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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.

Related Links > http://www.books.gr


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.

Be a tourist in your own city March 15, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Arts Events Greece, Arts Museums, Greece Athens.
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The City of Athens organizes tours of museums and archaeological sites as well as culture walks. On a sunny Sunday, the tour guide is surrounded by men and women of all ages wanting to find out more about their own city’s past.

The City of Athens sends out an army of tourist guides to help its citizens become more informed and enjoy themselves in the process. The tour guides are nothing like those one is used to seeing on trips abroad. Often bystanders don’t even know what is going on. It’s a great way to get to know your own city’s secrets, its old neighborhoods, the monuments of Plaka and neoclassical Athens.

Every Sunday without fail at 10.30 a.m., and some Saturdays for visits to sites that are closed on Sundays, nine months of the year, apart from the summer months, the City of Athens holds free guided tours of the city’s sites and monuments. For the past 27 years, its tour guides have been introducing Athenians to their city’s past. All they pay is the entrance fee to the sites themselves, wherever these are charged.

This is how it works: Check out the capital’s municipal website [ www.cityofathens.gr ] for the dates and schedules, call the Municipal Art Gallery and Museums Department, tel 210 3231841 or 210 3240762, or go to the city’s Cultural Center, 50 Academias Street, nearest metro station is “Panepistimio”. Every Sunday morning there is a different itinerary, but many of these are repeated over the year.

If the idea of a guided museum tour seems too much like a school excursion, there are always the outdoor walks. One of these met at the “Evangelismos” metro station on a recent sunny Sunday. Within a few moments, the tour guide was surrounded by a crowd of over 150 men and women of all ages, but very few children, for a briefing of the tour they were to take along Vasileos Constantinou Avenue, the approximate course of the ancient Ilissos River. The tour was to end two hours later at the Church of Aghia Foteini.

Some of the original crowd dropped off along the way, of course, as happens in tours. There was a smaller tour nearby the War Museum. Many of those in the crowd make a regular habit of the tours, meeting friends every Sunday.

As for the tour itself, the information provided by the guide is detailed, similar to the kind of information one would find in a Google search or travel guide, only here the process is interactive; then there are always the wisecrackers, providing lighter moments.

The winter program, January to March, provides a selection of 40 different meeting points. Tickets are issued at the entrance to 148 Ermou Street at the Church of Aghia Dynami. The only thing one has to make sure of is the meeting point for each tour. For example, Hadrian’s Arch for the tour of the Olympic Stadium, 66A Irakleidon Street in Thiseion for the walk around Athens, Philopappou Hill for the a tour of the Pnyx. All the tours are conducted in Greek. Every tour lasts from two to three or even four hours, depending on the site.

I think about the four-hour walk and sit down on a bench away from the crowd. The lecture on the Ilissos River surroundings began at Aghios Georgios Rizari. The guide indicates on the map the course of the now underground river. The point is to see Athens through different eyes. Not piled into a bus. We will walk along the Ilissos, not along its banks, of course, but above them, on the sidewalks.

Tomorrow’s tours >
Byzantine churches >
Meeting point at the Aghios Eleftherios Chapel next to Athens Cathedral.

Benaki Museum’s folklore exhibits from modern Greek history > Meeting point at the Museum entrance, 1 Koumbari Street, Kolonaki, Athens.

Kerameikos, Athens’ Ancient Cemetery > Meeting point at the site.

Archaeological Museum’s bronze collection > Meeting point at the Museum entrance on Patission Street, Athens, nearest metro station “Victoria”.

Future tours > Municipal Art Gallery, 19th- and 20th-century Athens, the Athens of Costis Palamas, Ancient Agora, Acropolis, Plaka’s monuments, National Sculpture Gallery, Museum of Cycladic and Ancient Greek Art, Acropolis and Syntagma metro excavation finds, First Cemetery, Pnyx, Old Athenian neighborhoods, Museum of Islamic Art, Elefsina sites. Call 210 3231841 to book.

Discover Athens by bus > Line 400 February 10, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens, Transport Air Sea Land.
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10-02-08_acropolis.jpg  It may be one of the world’s oldest cities, but it’s got its sightseeing bus.

