It’s been weeks since I came home and I am still struggling to place Athens neatly into that ‘cities I’ve been to’ filing cabinet of the mind; it is unlike any European city I have ever travelled to, part decadent grandeur, part industrial sprawl, part serene village, part modern chaos. Perhaps that’s why it struck a deep chord with me.
It feels like a city, much like its population, that refuses to be defined by expectations, nor willing to make any comprise. Athens invites you into its presence, it has a unique energy and passion, in its population and history. I expected to find a city in turmoil, political upheaval and rebellion on the streets, the way the media has reported the city’s banking crisis and influx of refugees, I was surprised to not see this impact more vividly. Athens wants to be seen and heard, but it also wants you to stay a while scratch the surface and let it slowly surprise you at every turn. It is a melting pot of old Greece and new – and I genuinely loved it.
We touched down after experiencing some awe-inspiring views of
Halkidiki, Thessaloniki and the Sporades on a clear day as the sea glimmered translucent blue. From the windows of a budget plane the view below could have been easily mistaken a hot summer day. The city sprawls out over hills spilling down, all milky white and grey blocks to the port at Piraeus, it give the impression from above of having no discernible centre or midpoint. Very few high rises by most city standards and no real glimmering skyscrapers or towering monuments to capitalism and commerce. Yet hidden in the the green pine trees are the historic monuments of democracy and trade, political foundations of the modern world. For such an old city, Athens feels like it really only got going with major suburban expansion in the late 50s and much of the development has a mid century feel to it. It surprised me how much felt so new. And I still haven’t found the answer to my long running question – why are Greek pavements so shiny?
We booked a place with airbnb, as it seemed really logical, pick an area of the city that looks central and narrow it down. Our wish list winner was this in Plaka. It was close to bars, main sights, museums and restaurants, somewhere with a view, somewhere with space for both of us to potter around and a nice kitchen, heating, as it was winter I wasn’t quite prepared for being in Greece in a season that wasn’t summer. Greeks had warned me their winters were horrible, tutting, shrugging their shoulders, “it rains, it snows”. Fair point, but I guess few of them have experienced the North East in June. It was Christmas so our travel idea was “let’s escape to see what Greece is like out of season”. The truth is Athens is never truly out of season, and we were lucky to arrive into a balmy 19 degrees and sunshine, I was wearing a Christmas jumper!
If you do visit Athens in any season I’ve got quite a few recommendations. First up on my list is Brettos, a slightly hidden ‘Hole in the Wall’ kind of place in the Plaka. But once you step over the sleepy dog in the doorway, you are greeted to a plethora of colour and light from rows upon rows of bottles, the small bar is flanked by big wooden communal tables, edged with aged Greek barrels of wine and a friendly bar man who will tell you about the 120 plus different types of wine that have on offer. They offer tasting sessions every day. The special thing here is that it’s not just any wine but Greece’s finest wine, Brettos have a long history and have been distilling their own ouzo since the 1900s – of course I sampled the blue, the gold and the red label varieties. Go there to try the ouzo and the 20 something other liqueurs they make in house, try the wine from the Cyclades like the Assyrtiko and I challenge you to not to fall in love with Greek wine. If I have one lifetime challenge it is try to slowly dispel the Greek myths about crap wine. Take everything you ever thought about that nasty cheap tasting wine you want had on a teenage holiday in Corfu in the early 90s! It is really not anything like Greek wine these days! Brettos is intimate and the music is probably too loud,, but that’s half its charm friendly its fun it’s wine what more can you need in life! Maybe that is Kefi*!
I could probably dedicate pages of the blog to Greek food – and probably will with time – but there’s a few shining stars in Athens that do get a mention. I want to be upfront firstly about how much I love good Greek food – good being the key – fresh, thoughtful, rustic and traditional recipes done well, but also I like ambition too. It’s not all moussaka and feta! We stumbled upon Tzitzikas & Mermingas (the ant and the grasshopper, like the fable!) which takes a modern and fresh approach to the traditional mezedhoplieo (house of meze, small dishes) – appreciating a little complimentary glass of Tsipouro and kourambeides (christmas biscuits covered in sugar!) whilst we waited for a table. The dishes are all seasonal and well put together, trying the chef’s special sharing plates which included pomegranate salad, baby goat in lemon sauce, manouri cheese wrapped in parma ham and drizzled with Cretan honey. Yum!
To Kafeneio is a great place to eat in a fantastic 400 year old building in the Plaka on Epicharmou Street. We snuck in late one evening (late by english standards – normal for greeks). Positioned right next to a roaring fire, we shared a generous dishes meatballs, courgettes, and a favourite was the ‘bekri meze’ – meat for drunks – a saucy beef dish not dissimilar to stifado but lovingly sprinkled with cheese and served with bread, to mop up all that booze I assume! The meal was finished with a glass of morello cherry liqueur wine – sweet, and syrupy, with a fig-like aftertaste. A perfect winter warmer.
