Elefsina: the post-industrial European Capital of Culture near Athens whose fortunes are changing

“You’re going to Elefsina?” My Greek teacher is puzzled. “But why? There’s not much there…” he trails off. My Athenian friends agree: “I don’t like it at all”, says one. “I’ve never been. It’s abandoned”, says another. But since being named one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture – alongside Romania’s more conventionally beautiful Timisoara and Veszprém in Hungary – it’s hoped Elefsina’s fortunes will change.

Less than half an hour from Athens, Elefsina is a suburban city visited primarily for its vast archaeological site, known in ancient Greek as Eleusis. In its glory days – between the 15th century BC and 329 AD – it was a sanctuary for a cult of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest.

Once a year, a select few from across the ancient Greek (and later, Roman) world took part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, a secret initiation ritual. Much about the ancient ceremonies – which represented the myth of the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter – remains a mystery. However, impressive toppled columns, huge ruined temples and lifelike stone busts of Roman rulers from Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius are still scattered about the area.

Elefsina is a post-industrial city suburb near Athens (Photo: Supplied)

Yet this once-great town has lost much of its lustre. At the end of the 19th century, Elefsina’s coastal agrarian landscape was transformed into one of brick chimneys and warehouses by cement, olive oil, soap and shipbuilding industries – a blot compounded by the construction of Greece’s largest oil refinery in the 70s.

The financial crisis of 2009, however, saw industry fall on hard times. Factories that had already been struggling were abandoned and became derelict, leaving a legacy of polluted water and soil. The shore of the Gulf of Elefsina is no picture-perfect Greek waterfront, with rusting, abandoned ships; swimming is not recommended here. The post-industrial landscape was maligned and unsurprisingly, Athenians didn’t – and largely still don’t – care to visit the city.

As I take the bus from the capital and set eyes on Elefsina, I wonder if they have a point. A former steelworks with its kilns painted in primary colours offers some optimism. As soon as we lurch off the main road, it’s obvious that something is afoot in Elefsina. Flags announcing it as a Capital of Culture mark the entrance to town, and soon after, so does s striking, red neon sign.

I meet Michail Marmarinos, general artistic director, at Culture Capital HQ. From the groups of young, dynamic creatives chatting by the door, I can already see it’s attracting a new crowd.

“It is an investment in the city – a push for it to develop a cultural sector”, Marmarinos explains of the Capital of Culture status. The busy programme of events, exhibitions and performances falls under the headline “Eleusis 2023: Mysteries of Transition”, reflecting the aim that this year will push Elefsina into a new phase of its long and storied history.

We wander over to the first restored venue, the old town hall. Built in 1928, this Art Deco building had been languishing as a storage space for antiquities, but now serves as the Capital of Culture information point and gift shop.

Marmarinos picks up a free map and shows me which venues to explore. Empty spaces of all shapes and sizes have been revamped in the name of art; a former bowling hall and an old olive oil mill now form two 900 square-metre spaces (in the future, the mill will become Elefsina’s main archaeological museum).

A run-down campsite is now a the Oasis eco-park, where fairy lights link eucalyptus trees and events are being held this year. Elefsina’s old train station, opened in 1884 and closed in 2001, will be used by local authorities.

A former campsite is now an eco-park (Photo: Supplied)
A former campsite is now an eco-park (Photo: Supplied)

“For us, the important thing is to become a destination for cultural tourism… we are so ready for it”, he says. Visitor numbers are steadily increasing, while many of the events – including a spectral, modern take on tragic Greek lovers Orpheus and Eurydice are booked up well in advance.

It’s not just visitors that are benefiting from Elefsina’s moment in the spotlight: investments in the town’s infrastructure are now ongoing. Under the shade of three tall chimneys, a new skatepark funded by the Onassis Foundation echoes with the laughs and shouts of teenagers.

“It was a constant demand from the youngsters – now, they’re really happy” beams Marmarinos. The long-awaited renovation of the main square is also underway, previously stuck behind red tape.

Making sure that Elefsina’s fledgling cultural scene continues to grow long after the Capital of Culture moves on to another European city is the ultimate goal. Before the title came to town, there were almost no leisure visitors to Elefsina, let alone indoor arts venues. Now, Marmarinos says “we’ll leave behind three major venues and four smaller ones. They’re a huge asset for Athens. No matter how hard you try, you cannot find such venues there”.

The closing ceremony on 21 November will mark the opening of a new one, Cine Eleusis. Athens has plenty of outdoor cinemas, but Elefsina’s will be unique, as it’s reserved exclusively for documentary screenings. When I set off to explore the revitalised city for myself, Marmarinos departs with some words of optimism: “We’re keeping the engine of culture switched on, leaving behind things that no other city has.”

Getting there
From the centre of Athens, it’s a 25-minute drive on the EO8 to reach Elefsina. Alternatively, take Metro Line 3 directly from the airport or centre to Agia Marina station, then board the 876 bus. oasa.gr/en/

Staying there
Four-star Elefsina Hotel has doubles with breakfast from £95, elefsinahotel.gr

Visiting there
For the full programme of events and a list of venues, see 2023eleusis.eu/en/

More information
visitgreece.gr