The “New” Athens: From Crisis to Creative Capital

The “New” Athens: From Crisis to Creative Capital

With one foot rooted in the past, and the other striding
out into the future, Athens is breathing life into its classical
heritage and Greek traditions with high-octane culture, conscious
brands and blossoming creative scene.

Thoughts of
are likely to elicit images of crumbling classical
edifices, unrelenting traffic and financial turmoil. Yet a decade
on from the Greek government-debt crisis, the city has undergone
something of a renaissance. Today a potent blend of earthy,
high-octane culture, conscious brands and hip restaurants has risen
from Athens’ economic ashes, attracting a multicultural creative
crowd that has breathed new life into the urban landscape.

Along with artists and young entrepreneurs lured in by the low
rents, a string of culturally sympathetic philanthropists is
driving Athens’ regeneration, painting a dynamic and optimistic
picture for the capital that is reconciling its mesmerising ancient
history, traditions and architecture with modern philosophies and a
fresh hipster groove. Small wonder the city was crowned the
European Capital of Innovation in 2018.

Beyond the Benaki Museum and National
Museum of Contemporary Art
, Athens has only recently woken up
to the modern art world, hosting Documenta 14, an international art
fair, last year and launching its own Athens Biennale. The art
crowd will soon be able to feast on the Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art, which is set
to open in late 2019 and will house treasures from the personal
collection of the late ship-owner and art lover Basil Goulandris.

Yet it’s the non-profit, progressive organisations, cultural
collectives and galleries such as The
(set in a former ice cream factory gallery in
Metaxourgio) that are playing a seminal role in Athens’ emerging
contemporary art scene, championing Greek talent with global
cultural gravitas. Similarly, non-profit organisations including
the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art and the
CAN Christina Androulidaki Gallery promote both
emerging and established artists, and broaden the audience for
contemporary art in the city.

In a curious blend of noblesse oblige and creative “proletarian”
endeavour, Athens’ steep cultural renovations and revived landmarks
(such as city’s historic Olympia Theatre) run parallel to a more
rugged, grassroots movement, the latter influencing this
renaissance with progressive ideas on cafés, workspaces, ethics and
community. Take the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural
, a contemporary architectural masterpiece inspired by
its patron’s shipping heritage; it houses the acclaimed Greek
National Opera and the National Library of Greece. The centre hosts
an impressive roster of opera, ballet, contemporary dance and
theatre, peppered with more enlightened and immersive workshops and
classes, including cosmology lectures in the library and yoga
classes in the pristine olive grove.

Where in London,
this sort of dystopian-style, progressive centre would be the
preserve of the millennials and freelancers, at the SNFCC,
Athenians of all ages work, watch, eat and read in civilised
harmony until closing time (12am), as befitting their Hellenic
culture. In the evening, the rooftop and restaurants teem with
families and friends enjoying dinner, a pianist’s rehearsal and
sweeping views across their glistening city.

As part of an urban regeneration project, Athens’ authorities
have collaborated with contemporary local architects to rescue the
downtrodden Plateia Theatrou municipality, transforming it into a
bohemian hotbed of cultural collectives and cooperatives that
reconcile traditional Greek artisanal methods with contemporary

Similarly, the multicultural Kypseli neighbourhood with its
tired 30s Municipal Market has been given a modern face-lift. New
spaces and neo-classical renovations play host to workshops and
training sessions for locals while the marketplace supports
small-scale food producers across the country. The neighbourhood
has fast become a creative hub and microcosm for the progressive
philosophies driving the city’s rebirth. Even the eight stores that
have reopened in The Stoa Emporon (Merchant Arcade), overtly
support and promote social entrepreneurship and creativity. Only
after an economic storm of Greece’s scale can the very core and
ethics of capitalism and lifestyle be re-evaluated and refined to
such an extent.

This plays out throughout the country’s fashion industry which,
despite the long-existing production and design talent, was dealt a
huge blowback in 2010. Charity, social awareness and sustainable
practices are driving forces behind many of the brands that have
cropped up in the wake of the Greek crisis. One such brand is
Zeus+Dione founded in 2011 by Dimitra Kolotoura and
Mareva Grabowski. Having just opened its first flagship store in
central Athens, the brand is defined by its dedication to fostering
local industry, blending Greek heritage and artisanal traditions
with contemporary aesthetics, while donating a percentage of
profits to sustainability campaigns.

The Greek riff on global influences powering Athens’ budding art
and fashion culture naturally spills into its culinary and
hospitality scene. Hipster-style restaurants inhabiting the tired
bones of the city’s once magnificent buildings offer eclectic,
multicultural menus with locally sourced produce. There’s the
cheap-and-cheerful vegan restaurant Cookoomela Grill in Themistokleous and Frater & Soror, a lively
hipster joint with polished gin cocktails and imaginative small
plates. Athens’ first food court, Str. Eaters, throbs with an
abundance of gourmet street food options. Meanwhile, coffee shops
such as Yiasemi in the quaint Plaka neighbourhood are combining

staples – think matcha almond milk – with a hearty Greek

Asian cuisine (particularly bao buns) seems to have infiltrated
the Athenian food scene with the likes of Mr Pug’s Canteen in Halandri and
Birdman, a Japanese pub serving yakitori and
small dishes in Syntagma Square.

If you want to dodge the run-of-the-hipster-mill,
avocado-on-toast haunts, Culinary Backstreets food tours
offer an insider scoop on Athens’ eclectic gastro-scene and with a
history lesson to boot. From deep-fried dough balls in nondescript,
generations-old cafés to Triantofyllo Tis Nostimias, a hidden
seafood restaurant at the end of an old arcade, packed with locals.

The boutique hotel trend has caught on in the city, with the
likes of Perianth Hotel, its enchanting
1930s interiors awash with sleek contemporary furnishings, pastel
hues and abstract art. The hotel’s acclaimed Athenian designers,
K-studio embody a fresh appetite for easy, uncluttered indulgence
and modern travelling patterns, as does the hotel’s free yoga,
meditation and martial arts classes in the Zen Centre. In the
well-heeled neighbourhood of Kolonaki, concept hotel Coco-Mat typifies this new trend
in the capital for design-led, unfussy and eco-friendly hotels,
rolling out its popular eco-mattresses and Scandi-style furniture
to three properties across the city. In Autumn, Athens Townhouse
Hotel will open its polished, downtown boutique doors with a mantra
of elevated simplicity and a relaxed dining experience as befitting
Athens’ new wave epicurean culture.

The old-time hotels are having to keep up and innovate, without
compromising on their identity as an institution, a good example
being Divani Palace Acropolis – the classic,
marble-clad side of Athens, not worlds away from the grand dames of
the Cote D’Azur, yet close enough to the Parthenon to almost touch
its ancient charm. A gilded yesteryear feel may govern the
restaurants, bars and near-Italianate courtyard here but the rooms
have been upgraded with a more contemporary, global-chic – think
geometric coffee tables and airy hues – while the rooftop Acropolis
Secret restaurant adds experimental, modern riffs to traditional
Greek cuisine. Below, ancient Greek ruins discovered beneath the
hotel glow behind glass cases for guests to marvel at.

It’s innovation such as this which is symbolic of the mentality
that is driving change in Athens. With one foot rooted in the past,
and the other striding out into the future, the city is able to
spin its classical heritage and proud Greek traditions into new and
exciting global concepts.

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