Athens’ public bus company has launched its first-ever sightseeing bus tour, offering tourists a chance to see sights ranging from the 2500-year-old Acropolis to the local flea market. The Sights of Athens bus stops at 20 cultural landmarks and shopping areas. As well as tourists, locals can also use the bus. The aim is for Athenians and foreign visitors alike to learn about the city, the monuments and the museums.

The service, run on regular Athens blue buses, is operated by the Athens Urban Transport Organisation, or OASA, which says it may purchase a batch of open-top double-decker buses to use for the tour. Stops are marked by two-metre tall blue signs and are close to the attractions, which range from archaeological sites and museums to the city’s Omonia Square.

Each stop is pre-announced by a recorded message in Greek and English, followed by a brief description in English. The buses will also have a guide on board to answer visitors’ questions. They run every 30 minutes from 7.30am to 9pm.

A nonstop trip, subject to Athens’ notoriously bad traffic, lasts from 80 to 90 minutes, OASA says. Tickets cost 5 euro and are purchased from the driver. They are valid for other forms of public transport, except for journeys to and from Athens International Airport.

Visit the Athens Urban Transport Organisation website > http://www.oasa.gr/index.asp?pageid=105


Stroll around and learn about Athen’s National Gardens October 13, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Arts Museums, Greece Athens.
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Friends of The Goulandris Natural History Museum

In their year devoted to the parks and gardens of Attica, the Friends of the Goulandris Museum of Natural History have included a trip to the National Gardens. Meet them on Sunday, October 14, at 9.30 a.m. at the Kifissia station of the ISAP electric railway for the trip to the Syntagma metro station.

The idea is to get to know the Athens National Gardens. The first of their type in the modern Greek state, they were established in 1840 by Queen Amalia as a garden for the Palace that later became the home of the Greek Parliament. In 1923 the Royal Garden was renamed the National Gardens and was opened to the public.

Much of the vegetation, like the 200-year-old Washingtonias at the entrance, has been imported, but there are also many Greek plants. The water for the garden comes from the aqueduct of Peisistratus, which has been in operation since antiquity. Architect Elisavet Bariani will talk about that and much more during the guided tour of the gardens, which will be followed by a meal at the Benaki Museum restaurant.

For bookings call 210 8083289 and 210 8015870.

Related Links > http://www.gnhm.gr

Downtown Athens in a state of flux September 5, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Architecture Greece, Greece Athens.
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Rapid changes to inner-city areas > Change. A neighborhood in the process of change, Gazi, home to many nightclubs, is becoming a residential option but some worry about the effect on the old neighborhood of five-story apartment blocks looming over neoclassical houses. Six new apartment blocks and two new studio complexes nearby are currently under construction. 

Ten years ago, you couldn’t find a bar in Gazi that played Madonna or the Pet Shop Boys; Thiseion had an alternative style; bars were unheard of in Kerameikos and Metaxourgeio, and Gazi was a home for the homeless, still fenced in by the old gas works. Then the first taverna opened on Persephone Street, then unknown and now so crowded you can barely walk along it.

An evening stroll in Kolonaki shows how much Athens has changed. There’s no comparison between the quiet pace of Tsakalof Street in Kolonaki and the nightly hubbub in the square behind Technopolis Municipal Arts Complex in Gazi with the oversized new metro station.

It’s not just the extended metro that is reshaping Athens but also changes in lifestyle, the family, the way we see ourselves in relation to the city, as well as the influence of new technologies on how we work.

It was the most enthusiastic reception for a new station in short history of the Attiki Metro. The grandiose construction, overly ambitious for its humble location, will be seen as a milestone in an urban change that had already begun.

What’s different in Gazi is not the 20-30 new businesses that have sprung up in the square and the surrounding streets, but the apartment blocks that have mushroomed. Of average height, high-tech modernist in style, and 70-90 square meters at the most, they are ready for their new inhabitants. For the first time since the local Muslim population was encouraged to leave before the 2004 Olympic Games, Gazi will see a major influx of a very different population.

Six new apartment blocks and two new studio complexes nearby are currently under construction. Some worry about five-story buildings looming over dilapidated neoclassical houses. The problem is more complex: Nothing can hold back demand, but the issue is how the state and the municipality prepare for change. Not much has been done in that direction, save the metro station and the residential zoning.

