Athens at the Moment: On the Comeback Trail

The Greek capital got a nice dose of normalcy over the summer but the shadow of the pandemic lingers, keeping all optimism guarded, at least for now.


Cars jammed city thoroughfares once more, the lanes of ever-popular Plaka were flooded with tourists again, occupancy rates for short-term Airbnb-style rentals shot back up, restaurants and bars welcomed back patrons thirsting for to being among people again, and some long-delayed cultural events finally got the go-ahead. After the end of the spring lockdown, only the masks at supermarkets and other indoor businesses continued to remind us that we were still in the middle of a global health crisis.

These positive developments had an equally positive impact on gross domestic product figures for the second quarter of 2021. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a good summer overall. An unusually long and harsh heatwave was followed by dozens of wildfires that razed almost one-third of Attica’s woodlands. Urban forests with an inestimable environmental and historical significance, like the Forest of Tatoi on the foothills on Mount Parnitha, went up in smoke, depriving the city not only of valuable oxygen but also of outdoor leisure space held dear by generations of its residents. The area around Lake Marathon was also hit for the umpteenth time.

 

Nevertheless, the first “proper” autumn 18 months after the pandemic erupted seemed sufficient to heal some of those summer wounds. At least we were getting our lives back, we told ourselves, and this was true to a significant degree: theaters and cinemas filled up with people again, as did museums and art galleries. But an increase in new infections started showing up in mid-October in Attica, theoretically the most well-buttressed part of the country in terms of vaccination. Now the unvaccinated are banned from almost all indoor public venues, with the exception of pharmacies, supermarkets and churches. The clouds, meanwhile, continue to gather and the prospect of a holiday season without tough restrictions has emerged as the greatest challenge right now.

Global energy

The new season kicked off in a climate of euphoria, however. Monocle magazine’s annual Quality of Life conference took place in Athens and confirmed the sense that the Greek capital was living its “moment,” at least in terms of the healthy curiosity being expressed from many different parts of the planet. “There’s an energy, you can feel it, you can see that something is happening in Athens,” Tyler Brûlé, Monocle’s founder and editor-in-chief, told Kathimerini newspaper’s K magazine. It wasn’t just the data from the airlines, he noted, that show just how well Greece – and Athens in particular – did this summer. International interest in a city is not expressed exclusively by arrivals and by glowing spreads in travel magazines. There are other signs of this “curiosity,” like the still small but ever-increasing number of international film productions using Athens as a location, or the theaters introducing English surtitles to increasingly ambitious productions. Greece’s National Theater and Opera, the Onassis Stegi Cultural Center and the Poreia Theater are but some of the organizations that are taking the city’s new global outlook seriously. “You feel the energy because people are talking about it. It’s as if half of Paris has bought an apartment in Athens. It’s exciting to see where it will go,” said Brûlé.

“Where it will go” became very apparent to university students looking for accommodation in downtown Athens at the start of the academic year, as rental rates skyrocketed. According to Themistoklis Bakas, president of the E-Real Estates nationwide network, the biggest increases in the metropolitan area have been recorded in the city center, with rates going up by 20% and even 30%, as opposed to an average of 15% in other areas. The impressive comeback of Airbnb has also played a part.

Launches, plans, construction works

All this information may seem superfluous to a person visiting the city for just a few days but, without it, we cannot really predict what kind of Athens might emerge from the pandemic. On a more practical level, the city has welcomed a lot of new projects in the past few months and has plans for even more. It’s important to note that many of these are bolstering Athens’ profile as a cultural destination beyond its ancient legacy. The partial launch of the expanded and radically revamped National Gallery (Metro: Evangelismos) was the most well publicized of the season. If you’re in the city these days, you’ll be among those lucky enough to see it fresh out of the box; the impressive new temporary 2000-sq.m. exhibition hall was inaugurated on December 1st with “Seeking Immortality: The Art of the Portrait in the Louvre Collections,” a joint production with the famed Parisian museum.

Moreover, the wing showcasing the permanent collection of Western European art – including Picasso’s “Head of a Woman,” which had been stolen and was recovered in June – is expected to open fully by the end of this year. The National Museum of Contemporary Art (Metro: Syngrou-Fix) is also open and boasts a permanent collection with a few real treasures, as does the Collection of the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation (Metro: Evangelismos), close to the Panathenaic Stadium. The collection includes pieces by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, Degas, Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Picasso, Braque, Léger, Miró, Klee, Bacon, Pollock, Chagall and Botero, among many others, and should not be missed.

Further afield (Metro: Sepolia) is the former Public Tobacco Factory, an important industrial structure that, under the initiative of the cultural organization NEON, has started hosting artistic projects, such as the contemporary art exhibit “Portals,” this year. A new addition on the culture map, the Athens Olympic Museum (Metro: Nerantziotissa) is a pleasant contemporary space where you’ll find, among other things, a cool virtual exhibition on Ancient Olympia. Organized in partnership between Microsoft and the Greek Ministry of Culture, it employs artificial intelligence to take visitors back through time to the birthplace of the Games. If you can’t make it there in person, you can always download the app here.

Old scars, new protagonists

The return of the Apollon Cinema on downtown Stadiou Street is regarded as a very important step in the healing of an old scar. One of Athens’ most beautiful post-war edifices and home to two very popular movie theaters, the building was almost destroyed when it was firebombed by rioting protesters during an anti-austerity rally in February 2012. The fire spared the theater halls, but caused serious damage to the façade and the first floor. After many years of red tape, the road to this iconic building’s rebirth is finally open.

A few meters further north, an initiative to revamp the bottom end of Syntagma Square is coming to an end. The municipality hopes to have part of the renovation done in time to unveil it to the public before Christmas. Once that’s finished, work will start on the much more demanding project to overhaul Panepistimiou Street, while other worksites will be popping up all over the city in the months ahead, as construction on the new line of the Athens metro gets fully under way.

Down south on the coast, meanwhile, work continues on what’s hailed as the biggest urban revamp now taking place in Europe: the redevelopment of the former airport at Elliniko into a model metropolitan park and a mixed zone with condos, villas, shops, businesses and entertainment and leisure venues. The project, which aspires to give Athens its first real skyscrapers, should be completed within a decade.

As for the moneymaker of downtown Athens, the commercial triangle extending from Syntagma to Monastiraki and Omonia squares continues to attract cool new restaurants, bars, shops and, of course, hotels. The pandemic tapped the brakes, but only temporarily, on the frenetic development of hotel space in the Greek capital, which has picked up pace again, especially in the area of Omonia Square. Good times also appear to lie ahead for two erstwhile Athenian outsiders: the districts of Kypseli and Neos Kosmos (which has a metro stop). Kypseli in particular appears poised to become a star once more, thanks to the fact that it has retained much of the character of an authentic Athenian post-war neighborhood.



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