On their way to Sydney from Istanbul in the early Seventies, my parents passed by Athens and bought a small flat – still under construction – in Nea Smyrni, south of the city center. In its suburban glory days of detached green houses and open spaces, the area seemed like a good choice for them to settle and continue raising their family upon their return from Australia where they were headed to dispose of their Turkish citizenship at a time when the Greek government wanted the diaspora – especially teachers and clerics – firmly planted as a last bastion around the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Life Down Under got the better of the crazy young couple in love, and the little flat in Nea Smyrni lay vacant despite their initial dreams and intentions. It remained almost forgotten, never fully living up to its potential, until I finished my university studies and decided to make use of it. Still here, raising my own children in the suburb that my parents had intended to raise me, the wheel has come full circle and despite the problems associated with living in Greece at a time of economic crisis, Nea Smyrni seems to make up for it all as the best place to live in Athens, Greece – and possibly, the world!
1. THE SUBURB IS DEFINED BY ITS HISTORY
By the time I arrived in Nea Smyrni, in the early Nineties, the garden houses surrounding the little flat were eviscerated by Seventies- and Eighties-style apartment blocks covering the layers of architecture that the first inhabitants of Nea Smyrni had brought with them as refugees uprooted from Asia Minor during the 1922 catastrophe.
Nostalgic for the homes they left behind, the new Smyrni was modelled on the old Smyrna of the dreams and memories of the first inhabitants. Unfortunately, for these uprooted pioneers, the middle-class Nea Smyrni could never match the beauty and harmony of the stately mansions they had been forced to abandon, but it acquired something better – an elusiveness that brings with it the taste of sweet nostalgia that you can’t quite can’t pinpoint but sense through the stories told by scattered statues, the aristocratic demeanour of the elders that gather at the benches of the main square and the organized town planning that was strategically layed out keeping future generations in mind.
2. THERE ARE NUMEROUS SQUARES
Filled with green hubs that are far to many to mention, the most iconic meeting spot in the suburb is Nea Smyrni Square – though few people know that its offical name is Aghia Fotinis, also the name of the tram station that stops there.
Since bird flu fever struck Greece in the 2000s, the fountains are no longer filled with ducks. Sidewalk” target=”_blank”>Paved sidewalks flanking the square are no longer open to traffic so that residents can ride their bicycles or enjoy leisurely strolls. The square has also grown to encapsulate other squares nearby, such as cafe-lined Karillou Square where the underground Polis Park is located and Chrysostomou Smyrni Square filled with statues in honor of the victims of Asia Minor with the key figure being a towering statue of the Bishop Chrysostomos of Asia Minor that had been lynched by a Turkish mob on September 10, 1922, after the sacking of Smyrna. His prominent statue, near the dancing fountain where the children play, is the first thing the visitor sees upon making the turn from Kallithea or Syngrou Avenue into Nea Smyrni, making it clear that this is more than just a suburb – it is a tribute to victims, heroes and history.
The most scenic walk in the city of Athens could quite possibly be the one that begins at the quiet Ionia Square that worms its way into the bishop’s quarter that melds into the main square with its high-end shops, restaurants and crowds before leading to the bridge at Karillou Square that ends at the park. Designed in such a way that it evokes memories and emotions, it is no surprise that the traditional meeting spot in the heart of the suburb has inspired numerous songs.
3. THE PARK IS EXQUISITE
If Nea Smyrni Square is the heart of Nea Smyrni, then its lung is Nea Smyrni Alsos (Park) – between the tram stops of Aigaiou and Agias Foteinis. Families with young kids play at the swings, there’s an open-air gym, a pathway for joggers, a small cafe in the middle, an open-air theater that stages a number of festivals surrounded by a small artificial forest with plenty of memories between the pine trees.
4. CULTURE IS ABUNDANT
During summer months, open-air theater performances take place either at the park or beside the fountains of the main square. Karaghiozis shadow puppet theater festivals, music and theater events are plentiful throughout the starry nights of summer as when one festival ends another begins.
Winter takes the festivals indoors with a number of venues, including Galaxia at Nea Smyrni Square or Estia at Chrysostomou Smyrni Square that also has a museum and library inside as well as a cultural programme filled with courses, workshops and events. Cultural centers abound, including the Imbros Society and The Workers Club has been offering free lessons (photography, sewing, music, Greek dancing and even high school tutoring etc.) in recent years and open-air cinema at its rooftop for just 2 euros ensuring that learning and culture are within anybody’s reach.
5. IT HAS ITS OWN TEAMS
Panionios Football Club is a multi-sport club founded in 1890 in Smyrna as Orpheus Music and Sports Club of Smyrna before moving to Nea Smyrni in the wake of the Asia Minor catastrophe. The club – represented by red, white and blue – has a tradition of cultivating all major sports and was the first Greek club to establish a track and field division for women in 1925 while also introducing basketball and volleyball to Greek sports society.
Located next to Panionios is Milon, another multi-sports club, with a professional basketball team playing under the colors of green and black.
Coming soon: A new state-of-the-art sports facility in Ano (Upper) Nea Smyrni to upgrade current sports centers in the area.
6. AGHIA FOTINI CHURCH IS ICONIC
Aghia Fotini Church was one of the most exquisite churches of Smyrna, and naturally, the first inhabitants of the city wanted to pay homage to the church of their homeland. It’s 33m belltower is a direct replica of that of the original church that was destroyed in 1922 following a service by Bishop Hrysostomos before he was lynched.
7. IT IS CENTRAL BUT STILL NEIGHBOURLY
Nea Smyrni isn’t far from the city center (25-min walk to Syntagma) nor the coast on Paleo Faliro (another 25-mins), and both the sea and Acropolis are visible from the area. Most happening places, such as the Eugenides Foundation, Onassis Cultural Foundation on Syngrou, Flisvos Marina, the Athens Riviera, Odeon Starcity Multiplex and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center are within walking distance. This spread helps deflect attention and ensures that Nea Smyrni isn’t a hot spot itself yet, and indeed, it would probably be better for the locals if it never becomes one.
Though, on first appearance, the fact that it doesn’t have a metro line appears to be a disadvantage, this may also be the reason why it still has a neighborhood feel in a suburb where shop-owners know your name, neighbors pop in for a coffee, drivers of the free municipal bus doing the rounds stops to pick you up even though you’re not at the designated stop and everybody takes care of everybody else’s kids when they play basketball on the grounds of their local school – after hours of course.
+1 IT HAS EVERYTHING!
You can live your entire life without having to leave the suburb. Everything you need is here!
• Municipal bike stand outside Karillou Street
• Sporting Cinema (Multi-plex + open-air terrace), Phillip Open-air Cinema and Attalus too!
• Tram line from Syntagma Square to the Peace and Friendship Stadium or Athens Riviera Coast to Voula
• Ethniki Stegi (Nursery School, Play Center, Band, Parental Guidance etc)
• Iosifogleio Orphanage
• Galini Nursing Home
• Nea Smyrni Cemetery