As part of our Greentraveller's Guide to Athens, Clare Hargreaves joins a local street artist on an alternative tour of Athens
Athens is reinventing itself. Yes, the majestic Acropolis, ivory or salmon pink depending on the time of day, still proudly keeps watch from its rocky perch on the hectic sprawl below; dazzling gold funerary masks still stare out hauntingly from the glass cases of the National Archaeological Museum; and terracotta-domed Byzantine churches meet your eye round every corner.
But the city of culture is transforming. Thanks in part to the 2004 Olympics, Athens has been reborn, revitalized. Neighbourhoods such as Gazi, Keramikos and Psirri are now edgy, creative, with trendy cafes lining their streets, ad-hoc bands making music on their pavements, and vibrant street art rippling across the walls of the neo-classical houses and warehouses.
Industrial installations are being turned into sleek designer hotels and state-of-the-art museums, while up-and-coming chefs dish out fusion street food from brightly painted vans or give creative twists to old Greek classics. Athens no longer defines itself as a collection of antiquities, although those remain in all their splendor, it’s being energised as an exciting modern city.
But getting under the skin of this complex multi-layered city isn’t easy. So unless you want to risk wasting shoe leather and time, do your research before you go. Or join a tour like those run by Alternative Athens, a company whose purpose is to show you the secret corners, creative hotspots, and working-class neighbourhoods the guidebooks don’t tell you about. Tourists are reinventing themselves, just like the city, says Tina Kyriakis, who set up Alternative Athens in 2013.
“Experienced travellers don’t just want to see. They want a deeper understanding of the places they visit and the people who live in them. Athens is a city in multiple layers that you need to uncover in order to truly understand and enjoy it. I decided to create tours around the modern side of Athens as an alternative to the antiquities, hence our name.”
So where do you start? To get your bearings it makes sense to kick off at Monastiraki Square, from where you see both the Parthenon, sedate on its rocky hilltop, and the colonnaded remains of Roman emperor Hadrian’s Library. Pass the Roman Agora with its Tower of the Winds, the deliciously esoteric Museum of Greek Popular Instruments (listen through headphones to goatskin bagpipes and calls to prayer by the monks on Mount Athos) and a stunning state-of-the-art hammam, all in historic Plaka, then climb the steep steps towards the Acropolis.
This is the district of Anafiotika. If its whitewashed cubist houses and winding alleys make you think you’ve been transported to a Cycladic island, you have. In the mid-19th century, King Otto hired the expert builders from the island of Anafi to construct him a palace. So they built themselves single-storey homes in the style of their island, and these remain today complete with bouganvillea, stray marmalade cats and men in vests sitting outside bead-string doors.
Far from the din of the city you see sprawled out below, it’s as peaceful as it’s improbable. Catch your breath as you climb at the 10th-century Byzantine church of Ayii Apostoli Solaki (Holy Apostles of Solaki) or the white-washed Ayios Georgios tou Vrachou (St George of the Rock).
Walking west from Monastiraki, you reach another equally fascinating oasis, the area of Keramikos, named after the potteries that once dominated the area thanks to its abundance of clay. It’s also the site of an 11-acre cemetery, unearthed when the main road was laid in 1861, whose tombs date back as far as the Early Bronze Age. Today it’s a tranquil and touching spot, far from the city hubbub and rich in wildlife, where you’ll find poignant memorials in stone (like the grandmother with grandchild on her knee) and a tiny museum containing a 4th-century marble bull.
Nearby you spot the skeletons of Gazohori, or ‘gas-lands’, monuments to a very different age, the age of 19th-century industrialisation. Gas was needed to provide the city with streetlighting. Gazi, as the district is called, is now upwardly mobile, in an edgy kind of way, and the magnificent gasometers built by Lyon’s Bonnet-Spazin in the early twentieth century have been converted into a superb cultural centre called Technopolis. Modern art and old photos nestle amid its heavy industrial machinery and theatre brings alive the history of the city’s gasworks. (Another inspiring modern art-industry fusion is the National Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in the former Fix Brewery, south of the Acropolis.) In early summer Gazi’s old bus yard hosts the Athens Street Food Festival at which you can check out for yourself what’s cool on the city’s street-food scene.
Gazi’s walls also display a harsher, rawer face of Athens in the form of politically and socially conscious street art and there’s been a surge of creative energy that’s transformed it into what The New York Times dubbed a ‘contemporary Mecca for street art in Europe.’ The more you look the more you see, and much of it is good.
Foremost among Athens’ street artists is Ino, born in the city’s port of Piraeus, and along the walls bordering busy Pireos Road you see his spoofs on works by Leonardo da Vinci.
Walking from Gazi through the tranquil and little-touristed area of Metaxourgio, and on to Psirri, ambitiously dubbed Athens’ “Soho”, you’ll see works by street artists ranging from Bali-born WD (WD stands for Wild Drawing) to Jason (initially a graffiti artist but now doing street art too), the Blaqk graphic designer duo, Polish-born Dimitris Taxis, and UK-based Alex Martinez aka SHINE.Look out too for Barba Dee who could be dubbed the pyromaniac artist given that fire rips through all his works.
Their street art is now so accomplished that home-owners are not only tolerating the artists but actually commissioning them, so you’ll see entire apartment blocks covered.
If walking the streets tires, head (via a stroll through Athens’ much-needed green lungs, its vast National Gardens) to the new gallery of the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, just north of Syntagma Square. Take the opportunity to see works by Monet, Picasso, Paul Klee, Francis Bacon, El Greco, Cezanne, van Gogh and Gauguin among others and two floors of Greek contemporary art with the latter including the famous A Wonderful Day (The Morning Cyclist) by living Greek artist Alekos Fassianos. Fassianos frequently combines modern subjects (often bicycles, which fascinate him) with motifs from mythology, and this painting, like so many of his works, deliberately adopts a two-dimensional Byzantine style, using gold as his main material.
Don’t leave the Foundation without eating in its cool courtyard cafe, run with aplomb by the same team who run the Ohh Boy bistro in Pagkrati. “We want our food to be a contemporary version of Greek cuisine,” says Margarita Sideridou, who masterminded its creation. Ingredients in its well-priced dishes are sourced from small Mediterranean producers, including striftoudi (homemade Cretan pasta) that’s combined with feta, spinach and thyme. The highlight, though, is the stellar dessert of kaimaki (mastic) ice cream, stretchy as melted mozzarella, and topped with homemade rose-petal jam.
The city’s latest cultural triumph, and a stunning symbol of hope, is the shimmering centre funded by Greek multi-billionaire shipping magnate and philanthropist Stavros Niarchos. Designed by Renzo Piano (of Shard fame), it combines opera house, concert hall, exhibition centre and National Library.
After a spin through the 21-hectare park at Stavros Niarchos, head to the natural lake at Vouliagmeni, on the “Athenian Riviera”, for a bathe in its soothing thermal waters while watching the evening sun illuminate the pink limestone cliffs cradling it. There’s definitely more to Athens than the Acropoli.
Words and Photos (unless otherwise indicated) by Clare Hargreaves.
Disclosure: Clare Hargreaves was a guest of the Greece National Tourism Organisation. Clare had full editorial control of the review, which is written in her own words based on her experience of visiting Athens in October 2019 for Greentraveller's Guide to Athens.
All opinions are the author's own.