The old building at 27 Aeolou Street could not be described as an Athenian landmark. In its heyday, however, it was one of a number of impressive buildings erected as the city began to blossom in the 19th century. Today, very few would even remember the building if destiny had been less kind to it – as was the case with numerous landmark edifices of the prewar era which were eventually swept away in the years of postwar reconstruction.
Nevertheless, the significance of the Emporikon Hotel is not solely architectural. Had it been demolished, a prominent example of the economic boom witnessed by Aeolou Street in the 19th century would have disappeared for good. Originally designed in 1835, the street had developed into a major commercial hub by 1850, filled with stores, cafes, hotels and public service offices.
Describing a visit to Athens in 1883 in her travel memoirs, Rosa von Gerold, a wealthy lady of Viennese society, wrote of eccentrically dressed men sitting or standing in front of small coffee houses, all talking and smoking together much in the manner of politicians. The Viennese traveler was surprised to observe this kind of activity taking place in the middle of the afternoon when the other shops had closed their doors for the siesta hour.
It is amid this kind of social and economic environment that the Emporikon Hotel prospered during the 19th century. Aeolou Street was also the location of the city’s first-ever establishment to offer dining and accommodation facilities: the Xenodocheion tis Evropis (Europe Hotel), which opened for business in 1832. Initially managed by an Italian couple, the hotel was later renamed Hotel Royal.
Had travel website tripadvisor.com been around in the 1830s, French traveler Edmond About would no doubt have related an unfortunate incident he witnessed during a visit to the Europe Hotel: the establishment’s owner fighting with his wife and the latter calling every single hotel guest – in alphabetical order – to her rescue.
Another establishment, the Aeolos Hotel, opened its doors to the public in 1835. At the time an announcement in the local press referred to the establishment being situated near Platanos Square and the Pnyx Hill. According to the announcement, the Aeolos featured European furniture as well as European wines and spirits. Continental as well as Turkish dishes were served and tables were set at all times. The establishment’s prices, said the announcement, were “average.”
Similarly to the rest of the city, Aeolou Street was struggling to appear “European” – not an easy task at the time. In an eloquent commentary published in 1891, local newspaper Efimeris noted that both Aeolou and nearby Athinas showcased the kind of colors observed on commercial streets in Eastern cities, where objects hanging outside the stores betrayed the Oriental practices of traders who displayed the very best of what they had to offer on the outside.
Today, in yet another chapter of the city’s history, Aeolou Street is back in vogue. The bold refurbishment of the Emporikon and its transformation into a 12-room boutique hotel is one of those rather minor events which tend to herald something much bigger. A cafe and a restaurant are already operating on the hotel’s ground floor, which, along with a number of new stores, bars, cafes and eateries situated in the broader area of Aghias Irinis Square, are paving the way for a retro-chic identity. I have the feeling that two years from now, Aeolou will be a very different place.