Excavated Beauty.

Gone are the days of the quick stopover to see the Acropolis on the way to Mykonos or Santorini: Athens is a major player when it comes to art and culture, with a hot bar, restaurant and hotel scene to boot. 

A few months ago, while I was in Italy, the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture was staging a John Craxton retrospective in Athens to celebrate the philhellenic British artist’s centenary. I’d read the Craxton biography, A Life of Gifts by Ian Collins during lockdown, and, inspired by his pleasure and adventure seeking ways, immersed myself in his life. Hunting down every Craxton book and catalogue I could get my hands on, I wrote a story on him despite never having seen one of his paintings in the flesh. So when a friend cancelled a catch-up in Liguria just before I was due to fly home, I crossed the Adriatic instead to catch the exhibition. 

It may have been down to the last three years – the joy of sudden abundance after going without – but while I was in Athens I found myself moved to tears of joy three times. The first was exiting the airport terminal and seeing that rugged but pristine landscape, struck by the wealth of fables that went with it. The second was arriving at the Benaki and coming face to face with Craxton’s self portrait. The third was leaving, walking as slowly as possible across the tarmac to the blue-and-white Aegean Airlines plane as I caught those final rays of pure Greek sunshine and pondered my week, one of the most satisfying of my life.

Few cities provoke thought and fantasy like Athens, a thrilling, compelling and seductive palimpsest of stories and layers. Athenian history reads like an endless struggle with odd and fleeting moments of brilliance, such as its golden age in the 5th century BC. Most recently was ‘the crisis’, when Greece suffered a brutal recession, with one in five out of work and one of the highest rates of homelessness in the EU. Athenians were forced to move in with parents and grandparents, return to villages or emigrate. But it is precisely these struggles that give the city its unique rhythms, and magical during this dark and difficult decade, culture flourished in Athens. Between the Acropolis Museum opening in 2009 and the reopening of the National Gallery, a slew of private museums and cultural centres were established, transforming Athens from a stopover to see the Acropolis to a major player on the international art scene.

Historically, two things did not occur in Athens. The Italian Renaissance spread across the continent but never really made it to the Balkans, an outpost of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires at the time. And again, unlike much of Europe, Greece never had a noble class to support the arts. Athens’ cultural flourishing has instead been a stop-start affair since it gained independence from the Turks in 1832, with a stratum of wealthy Greeks making massive contributions to the fledgling nation’s cultural scene.

An early benefactor was Eleni Tositsa, the rich-as-Croesus Alexandrine widow (Alexandria was one of the great centres of the Greek diaspora) who donated the land on which the Athens Polytechnic University and National Archaeological Museum were built in the 19th century. The Benaki Museum was formed in 1930 when another Alexandrine Greek, Antonis Benakis, gave the family mansion and the collection it contained to the Greek state. More recently, foundations established by 20th-century Greek shipowners have added to the city’s art scene, such as the Onassis Stegi (2010) and the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Centre (2016). All the while struggling but resilient artists poured pain and hope into their work, reigniting – together with the big-money push into the arts – the Athenian renaissance. 

The names of rival shipping magnates Stavros Niarchos and Aristotle Onassis are universally known for their yachts and private islands (and marrying the same woman). But it is another Greek maritime name behind one of Athens’ most dazzling shrines to modern art: the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation. A 1928 Neoclassical building was given an 11-storey extension in cool and arty Pangrati to showcase the art-loving couple’s $4.4 billion collection. Galleries are thematically arranged, walls are for the most part dark and works have space to breathe. The stunning exception is a side room off ‘Glances of the 20th Century’, where Julian Schnabel’s mammoth velvet painting, Maria Calla #4 (1982) is crammed – harmoniously – into a corner with an equally mammoth and magnificent Anselm Kiefer. Other works include sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, César and Les Lalannes as well as Giacometti’s slender 1956 bronze, Woman of Venice V.  However the Goulandris’ fetish was mainly for paintings as evidenced in ‘Classics of Modern Art’. Think Van Gogh, Cezanne and a seminal Picasso alongside a single outlier: a 16th-century El Greco.

