By Nikos Vatopoulos
After walking around for about an hour, mobile phone in hand and earphones plugged in, I was acutely aware of the fact that the Athenian neighborhood of Neos Cosmos was nothing like I had thought, even though I had been pretty sure I knew the district quite well.
My tour of the area lying between Kallirois Avenue and the foot of Mount Hymettus was part of a pilot program launched by the Onassis Cultural Center that uses an interactive application for smartphones and tablets. My fellow journalists and myself were sent out into the area with absolutely no idea of what to expect and returned having experienced something wonderful and gained a wealth of knowledge.
The app allows users to take a free tour, alone, through a part of the Greek capital that is somewhat neglected, maybe even ignored, yet without a doubt interesting in a bittersweet kind of way. The length of the tour can be adapted to suit your mood and how much time you have.
The Onassis Cultural Center’s long-term aim is to broaden the application to take in other parts of Athens – including that which will be subject to a revamp under the Rethink Athens initiative – and to have it in English and other languages too, offering a different perspective not just to visitors but also to residents.
Anyone with a smartphone or tablet can download the application (instructions are available at the OCC) or can otherwise be supplied with a mobile device to be returned after the tour. One tap on the “walking” button and you’re off.
The tour reveals Neos Cosmos in all its facets: a neighborhood settled by refugees from Asia Minor in the late 1920s and 30, developed on different scales in different parts, and then settled anew this century by a fresh wave of foreign migrants to Greece. The audiovisual tour uses images, text and sound, while the information is conveyed generously and in captivating ways. This soundscape-landscape was designed by Medea Electronique, a team of talented people from different creative disciplines who have designed an app that offers a full cerebral experience, playing to the viewer, the intellectual and the city aficionado. You can hear the sounds of children playing, birdsong, the hum of traffic, laughter, church bells, students coming out of class and the roar of nearby Syngrou Avenue in a tour that casts the neighborhood in bas-relief and immerses you in its everyday life.
The tour takes in landmarks such as a makeshift mosque set up by Neos Cosmos’s Muslim residents, the Sourp Garabed Armenian Orthodox Church, the playground, the Church of Analipseos, the Lagoumitzi Street pedestrian underpass, the old refugee quarter, local cafes and the balcony of a man who keeps finches, as well as the grand hotels Neos Cosmos is home to, its multiplex cinema and, of course, Syngrou, the big thoroughfare that links the city center with its southern suburbs. Special emphasis is placed on a monument commemorating a Nazi massacre of local residents on August 9, 1944.
Once downloaded, the application can be used as many times as the user wishes; there is so much information that no two tours will be exactly the same.
More than anything, what you’re left with after the tour is a sense of the place, of a locality with an identity, of a neighborhood standing still, slowly eroding, as time rushes by.
What is most touching about the initiative is that it was designed with the cooperation and contribution of local residents – Greeks, foreigners, young and old. The design team spent months building a relationship of trust with the neighborhood, cultivating ties. The tour includes lines of poetry, extracts of history and videos, crafting a micro-history composed of the testimonials seen on the walls, in the streets and in the homes of Neos Cosmos, making it truly interactive.