Don’t call it a crisis: in the wake of its well documented rocky financial road, Athens has reinvented itself, and its indie fashion, art and food scenes are flourishing, says Juliet Kinsman.
Since opening in 2009, the gleaming glass of the new Acropolis Museum and the soul-stirring presentation of its priceless contents has been a welcome source of pride for the natives of Athens, a city with one hell of a Hellenic heritage.
We know all about the myriad achievements of ancient Greece, but now it’s the modern-day triumphs that deserve time in the spotlight.
Young, positive artists and creatives – who decided to fight rather than flee – have joined forces, sticking to their passions and breathing new life into the city centre.
The side effects of a less-than-healthy economy have been a fresh love for vintage fashion, the proliferation of low-key but sophisticated wine bars, an uplifting camaraderie, which pervades the city’s edgy new hangouts, and, now that cars are too expensive for many to run, traffic-free streets and cleaner city air.
An intrepid generation of Greek talent is getting the party started again – without bragging about it.
A resident of Athens during the pre-2004 Summer Olympics boom, I enjoyed a spell reviewing restaurants and hotels across this boisterous city.
Everywhere was being gilded or gutted, and the urban sprawl was reconfigured with a fancy new infrastructure.
A colourful nightlife scene spilled into new neighbourhoods such as gritty Psirri and out-of-town gasworks site Gazi, and the air crackled with optimism and ouzo-fuelled hedonism.
Happily distracted by the many macho big-player businessmen popping open the champagne, revellers blithely ignored the mutterings of older hard-working folks worried that their taxes wouldn’t cover all this activity.
A decade on, many bubbles have burst and a lot of the economy’s cash has long since been secreted away to Swiss bank accounts.
Still, I’ll dare to declare that as a result, Athens is giving Berlin a run for its money. Not in terms of financial clout, but certainly for its creativity and contemporary cool. (When the Greek capital’s debts reached nadir and social tensions were spiking, pressure fell on its fellow EU members to bail them out and some joked that Greece should be renamed Southern Germany.)
The resulting doom-and-gloom news reports were misleading: when you’re in the blue-skied city as a visitor it couldn’t feel sunnier – figuratively and meteorologically.
Truth is, the economy’s collapse had a dazzling silver lining, and the city previously considered merely a stop-off for island-hoppers on the way to the Aegean is now a dynamic destination in its own right.
Syntagma Square still has its pom-pom-shoed changing of the guard display at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the hour, every hour. And the Hotel Grand Bretagne looks more elegant than ever, presiding over the north-east corner of Constitution Square.
But now the five-star grand dame has been joined by Starwood’s Luxury Collection with its next-door neighbour, the spruced-up and utterly chic King George.
A few years ago, Athenians would have gasped at travellers being signposted to the seedy lanes just off this main square but now, instead of being lured to the kitsch of Pláka or the glitz of Kolonaki, style-seeking visitors are discovering New Hotel, which won TripAdvisor’s top accolade for 2014, and just south of Syntagma Square, the buzzing bars and hip boutiques of Monastiraki, all of which come blogger endorsed.
When the music-and-cocktail hotspot Six D.O.G.S. opened in Monastiraki in 2009 it marked a new era for the Athens landscape. Now this ’hood is a hipsters’ paradise where new outlets seem to pop up weekly.
Thank Zeus for Daily Secret, an online newsletter set up to alert readers to all the hot new rendezvous in a witty and wise email that leads you to a great-looking website, which might just have you as excited about a trip to Athens as you would be about one to NYC. It was a simple idea, a daily email designed to remind Athenians what they love about their city.
In fact, new local Andria Mitsakos is a designer and publicist who traded Tribeca for an apartment with a view of the Parthenon.
“From Manhattan to Miami to Milan, quite simply Athens doesn’t compare to another city. NYC has its competitive buzz that fuels ambition, which I respect and need, but Athens takes me down a notch.
When you say you’re going for coffee here, it’s because you can dedicate two hours to the person you’re going to see. It’s just more human.”
As the designer behind accessories label Dea Rosa, Mitsakos feels the city offers never-ending inspiration.
“Living in Athens, you can’t escape the ancient energy that haunts you here.”
Athens has the energy of a city in a constant flux of metamorphosis. It goes beyond the folklore stereotypes delivered through Greek tourism and it awakens visitors’ emotions and rewards the sophisticated traveller seeking to study urban transformation.
I’ve never felt more optimistic about the city that gave birth to the fundamental concepts of our civilisation and about its ability to keep inspiring its citizens.