Revamped streets of the historic center make Athenians want to rediscover their city

Before Syntagma Square was delivered in its present form, many were cautious because Omonia had been such a washout. Yet Syntagma has led the race to acquire new urban pride. No substantial objections were heard. And people were more than pleased; they were enthusiastic. The waterfall feature has a backdrop of the King George and Grande Bretagne hotels, which created a trompe l’oeuil effect, a fake but welcome image of belle epoque Athens. The sound of the water is calming. The cafes are full. The atmosphere is cosmopolitan. Many people remarked that the new-look Syntagma has an air of Europe, of the sweet, Mediterranean, genuine Europe. Do you think so? Perhaps it will now that the square is to become even larger, as this fall the sidewalks facing Ermou St will be widened. The road will be narrower but pedestrians will get some space. Othonos Street is ready, the square has good surfacing, the fountain (built in 1872) is in place. But Syntagma was the easy part. The difficult part The difficult part is not in Omonia at all, but in Monastiraki, which was the ugly duckling of the Olympic Games. There was another fiasco with architectural competitions some years ago. The design that won the first prize (which was daring and looked good) was never implemented and the square remained a tract of dirty cement with a view of the Acropolis. Of course, it won’t stay like that, but none of those responsible for it is in any position to tell us how and when it will be fixed. «It will be refurbished,» says the Unification of Athens Archaeological Sites company (EAXA), but no timetable has been given and the architects’ intentions for the refurbishment have not been released, as the requisite funding has not yet been secured. With a little imagination, the walk from Omonia to Monastiraki could be completely different when those two squares are ready. Don’t expect to see them finished soon though, because post-Olympic melancholy is turning into relief, as the deadlines are relative now and certainly more «Greek.» If a successful aesthetic and architectural solution is found, it will highlight the work we often forget but has been quietly done throughout the historic center in restoring buildings and shaping smaller squares. As you go down Athinas St from Omonia, look back toward Tritis Septemvriou Street. There’s a row of olive trees in the square with freshly painted buildings in the background. Little miracles have been performed on Athinas, even though many of the old buildings are still in ruins. Next to the Bageion, two more neoclassical buildings form a brilliant facade of historic architecture that’s hard to find in Athens. A little further on, toward Lykourgou St, the midwar building of Vassilis Kouremoneos, with its colored marble and art deco mosaics, has been polished up. A beautiful facade. And opposite, until recently the site of a third-class hotel of indifferent 1960’s architecture, the latest link in the Grecotel chain has shot up, looking attractive. It is the self-confidence of this building that is impressive, rather than the architecture. It’s a revelation of what can be done with the «bad» buildings from Athens’s sinful past. If you walk on a little further past the most «pop» hotel in Athens, the Fresh, which glories in hot colors and a ’60s mood, you’ll reach the new Varvakeio Market (which is clean!). The market is a mosaic of aesthetics and inspiration from Omonia to the heart of Athinas, but it is precisely this peaceful coexistence between the old Athens, the Athens of the East, which is alive here as ever, and the new, explosive Athens, which is expressed in a thousand different ways. There’s no conflict. That’s not an issue. It’s a bit like the closing ceremony for the Olympic Games. Everyone together, nobody left out. Friends, not rivals. But for those of you who dislike this hybrid style, and who yearn for the authentic Athens, slip into Koumoundourou Sq. It is one of EAXA’s quiet successes, a square that was completed without problems and doesn’t need fixing up. There you can see the mild, measured, wise and unpretentious face of Athens. The refurbishment of Koumoundourou Sq has furnished the city with a new urban landscape. On Pireos St, with the facade of the Municipal Art Gallery, Koumoundourou has plenty of greenery, landscaping, walkways, little bridges and an amphitheater. It is the Athens of fantasy, but absolutely real. It is mild, perhaps because Koumoundourou has nothing to prove, it has nothing to compete with except an ugly past, because the spotlight of publicity has never shone on it. What remains is to restore its architectural harmony, to fill in the semicircle of the buildings that cradle it like a half moon on the Psyrri side. Now we’re deep into the Athenian hinterland, going from Psyrri toward Thiseion. But we can feel the impact of metropolitan Athens at the new Benaki Museum of Islamic Art and the other new Benaki further down on Pireos. Nothing is the same. And just as well. Nevertheless, some parts of Athens seem intractable. Two or three of the aging facades on Ermou that abut Assomaton St, have been restored, but only those. But this is where another Athens success begins. The pedestrian walkway to Kerameikos and the view: If you think what a treasure the Kerameikos Cemetery is for the city, for its memory, its beauty, its emotional life, you wonder how it was let go for so many years. The small Kerameikos Museum is a gem, with excellent staff. The Garden of the Dead, Kerameikos is the culmination of a walk along the city’s new pathway. You feel as if you are seeing things from the beginning. And from this perhaps springs the feeling that Athens has changed. You walk through the city and you can see the changes. You get around because of them. «Have you seen the new Syntagma?» they ask us. How long has it been since that happened in Athens? Surprise in store? That’s why all the new dismantling and construction is not taking place amid the usual grumbling, but on a new stage which may have a future. Never before has there been such a general conviction in the air that Athens is doing well. If the Olympic Games left anything behind, it is precisely this new feeling for the city itself, which has acquired real stature and has something to be proud of. You can hear what we all say: «It was a dream; it’s over.» School buses are back on the streets, which might flood, cars will park on the ramps, Athens will become chaotic again. You can choose to see the glass half empty if you wish, but while we keep up the national sport of complaining, Athens has turned over a new leaf. And though all the refurbishment works that are announced before a study has even been done still inconvenience us, ask a foreign friend who visited Athens 4-5 years ago. Listen to what they have to say about this city that has changed its skin and its mood. Athens gives us a chance to become tourists again. We need new guidebooks to see the museums and map out new routes to the sights. Don’t start with Omonia, if you don’t like the idea. Start from Thiseion and Kerameikos. But, just between us, Omonia is not Omonia any more. But that’s a matter of opinion. And good mood. The historic center of Athens has never been so popular. This fall we’ll appreciate it and enjoy it like Athenians, but also like tourists in Athens, We may be surprised, and if not, we’ll have something to talk about. Isn’t that where we started?

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