AthensWords Andy Harris
Photography David Loftus
I’ve been coming to Athens since I was a child, and nothing much has changed in this timeless and intimate city that’s been inhabited for 7,000 years and was the birthplace of European civilisation and democracy. It has always been a politically charged place whose inhabitants seem to thrive on a knife-edge of perpetual strife. Athenians have witnessed everything from demagogic strikes and iron-fisted dictators, to occupations by the Turks and Germans, and all have become part of their consciousness, colouring their psyche as they rush around the crowded streets. There’s a passion in the air. It can be seen in the annual protest (which usually ends in tear gas) at the US embassy to commemorate the 1973 uprising against the American-supported military junta. And, more simply, it’s there in the celebration of age-old food traditions at family-run neighbourhood tavernas serving some of the best humble food in the Mediterranean.
To understand this city, head straight for the jumble of streets around the Kentriki Agora, an enclosed food market on Athinas Street that sits within sight of the always impressive Acropolis. Quite simply, it’s the best area in which to experience the collision of East and West. Every street has a manic mix of the bazaar and specialist shops, and there are bargains galore.
Start by wandering Sokratous Street from the junction of Aristidou Street and you’ll find every aspect of modern Greece in full cinematic detail. On the corner of Aristidou, opposite the artisan food store To Pantapoleion, an old man in a white coat sells freshly baked breakfast koulouria (sesame-encrusted chewy bagels) from a small cart. Next to him is the periptero (kiosk), with its swathe of newspapers hung from taut wires with wooden washing-line pegs, so passers-by can read the depressing headlines of a country gripped by a deep economic crisis. These omnipresent kiosks are the Greek equivalent of the corner shop, open all hours and selling everything from biros and Balkan porn to phone cards, aspirin and, always, cigarettes for a country where half the population still smokes everywhere, despite government attempts to curb the habit.
In the clutch of cafes opposite the noisy stock exchange, wannabe Onassis types in sharp suits and shades smoke cigars and sip iced frappé coffees, as a madding crowd of spluttering scooters and impoverished immigrants hawking trinkets trawls past. Further down the street, past the imposing National Bank headquarters on Kotsia Square, there are specialist cheese shops selling barrel-aged feta and ladotyri (a cheese preserved in olive oil from Mytilini), and stalls piled with bundles of intense sun-dried herbs and teas. A tiny honey store sells beeswax, dripping honeycomb and royal jelly, and the owner offers sticky spoonfuls of honey from the family hives stationed on an isolated mountain plain.
Cross the busy junction of Athinas and there’s a pet shop where middle-class families gaze longingly at the Westie pups in the window. A few doors down, the fashionable Fresh Hotel sits like a footballer’s wife, surrounded by crumbling red-light hotels where you can still glimpse indolent prostitutes in the lobbies, fags draped from their lips as they wait for some burly butcher business. Carry on down to Pireos Street and it’s full of Chinese-run emporia selling mass-produced tat, and food stores with basmati rice and spices for all the Indian and African immigrants’ cooking pots.
Turn left on to Sokratous Street and go down some well-worn marble steps to Diporto, a legendary taverna that’s been top of my list of favourite eateries for years. Most lunchtimes it’s like a scene out of a Fellini movie, as gypsies come down to play music on their accordions and violins, and the clientele sip retsina while Barba Mitsos (‘Old man Mitsos’) fries a few tiny fish, or ladles out massive bowls of vegetable stews and bean soups with alacrity. There was a scare when he had a heart attack last year, but he’s back in business now, with a smile on his face as he serves his simple, sustaining fare made from fresh market ingredients.
From here, turn left again on to graffitied and rubbish-strewn Evripidou Street, where catering shops stock all the pots and pans needed in the Greek kitchen. Arapian sells highly prized bastourma (Turkish-style spicy air-dried beef that was once made with camel meat) and other interesting charcuterie here, and the entrance of the Central Market beckons. Inside this hectic maze of meat and fish stalls, something of the ancient Greek obsession with food emerges as people scrutinise the seafood, checking the freshness of fish or querying the provenance of cephalopods. When everything else is closed, three 24-hour tavernas sell patsas (tripe soup) invigorated with a splash of garlic vinegar to hungry late-night revellers. And there’s always Stoa Athanaton (Arcade of the Immortals), a club where they play live rembetika, the haunting music that came to the mainland when around 1.5 million Greek Orthodox immigrants were expelled from Turkey in the 1920s.