Metaxourgeio joined the entertainment business two or three years ago. At first it looked like a mass version of Psyrri, though a bit more sophisticated, a bit more chic, with gourmet restaurants and fancy bars. But an evening stroll reveals more: lots of rock-style cafes, cheap eateries and a Leftish atmosphere. It’s too soon to label a neighborhood that hasn’t even got a worthwhile bookshop, but something new is happening in Metaxourgeio.

Kolonaki > In the late 1990s, some locals complained about Kolonaki’s irresistible appeal. They couldn’t stand the crowds in the streets and the fact that Athenians from areas they didn’t know (or pretended not to know) flooded “their” bars and restaurants. Now they can sit comfortably in the square, since Kolonaki is no longer prime choice for the “barbarians” of the northern suburbs. Those hordes now take the metro to Monastiraki, Thiseion and Gazi. Kolonaki, more residential than ever, hasn’t acquired a new look. Its admirers will continue to love it for what it truly is. Skoufa Street continues to thrive, and the bars on Ploutarchou Street are jammed night and day with young lawyers, advertising executives, media people and hard rock fans.

Aeolou Street & Co > It was only a matter of time. Once Psyrri got overcrowded, somewhere had to meet the demand. Now the so-called historic triangle bounded by Syntagma, Omonia and Monastiraki Squares is the fastest growing district downtown. It has pretty streets, excellent transport, pedestrian zones and atmosphere, and it’s quiet. But it has few apartments ready to be lived in, unluckily for those who’d like to live here but find only offices and warehouses. Aeolou Street has already got to the point of no return. The stores selling cashmere, trousseau ware and linen are under pressure. Some have become cafes, bars and clothes stores catering to those who frequent bars. Places like Booze, Kinky and Magaze create an alternative, artistic air that is light years from the jumble of styles in Psyrri.

Exarchia > Don’t let the news reports mislead you. Exarchia is more mainstream than ever. Almost all of the eastern side of the square is given over to the well-known Greek concept of frappe-sports paper-lounge music. Needless to say, you don’t need to be politicized to go to Exarchia. Try the new promenade on Benaki Street with modern tavernas that are doing good business, and deservedly. The problem with Exarchia is that the liveliest spot downtown is also off-putting with its confused network of streets and side streets.

Thiseion > Once upon a time, everyone wanted a house in Thiseion. That was in the days of bohemian hangouts like Stavlos. Thiseion had the insubordinate air of Exarchia, without the dirt and the claustrophobic streets. Then came the much-vaunted Megalos Peripatos, the long pedestrian street of Dionysiou Aeropagitou and Apostolou Pavlou. Indeed, it was a striking walk (except during book exhibitions) but we all knew what would happen with the cafes and the view of the Acropolis. Five cafes became 20 and the stroll is more like a parade of marriageable daughters in some provincial town. Thiseion will never cease to be an attractive alternative to the city center, as demand and prices show. The lookalike style of the businesses is disconcerting, with exceptions like the Lemoni bookstore on Irakleidon Street merely proving the rule. But it’s not the end of the world; it’s walking distance to Gazi and Metaxourgeio.

Athens > should promote its rich contemporary culture August 4, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens, Tourism.
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Too little informed, too late > In the past two years, the Hellenic Festival has made an enormous, and generally successful, effort at restructuring. Museums such as the Benaki’s new wing on Pireos Street have been putting on noteworthy exhibitions. Foreign groups and major stars now come to perform in Greece at the peak of their careers. Yet most visitors are completely unaware of these facts, and when they do realize what is on in Athens, it is often too late to find tickets.

“In contrast to other cities where tourists make sure they include a cultural event in their visit, or even better, go there expressly for that purpose, here in Athens we are way behind even though we have a lot to offer,” said Panos Panayiotopoulos, Director of the Inter-Continental Hotel in Athens. “It is extremely difficult for a visitor to find out what is currently going on in the city and even harder to find tickets,” he explained. “The Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) should make special arrangements for the Hellenic Festival and not just reserve a small number of tickets for hotels. If visitors see a wonderful performance at the Herod Atticus Theater, they will be extremely motivated to come again.”

