Today, the city’s cafes are bustling with cheerful and lively conversation, its art scene is thriving and people seem happy.
Happy because all the drama is over right? Nope, happy because it never ended.
Known as the Poet Sandal Maker for his skills making footwear and writing verse, Melissinos’s family has been making sandals in the style of the ancient Greeks since 1920. His grandfather and father also penned plays and poems alongside their day job.
They’ve also witnessed the upheaval that regularly visits Athens. The last two centuries have seen coups, invasions, a monarch in exile and more recently, Europe’s biggest financial crisis.
The most recent drama — “i krisi” (the crisis) as it’s referred to by locals — saw Greece teetering towards bankruptcy due to years of overspending. Bailout loans of $300 billion from the European Union and the IMF were needed to keep it afloat.
“The only way to survive is just to have fun,” says Pantelis Melissinos.
The crisis has been a defining moment for the Greek people. A decade full of grinding austerity and civil unrest has made life for many incredibly difficult.
Greeks say they’ve always suffered misery but they’re ingrained with the spirit of making the most of whatever situation they face.
Life goes on and the cafes are busy as ever, with locals sipping strong coffees and discussing Greek politics with a fierceness, a favorite pastime for many.
“Nothing really has changed I think,” says Melissinos of his city’s past turbulent decade. “But the Greeks have decided that this is how things are going to be, and they decided to have fun.
“You know this is a very Greek way of dealing with a problem. If you cannot beat the problem, you just join the problem. And maybe you become part of the problem. And maybe you give a problem to the problem.”
If anyone embodies this very Greek concept of “making problems for the problem,” it’s Yanis Varoufakis.
The former economics lecturer was finance minister of Greece for six months during the heady days of 2015 when his austerity-ravaged country was negotiating with its creditors. He unsuccessfully campaigned against accepting a new bailout deal that increased debt levels.
Yanis Varoufakis, left, tells Richard Quest that Greece is in a “permanent coma.”
To some Greeks, Varoufakis is now a hero — a champion of the Greek cause who stood up to the European Union. To others he was a menace, a villainous mischief maker partly responsible for the Greek financial crisis.
Varoufakis points finger of blame elsewhere: “The lenders and the Greek regime of oligarchs that created the crisis in the first place and have been managing the recovery since 2010.”
He adds: “They put the patient into a permanent coma and called it stability.”
And yet, adds Varoufakis, relaxing in the home overlooking the shimmering sea on the island of Aegina, where he spends his summers plotting against today’s establishment, the way the Greek people have handled this adversity offers inspiration.
“This is a great place to revive your human spirit,” he says, “Because if people can have such fun in miserable circumstances, then there is hope for all of us.”
‘We are back’
Athenians say the city’s endurance of recent turbulent times prove that its a great place to revive the human spirit
Athens does feel like it’s emerging from the dark cloud of the financial crisis. Cafes can charge Parisian prices for a cappuccino, and restaurants are busy with young, aspiring chefs who have brought international flair to traditional Greek cuisine.
Visitors to Greece are expected to number 32 million in 2018, a record year, according to the country’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Many are coming not just to the Greek islands but to Athens too.
There’s also an increase in investors putting their money into the Greek economy.
An area coined the “Athens Riviera” — a southern suburb of Athens — is welcoming new upscale hotels. The Four Seasons Astir Palace Hotel is currently under construction and due to open in March 2019.
“Every year, Athens looks a little better,” says former mayor Dora Bakoyannis.
“Every year, Athens looks a little bit better,” says Dora Bakoyannis, a former Greek foreign minister who served as the city’s mayor when it enjoyed its biggest overhaul in modern history in preparation for the 2004 Summer Olympics.
“Today, Athens has tourism which we didn’t have for years, which means we are back,” she adds. “And we can be back even better with a higher level of tourism, which is what we need.
“But we have to work for it and we have to have a strategy. Nothing happens if we just wait and say we are the most beautiful country in the world, people will come to us.”
Living in a tragedy
Poet Thomas Tsalapatis: “We live in a tragedy.”
The arts scene is also thriving, with many artists priced out of other European capitals now calling Athens home.
Creativity has taken off, welcoming a new generation of artists such as poet Thomas Tsalapatis. Now 34, Tsalapatis saw nearly half of his friends leave a decade ago when the crisis hit. But things have changed and the Athens arts scene is happening, he says.
“The numbers say that it is true,” he adds. “I mean we have many shows, theatrical shows I think more than New York now, like a thousand a year something like that. You have another thousand books published, poetry books published every year. It’s a huge number.”
Major arts institutions have cropped up in Athens throughout the crisis, mainly funded by the government before the crisis started or donated through private philanthropic organizations.
Overlooking the magical and most famous landmark of Athens is the beautiful glass-covered Acropolis Museum which opened in 2009 (and was mainly funded by the European Union).
The most recent example of cultural prowess is the massive Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre. It opened in 2016 with five acres of green space surrounding a complex that is home to the Greek National Opera and hosts facilities for the National Library of Greece.
From atop the complex, views across the road lead to a harbor full of superyachts and the island of Aegina in the distance.
Though it’s a sign of optimism and recovery, poet Tsalapatis is typically Greek about whether or not things have improved overall for the arts in Athens. “I think now it is not better because we live in a tragedy,” he said.
How the spirit and traditions of the Greek way of life have carried the city through its tough times
One unusual twist in the Greek drama of recent times has been the return of members of its royal family. Prince Nikolaos was born in Rome two years after the 1967 military coup which forced his father into exile and led to the abolition of the Greek monarchy.
Five years ago, after never setting foot in the country, Nikolaos moved to Greece with wife Tatiana. The decision prompted mixed reactions among Greeks, but Nikolaos is focused on the positives. The former Fox News journalist is just delighted to be here.
“I often wake up in the morning, I look out my window and I pinch myself to say how happy I am to be here with [Tatiana],” he says. “Because it was a lifelong ambition of mine to move here.”
Prince Nikolaos and his wife Tatiana moved to Greece five years ago.
Ian Gavan/Getty Images
Now working to promote various charities, the couple see themselves as having a key role in helping Greece emerge from the woes of its recent past and waving the flag for their family’s homeland, particularly Athens.
“Athens is a city that’s booming, a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Tatiana. “There’s a lot to discover. I don’t think it’s the beautiful city that everyone imagines it to be. You have to dig in and get to really experience it, taste it, enjoy it.
“Athens is alive, and it’s exciting.”
Nikolaos adds: “If there’s one thing that you could leave Athens with, it is that there is hope. Because the Greeks are, the Athenians are, resilient people.”
CNN’s Amanda Sealey contributed to this story