Athens: In Search of Hellinikon

Posted by in Culture, Transport

So far and then so near!

ELLO ELLINIKO

In my first Athens blog I mention travelling via the then new airport in 2001 narrowly missing out on landing at its predecessor Hellinikon. In the third instalment of the ‘In Search of…’ blogs I went to visit the old and now ghostly aerodrome and was surprised at what I found (other than tumbleweed).

Navigational errors mark the beginning of this adventure – I know I’m close but it just looks like an urban street; houses and a kids park with swings so I turn off and find the first of many snarling dogs. They are behind a fence though so it should be ok. Oh, they are not tied up and oh the gate is wide open, great security! If only there was something nearby to keep secure other than a basketball court.

It turns out had I continued down the initial street I would have found the terminal right in front of me. Meanwhile the yapping canines surround, growl and snarl at me. Fortunately their bark comes minus any bites. A glimpse of the terminal appears but stupidly having gotten past the dogs I trek east believing an entry point will present itself from the side but my way through is obstructed by a ditch, fencing and barbed wire.

Through glass or shattered dreams?

My wayward march is not without merit and soon enough through broken glass – it looks as if it has been shot at other than merely smashed – is a view of the control tower and apron dotted by blotches of tumbleweed. On turning round I am amazed to see three Olympic planes standing silent in the far corner of the airfield.

Yesterday’s titans, left to rot.

TITANS OF OLD

These are all famous examples of the former fleet with some being made into models for kids and enthusiasts. The first is Apollo, a 737 delivered in 1976 and she would have flown domestic and European routes – Amsterdam, Geneva and Corfu for example.

The second is the first of the 727’s ‘Mount Olympus’ delivered to the airline which is looking worse for wear though strangely as the 2005 picture by David Kennedy illustrates better off which suggests someone is doing some restoration work on the livery. In her day she also flew to nearby Corfu as well as Cyprus and Frankfurt among others before retiring in 1993.

The third is the almighty jumbo, the Olympic Eagle. She flew to Dusseldorf, Rome and New York and was temporarily leased to Aerolineas Argentinas for a short spell in the nineties. Only the second jumbo delivered to Olympic in 1973 she flew for 26 years until her well earned retirement.

It’s a shame to see her left to rot like this rather than a museum piece – though technically speaking that’s what she is. In addition to the Olympic mini-fleet is a Hellenic BAC 1-11.

The church at the end of the runway and some modern houses.

ALL AROUND

Having photographed them to the best of my ability I continue my walk hoping there’s a way in. There is a small hut which says ‘museum of civil aviation’ which itself seems derelict. On the other side of the road is a church and golf course.

My voyage extends to the Hotel Fenix on Artemisiou Street near the South eastern corner. I’m told only a few rooms have views of the airport and there’s no roof terrace or viewing area as with Kai Tak. After my hotel visit I realise there is no way through the barbed wire and up the embankment onto the runway, so retreat the way I had come past the trio of planes toward the terminal. In stark contrast to the ageing airfield, the surrounding offices and houses are immaculate and modern.

Wildlife around the perimeter fence.

Some of them are owned by former pilots for whom the airport holds a nostalgic bond. You can see if redeveloped this site could be one of Athens hippest areas to live. There is also an abundance of wildlife from plants to fruit edging the boundary fence.

The terminal – Lonely as an eyesore.

TERMINAL

A man is walking a dog in the parking lot and a path presents itself – I’m in! Now before me is the ruin of the terminal building. It’s hard to believe it was designed by the great Eero Saarinen though not as classic as his renowned New York TWA masterpiece.

Even though the place has long since been gutted the doors are locked so I can only take a few snaps from the outside. It was not just nostalgic but eerie. It seemed staggering to think that years ago this place would have been teeming with people and I couldn’t help imagine what Heathrow would be like minus all those that use it and work there. Check out this beautiful video of the terminal by Theofanis Sofianides.

The last time the building was full of life was a year previous when it was utilised by authorities during the refugee crisis hence the derogative ‘GO HOME’ graffiti. I also saw some positive graffiti in the surrounding streets in support of the emigres.

Strimming the tumbleweed connection.

At the end of the terminal the sound of a strimmer led me to more broken glass and through a cracked pane was a groundsman taking care of some of the tumbleweed as if in preparation for something. Had a deal been struck on the sites future? See below for more on that.

Rusty aviation.

CARGO

Further along are the former cargo and catering buildings and if the terminal was eerie these were sad and in the latter instance almost terrifying but we’ll get to that. On the cargo buildings, Air France, Alitalia, BA, KLM, Lufthansa, Swissair and DELTA all have their emblems fading away or being eroded by rust and decay.

Catering to no-one.

As I circle the catering building a car approaches and parks. All morning I’ve wondered whether I might be under some sort of surveillance, could it be true? There were others around; two girls’ one a photographer and the other her model/friend shoot fashion shots.

A guy is flying his drone and someone is learning to drive so by no means was I the only one in the area. Eventually the car departs, strange that it’s the only thing capable of departing now the planes are without their engines.

A hole in the fence invites me to enter but even in broad daylight the building has a foreboding presence. Still I’m drawn for a better shot than can be obtained from any other point. As I duck to go under the gaping hole in the fence a door creaks and is blown ajar before swinging back open – there is very little wind. I approach the door slowly and look inside. It’s a mess but there appears to be a sleeping bag.

Around the corner in the bright blue of noon the shot I want is taken, the chance to enter the graffiti blitzed building is declined – anyone could be in there and I’ve seen far too many horror flicks, beside lunch is calling. One more building is left which is the old Olympic HQ and it appears this one may still be in use as it had the only manned security hut.

My paranoia it seems was not unjustified. Watching You Tube clips of the airfield back in my room, one plucky American gets into Mount Olympus (the 727), the terminal and the control tower but is eventually warned off by someone in a car. Whether these were the same people near the cargo building who knows but just as well I didn’t push things too far.

In the future I can see this area being something like Kai Tak or Baiyun, carved into a mixed use area of apartments, sports facilities and parkland. Whether the history of Hellinikon is preserved or not time will tell. Whatever, we still have the memories…

The Golden days of Olympic and Hellinikon.

APOLLO: Some photos of the 737 in action.
MOUNT OLYMPUS: footage of the 727 shot in Cyprus and from the cockpit!
OLYMPIC EAGLE: There are a number of features about Olympic’s former jumbo’s, the first is a look inside the Eagle, the second images and the third, a history of Greek 747s.

PLAYLIST AND CREDITS

Thanks for reading here, should you be interested in my work; principally writing, photography, and teaching, check out the MEDIA page, and/or the UNIVERSITY page for my teaching ethos.

Meanwhile, stay tuned with things here at Kulture Kiosk via THE ATLAS or on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram where you can see some of my photos from around the world. Blog originally posted November 25th 2017.

PLAYLIST
Neroli – Brian Eno

Credits: Hellinikon from Above, 1998 by Konstantin von Wedelstaedt.
Mount Olympus, 2005 by David Kennedy.
Olympic Eagle Landing in Hellinikon, 1996 by Alan Lebeda.
Apollo – Postcard from 1977, unknown photographer.
Mount Olympus Rising from Hellinikon, unknown year or photographer.
All other photos by KH taken at Hellinikon October 2017.