“Basil and Elise Goulandris assembled their collection with great patience and passion,” Marie Koutsomallis-Moreau, Head of Collections, tells WISH. “They knew when to wait but also when to take risks. 1957 was a very important year, when they bought Still Life with Grapefruits by Paul Gauguin at auction for a world record price of 104 million French francs. They weren’t necessarily looking for the most popular periods, though. George Braque’s Patience (1942) for instance. This work is not from his well-known Cubist period. It is however one of his masterpieces, a hidden and poetic self-portrait expressing his own anxiety, sadness and anger during the Second World War.”

Wandering the museum’s hushed spaces, I was especially taken by ‘Modern and Contemporary Greek Art’, with works by Tetsis, Yannis Tsarouchis and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, and picked up a wonderful book on Yannis Moralis in the ground-floor shop. “From the beginning, Basil and Elise Goulandris collected Greek art and had in mind to devote a large part of their museum to this section,” says Koutsomallis-Moreau. “Many of the artists were their friends and one of the main aims of the foundation was to keep buying Greek contemporary art.”

The full scope of Greek modern art is on dazzling display at the National Gallery, just renovated and significantly extended on Vassilis Sofias Avenue, Athens’ museum and embassy row. Another must-see stop along the broad boulevard is the Byzantine and Christian Museum, home to a resplendent collection of icons hung in low-lit underground chambers beneath Villa Illisia. The romantic grey stone palace was one of six buildings designed by Stamatis Kleanthis, a pupil of the Prussian architect Karl-Friedrich Schinkel, for the glamorous, swashbuckling and occasionally controversial French import, the Duchess of Plaisance. 

Constructed in the 1840’s, the villa is an ideal spot to contemplate modern Athens, essentially a 19th-century Canberra, purpose built by a teenage German Prince. When Greece won its war of independence against the Turks in 1832, the Great Powers installed Prince Otto of Bavaria as King. He was unpopular and eventually got the boot for a teenage Danish prince, who was elected to the throne as George I. However, Otto left his indelible mark on the country when he moved the capital from Nafplion in the Eastern Peloponnese to Athens, transforming an Ottoman village with ruins into the capital of modern Greece.

Grand Neoclassical structures such as the University of Athens (1837) and the Old Royal Palace (1843) sprung up in sheep fields, around crumbling temples and the odd Byzantine church. Sleek modernist architecture was added to the mix in the interwar years. Then, following a back-to-back Nazi occupation and equally devastating civil war, a blanket of polykatoikias – Athenian apartment blocks with tiered balconies built cheap between 1950 and 1980 – completed the visually consistent and socially integrated city we see today.

Youth culture continues to reshape the city. Ino’s giant figures down the sides of buildings are but one spectacular example. Another is the city’s ubiquitous veil of graffiti. There are also the marches and protests for which Athenians of all ages seem to be especially proficient. As Greek actress, activist and politician Melina Mercouri – the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ from the legendary film, Never on a Sunday – said: “Greeks are poets. Greeks are fighters. Greeks are lovers. We do all three well and sometimes, we do all three together.” 

Mercouri’s passion for her homeland is palpable in Athens – she was one of Greece’s great champions for the return of the Parthenon Marbles – more on them in a moment – and alongside great weather, fabulous hotels and one of the world’s best scenes of wine and food, the city’s potential for the visitor is huge. “The creative scene is very vibrant at the moment, you can feel a rebirth following the crisis,” says creative director and photographer, Eftihia Stefanidi. “The rents are still affordable here compared to the major metropolises, so there has been an influx of artists, designers, architects and chefs from abroad, who are attracted to the current energy and have chosen to make the city their base. This is something new for Athens, a multicultural creative community living and creating in situ.”

Foreseeing the wave, New York entrepreneur Shai Antebi worked with Stafanidi to craft two of Athens most distinctive boutique hotels. The first, Shila, which means character in Sanskrit,  opened its doors in 2021 – a stripped-back 1920’s townhouse in elegant Kolonaki with high ceilings, low sofas and beds that seem to float. She is more, though, than the romantic sum of her six suites. Check-in feels like arriving at the grand and rambling home of a bohemian friend, with a library and piano on the ground floor and a roof garden at the top of an old-world staircase. A rotation of Greek and international art as well as earthy ceramics by Yiorgos Trichas, Angeliki Stamatakou and Diane Alexandre (available for purchase) weave their way through Shila’s spaces.

