I arrive quickly only to depart again slowly as the rain falls. I wait in a cafe and the sun blind hours turn the sea into grey smoked glass. Piraeus is a steel and concrete circus of dancing splashing trucks where invisible ringmasters direct the show, fumes rise while cars idle waiting for a turn to cross the pools of rain and up the ramp into the deep belly of the boat. Dappled light in red and white reflect a slow applause on glistening tarmac.
Ferries, large and small, get dwarfed by cruise ships bigger than buildings offer up a horizon tiny porthole windows, towering in the same white-dirt-colour as the apartments that line the harbour. I don’t know where the city ends and the sea begins. Everything outside plays tricks in the rain. Pedestrians like me board the bus and lurch together past each ferry as it readies for departure in the hours ahead. Gate upon gate yelling another destination in neon lights; Patmos, Kriti, Astipalea, Paros, Thessaloniki, Aegina, Rodos. Take your pick. Each island a series of events yet to happen. A dice to roll.
The bus chugs past the empty warehouses and car parks, past the closed cafes, past the closed ticket booths. The man next to me asks if the bus ticket is free and I stutter some words that might not make sense, so I say sorry to him. To myself, for every word I haven’t yet learnt. We go past the long lines of bus shelters. In the rain its hard to believe people lived there. But now there’s no sign of them. Each day they were jolted from sleep by the angry noise of wheeled suitcases and reversing trucks. They sat beside everything they owned, holding on to heavy blankets and battered bags, water bottles lined up at the end of a plastic bench. I can’t help but wonder what a person goes through to try to begin again in the smog and spit end of the city port like this watching people leave freely every day and not be able to do so yourself. Where are they now? What place did they end up now it is winter?
Only when the day has almost given up I see it. A jolt of sun encores with a single gold streak across the winter sky. If the prisms of a rainbow are made after the rain I can’t find it. No pot of treasures, no basket of hope. The sun ends the day without fanfare. By the time I’m on the ferry the only sight on the horizon is the dark billowing kind of cloud, bending into loops of grey and somewhere out there a factory burns (the alert tells my phone vital facts – keep windows closed, stay inside). As we sail into the ink black outside I can’t tell where the city ends or where the smoke begins or where the sea touches the sky at the horizon. Or even if I need to know what is beginning or ending as everything, always, seems to be both.
There were times in lockdown when getting back safely was almost unimaginable. Five long months in the UK we didn’t plan on went by remarkably fast and only now emerging into the raw sunlight of Syros, I think I am just about starting to comprehend the potential impact, on the way we live and what it might mean in the future.
I feel incredibly fortunate now to have left the UK. Greece is open, trying to stay safe and ensure the economy ticks over. This is a careful balance – we all bear this responsibility, never lightly. The journey (after many cancelled flights) was nerve-wracking but turned out easier than we had imagined. As we took non-direct flights we had multiple forms to complete – declarations stating we didn’t have COVID symptoms, contact addresses for where we had been staying in the UK and where we would be staying on arrival. Our temperatures were taken twice; before each flight. Overall, it felt safe and the real difference was that it all took more time at a slower pace than a typical flight. Check in had longer lines. Planes boarded and disembarked row by row. Airports were empty, spacious and had a only a minor feel of the apocalypse about them. Some shops were open, but everyone was calm and followed the rules. I even bought my first take-away coffee since March.
We had completed advance Passenger Locator Forms and been emailed QR codes to show on arrival in Athens. The arrivals lined up, some were tested – we were not. Outside the airport I wanted to fill my lungs with the fuggy heat of the city, all that gasoline and sun-drenched pine scent – but the mask stopped that! Eyes and ears had to be faithful senses for travel now.
It was so quiet, it looked more like January seeing all the taxi’s lined up outside the terminal with hardly any tourists to drive. The streets of Athens were also emptier than usual – not that we saw much of them! It wasn’t mandatory but we decided to stay 8 nights in Athens and rent a house in Pagrati for self-isolation – this was for us to mitigate risk and feel less anxious about onward travel to the island. When we took the Blue Star ferry last Friday – it was amazing how busy it was; packed with Greeks travelling to islands, escaping the mainland. Very few international voices. It does seem that holiday’s certainly have come earlier this year for everyone – out of necessity or choice. Parts of the journey were a sensory overload. I’ve basically been living in a small bubble of existence since March that getting back out there is a bit overwhelming.
