NEWS

The new look of downtown Athens at Christmas is like a gift, with a gold ribbon encircling city blocks

He was «fed up,» he said, with reading about how much Athens had changed. «It’s one thing for someone who hasn’t seen the city for 10 years and who turns up now to see it all cleaned up and Christmas-y, and something else for people like you and me who live here.» I understood what the speaker meant, but I wasn’t so sure that I agreed with him. I had just stepped out of the recently reopened Zonar’s cafe in downtown Athens. The crowd on Voukourestiou Street was lively, well-dressed and exuded an air of affluence; the windows of the Attica shopping mall were brightly lit and the Iliou Mansion, home to the Numismatic Museum, was eye-catching. During the few minutes’ walk to Syntagma Square, all the images of Athens at Christmas in 2007 were ones of prosperity. It was clear that the city’s historic center not only has a history but also a new, contemporary tale to tell. Injections of confidence I paid no attention to the stray dogs (which make such an impression on tourists), or to the inelegant cafes in the square. I didn’t allow my mood to be spoiled by the feeling that I was in a golden cage just a few blocks in size, or by the knowledge that, just a bit further on, a more familiar Athens awaited me. But as I walked I observed that the glitter had spread down toward Mitropoleos Street and up toward Vassilissis Sofias Avenue, which doesn’t really need it, having plenty of its own. All these injections of self-confidence in the area around Syntagma, from the new Theoharakis Visual Art and Music Foundation to the new Public store, suddenly seem to share a single coefficient. They needed a box to hold a fairy tale, a beautiful building, a shell. Athens was putting on a new cloak. Everything fell into place as I passed by the King George and Grande Bretagne hotels, Public, the Pallas theater, Zonar’s and Theoharakis. There seems to be an unprecedented hunger for prestigious urban architecture. Where it did not exist, it has been created from scratch (as in the case of the King George) and buildings that had become disgracefully dilapidated now glow at night like fireflies (Attica and Public). It didn’t have to be great architecture, nor did the materials need to be first-rate, what mattered was that they were to wrap up a fairy tale. Athens needed to construct a catwalk to parade upon. Barcelona has 100 golden city blocks; Athens has five or six, but they do the job. The General Army Fund building (which nobody calls by its name anymore), boasts an Athenian version of art deco, with exceptional attention to detail. The moldings on the ceilings of the Pallas and Zonar’s are a story in themselves. It must be the first time in recent years that the attractions of urban architecture have entered into the vocabulary of investors. And the remaining buildings were not the best in the city. The Pallis Mansion looks handsome on the corner of Syntagma Square and Karagiorgi Servias Street, but it is not the best building designed by Alexandros Metaxas. Similarly, the Merlin building on Vassilissis Sofias, opposite Parliament, is not the best by Vassileios Tsangris, who was such an active architect in Athens between the wars, and who died during the occupation. But these are the buildings left in Athens. The brilliant neoclassical palaces that adorned the corner of Othonos and Amalias Avenue and along Stadiou and Vassilissis Sofias are gone, having all disappeared in the space of two decades. In 1978, they were still demolishing buildings on Vassilissis Sofias and Panepistimiou, one by one. Some plots of land remained vacant years or were made into parking lots. Others were completely constructed over with buildings that have since worn badly. Patina Now that there’s money around, people are well fed and have traveled, they are looking for something more. Neoclassical ruins on Stadiou and Amerikis streets are already in the process of renovation. Some people want to knock down the six-story buildings that went up in the 1970s (which lack prestige) or at least give them a facade with an artificial patina. Athens is trying to make up for lost time. Where not one traditional cafe remained, Zonar’s has been recreated – it’s new, but it’s in the familiar old style. If there were 10 cafes like Zonar’s downtown, they would all be full. It is as if a golden ribbon ran around Amerikis, Voukourestiou, Syntagma, Ermou, Mitropoleos, Amalias and Vassilisis Sofias, wrapping up Athens like a gift. The city center has become a spectacle, a music box that allows you to indulge in your own fairy tale. It may be just a bubble, a beautiful lie or a shallow truth, but Athens is seeking a way to dress up its new prosperity. As long as there are good princes who transform buildings and change the city’s atmosphere, Athens will continue to tell a new fairy tale every Christmas.