The second personality-driven outpost under the banner of ‘House of Shila’ is Mona, which opened in Psirri in May 2022 – where I found myself happily ensconced for three nights.   Both properties double as member’s clubs and event spaces – Versace and Dior have both shot campaigns at Shila – and ‘‘Shila Farm’ is slated to open on the island of Skopelos in 2023. Mona has stellar style, with 20 guest rooms chiselled from the shell of a 1950’s textile factory, as well as a ground-floor ‘Living Room’ and ‘Speakeasy’ event space in the basement. Raw concrete, stripped plaster and terrazzo are softened by curvaceous vintage furniture – an unvarnished version of what you might find in a bourgeois apartment – and billowing panels of gauge-like beige fabric recalling ancient Greece. Rooms are calm and neutral, with custom furniture and freestanding tubs and come with giant iPads connected to Netflix rather than televisions, a mood-killing distraction more hotels should forgo. Not that you’ll be in any way deprived of visual stimulation. Contemporary photography is dotted throughout the hotel, winding up the original wrought-iron and marble staircase to the Roof Terrace with its honesty bar and sensational views of the Acropolis. 

Mona takes its name from adjacent Monastiraki, home to Avissinia Square with its antique shops and Sunday flea market, as well as the fabulously old-world Cafe Avissinia. Another few minutes and you come to the Ancient Agora and its sublime and not-to-be-missed Temple of Hephaestus, another jewel of the 5th century BC. “We can’t deny our heritage. It is something we can look back at any given moment and feel a sense of responsibility, awe, inspiration,” says Stefanidi. “I think it is up to the individual to define how much the past traditions are influencing the modern ones. Collectively, I feel Athens is striving to achieve a balance between honouring and furthering its rich cultural history and at the same time connecting with the discourse of the now.”

One outsider tapping into this synergy of old and new is Gagosian. The New York gallery chain opened its dazzling new space in Kolonaki in 2020 and is currently showing limited-edition furniture designed by Marc Newson, including a new chair and lounge (2022) in breathtaking blue and white cloissoné. Each piece takes around a year to make. “The failure rate is very high, for every piece that you see we’ve probably lost one,” says Newson.

Gagosian also collaborates with local museums. An exhibition of their artist Brice Marden, for example, was on at the Museum of Cycladic Art during my stay – another Goulandris site established by Basil’s brother, Nikolaos Goulandris and his wife Dolly.  Entitled Brice Marden & Greek Antiquity, an assemblage of the artist’s minimalist work including sketchbooks, drawings and paintings on marble, faced off with Cycladic pottery and the enigmatic marble figurines, some of which are more than 5,000 years old. Marden has drawn inspiration from antiquity and the Greek landscape for 50 years, the dialogue between ancient and modern still very much alive.

After a decade in Beirut, Carwan Gallery relocated to Athens in 2020. Owners Nicolas Bellavance-Lecompte and Quentin Moyse, both architects, exhibit cutting-edge collectible design. Their impressive stable includes India Mahdavi and Vincenzo de Cotis, as well as home-grown talent such as Polina Miliou and Theodore Psychoyos. “It is extremely important to be inspired by a sense of place,” says Bellavance-Lecomte. “You experience a bit of déjà vu in cities like Paris or London where there’s an abundance of excellent and established galleries. Athens feels fresh, new and exciting. I always use myself as an example – if I like it, then I believe everyone else will like it too.”

The port of Piraeus is a hotbed of gallery action, home to Carwan, The Intermission (belonging to Athens and Los Angeles art advisor Artemis Baltoyanni) and Rodeo Gallery, an outpost of the original in London. There’s also Alkinois Project in Petralona and The Blender Gallery in Glyfada, on the Athenian Riviera.