Suddenly people are everywhere (at a distance); we arrive in the midst of normal lives happening, the bustling port of Ermoupolis with its cafe’s open, restaurant tables laid and delivery truck engines humming. I don’t mind being the first to say the beaches look better with less sunbeds crammed together. Social distance might be the best thing for the human and natural environment as well! The sea is clean and clear, with the cruise ships tied up and less boat traffic. Now what to do about the cars?! Another summer trying to not get ran over and hit with dust as we hike!
Unlike reports from other islands who mainly cater for international tourists, Syros feels steadily busy, not quite at the level of a usual July but Greek and some international visitors are arriving. It is all just a case of wait and see, stay safe, follow the rules – masks are now compulsary in shops which can only be a good thing. Everything almost as it should be here in Summer. It will be tough for businesses to make it work financially and encourage people back safely. But only time will tell.
I have to say that the first swim was magical – as was just waking up here, cockerels crowing, doves cooing, cicadas screeching; simple things back in March and April that were as wild and as far away as dreams.
It feels amazing and strange at the same time to be back – in our little home. After living in 5 different places in the past 10 months, unpacking and getting organised here was a treat! And yes, my store cupboard had yeast and flour and all the things I needed in the UK when the shops had ran out! Jam, anyone? Tomato chutney? Capers?
The ‘new normal’version of travel is undeniably different – with masks on and extra hand washing, plexi-glass screens in taxi’s and elbow bumps instead of handshakes. What is the same is the welcome, the land stretched out with adventure, the iridescent blue of the sea and the familiar heat of the sun, places that you leave only to rediscover again, the places you fall into that rhythm easily and feel a sense of coming home again.
Oft used is the analogy to say that in the pandemic we are all at sea together in the ongoing storm, but on different boats. Not all of us are safe, not all of us had similar experiences of anxiety, grief, sickness or life affirmations; I had a call with some dear friends the other night and some common themes of our ‘lockdown’s across the world emerged. Some were positive; re-prioritisation, focus and time to slow down. Others were fraught; increased pressure, finances, childcare, work and it’s impact on our sense of self.
There is no universal experience to measure against. But for now, life has to go-on, wherever you made it to.
It’s been less than 48 hours since we left the UK and already it feels like entering another world. That’s not just the weather. But walking off a plane to face wind that felt balmy instead of arctic certainly helped soothe the soul! Athens is always a city of contradictions and chaos, staying Koukaki is a bit of both. It means we can walk to the Plaka pretending to be tourists or wander this neighbourhood pretending to be locals. I guess right now we are a bit of both.
Waking up in a new place always holds a kind of magic. Yesterday was no exception. First peering our heads out to a balcony in the actual SUNSHINE, followed by figuring out how to use the fancy coffee machine and then wandering out onto unfamiliar streets. Squinting upwards and stumbling onwards was the order of the first new day in Greece.
Later, after lunch I decided it was time for our long overdue visit to the Benaki Museum. This place is quite possibly the best treasure trove of a collection I have seen in a long time – its magnificently crafted displays have an eclectic range of objects from Ancient Greece ceramics and jewellry, to Byzantine orthodox art, folk costumes, paintings and even the interiors of 18th century mansions, including full wood panelled ceilings and rugs. Its like a potted history of Greece over 4 floors with around 6000 items in the collection!
I especially enjoyed the special exhibition ‘Travels in Greece 16th-19th Century’ which displays the collection of rare maps and travel material donated by Efstathios Finopoulos. Here is all the work of essentially the first tourists in narrated diaries and journals, promotional articles from the 18thC in English, German and French; rare posters detailing beautiful peasants and wide green horizons to promote the world to Greece for the ‘Grand Tour’. Books and notes by the most renowned Hellenophile Lord Byron are also on display. It is well timed collection as Greece prepares to entice even more tourists this year. Although the methods may have changed a little these days. Even the rare maps are wonderful with their inaccuracies and confusion between Delos and Delphi, mismatching the islands and mainland. Its at the Benaki Museum until 29 April 2018 (entrance to the museum is 9E, but free on Thursdays and the exhibition is an extra 5E)
Afterwards we climbed the steep slope to Mount Lycabuttus but clouds stood in the way of the sunset. Despite the warmer temperatures and the scent of orange blossom filling the air, it still has a chill in the air and eating indoors on an evening is still recommended. With this in mind we found hearty food and a warm welcome at To Kato Allo; a small place hidden behind the Acropolis. In a world of white tablecloths and hip food, it still offers wine from the barrel and homecooked specials on a chalkboard. We opted for moussakas and beef stew with horta. Perfect.
A few more days of feeling out of place and I’ll feel right at home.
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…