Acropolis Seminar - An intelligent 3 hour walking tour of the Acropolis - including the Parthenon - and the New Acropolis Museum.
The Orientalist Tour - A walking tour taking in Ottoman/Neo-Classical Athens and showing off the hidden side of the central district of Plaka.
Food Tasting Tour - A three hour walking tour of fresh produce markets and local shops, with plenty of tastings along the way and a souvlaki lunch stop at the end.
Street Art Tour - Another excellent and unusual walking tour, this time focusing on street art and modern urban life.
Cape Sounion - A full day out at the beach and ruins at Sounion is one of the great pleasures of Athens. The sunsets and clifftop views on offer here are truly memorable.
The Athens Marathon - We don't usually mention sports event, but this is THE marathon.
Veikou Street - An up and coming arty street near to the Plaka.
The Strays of Athens - Athens is home to many well cared for stray animals who you'll see everyday as you walk about the streets and ruins.
Mystic Pizza Exarxia - Tasty, organic, excellent value food with plenty of vegan and vegetarian options. The spirulina tagliatelle is probably the best pasta we've had, anywhere in the world.
Mystic Pizza Veikou - Another location of this great pasta and pizza restaurant, near the Hera and Art Gallery Hotels.
Aleria - Superb value fine dining served in a refined, genuinely welcoming atmosphere. If you're in Athens for more than a day, you must eat here.
Oinopoleio - A traditional taverna that's extremely popular with locals, offering good value food and excellent live music. Arrive late and stay 'til early to make the most of the atmosphere.
Bock Beer Restaurant - Part German Beer Hall, part American Diner, ultra friendly and serving the best North American style burgers in the city.
Tirbouson - Great value home cooking with some unique items on the menu are what you can expect from this very friendly, family-run place.
Mono - Like the Aleria, Mono offers fine dining and food created by a hugely inventive chef and served by knowledgable staff. The intelligent menu changes with the seasons.
Klimataria - Another traditional, good value taverna with genuine hospitality and excellent live music.
Beer Time - A fun pub in the lively Psiri area with the best range of Greek craft beers in Athens (and plenty from the rest of Europe and North America too) and a well thought out menu.
Prosopa - Fine dining in a former industrial space looking out at the train tracks; good value and very professional, friendly staff.
Liondi - There's many tourist-orientated restaurants lining Makrygianni Street in the Plaka and we reckon this is the best of them. Very Greek, very touristy, a lot of fun and the food's great value too.
Lithos - A friendly Psiri place popular with tourists.
The Hera Hotel - Homely, friendly, classy and our favourite place to stay in Athens. It's brilliantly located for the Plaka and Acropolis and considering how well appointed and comfortable the rooms are it's very good value.
The Art Gallery Hotel - Another homely hotel that we've stayed in several times. From the breakfast terrace they have a fine Parthenon view.
The New Hotel - A cool design hotel that'll often give you the feeling that you're staying within a modern art installation. The breakfast is first rate.
For the creative tourist Athens is, in our opinion, the Number 1 city destination in the western world.
Most importantly, for us, is that the people are genuinely kind and hospitable. They’re happy for you to do whatever you want as long as you're being decent about it, and unlike the inhabitants of most other cities the people you come across in Athens give you the feeling that they’d be treating you well even if you weren’t eating at their restaurant, buying from their shop or staying at their hotel. Maybe it’s the effect of the warm weather (we had 21 degrees and sunny even at the end of November) on them, or perhaps it’s the great history of hospitality and humanity that runs through the Greek culture. Whatever it is, we’re happy it’s made the Athenian people into the outstanding human beings they are today.
Athens is also city with a large amount of layers of material for a creative person to work with. Obviously there’s the famous Acropolis ruins and those at Cape Sounion that so entranced Lord Byron. But lesser known is that Athens is the world centre of street art at the moment, that there’s a range of landscapes within fifteen minutes walk from the Plaka tourist district including rocky, forested hillsides and fine views of the sun setting over the ocean or mountains and that the city has a burgeoning food culture (it's port, Piraeus, is the only port of the ancient world that's known to be functioning to this day and it still receives a huge range of fresh produce from the islands, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Europe) that’s now rivalling what you might find in other street food and fine dining meccas such as Marrakech, Vienna and Toronto, all of which add to the warmth of the sun and people to light up the ancient city.
And lastly, we’d say that if you enjoy sporting events, as we do, then the Athens Marathon is the ultimate race of its kind. It actually begins in Marathon and finishes in the white marble stadium that hosted the end of the first ever marathon race, back in 1896. Combine this with the incredible enthusiasm that the Athenian crowds who line the route have for the event and you have an amazing race day experience. If you’re going to do just one marathon in your life, make it this one!
We'd been to Athens many, many times before this trip as general tourists, photographers and as marathon runners so we were keen to see another side to the city during this visit. To aid in this we got in touch with Athens Walking Tours, Context Travel, Alternative Athens and Big Olive, all of whom operate unusual tours that we recommend you check out.
