By Alexander Clapp
“If you haven’t seen Athens you’re a fool,” quipped Herakleides Kritikos. Twenty-three centuries later – following countless invasions, sweeping population exchanges and the transformation of Athens into Greece’s national capital – the ancient historian’s blunt counsel still rings true.
Enter Yannis Zaras and Nicolas Nicolaides. In the summer of 2012 the pair founded Big Olive City Walks, a touring agency that offers clients the chance to explore Athenian culture and history in the enthusiastic company of an expert tour guide. Walks are available in open or private capacities, last approximately three hours and range from 25 to 50 euros.
“Late last summer we sensed a new breeze of optimism pervading Athens,” recalls Zaras. “Tourists started coming to our city again. The traditional travel product of Athens – the city tour – needed new flair in order to become relevant and up to date. So we started researching distinct walking paths based on the city's unique characteristics – history, sociology, architecture, gastronomy, literature.”
Big Olive currently offers prospective clients six such routes. Two tours focus on the city’s ancient past. “Athena's Shrine” follows in the footsteps of the 2nd century AD geographer Pausanias and includes a comprehensive tour of the Parthenon and other monuments of Classical and Roman antiquity. “Secrets of the Lost River” is thematic in scope, tracing the stories of Athenian romantics like the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who was so enamored with the city that he became an Athenian citizen.
Other tours concentrate on periods of foreign rule. “Ottoman Alleys,” the most popular of the Big Olive walks, leads visitors through Athens’s Ottoman neighborhoods. Following the tour, clients have the opportunity to relax at Hammam Baths, a genuine Turkish bath house. “We emphasize plurality and coexistence in Greco-Ottoman society, re-evaluating the typical nationalist narrative,” notes Nicolaides. “The Greek Revival Walk” transports tourists back to the Athens of Otto I, the Bavarian ruler of the newly independent Kingdom of Greece. Highlights include the architectural “trilogy” designed by Danish architect Theophil Hansen: the National Library, the University of Athens and the Academy of Athens. “This tour shows how Greece captured the imagination of European travelers, writers and artists during a period in which it emerged as a new nation state upon the ruins of an ancient civilization,” adds Nicolaides.
The early 20th century marks a boom in Athenian population and cultural vibrancy – and also forms the subject of two additional Big Olive tours. “Refugee Trails” examines the interwar period and the fallout from Greece's disastrous Asia Minor campaign; in the Armenian churches and crumbling housing projects of Neos Cosmos visitors can witness the hardships of immigrant life in Athens’s shanty suburban reaches. “Modernist Athens and Le Corbusier” shifts the focus to high culture during the same period. Walkers pass through the leafy neighborhood of Kolonaki and visit cafes once frequented by the likes of Lawrence Durrell and George Seferis.
Big Olive City Walks competes with the Athenian branches of mass touring agencies stationed across Europe, including Hop On-Hop-Off and CitySightseeing bus tours, Happy Train rides and Segway excursions. But Big Olive’s mentality is markedly different from that of its competitors. Instead of whisking visitors to all the touristic hot spots, Zaras and Nicolaides encourage clients to engage with select patches of Athens in staggering depth: street by street, decade by decade. This approach can offer a more enlightening perspective on the relationship between the Athenian past and present – a relationship that can be easily overlooked by those who view the city from a bus seat. “The Greek and Roman spolia on the tiny Byzantine Church of Saint Eleftherios in the Plaka is a perfect example of the reuse and redesign of the ancient legacy long before the birth of neoclassicism. In a similar way, Athenian residences dating to the mid-19th century often retain many Ottoman elements,” notes Zaras. “Architectural styles often survive unchanged for a long time, even as new styles begin to make their appearance.”
Following the unexpected resurgence of the Greek tourism industry in 2013, Big Olive anticipates continued success in the summer of 2014. Before the June tourist onslaught, however, Zaras and Nicolaides look forward to informing locals about Athens's history. To their surprise, approximately 40 percent of Big Olive clients have been Athenians themselves. “Our tours are a great opportunity for Athenians to participate in meaningful didactic seminars and discover anew the social environment of their city,” says Nicolaides. To miss the chance to see Athens in the capable hands of Big Olive City Walks would be foolish indeed.
For more information regarding Big Olive and tour schedules, please visit http://bigolive.org/.