The graffiti-covered steel gate opens with a loud rattle. “Welcome,” says Zachos Varfis, gesturing towards the open compound behind the gate, in the heart of Athens’ Kerameikos district in Greece. There are freshly planted trees and shrubs, wooden tables with benches and, a bit further down, a small skate facility – the Latraac Cafe and Skate Bowl.
“When we came here,” says Varfis, spreading his arms, “this was all a single ruin.”
While the area has remained dormant for several years, art galleries and cafes are suddenly popping up.
“It’s no wonder – the rent is low, the district is right in the city centre and there is a lot of unused space,” explains Varfis, a trained architect.
Kerameikos is just a 15-minute walk north from the Acropolis, past houses covered in street art and a market on Leonidou Street where farmers offer oranges, potatoes, pomegranates and nuts.
At BIOS, a culture and music centre with a shabby-chic cafe, a hipster clientele sit in front of laptops and drink frappes. And yet, just around the corner, a handful of drug addicts are looking for their next fix. Behind them, the Acropolis glistens in the daylight and hangs imposingly over the city.
Kerameikos brings to mind other once-edgy neighbourhoods that experience a sudden change to become cultural hubs. As artists and activists take over urban ruins and empty houses, they take advantage of cheap rent and low property prices, as well as outdoor spaces to be creative.
It’s exactly what’s missing in many European cities – and is what, sooner or later, will end up attracting tourists.
The increase in urban activism in Athens, however, has a bitter backdrop: No one trusts the state anymore. “It’s like when you learn that you have a terrible illness,” says Costis Peikos when describing Athenians’ state of mind.
“At first you are sad, then angry – and finally you resign yourself,” he says. “We are at this stage. The crisis has made us bitter and cynical.”
Peikos sits with friends at Laika, a trendy restaurant in Kerameikos.
The menu features grilled Manouri cheese with sweet pepper chutney, pork chops in a honey-dijon sauce and fava bean puree with baby onions. The clientele chat, eat, drink and mingle – and there’s not an empty seat in the house.
At the Athens’ always-busy cafes, the favoured drink among locals is the freddo espresso, a strong, black iced coffee served with foamed Nescafe powder, or as a freddo cappuccino with cold milk foam. The brew is strong enough to stretch out with water, which is handy when you can’t afford more than a drink, but still want to go out.
Often, that’s how it has to be, because an Athenian won’t simply stay home and wallow; the local way is to go out to the cafe and egg each other on with sarcastic jokes about the absurdity of life in the Greek capital.
An easy target, for example, is the new Stavros Niarchos Foundation Culture Centre, or SNFCC, a short drive from Kerameikos. The brand-new, futuristic glass and steel building houses the Central Library and the Athens Opera, and stands on a hill just outside the city, offering a wonderful view of the sea, the port of Piraeus and Athens.
The SNFCC boasts a large park with rosemary bushes, thyme shrubs and knotted olive trees that have been specially transplanted to the grounds. There are also playgrounds, a running track, several cafes and free WiFi.
“We hope that the government doesn’t destroy the SNFCC within a year, like they did to our country,” quips Costis with his friends.
On a visit to Athens these days, a traveller can see not only the world-famous cultural treasures of bygone times, but also – if they want to – a crisis that stretches right into the present day. – dpa/Patrizia Schlosser