As in Rome, it can be intimidating at first taking photos in Athens if you're trying to do something other than re-photograph something that has been photographed a million times before by people who probably have far better equipement than you. But don't worry, if in doubt, place trust in your pinhole or creaky old Artistamp SLR!
I took the photo below with a 1970's Minolta SLR, straight onto a photo paper negative. I guessed at the exposure, which was somewhere around a quarter of a second, and I didn't pose the girls at all. I'm happy that this represents my own vision of the wonder and Sapphic softness present during the Acropolis visit that day and I certainly haven't seen anybody else portray it like this; how could they, like all good pinholes and artistamps it wasn't so much skill on my part as a combination of circumstance, guesswork, the heat getting to work on the photo paper and then of course luck.
If you like to look at as well as make photography then Athens isn't a great destination at the moment; we didn't find any exhibitions in the city centre worth looking at but we did locate the following information online.
Athens Photo Festival - If you're in the city for this festival - it happens in June and July - it seems like there's several very interesting events on. Check the website for updates and how you can be involved.
The Athens House of Photography - This is too far out of the centre to be of any real use to a tourist, unless you've a local friend to take you there in which case do go as it looks like it hosts some great exhibitions.
Based on our own experiences, our advice to you for a rewarding week in Athens packed full of photographic opportunities is as follows:
Day 1; Take the Context Travel Acropolis Seminar. It's intelligent enough to go beyond what you might've learnt in school and you'll also have a decent grounding in Athenian culture by the end of it. Have lunch at the best souvlaki joint in town, 'Kostas' on Agias Eirinis Sq, where pita enclosed kebabs are €2 each, or if you're vegetarian walk for five minutes around the corner to 'Ellinikon' at 39 Kolokotroni St, where a mother and daughter team serve up similarly priced pita delights, but with felafel, salad and chips inside instead of meat (note, whilst Ellinikon is open until late every day, Kostas is only open weekdays and closes when the food runs out, usually early evening). Go for happy hour drinks at Beer Time in Psiri and then walk a few metres across the square for dinner and traditional live music at Oinopoleio. Make sure you stroll by the Odeon of Herodes Atticus after dinner to enjoy a tourist-free views of the ruins; you might well have the place to yourself!
Day 2; Take the 'Athens Walking Tours Food Tour' in the morning to learn much more about modern Greek society through it's diet (and to eat tasty food!). Pay a visit to the Ancient Agora in the afternoon, enjoy the Temple and the rebuilt marketplace which offers it's best shadows in the afternoon. Dine at Tirbouson for high-quality Greek home cooking.
Day 3; Make the most of your ruins entry ticket (you would've bought this to enter the Acropolis on day 1, it allows you to enter five more ruin sites as well and is valid for a week) and visit Kerameikos Cemetery, Hadrians Library and the Temple of Zeus. If you've got the energy after the Temple of Zeus take a short walk to the Panathenaic stadium to see where thousands of people finish the classic Athens marathon every year and where the original Olympic Games were held. Return to the hotel via the leafy National Gardens and dine at either Mono, Bock Beer or Mystic Pizza.
Day 4; Spending the day at Cape Sounion is a must, where you can enjoy the beach, the ruins and the spectacular sunsets (so check the forecast before you go and plan the trip for a day when you have a clear sky). You'll be tired after this day in the sun (the bus trip is about 90 minutes so that adds hours to the day as well) so perhaps a decent dining choice is the relaxed Liondi in the central Plaka, or once again Mystic Pizza if you 'd like something other than the touristy experience.
Day 5; Take the Athens Street Art Tour in the morning to learn more about modern Athenian culture, have lunch at Kostas or Ellinikon and then enjoy panoramic views and sunset from Phillipappos hill in the late afternoon. Consider eating at Klimataria if you'd like basic, traditional food and great live music, or Prosopa for a finer dining experience.
Day 6; Have a relaxing morning wandering about the small Anafiotika area. It's the prettiest part of Athens with many small whitewashed houses, alleyways, colourful trailing plants and lots of cats! Anafiotika is also very beautiful in the late afternoon, make some photos here and people will think you've been to the islands as it's got that small village feel to it. You might also visit the Monastiraki flea market and spend more time around the district that your food tour introduced you to. For dinner, if you haven't already visited Mystic Pizza or Bock Beer, then we urge you to do so.
Day 7; We always spend our last day in Athens visiting our favourite parts of the city, and that usually means Anafiotika and it's cats, the central Plaka and it's lovely stray dogs, the Areopagus hill for it's Acropolis views and finally Philopappos Hill, where we take a bottle of something and enjoy a few drinks as we watch the sunset. For dinner, it's difficult to place the fantastic Aleria Restaurant in your diary. If you're a meat eater and visit early in your stay then it's likely that most meals you eat afterwards will be a slight disappointment. So perhaps best visit it on your last day and we guarantee you'll leave Athens on a sweet note and be dreaming of your speedy return.