As it was Christmas we reserved a table at the impeccably swish Strofi – all white table cloths, moonlit acropolis views and a tuneful greek songstress. Despite its touristy appeal, there were plenty of locals celebrating their Christmases, up dancing and showing off their accomplished knowledge of dance steps from the more traditional bouzouki songs. Opa! The atmosphere was divine and the service was impeccable, we started with ouzo, followed by a delectable wine from Samos and after a divine chocolate and chestnut dessert, we rounded off the meal with Greek coffee’s before stumbling off into the night.
If you fancy lunch with a view the taverna on the square Argyropoulos was perfect for a light lunch. We enjoyed a Greek salad, meatballs, tzatziki (and the company of some friendly Athenian cats) whilst overlooking the Tower of the Winds.
One of my favourites was Estiatopio on Nikos street, near Syntagma Square – a real family run place – the whole family were in there catching up after the holidays. There were the proud grandparents being shown the girls school report and chattering loudly in the corner. Amidst this lovely atmosphere this tavern had two highlights for me – one it was the only place in Athens we found Horta on the menu. Countryside greens – served with a generous glug of olive oil and lemon juice, similar in taste to spring greens and spinach but slightly peppery, traditionally horta is picked by the ladies of the village and includes whatever is in season, dandelion leaves, kale, nettle, fennel. Secondly, the ‘waiter’ was possibly the only person I impressed in the city with my language skills, I eloquently ordered our dishes, ordered water (signomi, efharisto, the loumena boukari nero parakelo) and even the bill (par logarithmo parakelo) He was the owner’s son – we bonded and at 11 years old he spoke better english than I can ever aspire my Greek to reach!
If you don’t want to linger over a taverna and need good food quickly, Athens is your perfect city. But even if you have time, its well spend waiting for a gyros at Kostas. We waited in line for 30 minutes in the very fashionable Agias Irinis Square foot honestly the best gyros pitta ever…and i have tasted quite a few. Tangy tzatziki chicken meat, hot and fresh from the grill, layered in a wrap with melt in your mouth tomatoes and tangy sauce sprinkled with the sweetest red onions. Kostas has been serving and slaving over the same grill since 1946, passed down through a few generations I imagine we were served by Kosta’s Jr. I of course couldn’t resist a wander round the hardware shop over the square selling seeds and gardening tools…
Although there seems to be limitless streets of history to wander through in Athens; it really pays to plan out your days. Walking up to the Acropolis and seeing the Partheanon is a must – re-enacting the Athena and Posiedon battle at the site of the olive tree is optional of course! Take in the view after climbing 15 minutes to the peak of Mount Lykavittus, spend time wandering round the ancient agora, visit the Greek Parliament to see the changing of the guard. The precision movements of the soldiers in this dance of military honour is admirable (and can you imagine they do the same routine in every season including August, when it must be at least 40c!) Wander through to the Monastiraki Flea Market and people watch amongst the antiques. Some of the world’s best museums and preserved monuments are in the city, including the Acropolis Museum which is a beautiful architectural feast of well curated pieces.
You will find a real-life best discovered by walking, getting lost and just wandering. Nowhere felt particularly unsafe or salubrious – just take your time and see the city, it’s chic, smart and full of graffiti and tiny orthodox churches – political slogans carving out the human side of the euro crisis – showing a city alive and ready to shout out its politics. Although the metro system is great too – only a bargain 8 euro ticket for the 40 minute journey from the airport to Syntagma Square. Its clean, air conditioned and not particularly crowded, one of the legacies of hosting the Olympics in 2004.
Take the locals approach and spend a few hours lingering over a coffee – we sat in a cafe in the Plaka, the old quarter overlooking the choragic monument of Lysicrates – listening to the familiar click/clack of the kolymbari watching the locals debate and greet one another. The ever familiar tourist shops we passed to get there made me feel as if we had stepped right from the heart of a city into the slow pace of Greek island life in a matter of minutes.
If you do get to explore the Plaka make sure you wander around the area of Anafiotika. A sleepy, almost uninhabited area on the steepest slope up to the Acropolis, It was built by the workers who came to Athens from the Island of Anafi in the cyclades during the Ottoman empire. In just a small expanse of streets you can be transported – the tumbling houses retain their white-washed cycladic charm, cats bathe in the sunshine and geraniums grow in feta cans. Some house looks empty – the graffiti even sets a contracts, others done up but a nice bridge between the old and new, island nation and city states.
Athens I think you have Kefi* (the ill-defined Greek word for reckless happiness and spirit) – You certainly have left me wanting more…