composer Jonathan Nossiter, who loved the old Zonar’s cafe, see it as a “treasury of aesthetic pleasures.”

Let’s go back to 1930: I’m looking at fresh reprints of the little travel guides that Eleftheroudakis published then. A collector’s set in a handsome box, it could furnish ample material for 10 dissertations.

Tourism had begun in the mid-19 century during the reign of King Otto. But given the lack of infrastructure, Athens remained an exotic destination until the 1960s. However, these guides are written in Greek. Travelers used to come from Alexandria and Istanbul, and other urban centers with Greek communities.

An image comes to mind, the sole aerial photograph in “Neoklassiki architektoniki stin Ellada” (Neoclassical Architecture in Greece), a volume published by Emporiki Bank in 1967. Taken in 1932, the photograph reveals harmony and European style in the tiled roofs of Panepistimiou, Stadiou and Academias streets. That’s the sight that greeted travelers who visited with this guide in hand.

They probably would have dropped in at the Eleftheroudakis bookstore on the corner of Stadiou and Karageorgi Servias streets. Had it not been demolished in 1962, it would have appeared in new guidebooks as a remnant of glorious old urban Europe.

Was it a beautiful city then? Some parts must have been, but the atmosphere in 1930 was unique. Athens not only boasted antiquities and clear air, but also the first sparks of modernism, which Henry Miller noted in “The Colossus of Maroussi.”

As Kevin Andrews pointed out in his perceptive work “Athens” (1967), the harder the city tries to look modern, the more primitive it looks in its essential truth. It’s all relative, of course – the periodical Diaplasi ton Paidon referred on March 18, 1906, to “mediocre neighborhood houses,” which we later idealized – and a guide book is simply a tool.

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