Below are some of the digital images we created during our stay. Alternatively, there are some Pinhole Photographs we created during our stay coming soon (check back soon, we're developing them as fast as we can!)
The Hera Hotel is a brilliant choice for both general sightseeing and for attending the Athens Marathon race (which is an event that we love!). And if you consider the high standard of the carpeted, spacious rooms, the gentle, discreet service and the central location (a quiet residential street less than ten minutes walk from the Acropoli Metro Station and a fifteen minute walk from the public entrance to the Acropolis site) then it’s the best value hotel that we’ve experienced in central Athens (€160 for a double at time of writing). The breakfast is extensive with good vegetarian options and is served in an airy room which has the feel of an early 20th century tea-room/botanical garden greenhouse (the chairs were wicker, the floors and lower walls are made of marble and there's always a hushed atmosphere under the translucent, domed roof). The entire room is always clean and the staff are very smiley and efficient. We found it to be a very peaceful, civilised area to start our day in. There's also a restaurant on the roof with fantastic views of the Acropolis and sunset (we watched the sun drop into the sea from here). See our Review of the Hera Hotel Here, or visit http://www.herahotel.gr/
The Art Gallery Hotel has a good location for both general sightseeing (it's a fifteen minute walk from the Acropolis and even less to the New Acropolis Museum) and for attending the Athens Marathon race, and if you want to do any training runs before the marathon race (or just take a walk with fine views) there’s several nice routes nearby, including one that starts at the hotel and loops around the National Gardens, Zappeion Exhibition Hall, Panathenaic Stadium and Temple of Zeus and another that follows the walking trails on the wooded Philopappos Hill, which offers superb sunset viewing. The owners and staff are very welcoming, individual and helpful (nobody is bland international here, it’s very Greek, opinionated and friendly), our room was tastefully decorated and very comfortable and the breakfast offered a good standard of food. Add to this mix the lovely resident cat, a smoker friendly environment and walls covered with art and you have an old style hotel with a very homely atmosphere.
We stayed in the New Hotel for five nights around the time of the Athens Marathon, when it was also used as the base for the elite athletes. The hotel is the first ever hotel project of award winning designer duo Fernando and Humberto Campana, the Brazilian brothers being commissioned for their eco-sensitive ethos and the use of contemporary handicraft practices and local ideas. The result is an intriguing 79-room establishment where every public space and floor has been creatively renewed to include remnants of the former Olympic Palace Hotel, unusual custom-made furniture and handmade fixtures which’ll give you the feeling that you’re staying within a major art installation. Part boutique hotel, part hipster hangout, part business (especially at breakfast) meeting point, part art gallery and 100% modern Athens; it’s also very central with very spacious rooms. We thought the whole building a very cool venue for photographers who enjoy capturing interior design.
There are a few great value places to eat in Athens, for instance, Kostas in Agias Eirinis Square and the ladies selling the falafel just around the corner on Kolokotroni, both of which charge just two Euro for lovely kebab-style take-aways. But if you want a sit down, full meal with excellent eco-credentials then for us nothing beats Mystic Pizza. You’ll get brilliant pasta here, and of course pizzas, and there’s a strong lean towards the dishes being organic, health conscious and tasty and for around six or seven Euro a plate the prices, considering the high quality, can’t be beat.
Currently Mystic Pizza have three branches in Athens and we visited this one just after the Athens Marathon when we felt in need of some serious re-fuelling. It’s a twenty minute walk from the Plaka area hotel we were staying in and located in a neighborhood known as the original home of anarchy in Athens. It’s a friendly, interesting and vibrant area that you probably wouldn’t wander into by chance; we never saw a single tourist within ten minutes walk of the place and that was at 7pm, a time when lots of young locals were sitting down to eat there. If you’re interested in gaining an insight into modern Greek society and the student/alternative young people crowd, an insight that’s not currently pointed out in any major guidebook, then this is definitely a place to hang out once or twice (don’t let the graffiti in the photos put you off, Athens is covered in it).
Lou Reed was playing over the sound system as we walked in. The other customers looked the friendly sort that you might find in art cafés or counter-culture centres the world over, for instance Kensington Market in Toronto or Camden in London. I immediately felt relaxed. I always tend to feel safer in alternative quarters than in more corporate areas. People who hang out in places like Mystic Pizza aren’t particularly interested in beating their chest, world domination and power, or in tearing down what remains of the rainforest to make junk that no one needs and stuffing their face with poisonous rubbish during their lunch-breaks. I like these sorts of people.
“It’s probably not the environment for someone’s whose favourite program is Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” said Lamia.
“No,” I replied, “you got to have a bit more brain to appreciate a place like this.”