It’s a short walk from here, past shops selling farming paraphernalia such as wine presses and copper tsikoudia (eau de vie) stills, shepherds’ crooks and cow bells, to the Plaka area, with its elegant neoclassical mansions, and Monastiraki, where there’s a notable flea market. This is best on Sundays, when the streets become crowded with Greeks looking for a bargain. Both areas might be tourist meccas but they are still very much the historic heart and soul of Athens, filled with antique shops, courtyard tavernas and kafeneon (cafes) where old men sit all day playing tavli (backgammon).
On Monastiraki Square there’s usually a laterna player cranking out his barrel organ for a few Euros, and a man pouring salep (a hot cinnamon-scented orchid-root drink, said to be a good aphrodisiac and digestive aid). Students mill outside the Diesel store and the frantic, always-full Thanasis kebab shop, where the chefs expertly wrap charcoal-grilled kofte-style meat in hot pitta bread with onion, tomato and parsley salad; all reminders again of the influence of the Turkish-born Greeks who brought these things with them.
Nearby, the Psirri and Gazi neighbourhoods are notable for the leprous dilapidation of their once grand buildings, now daubed by virulent graffiti, and the fashionable bars that come and go every season. In the crammed bookshops you can find tattered Penguin Classics paperbacks or first-edition Grand Tour journals from the 18th century, if you’re lucky. Between the scrap metal workshops there’s the odd ouzerie to settle into for the afternoon with a carafe of ouzo and mezedes with the cheerful locals.
If that’s not enough, there are archaeological sites galore. The complex Ancient Agora has a fine two-storey attalos stoa (arcade), which was rebuilt in the 1950s with Rockefeller money. It’s now a museum housing a klepsydra (water clock), ostraka (pottery shards used as voting tablets when deciding whether to exile, or ‘ostracise’, people such as Themistocles from Athens) and everyday toys and kitchen items that bring ancient Greece to life.
My favourite site is the beautiful Kerameikos, named after the potteries that once filled the area. Only discovered in 1861, it’s been a burial ground since the 12th century BC and today is a quiet and secluded place that seems a long way from the noise and pollution that Athens is famed for. Here, the ancient River Eridanos still runs as a small stream, and olive trees and wildflowers surround the poignant memorial stones, sarcophagi and stelae of the graves.
Finally, there’s the Acropolis. The ultimate wonder of the world is also the definitive people-watching place: tour guides spieling their textbook patois; cruise-ship chaperones holding placards high for their meandering groups; school kids larking around and lovers smooching on the well-worn rocks; scruffy archaeologists and serious engineers still supervising the restoration of columns on the Parthenon, oblivious as everyone snap, crackle and pops their cameras all around.
Below the vertiginous heights of the Acropolis is all the urban, often ugly, sprawl of Athens, and the equally imposing edifice that is the new Acropolis Museum. Its glass floors reveal the layers of antiquity that were unearthed as it was being built, and if it seems all structure and no content, that’s only because it awaits the return of the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum. In its brash modernity, it celebrates the juxtaposition of ancient and modern that is all around in this fascinating and passionate city.
EAT & DRINK
Andreas 18 Themistokleous Street; +30 210 3821522. Set in a small alley, this ouzerie pays briny homage to the Aegean with simple seafood such as marinated anchovies, baked sardines and peppers, and prawn saganaki.
Athinaikon 2 Themistokleous Street; +30 210 3838485, athinaikon.gr. This famous ouzerie serves a wide range of mezedes; particularly good are the offal dishes, flambéed loukaniko (sausage) and cheese- and chilli-stuffed squid.
Bakaliarakia O Damigos 41 Kidathineon Street; +30 210 322 5084. You come here for one thing – bakaliaros me skordalia (battered, fried salt cod with pungent garlic sauce), washed down with retsina since 1864.
Barba Yiannis 94 Emmanouil Benaki; +30 210 3300185. Popular Exarchia student taverna with barrel wines and classic fare such as meat stifados, octopus and macaroni, and baked cod and veg at very good prices.