For Panayiotopoulos, everything in tourism is a chain reaction. “In order to have visitors spend more time in Athens before going to the islands, we have to boost conference tourism. If conferences are held here, there will be more demand for Greece, so airline tickets will be cheaper. Those who come on business will stay the weekend, bring their wives and children, spend time at museums and galleries.”

“Here at the Inter-Continental, we not only display works by Greek artists but we also organize a tour of galleries in Psyrri guided by an art historian. However, we shouldn’t have to be chasing up the Museums, foundations and festivals; it should be the other way round. The bitter truth is that no cultural organization has ever been in touch with us to brief us on its activities.”

Worldwide advertising of what’s on > Timotheos Ananiadis, the Director of the historic Hotel Grande Bretagne, sends e-mails to customers in advance with details of what’s on in Athens during their stay.

“We always ensure that our concierges are fully informed about what is happening in town. We always make the effort ourselves; however, no cultural organization has ever sent its program, or made a move we would welcome. Hotels are a nerve center for highlighting cultural events, particularly when they are not among the usual places people visit, such as the Acropolis or Ancient Agora. Recently, for example, we reached an agreement with the Pallas Theater to book a few tickets for performances there.”

Ananiadis believes we have made great progress in city marketing but there are still not the events that will put Greece on the map.

“Look what happened during the two sporting events in May, with the European finals for basketball and soccer. The word Athens was heard on every news bulletin. It is free advertising around the world. I’m not saying that visitors who came for those events will be interested in good Greek songs, but since they are here, we could give them the appropriate incentives. Often concierges will suggest that visitors go and hear Arvanitaki. But we have to convince them to come to Athens first and then we can see how they can spend their evenings. We need more impressive events, year-round.”

Inadequate promotion of events > As London taxi drivers are attending seminars in order to be able to distinguish Tate Modern from Tate Britain, Athens is dozing by comparison, said the Dutch Director of the Hilton Hotel, Bart van de Winkel.

“I often think that if the GNTO is to become more effective, it should have private partners, just as its counterpart in the Netherlands does. That way there are incentives for sales and activity. In Athens, very important things are going on but they are hidden away like secrets. Take for example the exhibition of paper clothing at the Benaki. It was wonderful but it was not advertised abroad as much as it should have been. I have rarely seen foreign journalists invited to cover the Hellenic Festival in depth, for example. If a foreigner reads about the Herod Atticus Theater three times in the Financial Times, he’ll want to come. It would be better to have a campaign on YouTube than on CNN; it will be seen by more people,” he suggested. “The events calendar is drawn up at the last minute and no one has time to plan properly. You often make visitors’ lives more difficult without realizing it, the museums, archaeological sites, galleries and shops in the center should be open all the time, even at weekends, but they are either closed or there are strikes or protest marches.”

The Hilton’s director believes that contemporary culture is not being promoted by the advertising campaigns.

“Everything is sea, sun and beaches; those are the priorities. But everyone knows about those things. That’s why you keep getting tourists who want to go to the islands carrying rucksacks. Take the example of Barcelona, which, until they held the Olympics, used to attract low-budget British tourists. Now it has become one of the most interesting cultural destinations among higher-income brackets for its architecture, food and culture. If Greece invests in culture, it can change both its image and the kind of tourists it attracts.”

Municipality asleep on the job > One would expect that city events would be advertised on the website of the City of Athens, www.athens.gr, but the English language site was last updated in December of last year. Its news section reported the death of the creator of Tom and Jerry and the return to earth of the Discovery, along with the weather forecast for December 20-21.

In links to other sites, there is a wealth of information on what is going on in places like Amsterdam, but nothing about Athens, even though most foreigners try to get a first impression of a city via the Internet. Instead of information on the city, they get a CV of current Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis.

Events at ancient sites can draw visitors > Greece’s cultural advantages, its archaeological sites and modern cultural productions, could be a strong attraction, according to the Inter-Continental’s director.

“Whenever there have been cultural events at archaeological sties, always with the appropriate care and moderation, naturally, they have made a lasting impression on our foreign customers,” said Panayiotopoulos. “If our ancient monuments are used with care for quality cultural events, we could make Athens a unique destination in tour guides, even in the summer. Just think that thousands of tourists go to Paris in midsummer, where there is no sea but monuments and amazing events.”