And that’s not being unfair, I think. You really do need to think to get the most from Mystic Pizza. You need to be able to read that they use Cannabis seed in their dishes and understand how good that is for you, rather than just giggle or make a silly joke about getting high. You need to understand a little about health and super foods to realise just how well thought out their ingredients are. And you need to have been inspired to have eaten in more than a few excellent restaurants – and I mean excellent, rather than expensive or trendy – to truly appreciate the subtle, real food that you’re going to eat here, as opposed to the dishes full of fake highs that lesser places offer.
There was some quality art and sculptures on the walls and coloured glass, low lighting, hand crafted models, and fresh flowers on the tables. As we waited for our food to arrive Lou Reed led into Bowie, Dylan into The Mamas and The Papas and Depeche Mode into Talking Heads. The DJ knew their music, for sure.
We shared the Mystic Veggie Lachmatzou. It was a wholemeal base topped with onions, peppers, fresh tomatoes and squash; this was basically a pizza without cheese or tomato paste. There was also no extra spices, just the veggies. It’s perfect for vegans and people on a strict health watch. I’m thinking of becoming vegan myself so it was good to try this. I thought it would be awful to eat a pizza without cheese but actually, it was pretty tasty. I finished the lot, no problem.
Another type of new pizza we shared was the Mystic Classic Peinirli. This was a simple pizza shaped like a boat with a filling of goats butter, Kayseri cheese and a sprinkling of fresh oregano. The herbs are all grown organically for the restaurant. The crust was medium thick but soft inside and the cheese not overly melted. Like all of the other dishes we ate at Mystic Pizza it tasted like health food but it also retained the ability to be tasty. I must also add that the crusts were unlike any other pizza crust I’ve ever had. They had a unique taste (that’s down to the cannabis seed used in the flour I guess) and texture; if all pizza crust was like this there’d be no talk at all about pizza being bad for us.
For my main I had the Mystic Spirulina. The creamy sauce was made from zucchini, carrots, fresh mushrooms, olives, spirulina and cream that covered the homemade fresh tagliatelle. The pasta itself, served al dente, was made from a unique dough mix that included organic cannabis flour. It was brilliant, really, that something so totally good for you could be so fulfilling. Obviously that’s the point of view of somebody who has come recently to health foods (me) and who previously thought that ‘good for you’ meant ‘lack of taste’. I have the feeling that even if you didn’t understand the ethics of the restaurant you’d get a feeling of just how healthy this dish was, and you’d be surprised that something so good for you could be so tasty. I would recommend anybody who is in Athens to check this particular dish out, it’s incredible.
We’d love if there was a Mystic Pizza in the place where we live. It’s an intelligent concept with brave, well thought out ingredients and super healthy and tasty dishes. If you’re in Athens, please do pay this place a visit, you definitely won’t regret it.
Vegan Friendly? 4/5
Vegetarian Friendly? 5/5
To discover more, please visit http://www.mystic.com.gr/en
Aleria is our number one restaurant in Athens, if we’re looking for a fine dining experience and don’t mind not eating a vegetarian main. We love the decor and the food, and the waiting staff and Nikiforos, the manager, are brilliant. Imagine a person who’s taken notice of many of the lessons that the finest North European/American restaurateurs have to offer and then been intelligent enough to keep the best bits and dump – somewhere off the coast near Marseilles – the pretentiousness and general stand-offishness, and then imagine that person opening a restaurant in a city where the paying clientele still value genuine friendliness. If you can imagine that, and add in a sense of effortless, well travelled class then you have the beginnings of a picture of Nikiforos, and of what you might expect if you go to dine at his restaurant.
The building that the Aleria is housed in – it’s a twenty minute walk or a very short taxi ride from the central Plaka area – dates from 1895. The upper floor was created forty years later than the ground and in the the 1960′s it was a doctors home (the doctor used to enjoy breakfast on the terrace looking up at the Parthenon; there are dining tables on the terrace now, although modern buildings now block the Parthenon view).
“I feel as though we’re in a film set,” said Lamia, “or an antique, classy doll’s shop. Everything’s precisely placed for maximum visual impact and to show off the interior to it’s best.” Nikiforos’ mother decorated it, he was to tell us later. She’s owned a shop for over thirty years and although she’s not particularly well travelled or studied she does have a great imagination. And, I might add, she’s not afraid of being homely either, which is a quality that we enjoy very much.
I like pleasant surroundings, for sure, but not so pleasant that I don’t feel at my ease. Now some might say that not feeling at ease is my problem and that if I can’t relax in stifled surroundings it just means I’m not well bred or secure enough. And this might well be true. All I can say in defense is that whilst I enjoy heavy linen napkins, solid silver cutlery, excellently presented food and other signs of a classy dining experience, I don’t enjoy bland international or the feeling that I’m in a room with twenty other people who can’t wait to eat up and get out so they can loosen their tie. At the Aleria it’s not like that at all, and it’s all the better for it in my opinion.
We were seated (in very plush, comfy chairs) to the sound of 1960′s romantic/melancholic French chanson (it was to move onto jazz swing covers of artists such as Leonard Cohen and Rolling Stones as the evening wore on) in front of a black and white striped alcove which reminded me of the Grand Mosque of Cordoba whilst for Lamia it made her think of the shop Sephora.
