Post-Industrial Urban Culture
Twilight is the best time for exploring Gazi and Keramikos, for the area’s subtle charms fade under the glare of the noonday sun. The half-light of the late afternoon awakens a wanderlust deepened by the sight of the rusted railway lines on the industrial side of Ermou Street and for an instant, your thumb twitches to hitch a ride from one of the trucks trundling towards the city’s exit. In this dusky light, the ancient cemetery of Keramikos is one of the most beautiful spots in Athens.
Like Gazi, the Keramikos and its neighbouring Metaxourgio district come to life as darkness descends. Chinese discount shops and clothing wholesalers give way to more hedonistic pursuits—from cocktails and dancing to traces of the area’s legacy as the red light district. Alekos Fassianos’ The Myth of Neighbourhood installed in Metaxourgio metro station is a subtle nod to the area’s rebirth. Old warehouses have been transformed into cavernous clubs, cosy bars, experimental stages, and Michelin-starred restaurants that set the trends the rest of the city follows.
It’s been decades since the brown-brick smokestacks of the old Athens gasworks stopped belching, yet they still dominate life in Gazi, just as the wrought-iron frame of the former power station rules the skyline. The gasworks ceased operation in the mid-1980s, but it took roughly a decade for it to be put back into use as a cultural centre. Technopolis, as the compound was renamed, is a hub for city-sponsored and private events that combine culture with innovation, from art exhibitions and music festivals to food and tech fairs. It’s also the headquarters of the municipal radio station, which covers many of these events live. The grounds include the Industrial Gas Museum, a café, and the city’s only Skywalk—a post-industrial playground featuring a slide tunnel and suspension bridges.
National Theatre of Greece
The ancient dramatists imbued Greek culture with a love, and flair, for theatre. Athens is home to dozens of troupes and stages, chief among them the National Theatre of Greece, known for its prestigious company and drama school. During summer, the National Theatre goes on tour, performing at ancient venues like Epidaurus. Equally thrilling is a performance at its home stage, an impressive neoclassical building designed by Ernst Ziller with a façade inspired by Hadrian’s Library. The strands linking ancient drama to modern theatre are woven into its architecture, with a main stage dripping in Belle Époque velvet and crystal and a secondary stage with the moveable seating and skene (backstage) typical of ancient theatres. A visit to the box office is the perfect excuse for a quick tour, which often includes temporary exhibitions on theatre-related themes.
More than any other public space, Avdi Square captures the vibe of Athens. It’s not the trendy cafés, restaurants or bars that give Keramikos and Metaxourgio their energy. It’s the intersection of old and new, laid-back and restless, in the mix of activities from street parties and avant-garde art to social activism and skate bowls. From a historical perspective, the area’s rise merely reclaims its rightful status as the proposed site of the royal palace when Greece’s modern capital was established in the late 19th-century. Vestiges of those intentions dot the surrounding area: an ornate marble fountain, the Negroponte Residence which housed the first British Embassy, lavish mansions (many now crumbling) built for nobles. The silk mill that gave Metaxourgio its name (metaxi means silk in Greek) currently houses the new wing of the Municipal Art Gallery.
Greek civilisation’s obsession with death is reflected in mythology, but also in the lavish burials and tombs of kings and other prominent citizens. Ancient funerary traditions are well-documented in the Keramikos cemetery but chance excavations also uncovered the Dimosio Sima, a fifth-century BC necropolis that’s considered the most important burial site of Ancient Athens. This is where the city’s most eminent citizens and the ashes of war fallen heroes were buried. It’s also where Pericles delivered his famed Funeral Oration. The Dimosio Sima extended from the ancient city’s main gate, the Dipylon, to Plato’s Academy. You can see a small section along Salaminos Street, where at least six burials have been found.
Greek Film Archive
When it closed in 1975, the Lais cinema fell into disuse and its 1,750 square metre building was used as a car park and storage. So in the early 2000s, when the Greek Film Archive needed a new home, it seemed like the natural venue for its relocation. The closest thing Athens has to a film institute, the Greek Film Archive has an impressive collection of over 4,000 prints of Greek and foreign films, plus thousands of posters and stills, props, costumes, and equipment displayed throughout the building and in the Film Museum. The ambience perfectly enhances the screenings and festivals that are part of its annual programme. In summer, these are held in the original open-air theatre atop the low, neo-industrial complex.