Teleferique gets a makeover and new customers

The teleferique of Lycabettus – the «inclined terrestrial railway» – has had its ups and downs during its 40-year life. Now revamped, it is renewing its acquaintance with Athenians, tempting them to the best view of the city from on high. Above the busy streets of Kolonaki, the ground rises steeply. The road surface ends and the only way up is by a series of steps. At the end of Ploutarchou Street, a surprise awaits. Two shops facing one another, the only ones of their kind in the area, display goods apparently unsold for decades: cheap copies of ancient statues, fake amphoras and souvenirs. A wave of tourists passed by here once and for some reason never returned. Turning my gaze to a new building, I see the large sign: TELEFERIQUE. «So it’s still there?» friends and acquaintances asked me later. Some of them had never heard of it before. «Yes, it’s there and it’s been done up recently,» I said. The truth is that even I, supposedly the best informed, merely had childhood recollections of the train that climbed to the highest point in the city. In the meantime, something had happened and the teleferique was forgotten. There were many reasons for this and I encountered one of them on Thursday at midday. Taxi drivers on Solonos Street refused, without exception, to take me there. «I’ll take you to the ring road and no further, because I’m handing over the cab,» said one. Eventually I arrive late, having tipped a taxi driver who agreed to return «empty» from the «unprofitable» back streets of Lycabettus Hill. And it’s not just the taxis. It’s difficult for any vehicle to approach the teleferique terminus on the corner of Aristippou and Ploutarchou. Tourist coaches haven’t appeared in the neighborhood for ages. The sole urban bus service that does the Archaeological Museum-Academias-Lycabettus run can barely squeeze between the cars parked on both sides of Aristippou. Passengers who want to take the teleferique have to get off two streets further down on Kleoumenous. Teleferique workers face the same access problem every day, they tell me. So I feel lucky just to have arrived. One other passenger I am impressed by the shiny, colorful carriages. «They depart every half hour, unless there are a lot of people, in which case we make sure they leave every 10 minutes,» the ticket seller told me. «And how often does that happen?» I ask. «Every weekend,» she continued. «On Sunday mornings, especially if the weather is good. But on Saturday night, we’ve had to stay open till 3 a.m. to bring down people who eat late at the restaurant.» It is three-and-a-half years since the teleferique, established in 1965, was taken over by the Kastellorizo SA group, along with the restaurant and cafe at the top of Lycabettus. Until then it was struggling. It didn’t run very often, the carriages were old, the installations were dilapidated and it was far from profitable. The project was offered for tender and the dark tunnel brightened again in early 2002. The renovation and the refurbishment of the catering areas cost a total of 3.2 million euros. The carriages were built in Switzerland and all the staff attended seminars held by Swiss technicians. As I spoke to my sole fellow passenger, we agreed that the 4.50 euros we paid for a return trip was not cheap. «It’s a shame, you know; there are so many solitary people who live around here yet they don’t come to have a coffee and enjoy this magical view,» she remarked. She must be one of the lucky ones, because she went on to say, «I come here to be by myself for a while and think, but most of all to take in the splendor of Athens from above.» We had no more time. The trip was short, precisely 2 minutes and 5 seconds, as the operator told me later. On one of those Sunday mornings when the weather makes you want to get outdoors, I visited the teleferique again. There I find young Yiannis trying to punch his ticket. He and his brother only pay half-fare but for the whole family – three children, two parents and two grandmothers – it costs 25 euros. «We’ll think twice before doing it again,» one of the grandmothers complained to me. But she was even more enthusiastic than her grandson. «I’ve lived in Athens for so many years and this is the first time I’ve had the good fortune to travel on the teleferique.» «Are you afraid»? I inquired. «Not at all. It looks new, and it’s clean. Do you think we’ll have a problem?» she asked. «Certainly not,» I reassured her. I wasn’t talking idly. All the passengers that day – couples, families, group of friends, elderly men and women and a few tourists like Carl and Eva from Austria – were absolutely safe. The young operator Constantinos Totsikas made sure there were no mishaps as passengers embarked and disembarked before the automatic doors closed. There is no driver. The teleferique is completely automated and monitored by closed-circuit television. There were no queues. The carriages left on time, even if they hadn’t taken on the maximum load of 34 passengers, and the teleferique worked to perfection. Never mind that it cost a bit more than the one in the Austrian Alps, as Carl and Eva pointed out. «How long did it take you to break even?» I asked Antonis Stavrou, the managing director of Kastellorizo. «How can we break even when the annual cost of maintenance is 100,000 euros?» he responded. I stand at the crown of the city and weigh things up. The benefits of private enterprise are greater, I think, even if they cost more. «Don’t be surprised,» a Kolonaki resident had told me. «We used to pay 1,000 drachmas, if my memory serves me right.» The state has lost interest. The signposts leading to the teleferique have faded in the sun. Neither the traffic police nor the municipal authorities have freed Aristippou of cars. But Athenians want to go there. The Kastellorizo group employs four parking valets on Saturdays. As for groups of tourists, they have to be able to afford minibuses to take them up there. Cab drivers will only go there if they’re in a good mood. In 2004, when the Olympic Games were held in Athens, only 194,000 people took the teleferique. This year the number had risen to 204,000 passengers by November. I have a feeling it will keep rising. Perhaps then some people will remember that the teleferique belongs to everyone. (1) This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s weekly color supplement, K, on December 24.