A Tour Around Literary Athens

Greek poet Palamas
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My trip to Athens was a time for discovering new things. And The Literary Walk was no exception. This was a tour of the literary heritage of 20th century Athens, and it was full of discoveries, large and small, things I would never have found for myself.  

Greek poet Palamas
A statue of the great poet Kostis Palamas outside the National University of Athens

A Hidden Literary Heritage

I thought I knew something about Greek Literature. Homer, Aristophanes, Euripides… all the greats of the classical era. I was familiar with the names and I’d read quite a few of them. But 20th century literature?

That was the first discovery. Our guide, Kostis, explained that Athens (and Greece) had a particularly vibrant literary scene during the last century, including two Nobel prize winners. But much of the greatest writing was poetry, a medium that does not always translate well into other languages, meaning that writers were often not “visible” to non-Greek speakers.

Twentieth Century Café Culture

As we walked around it became apparent that the literary history of 20th century Athens was inextricably linked with the cultural history of Europe. We walked past a building that was the site of the first literary salon in Athens (in modern times at least). Another discovery: who would have thought that this seemingly derelict building had once hosted lively debates between intellectuals from across Europe?  

Site of a former literary salon in Athens
Who would have thought that this was once a lively literary salon?

But it seemed that Athens had been full of literary cafés at one time, places that attracted major writers from many countries, including Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Evelyn Waugh. And not just writers: the famous Zonar’s Café was also the haunt of artists, actors and theatre directors, as well as other influential figures. Apparently it was not unknown for army generals and resistance fighters to be in the café at the same time!  

Zonars Cafe, Athens
Zonar’s still exists but unfortunately it is no longer a centre for intellectual debate!

Poetry and Politics

The mention of resistance fighters was a reminder that so much of Greek literature of the time was bound up with politics. We heard how the poet and diplomat George Seferis was denounced by the nationalist government late in his life, and about the struggles of Kostis Palamas to be able to write in the demotic (common) language rather than “pure” Greek. Then there was the Black Cat Café, which was closed because it was suspected of harbouring socialist thinkers.

Of course, Athens was the birthplace of politics so it is perhaps appropriate that its citizens should have a keen political awareness. It seems that this is still the case: we had started the walk outside the university, where some students were staging a peaceful protest. “I don’t know what they’re protesting about now”, said Kostis. “But there are protests every other day.”

University of Athens
Political protest is a part of student life

The Ghika Gallery

We ended with a visit to the Ghika Gallery, a voyage of discovery in itself. This remarkable building was the home of Nikos Ghika, an influential artist, and it has been turned into a museum of the 20th century, showcasing all aspects of intellectual life, including cinema, design and planning. As we looked around the museum, with its exploration of literary and cultural history, and Ghika’s own workspace preserved on the top floor, we were reminded once again of the recent flourishing of the arts in Athens.  

Ghika Gallery, Athens
Ghika’s own living space, with his own designs, artwork and book collection

I went on The Literary Walk as a guest of Big Olive.

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12 thoughts on “A Tour Around Literary Athens”

  1. It's always a little disappointing to discover that once-thriving sites for spirited intellectual conversations no longer exist. But your post is a reminder that there are always new discoveries to be made. Ghika Gallery looks lovely!

  2. I was debating whether or not to take the literary tour when I was in Athens for TBEX, and it looks like I should have done now! I'm heading back to Athens for a weekend in December, so will check out the Ghika gallery then 😉

  3. I love the idea of literary cafes where you might have been able to "bump into" your favorite writer, artist or other celebrity. This looks like a fascinating tour as well as a peek into a lesser known part of Greek culture.

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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