“Good design is timeless,” said Lamia. “Boabdil and Audrey Hepburn and everyone of style in between and after would have felt at home here I reckon. I feel really relaxed.”
We were to eat from the degustation menu with paired wines. For starters, there were traditional round bread rolls, slices of bread with capers and sun-dried tomatoes, brown bread with walnuts and finally bread with goats cheese and oregano. The crunchy walnut bread was my favourite and I was surprised at how subtle the caviar spread was; smooth, nothing like fish eggs in texture and a little fishy but not at all overpoweringly ‘of the water’.
For drinks we began with a Sauvignon Karipidis, 2013, a crisp 12.5% volume white that offered a refreshing pick me up.
Then we started with a cretan pie with feta and wild greens on a strip of filo pastry, topped with herbs.
“It looks like a flower bouquet,” said Lamia, “like a garden fresh, spinach something, and the filo base reminds me exactly of nimki, a Bangladeshi/Indian snack I have at home, so lovely.” It was a cool, fresh appetizer with a pleasant range of textures, from the crunchy, baked filo to the cooked, soft spinach and slightly harder feta. I love this sort of pie, where the flavours are incredibly subtle, with some mouthfuls only offering up the slightest hint of salty feta, or fennel.
The waiters were attentive and well-coordinated, no sooner were our plates whisked away than new cutlery was placed with an understated efficiency and a new waiter had appeared with our second course.
“Here we have roasted calamari with zucchini couscous, artichoke purée and calamari foam,” he explained. He was to explain every dish as he brought it, as the wine waiter did whenever he changed our wine. This dish looked outstanding. Like everything we were to eat, it had visually stimulated us even before it got anywhere near our mouths.I feared the calamari might be chewy, which I really don’t like, but this was happily not the case; I’d say it was almost melt-in-the-mouth texture actually. The black foam was ultralight and contrasted well with the flashes of green and yellow.
We looked across the table at each other often as we ate; we were a little confused, in a good way. Calamari is supposed to be chewy and nasty, isn’t it? Isn’t that why people eat it, because they like chewy things and they enjoy being a little different? It’s not meant to be good, I thought? And here’s me, I try to be vegetarian. What am I doing enjoying this, I should be eating with a silent feeling of superiority, not enjoying it as much as I am, it’s confusing!
Our next dish, the waiter explained, was “Roasted lamb with white carrot puree, a pepper pickle from Florina in northern Greece and black-eyed beans.”To accompany it we drank a Ramnista 2010 from the Kir-Yiannis estate. It’s the first time I’ve tasted this excellent red; I hope it won’t be the last.
Even before I’d spoken to Nikiforos about this lamb dish I had a feeling that it was a special one, that had some special association to Greece. It just tasted that way, really.
“The lamb is meant to simulate the style of spit-roasted lamb eaten here on Easter Sunday,’ said Nikiforos, “in fact, all of the dishes that you’re eating tonight have a strong connection to our society and have been arrived at after much rhetorical discussion between myself and our chef, Gikas Xenakis. Gikas, in my opinion, strikes a perfect balance between using traditional methods and thought patterns with modern techniques to bring our traditional dishes into the modern age. So, we’ve tried to create dishes that represent some aspect of Greek life, perhaps a religious festival or our closeness to the sea or simply the fact that, as a great centre of trade, Athens has always had great access to a huge amount of fresh ingredients.”
The presentation was once again beautiful. Occasionally you come across a restaurant where the food is so delightful looking that you’re reluctant to disturb it, and that is the case with the Aleria, at least in our opinion. We sat and looked at this dish for a long few minutes, sipping our wine, reveling in the visual pleasure to be gained for the chef’s work.
“The lamb is so incredibly soft inside,” said Lamia when we finally got round to eating it, “yet the exterior is crunchy, and the light, near invisible yet potent vinaigrette on the salad, it’s a masterpiece of a dish. My only complaint is that it has to finish at some point, but thankfully not quite yet. I think this is one of the best dishes I’ve ever had in my life, I want all my loved ones to try it. I normally don’t eat lamb much due to the smell even though it’s a very traditional meat used in my own Bengali cuisine, but this was superb, just something else really. I’ve honestly never had any lamb like this before, I just can’t work out how they’ve cooked this.”
Nikiforos explained later than the lamb was frozen before cooking, and then had a few other processes to go through in order attain it’s spit-roasted flavour. I would also say that the process made the lamb more subtle in taste which allowed the other flavours, such as the creamy carrot puree, to shine.
From a vegetarians point of view, of course I shouldn’t be in favour of eating things like this. But when you’re travelling with a non-vegetarian things aren’t so simple and you sometimes have to make compromises because of the trouble of finding a restaurant to suit you both. Often I eat meat though and think, oh, that just wasn’t worth it. There was little taste, it was all texture, and that little taste is no reason at all for that animal to have died, it’s just lazy thinking or cooking that brought about this dish.