Cafe Abyssinia 7 Kinetou Street, Plateia Abyssinia; +30 210 3217047. The lively music at weekends makes this cafe a favourite spot after visiting the flea market, as do its excellent mussel pilaf and keftedes (meatballs).
Da Capo 1 Tsakalof Street; +30 210 3602497. Grab a pavement table to people watch in exclusive Kolonaki.
Dimokritos 23 Dimokritou Street; +30 210 3619293. Reliable taverna with great one-pot stews such as spetsofai (sausage and pepper), soupies krassates (cuttlefish with red wine) and arni lemonato (lamb and lemon).
Estiatorio Milos Athens Hilton, 46 Vassilissis Sofias Avenue; +30 210 7244400, milos.ca. Costas Spiliadis opened his first restaurant in Montreal in the ’60s, conquered New York, then returned to Athens to open this stylish branch. Seafood from the islands is expertly charcoal-grilled, and there’s delicious crabcakes, suckling pig from Naxos and rooster from Crete.
Ioannis Restaurant Royal Olympic Hotel, 28–34 Athanasiou Diakou Street; +30 210 9288400, royalolympic.com. Costas Tsingas is one of the stars of global Greek cuisine. He consults in New York and is currently behind the stoves at this rooftop restaurant with Acropolis views. The food is sublimely Greek – marinated sardines with sea urchin butter, lemon and eggplant; beef short rib pastitsio; slow-cooked goat with rice and yoghurt; and honey cake with cherry ice cream.
Kuzina 9 Adrianou Street; +30 210 3240133, kuzina.gr. Chef Aris Tsanaklidis worked in Hawaii for years before returning home, and gives a Pacific-rim twist to local fare. There’s a mean ceviche, grilled octopus with shaved fennel, and squid with ginger and chilli – all in spitting distance of the Agora and the Temple of Hephaestus.
Makriyianni 3 3 Makriyianni Street; +30 210 9230187. Trendy cafe with decent sandwiches, pies and coffee.
Orea Ellas 59 Stoa Mitropoleos/36 Pandrosou Street; +30 210 3213023.Amazing views of the Acropolis at this cafe in a crafts centre, where you can also buy old prints and island pottery.
Plous Podilatou 42 Akti Koumoundourou Street, Mikrolimano; +30 210 4137910. Chef Vasilis Alvanidis knocks up perfect grilled seafood, salads and risotto for a hip crowd by the fishing boats of Mikrolimano port.
Taverna Klimataria 2 Plateia Theatrou; +30 210 3216629, klimataria.gr. Very good grills and salads in a quaint courtyard setting beneath a canopy of vines.
Tellis 86 Evripidou Street; +30 210 3242775. They do one dish – pork chops, chips and salad – but they do it so well at this busy pavement stop.
Thanasis 69 Mitropoleos Street; +30 210 3244705. The best souvlaki joint, featuring exuberant charcoal-grilled kebabs and pitta bread all day and night, just off Monastiraki Square.
To Diporto 9 Sokratous Street; +30 210 3211463. Owner ‘Barba Mitsos’ feeds early market traders fassoulada (bean soup), patates yiachni (stewed potatoes) and always a few fried fish. Expect wandering musicians, gypsies and the odd savvy tourist by lunch.
To Limanaki O Giorgos Keratsini DEH; +30 210 4004721. Take a taxi to this taverna near Piraeus. It does brilliant octapodo keftedes (octopus rissoles), fresh and marinated anchovies and baby red mullet that you eat in one bite.
Tzitzikas Kai Mermigas 12–14 Mitropoleos Street; +30 210 3247607. Taverna serving vegetarian classics such as seskoula (swiss chard with feta and tomatoes) and saganaki (fried cheese with chilli flakes).
Varoulko 80 Piraios Street; +30 210 5228400, varoulko.gr. Lefteris Lazarou, a famous TV chef, serves stunning seafood at his Michelin-starred place, such as carpaccio and octopus with Mavrodaphne sauce and trachana.
