About Athens

Life & Style Views of the City History & Monuments Museums  

Views of the city

The new airport tells the arriving visitor what all Athenians already know, or sense: Athens is changing. Not that the "Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport" has any special architectural character; but it is an ultramodern airport, and the start of the Attiki Odos, the Attica Road, probably the city's only truly European-style highway, a road that you can speed along... for a few kilometres, at least, until you catch up with the construction work. The Attiki Odos is literally being built under your wheels, and it brings you down to earth fast as you enter the seedy extension of Mesogeion Ave.

As you head down Mesogeion Ave. towards the centre, you are moving away from exciting places like the new rowing lake and the paradise of the traditional summer holiday resorts of Rafina, Loutsa, Zoumperi, Nea Makri. The road is lined with snack bars, family tavernas for impatient Sunday trippers, furniture warehouses, large stores selling household furnishings and garden supplies, agents for pre-fab houses. As you approach the city, however, the streetscape changes: as Agia Paraskevi gives way to Chalandri, past the imposing National Radio & Television Building, you enter the biotope of the recording industry: one after another, from Stavros to the Ministry of Defence and its Metro station, Virgin, Universal, Warner, Sony and Minos-EMI lend a musical/cultural note to an otherwise nondescript stretch of road. A road that, before the interchange at Katechaki, passes three major hospitals - the General State Hospital, Sotiria and the 401 Military Hospital - before coming to an end in the heart of Ampelokipoi, a densely built up area with extremely heavy traffic. Heading up Pheidippidou, you come to one of the city's major hubs and the intersection of three of its great downtown thoroughfares: Kifisias, Vasilissis Sofias and Alexandras Ave..

The western approach to the city (from the Corinth Highway) is totally different, for this is where the bulk of post-war industrial development took place. The serpentine coastline (best appreciated from the old national road) is dotted with refineries, chimneys, smokestacks and shipyards. When the high-speed section of the road comes to end and the Athenian drivers are forced to moderate their vertiginous speeds (they seem to be letting go after the traffic snarls in the city), the road narrows at Aspropyrgos. Immediately after Dafni, the city proper begins. Along this ever neglected stretch of road, the gateway into the city for countless domestic migrants, there is an endless succession of car dealerships, used car lots, small industries and supermarkets, interspersed with the occasional dive or striptease joint. Athinon Ave. takes you to the Metaxourgeio district, where the forlorn facades of older buildings wait for the breeze of urban renewal that is blowing through the neighbourhood to reach them. All journeys come to an end, however; and this road, via Agiou Konstantinou, magnet for immigrants from all over the world and the location of the neo-classical National Theatre, brings you to Omonoia Square.

If you have arrived by boat and are coming up Peiraios Ave., the cityscape elicits mixed feelings of nostalgia and solitude. This was once the city's industrial heartland, and some of the famous old units are still in operation - e.g. the Elais edible oils plant and, nearer Omonoia, the Pavlidis chocolate plant. Many of these buildings, exceptional examples of industrial architecture, have changed use: along the way you will see the Athens School of Fine Arts and the Foundation of the Hellenic World, occupying former textile and pipe manufactories respectively; while some other similar buildings have been converted into department stores or multiplex entertainment centres. Once past Tavros, with its subsidised tower blocks clustered around the former abattoirs and tanneries, you are in the city proper: here the dominant building is the old gasworks, Gazi, now a Technopolis hosting exhibitions and happenings. And from here it's a clear run to Omonoia.

Back to Ampelokipoi. Kifisias Ave., the road between Ampelokipoi and Kifisia, provides the most representative delineation of how this city grew. From small neighbourhood shops to large shopping centres, from grey apartment blocks to the monsters of "Vovopolis" (most of the huge glass towers around Marousi were built by a contractor named Babis Vovos), from cinema strip (including the summer cinema Ellenis) to multiplex (the Village Center in Marousi), from isolated professional offices in modest buildings to huge banks, advertising agencies, dynamic companies, an explosion of publishers and broadcasters. Kifisias intends to be the city's business hub; and to a certain extent it has succeeded, the only impediment being the eternally snarled traffic, which sometimes leaves the road looking like a crowded showroom for expensive cars.