But in this dish I have to be honest and say that there’s a very special taste and texture experience to be had from eating it, so I can see why people might fall in love with it, and with the link to the spiritual festival of Easter I don’t think it’ll be served to you flippantly, and you certainly don’t have to eat it without giving a little thought of the life that gave you this great pleasure. For a great pleasure it most certainly is. Thanks little lamb.
So, our Cretan pie had been a nod to the islands of Greece, the calamari represented the oceans surrounding the capital and the lamb spoke of the countries’ spiritual side. With every dish there’d been attention paid not only to how it tasted or how it fitted into Greek national identity but also to how it pleased our sense of smell and sight as well as our taste buds. What was to come next? We were excited. A good restaurant gets us like that…
“Here you have thick pasta with braised oxtail, shiitake mushrooms and béchamel sauce,” explained our waiter, placing our plates at a specific angle so that we might best enjoy the visual treat of the dish. To accompany it we had a smooth red wine from Macedonia in northern Greece.
Now, the only time we’ve had béchamel sauce before in Athens was in the more traditional dish called moussaka, and this definitely wasn’t that.
“I feel this dish is a perfect autumn/winter match,” said Lamia. “The range of textures is fulfilling, from the al dente pasta to the soft braised meat and similar softness of the Shiitake mushrooms to the even softer béchamel. It’s very homely.” Lamia was right. It was a very rich dish that warmed you almost like a stew. And although this was nothing like a stew I felt that it had the soul and warmth of something home-cooked that mum would make. Perhaps it’s the béchamel or perhaps the thick pasta or maybe even the soft oxtail, but whatever it was, it made for a very comforting dish.
After we’d eaten Nikiforos explained that this was a very traditional dish that holds a special memory for most Greeks.
“It’s something their mother would cook them, we’d all have our own memories of eating this at home.” It was a triumph for the chef that we didn’t know the history behind this dish yet we tasted the concept and understood. During the previous few months we’ve been privileged to stand before many fine artists whilst on our travels – Michelang Raphael, Pericles and also lesser known figures such as Aldo of Fior di Luna in Rome and here we were again, in the presence of greatness. Credit where it’s due, Gikas Xenakis, the chef at Aleria, has attained the status of true artist in the way he’s able to portray emotions, history and tradition through the dishes he’s created.
At this point the waiters began pointing out a slight step as we moved from restaurant to toilet. This was considerate, considering the excellent wine pairing it was only reasonable to assume there might be some stumbling going on at this point in the evening.
“For dessert we have halva mousse with caramelised nuts, pistachios peanuts,” said our waiter, “paired with a sweet wine, a Mescato from Samos.”
The citron mousse was a cool hit and the soft halva mousse was such a departure from the normal halva yet it still retained it’s core characteristic, nutty traits. Everything came alive at once yet nothing was overwhelming, this was the dessert of a confident chef who wasn’t looking to make up for earlier possible deficiencies with a fireworks display. No, it felt more like the chef was working towards the end of a fantastic story that had begun at the front door and was reaching a finale that we couldn’t yet anticipate.
We finished with mastica digestifs in the garden. Mastica, I love it. The taste of the island of Chios – supposedly the only place it can grow – first and then of Greece. A perfect way to end the meal.
I have to qualify whatever I’ve said in this article by saying that that we feel every description that we make about the Aleria experience is going to be inadequate. The chef has said all that can be said within the dishes and words or pictures just do not do them justice, all you can really do is go to Athens and eat there and experience the atmosphere of this true fine dining restaurant. Whatever level of dining you’re used to you will not be disappointed, we’re certain.
The Aleria is one of the only restaurants we’ve eaten at that we’d consider making a special trip overseas for, perhaps to celebrate a birthday, anniversary or some other special occasion. We’d love them to put a vegetarian main course option on the menu as Greece does have some amazing traditional vegetarian meals, so hopefully they’ll do that sometime soon and become even more of an attraction for us. The service is understated yet attentive, delivered by genuine people who understand hospitality, and the dishes are creative, visually exciting, delicious and the sort of food you’ll not be eating at home (unless you’ve got a talented and intelligent cook in the house, in which case, we’re open for dinner invites!). It’s also cracking value (around £50 for a four course menu plus paired wine each, which is amazing considering the Michelin Star quality; you’ll be paying four or five times this amount each for similar food in Rome, Paris or London); pay them a visit, you won’t regret it.
Vegan Friendly? 0/5
Vegetarian Friendly? 2/5
Discover more at http://www.aleria.gr/en
We’d heard of Oinopoleio through our Greek contacts; they’d described it as a traditional wine shop and restaurant where you could get simple, high quality food and wine from the owner’s own vineyard and listen to good music at the same time.
“And,” remarked a good Greek friend, “even though it’s just ten minutes walk from the Plaka, you’re likely to be the only tourist in there.”
This thought appealed to us so we looked on the Oinopoleio website and discovered that they have different music on different nights of the week.