Vlassis 15 Maiandrou Street; +30 210 7256335. Waiters bring trays loaded with dips, beans and salads to start, and might follow with pastitsio (meat and pasta pie), lamb fricassée or tsiro-psalmas (liver in béchamel sauce).
Voskopoula 41 Leoforos Varis, Dilofo; +30 210 8957875, taverna-voskopoula.gr. One of the famed grill joints in Vari, where men known as kraktes (crows) try to lure you in for melt-in-the-mouth lamb, kokoretsi (spit-roasted offal sausage), or gastras katsikaki (kid and lemon potatoes).
SHOP & SEE
Acropolis Museum 15 Dionysiou Areopagitou Street; +30 210 9000900, theacropolismuseum.gr. This magnificent new museum justifiably awaits the British Museum’s return of the Elgin Marbles.
Kerameikos 148 Ermou Street; +30 210 3463552. A small museum and cemetery with the 5th-century marble tomb of Dionysios of Kollytos.
National Archaeological Museum 44 Patission Street; +30 210 8217724, odysseus.culture.gr. Priceless Neolithic pottery, Hellenistic bronze statues and some stunning 1600 BC gold treasures unearthed from the tombs of Mycenae.
Gennadeion American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 61 Souidias Street; +30 210 7210536. An eclectic library of 70,000 books, 192 Edward Lear sketches and some wacky Byron memorabilia amassed by Greek diplomat Ioannis Gennadios.
Museum of Cycladic Art 4 Neofytou Douka & Irodotou Street; +30 210 7228321, cycladic.gr. The world’s largest collection of Cycladic art. See the elegant statues that inspired Picasso, Brancusi and Modigliani.
Erato Bookstore 9 Thissiou Street; +30 210 3311991. Discover rare books, maps and prints in this cluttered, atmospheric Monastiraki shop.
mompso.com 33 Athinas Street; +30 210 3230670, mompso.com. Supplying shepherds and horsemen with copper bells, hand-carved walking sticks, saddles and riding boots for years.
To Pantopoleion 1 Sofokleous Street; +30 210 3234612. An impressive grocery store stocking every kind of Greek foodstuff, from spoon sweets to jams, capers, mountain cheeses and olive oil.
Arapian 41 Evripidou Street; +30 210 3217238. Hole in the wall that specialises in charcuterie, especially bastourma (spicy cured beef).
Elixir 41 Evripidou Street; +30 210 3215141, elixir.com.gr. Handmade olive-oil soaps and the best range of herbs and spices (all stored in wooden drawers to protect them from sunlight).
Kokkinakis 46 Menandrou Street; +30 210 5223282. The finest oils and essences at a fraction of high street prices. Owner Manios speaks English and will guide you through the array of myrtle, thyme and lavender oils he supplies to monasteries across Greece.
Apivita 26 Solonos Street; +30 210 3640560, apivita.com. Don’t miss trying this Greek beauty brand, especially the shampoos made with honey from their hives in Arcadia.
To Thymari Tou Serefi 51A Kallidromiou Street; +30 210 3300384. A retro deli stocking artisan Greek items such as Santorini fava, Prespes gigantes beans and island cheeses.
Oino Typo 98 Harilaou Trikoupi; +30 210 3616274. Barrel-aged varietal wines by the kilo and Athens’ best selection of boutique wines.
Mastiha Shop Panepistimiou & Kriezotou Streets; +30 210 3632750, mastihashop.com/default. Stock up on powdered or teardrop mastic resin from Chios, to use in baking or jams.
Melissinos 2 Aghias Theklas Street; +30 210 3219247, melissinos-art.com. Sophia Loren, Jacqueline Kennedy and John Lennon have all made the pilgrimage here for leather sandals.
Stoa Athanaton 19 Sofokleos Street; +30 210 3214362. This club opens for afternoon and evening sessions of rembetika music and dancing.
STAY & GET AROUND
St George Lycabettus Hotel 2 Kleomenous Street; +30 210 7290711, sglycabettus.gr. Magnificent views from the balconies of this established favourite in Kolonaki. There’s a brilliant rooftop bar and pool.
Avance 40–42 Syngrou Avenue; +30 210 9200100, avance.gr. Rent a moped, the travel mode of savvy Athenians, and skip the traffic jams.