The biggest conversation about Greek art, though, involves controversy. That is, the British Museum’s scandalous non return of the Parthenon Marbles, looted from the Acropolis by agents of Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1812. From the perspective of an Antipodean outsider, the Greeks’ long-game consistency is to be greatly admired and nowhere is this more poignant than in their construction of the magnificent Acropolis Museum. A giant architectural vitrine in concrete, steel and glass at the base of the iconic mount, the museum not only protects the sculptures of the Acropolis – the ones not pinched by Elgin – but allows them to bask in the brilliance of the same Attica light. It is arguably the finest marriage of architecture and collection on the planet.

We reached out to Professor Nikolaos Chr. Stampolidis, professor of Archaeology, and General Director of the Acropolis Museum since September 2021 – the same month UNESCO declared that the reunification of the sculptures had to happen. “The Parthenon and its architectural sculptures are the symbol of the world’s democracy and belong to all people who wish to see the monument complete, in the place and under the light where it was born and still stands after 2,500 years. In this way, the ‘Elgin marbles’ will become again Parthenonian sculptures,” says Stampolidis. “The majority of British people, 78% according to the Sunday Times, and most of the world wish for their return and reunification.”

The path is already paved, whether the British want to accept it or not. Fruitful recent dialogue between Sicily and Greece saw the The ‘Fagan Fragment’ returned to the east frieze of the Parthenon from the Antonio Salinas Museum in Palermo. “Everything is well prepared in the Parthenon Gallery of the Acropolis Museum in order to receive each piece returning home from the British Museum to its right place,” he says. “The casts of the missing parts currently displayed in the Parthenon Gallery will be easily removed, and the prototypes that will return from the British Museum will be reunited in their actual place. They will no longer be ‘orphans’ in a foreign gallery.” 

What the Acropolis Museum is to the Acropolis, the National Archaeological Museum is to all of Greece. You can (almost) squeeze this treasure trove comfortably into a morning or afternoon visit. Even better, take it slow and do downstairs in the morning, go for lunch and then do the upper floor in the afternoon. The galleries of archaic-hunks, the kouroi – the male equivalents of Athena’s beautiful korai from the Acropolis – were so jaw dropping that I circled back twice to see them before leaving.

Greek aptitude for the good life is a round-the-clock affair. I also stayed at the mid-century embassy turned sleek hotel, The Modernist, as well as the curvaceous Bauhaus beauty, Perianth Hotel, nipping back for afternoon naps to recharge for the evening’s more Dyonisian adventures. Exploring Athens’ food and wine scene, It’s easy to see how a hedonist like Craxton fell so deeply in love with Greece.  Favourites were Tanini Agapi Mou, which serves 100 natural Greek wines by the glass, and Line Athens, where figs, pomegranates and honey are fermented instead of grapes. Dinners were late and lengthy feasts at places like the long-established Vezené in Pangrati or newcomer Japanese Grill, Birdman just south of Syntagma Square.

“John Craxton was one of modern Greece’s best-kept secrets and now he’s a national treasure,” says Ian Collins. “His centenary touring exhibition opened at the Benaki and drew rave reviews and a record audience.” (“John Craxton: A Greek Soul” continues to Chania, Istanbul and London this year.) I looped back to admire two of his paintings at the Benaki, Two Figures and Setting Sun (1952-67) and Portrait of Christopher Cone (1981-85), much as I had done with the kouroi. Craxton’s impressions of Greece were magic and the long years he took to complete a picture made me smile – as much to do with his pleasure-seeking ways as any artistic process.

“The Greek crisis was a catastrophe, in the etymological sense of the word: kata, which means down, and strophe which means turning,” says Koutsomallis-Moreau. “People had to change their ways in order to adapt and this was a hidden blessing for the cultural world. Artists always find a way to adapt and create, especially during challenging times. And we were also very lucky, as major institutions opened or were renovated. Greek people truly are an example: their optimism and sense of humour never cease to amaze me.”


Photography Eftihia Stefanidi, Jason Mowen and courtesy of Mona, Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation, Gagosian, The Acropolis Museum and John Craxton Estate DACS.

From a story originally published in WISH.