“Friday night is original Rebetika, which is village music played by a band” Lamia said, “and Saturday is Laika, with three people singing and playing bouzouki, that sort of thing. The site says they have more shows than what’s listed though so if you wanted to go another night we could call them and ask what they’ve got going on if you want?”
We settled on the Friday night Rebetika as we’d never heard that type of music played live before and arrived at the restaurant early in order to eat before the entertainment started. It was easy to find, just a few metres from the central
Square in Psiri. There was no doubting, as we entered, that this was a genuine, old style taverna. There was a colourful, interesting interior but the whole feeling was that this was created for a local market rather than playing up to tourists.
The men at the table beside us were smoking cigars, even though it’s technically illegal in Greece to smoke indoors.
“The last time I saw a person smoking indoors was during the 1990′s in Dhaka,” said Lamia. It was obviously better for a sense of nostalgia than it was for our health but the men were decent enough to ask us if we were bothered by the smell and we decided that we weren’t, cigars are different to cigarettes and quite pleasant really, for a limited time.
Old style Greek music played over the sound system (it sounded like old Hindi ghazals, Lamia commented) as the band was getting ready to perform, tuning up and arranging their amplifiers. They were in their late 20s and all cargo pants, hoodies and hip haircuts. We took advantage of the relative quiet and spoke to Maria, the owner, who told us a little about the history of the place.
“My great grandfather started a simple wine in this place during 1928 and carried on for many years, selling the wine our family made on our own vineyards and a limited range of food. We still sell this wine here, in fact, our wine is the centre of things for us. We aim to create a hospitable atmosphere and offer clean food but the highlight, I think, is our high quality, locally grown wine.”
We didn’t waste any time sampling some of this wine. We ordered a couple of glasses of house red, made from the Agiorgitiko grape, to start with. It was smooth, the sort of wine that even on your first sip encourages you to linger around the glass (rather than pulling away in haste, as some lesser wines do). I’ve rarely had a bad house wine in Greece, and Oinopoleio’s house red is better than most I’d say.
I could see tourists walking past outside; they would have a quick glance in, look longingly at the lively atmosphere but then move on. We felt sorry for them as they were missing out on just the sort of thing they were probably searching for; an authentic Greek taverna. I could understand their reluctance to enter as from the outside it looks like the sort of place you need to understand before you can totally enjoy, what with people smoking indoors, the busyness and the live folk music just starting to be played. But to any tourist thinking of paying Oinopoleio a visit in the future I’d say to walk straight in as it’s an extremely friendly and welcoming place and the staff all speak excellent English (Maria has a North American accent, her mother is from Montreal). The menu is also written in clear English so there’s no issue at all with understanding anything.
“If you were bringing a dear friend to Athens and they wanted to experience something that fitted their idea of what dining out here is,” said Lamia, “then this would be a great place to take them to eat.”
The equivalent of Oinopoleio in England would be a wooden beamed country pub serving local ales whilst a few people jammed together with their fiddles and acoustic guitars. Such pubs exist, of course, but you know how rare it is to find a place that not only looks but also feels like this…
Ok, time to talk about the food. Maria suggested that we order the Greek way. That is, to get a few dishes, put them in the middle of the table and then for both of us to pick from them whilst we enjoyed the music.
First we ordered the Zucchini fried balls with herby yogurt dip. They had a crispy, deep fried outer but were soft and gooey inside. The menu did say that they were supposed to be zucchini and tomato but our waiter explained that since tomatoes weren’t in season at that time they’re weren’t going to include them as they’re too watery during winter. It was nice to see this commitment to seasonal product and in my opinion the dish didn’t suffer at all from being just zucchini. Although the balls were lightly fried the overall feel was of a comforting, substantial dish and I can’t imagine any person alive not enjoying them. I’ve had these zucchini balls several times now in Athens as they’re a much loved local dish and these were the best, by far.
Alongside the zucchini balls we ordered the Cheese pie from Giannena. Made with eggs and three types of cheese it was more of a tortilla or a flan as we’d know it rather than a pie as it had no pastry encasing it at all. But whilst saying that, I’d add that it was one of the best cheese flans I’ve ever had.
We also ordered a Vareniki traditional fresh ravioli filled with anthotyro cheese in fresh tomato sauce with garlic and rosemary which was lovely. Half moons of substantial pasta packed with feta in a sauce of ripe tomato and subtle garlic and rosemary. There’s much more sauce than you’d expect if you were served this in Italy although there’s also bread on the table to mop it up. This was real home style cooking.
I had decided not to have a main course so instead ordered a couple more side dishes. First was the Fava bean pâté with grilled onions and capers. The Fava beans were mashed to a smooth, thick purée and served with large wedge of lemon, rusks and a mix of capers and olive oil in the centre. This is another tasty dish I’ve never eaten before (the nearest I’ve come to it is Egyptian Fuul) and it can be taken as a spread on bread or just eaten straight with a spoon. An excellent dish that gave me my protein whilst allowing me to keep to the vegetarian diet that I like to follow.
