In Search of Old Athens
Many people say that besides the Acropolis and the major archeological sites, there is little of architectural substance in the city of Athens. I disagree. Those who explain Athens away as merely a concrete jungle are guilty of not having their eyes open when they walk the streets of Greece's capital city.
(See also Athens: The Way It Used to Be)
there are many distinguished buildings scattered
throughout the city, most built before the turn of
the century in the neo-classic style. Many of
these have been restored and some of those that
have not are in the process of being
could compare it to New York City because many
of the old beautiful buildings and homes were
knocked down in the name of 'progress' (or
greed) and replaced with apartment buildings.
If you can find an old postcard of Athens from
the late 19th century, you can wander around
and find the buildings which are still in
Athens is no Vienna or Paris in the respect that there are no large sections of the city that have remained intact for hundreds of years (except the Plaka) but Athens is a new city compared to all of those cities including New York. Before the late 1800's Athens was basically a village and that village still exists in the Plaka and Anafiotika neighborhoods where you can still walk around and feel like you are on a small island village rather then a big city. Even the noise of the traffic finds it difficult to make its way through the winding streets and stairways. There are other similar areas, though not as extensive, at the base of Lycavettos and in Galatsi though old houses are few and far between, most having been torn down and replaced with apartment buildings in the sixties and seventies when Athens was growing at a maddening pace. Even in dense apartment-filled neighborhoods you can still come across an occasional house that is a hundred years old or more and looks like something you might find on an island.
Athens it's a matter of taking the time to
distinguish what is distinguishable. Even the most
visually unsightly neighborhood full of
polikatikias (the most hated word in my wife's
vocabulary. It means apartment building), will
have some gem of an old home tucked between
characterless concrete monstrosities. The downtown
area is full of great old buildings and churches.
Nothing compares to the Acropolis of course but
what does anywhere? Right
now there is a process going on which is being
labeled as the Vienafication of
Athens: the pedestrian streets, the
restoration and floodlighting of the old public
buildings, restoration of the main squares and the
sinking of some of the major avenues to create a
giant green archeological area that will spread
from Philippapos hill to the Stadium. There are
even plans to raise the river that used to flow
through the city and is now
and visually I agree with those who say that parts
of Athens can be a nightmare for someone with
refined architectural tastes, but it is that
juxtaposition of the profound to the profane that
makes Athens interesting. (did I say that right?)
It's easy to see the ugliness, but you don't
notice it anymore when you are looking for beauty.
You want something interesting to do in Athens? Go
out and keep your eyes open for the old
Neo-Classic buildings and turn-of-the-century
homes. They are everywhere and unless you are
looking for them you may not even notice them.
There are also many examples of Art Deco apartment
buildings, and beautiful examples of Art Nouveau
wrought iron. You
may notice some amazing old buildings from the
early part of the century, locked up but
surrounded by scaffolding so they look like they
are about to be rennovated. Unfortunately most of
these are owned by the Greek version of our IRS
and the scaffolding is only to protect pedestrians
from chunks of stone that might fall from it. You
might ask why they don't sell them and fix them
up, or fix them up and sell them. Apparently there
is no mechanism for this or else there is no
interest. But if I ruled Athens I would auction
them off with the stipulation that if they were
not rennovated in 2 years they would be repossesed
and auctioned off again. It's better then having
them just sitting there deteriorating like an old
Pontiac in some redneck's driveway.
you really want to see some amazing examples of
Hellenic style architecture go take a walk around
the university. It's like a re-creation of
Classical Athens and you almost expect to see
Socrates walking around with followers. Who wouldn't
feel proud to go to school in a place that looks like this? Well
actually the buildings behind it are a little more run-down and
grafitti scrawled but like anywhere, the main buildings are impressive.
Just as interesting is the old University, now a museum on
the road that rings the Acropolis where the highest level of Plaka
houses are. Many of the neo-classical buildings of the last two
centuries in Plaka and Psiri have been restored and turned into
museums, galleries or private homes.
And I have not even mentioned the Byzantine churches, which are everywhere. Some are tucked away in little courtyards with beautiful gardens, walled in by five story concrete buildings. Some have modern buildings built around them, while others like the beautiful 11th Century Church of Kapni Karea on Ermou, have finally once again become the beautiful center-piece of a pedestrian walkway after being an impediment to Athenian drivers for the last twenty years because they had to drive around it. So when it comes to architecture and buildings with personality don't sell Athens short. The concrete jungle you see is merely a facade that hides numerous treasures. Don't blink. You might miss one.
For more see my Photos of Old Kypseli Architecture