Vasilissis Sofias is totally different. To drive down this street is to take a journey back in time, to turn back the clock of urbanisation. The signs of the city's first upper middle class neighbourhood remain: the earlier neo-classic villas, succeeded by mansions and luxury apartment blocks - and many examples from each period still stand as they were, which is rare indeed in Athens. The Concert Hall is a contemporary reflection of this current; and it was not chance that located it between the United States Embassy (designed by Walter Gropius, leader of the Bauhaus movement) and Eleftherias Park, whose grassy expanses are a favourite place for casual strollers. Continuing on your way, you pass the Athens Hilton, symbol of the self-confidence generated by rapid post-war development, and head towards the National Garden, still one of the loveliest and most attractive spots in the city. Down one side of the park runs Irodou Attikou Ave., boasting the Presidential Palace, the Prime Minister's official residence and some of the most expensive real estate in the city; it ends at Vasileos Konstantinou and the Kallimarmaro Stadium, which in 1896 hosted the first modern Olympic Games.

This is the starting point for a new adventure: on the other side of Ardittos hill begins Vouliagmenis Ave., a road that requires considerable patience, as you crawl past endless small shops waiting for the traffic to open up so that you can speed on down to the seaside, either to Glyfada or to Kavouri at the end of this stretch of road.

And then, of course, there is Syngrou Ave., the broad straight avenue that leads from Faliro and the waterfront boulevard right into the heart of Athens. The role it played in the '70s has been taken over by Kifisias Ave., but the change is celebrated daily - or rather nightly - in the great clubs scattered along its length. Today, it is reclaiming its ancient title, judging by the splendid new buildings that are going up, signed by some of the world's greatest architects.

Back once again to Ampelokipoi, this time to go down Alexandras Ave. The refugee housing units, which still bear the marks of the Civil War, are being readied for demolition; the Panathinaikos Football Grounds, on the other side of the street, still echo to football games played - as in bygone days - in the heart of the city; farther down is the narrow Argentinis Dimokratias Square, whose name few people know. Pause for coffee, toast or cream cakes at the once again trendy Sonia's, a patisserie with a nostalgic '60s style, before turning into the park of the Pedio tou Areos, an oasis of green in a particularly densely built area.

Patision Ave. waits at the corner. If you've ever come across the a la grecque beat poet Katerina Gogou, you'll find yourself murmuring that your life is "more or less a Patision": this is the most stressed-out street in the city. The Polytechnic School, the School of Economics, Koliatsou, Amerikis Sq., Kypseli, the cafe concourse of Fokionos Negri, Patisia: the neighbourhoods that sheltered the lower-classes dream of post-war residential rehousing became the most densely populated in the Greater Athens Area. And now they are home to people from all over the world, the multiracial dormitory of the capital.

Change of direction, and return to the centre. Stadiou Street has a civilised air about it: as you head up it, you pass Lampropoulos (one of the city's oldest department stores), the passages through the big old commercial buildings, now proudly renovated (the Stoa Orfeas, for example, with the Theatro Technis, or the Stoa tou Vivliou, abutting the Council of State), the roar of the Stock Exchange wafting up from Sofokleous Street, the big banks, Klafthmonos Square, the modernised Korai Square (with a Starbucks where Floka's used to be), the Old Parliament House, the famous Army Pension Fund block, which once housed Zonar's and the Aliki Theatre and is now being converted into the city's biggest shopping centre. Left turn into Voukourestiou. Pause for espresso under the gaze of Moralis, Tsarouchis, Chatzidakis and Pablo Casals at the Brazilian, one of the city's first de rigueur cafes. Some things are truly classic.

Out onto Panepistimiou St., which for some reason always looks busier than its neighbour. Perhaps because it's a bit wider, and so has room for more cars - not to mention a bus lane going in the opposite direction. Perhaps because it has even more offices, even more companies, even more passages. Or perhaps because, once you've passed the elegant end, with the Catholic Church, the imposing trio of neo-classical buildings housing the Academy, the University and the National Library, the historic Ideal (cinema and restaurant) and the Rex, where some of the National Theatre's productions are staged, you come back to your starting point. Panepistimiou leads to Omonoia, and the stream of humanity carries you along, transforming you from a simple stroller to a busy Athenian, always in a hurry to get things done.

This is the Athens of today; and you sense it if you continue to circulate in the centre, in streets like Akadimias, Solonos, Skoufa, Ippokratous, or the broad flagged pedestrian precinct of Ermou. This is the commercial heart of the city, this is the real downtown core, with few residents but busy night and day: when the shops close in the evening, everyone (and everything) prepares for the next stage, the next wave: those out for an evening's entertainment, dinner in a trendy restaurant or a drink in the pleasant hubbub of a busy little bar.