by W. Ruth Kozak
If you are visiting Athens, Greece and want a change from the bustling areas of Plaka and Monastiraki or browsing archaeological sites, hop a trolley or bus and head out to the coast to spend a relaxing afternoon at the stunning new Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center.
Designed by architect Renzo Piano and funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the €566 million project, completed in 2016, was donated to the Greek state in 2017. The Center includes the Greek National Library, the National Opera House, and an expansive park, built on the former site of an old racetrack.
Stavros Niarchos was a multi-billionaire Greek shipping tycoon who was also noted as a thoroughbred horse breeder. When he died in 1996 in Zurich, his fortune was estimated to be worth in excess of $22 billion. Half was left to a charitable trust to be established in his name, and it was from this trust that the Stavros Niarchos Center was built for the enjoyment of the people of Athens.
We took the tram from Athens and walked to the main entrance across a bridgeway. A canal runs beside the centre where small sailboats drift lazily and kayakers paddle along its length. The 400 meter sea-water canal creates a refreshing place where people can relax or learn to sail and kayak. At night it’s a venue for live jazz and sometimes tango classes.
The architect used rubble to create a slope that doubles as a green roof for the Greek National Library and Opera House. At the top of the roof is a glass observatory with a solar canopy that powers the building below. The building covers nearly 24,000 sq m (235-000 sq ft) and combines traditional with technological innovation.
The Greek National Opera launched its new era at the Center last year premiering its first production with Richard Strauss’ one act opera Elektra. The new facilities provide state-of-the-art acoustics and consist of two auditoriums, a large Main Stage (1400 seats) which hosts operas, concert and ballet and a smaller Alternative Stage (450 seats) that will be used for stage productions, in particular musical theater.
At the entrance of the main building there is a display of photos and exhibits from Greece’s first modern Olympics, held in 1896, when Spyros Louis, a 21-year old water-carrier from Marousi won the first marathon run in modern times. The marathon is now held yearly in remembrance of the first runner in 490 BC who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek’s victory over the invading Persian fleet. The silver goblet presented to Louis is among the displays. The goblet, financed by French philhellene Michael Brael, is adorned with birds and aquatic plants, a reminder of those that once flourished in the Marathon marshland. The cup was purchased from the Louis’ family heirs in 2012 by the Spyros Niarchos Foundation for €600,000.
Upon entering the Center there are a number of open areas to explore including a coffee shop, lounge areas with comfortable settees and chairs and a large computer room as well as a vast library. The area creates a hospitable environment so it’s a good place for relaxing and enjoying the amenities.
The library shelves were empty the day we visited but have recently been stocked with books. Its new location, the National Library of Greece, founded in 1832, includes an exclusive research facility and an all-inclusive public resource enter. The library supports patrons of all ages and education from academics to children and young adults.
The entrance to the library’s new premises leads to a large open lobby. The public library section has a significant book collection as well as other media and includes separate areas for adults, teenagers and children offering a wide range of educational and cultural programs. The natural light creates a pleasant environment and the new design of the library meets the needs of the digital age. Research collections are housed in a central location with convenient access for researchers and scholars. Over 4,500 manuscripts from the 9th to the 19th century and a variety of important historical documents and archives are housed in the library. It will also function as a venue for exhibits, and a Business Center will provide the public with a resource for research, offering computer workstations, laptops and wireless connections. Events and seminars are hosted for both children and adults and classes will incorporate natural learning opportunities which will include programs outdoors at the Stavros Niarchos Park as well.
The roof of the library is actually part of a garden and on the upper patio there is a restaurant. From there you can enjoy the views of the picturesque surrounding area. The Center is built on an incline facing Athens, so to view the Bay of Faliron and the sea we took the elevator to the top of the opera house rather than walk up the hill to the small observation area.
After visiting inside the Center we went out to explore the grounds and enjoy a picnic lunch under the shade of an olive tree. The park is a labyrinth of foot paths and roadways that lead past olive groves, orchards, plots of flowers as well as herb and vegetable gardens. A large green space playing field provides an area for sports or leisure. On the day we visited, groups of Syrian refugees and their children were playing on the grass and enjoying the cool spray of the fountains. There are bikes for rent, an outdoor theatre and lots of places for children to enjoy themselves while their parents relax in the shade.
Except for opera tickets and bike rentals, everything is free at the Centre including tours and activities such as crafts, chess, computer instructions and gardening lessons.
We walked the length of the gardens to the back entrance of the park where we caught a bus back into the city. Our visit to the Stavros Niarchos Center was an interesting change from the busy cacophony of the city and a relaxing way to spend the afternoon.
If You Go:
HOW TO GET THERE:
From Athens Center: Lines B2 550 pass through the metro station Sygrou. Get off at the Onasseio stop on Sygrou ave, head south in the direction of the sea up to Evripidou St.
From Kiffissia: Lines B2, 550. Get off at Eugenidio stop on Sygrou Ave northbound and pass through the underground pedestrian pass toward Kallithea.
From Pireaus: Lines A1, B1: get off at the Tzitzifies stop on Ethnarchou Makrariou Ave. walk down toward Glyfada the left onto Epaninontas st and right onto Peisistraotu St.
From downtown get off at Tzitzifies stop, walk toward Navarou Votsi St. and turn right at Peistitstratou and Sahtouri St for the entrance through parking lot.
No. 10 from Halandri Sqaure to the Epaminonda stop. Walk towards Peisistratou and Sahtouris St to entrance through parking lot.
You can drive to the Niarchos Centre. There are signs on Sygrou and Poseidonas Ave. and there is a large parking area.
About the author:
W. Ruth Kozak is an avid traveler to Greece and likes to explore new places each time she goes there. This visit to the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Centre was one of the highlights of a recent trip.
All photos by W. Ruth Kozak