The famous shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis was born in our neighborhood. To be honest, it was actually his neighborhood – I only moved there after I got married. We lived in a house by the water, while Onassis and his family used to live on the street behind.
We continued to always live on the water’s edge.
Onassis, however, came to own that water thanks to all his business interests.
But even he had a pitiless competitor: Stavros Niarchos!
For as long as they lived, these two men competed and quarreled with each other.
The competition extended to the seas…
The competition extended to their personal lives…
The competition extended beyond the grave… It continues today in the field of culture.
I witnessed this all.
The Onassis Cultural Center is located on the Athens-Piraeus road. It operates in a large, ultra-modern building – mind you, I couldn’t quite figure out what it was operating. I went there in the hopes of at least seeing a permanent or a temporary exhibit. But alas! The door is nothing but a wall. The venerable culture center is closed during the day. There’s no show or anything else to see – there’s not even a place to grab a coffee… The attendant at the door pressed an “Events Brochure” into my hand despite my protestations: After confirming with my own eyes that there was nothing doing, what use was a scrap of paper?
On the top floor of the building, there’s a restaurant with a Michelin star: Hytra. That, as one is probably no longer surprised to learn, is only open in the evening. It seemed the Onassis Cultural Center was nothing more than a lion figurehead on the prow of a boat – like the wooden lion figureheads in ancient times that were intended to appear formidable and scare enemy warriors or trade ships. It might look a lion, but it most certainly is not!
It seemed that Niarchos had come out ahead in the various arenas of competition between himself and Onassis.
Niarchos was a leader on the seas with his flotilla of 80 tankers.
In their private lives, both magnates also married two of Stavros Livanos’ daughters, Tina (Onassis) and Eugenia (Niarchos). Later, when Niarchos was 56, he married Charlotte, the young and tender, 24-year-old daughter of Henry Ford II. But he delivered the coup de grace at the end – marrying Onassis’ ex-wife Tina!
And Niarchos’ foundation also has a cultural center on the Piraeus road named, unsurprisingly, the Niarchos Cultural Center.
It is in this area of competition that Niarchos well and truly left Onassis behind.
The cultural center, which opened in August 2016, is in the middle of a giant, multi-use park that belongs to the foundation. Like the Onassis Cultural Center, the main building is an ultra-modern edifice (it was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, who also did the Centre Pompidou in Paris), but unlike the Onassis building, Niarchos’ center is open all day. It’s a beautiful building featuring reading rooms, work and exhibition areas, as well as an extraordinary, 1,400-person performance hall. It’s also a building that boasts a view of Piraeus from the roof and preserves its superiority over its competitor in its washrooms, which sport shades of orange and red.
I had the opportunity to watch the Greek National Opera perform Lucia di Lammermoor in the performance hall at the beginning of 2017, listening to the beautiful voice of Christina Poulitsi as the unlucky Lucia. Poulitsi’s voice is such that, if the famous Greek soprano Maria Callas were still alive today, she would probably view her as a worthy successor.
Unlike the Onassis, the Niarchos Cultural Center doesn’t have any pretentious restaurant; there’s just a café on the roof and the ground-floor Agora Bistro to serve those that come to visit, work or see a performance. After perusing an exhibition of famous opera décor designer Stefanos Lazaridis’ interesting works, my wife and I repaired to the Agora for a quick bite and a glass of wine before the opera. There’s nothing to say about the fare – but I wasn’t expecting to anyway. Perhaps a bistro which caters to people wolfing down a quick bite before going to a show could have offered a bit more, but that’s all about all one could ask!
But I can say that dining in enjoyable surroundings that befitted the overall ambience of the center lent our food as much taste as the meal at a pretentious restaurant would have.
May my neighbor Onassis rest in peace, but, with apologies to him, I’m on the side of his sworn enemy Niarchos!