Finally I had the fried feta cheese in a sesame crust with honey. Let me tell you, this dish was very special. Hot feta sweetened with honey encased in crunchy sesame with a side of apple soaked in red wine and then boiled with cinnamon. I learnt quickly to eat it right; bite into it too soon and the cheese is very hot, leave it too long though and the sesame coating turns from crunchy to chewy. This was another dish that I loved yet had never tried outside of Greece before.
The crowd was by now lively; there was a mix of young and old, all of them enjoying the live music. The guys on the next table asked us where we were from and then bought us a round of drinks.
“Let death pass us by!” they saluted as we drank (it was a traditional ‘cheers’ from the island of Chios, where they were from, they explained).
The band were excellent. It’s rare to hear a band playing this rebetika music in Athens, we’d been told, as it’s usually something that happens in the villages.
We’d recommend you visit Oinopoleio for some good value, excellent quality Greek wine and food and some decent music. We’re not sure if it’s the best old style Greek taverna in the area as we haven’t visited them all but we have eaten at a fair few and this was the best of them all. You might be wise to reserve if you want to visit on a Friday or Saturday night, just send an email and Maria will book you in.
Vegan Friendly? 1/5
Vegetarian Friendly? 4/5
Discover more at http://www.oinopoleio.gr/index.php/en/
The Bock Beer Restaurant is less than ten minutes walk from the southern Plaka area of central Athens but it seems much further than that in atmosphere. There’s nothing typical about this place – within the drinks or food menu or the decor or the service – and no sideshow on offer either (like smashing of plates or overly flamboyant waiters pulling in people from the streets as potential customers). It’s very much it’s own entity, a 100% contemporary Greek offering in an area that rarely deviates from the norm that most tourists have come to demand, and expect.
We were staying at the Hera Hotel which is just over the main road and around the corner five minutes away so when we read on Trip Advisor what a great place Bock Beer was it was an obvious choice for us on a night when we fancied something different than what some would describe as traditional Greek food.
I say ‘what some would describe’ because any countries cuisine is a continually evolving idea. We can’t just say that Greek food is a certain thing that existed sometime in the past and now cannot be changed or else it isn’t Greek any more, that would be ridiculous. I mean, how long does a certain dish have to be in existence before it becomes ‘traditional’ anyway?!
The Greeks have been great travelers for many years and when they return to their country they naturally bring outside influences with them, and these in turn change the way things are done in the country, including eating and drinking habits. This is what has happened at Bock Beer.
Athanasia, co-owner and waitress at Bock Beer, had studied overseas in the recent past in England whilst Alex, co-owner and barman, has taken influence for the choice of beers and food that the restaurant serves from his mother, who was born in Stuttgart in Germany.
“There are four partners in the business,” said Athanasia, “and we were all architecture graduates so we were able to design the restaurant ourselves. We only bought two ready made light fittings, everything else you see here was designed by us and hand made by local crafts people.”
A big screen TV on the far wall was showing a silent film titled ‘Visions of Germany along the Rhine’ as we arrived and this, coupled with the large array of quality German beers on offer, the walls lined with precisely placed beer mats and the alcoves displaying ceramic beer tankards might lead you to think that this is a place totally given over to German food and drink. But then you tune into the seating areas that are more like the private booths you might find in a 1950′s American-style diner, the earthy colours of the decor that are very southern Mediterranean, the sophisticated, futuristic Euro feel of the jazzy/pop/subtle rock and rock soundtrack and the overhead lighting that’s almost like stage lighting at a concert venue and you have to come to the conclusion that Bock Beer is a unique little place all of it’s owner’s making.
You couldn’t say that it seems like any preconceived idea you had about Athens but then again, you couldn’t say that it reminds you of anywhere else either. It’s a culmination of the owners life experience, put into a physical format.
Athanasia and Alex both speak great English so there was no problem asking for advice about the menu. And we did need to do that, partly because there are so many items unique to Bock Beer and partly because Lamia was rather frightened of German influenced food before our visit…
“I’m a bit apprehensive of German food because I don’t have many German friends, I’ve never been to Germany and I heard they just eat a lot of sausages and I don’t eat pork!” Lamia explained.
“No problem,” Athanasia replied. “Here, I’ll show you all the dishes with no pork in them, there are lots to choose from…”
On the drinks menu I saw a range of draft and bottled lagers, ales, stouts and other beers from Greece and around the world, for instance Budweiser, Stella, Hobgoblin, Peroni and Bulmers. There was also several Greek red and white wines, a full cocktail menu and another menu called Beer-Tales which was a collection of beer cocktails (all their own inventions except for Snakebite and Black, with options such as the ‘Mexican Trap’, a mix of tequila, lime, agave nectar and La Trappe Quadrupel 10% beer). For drinks Lamia started with a White Orange taken from the Beer-Tales cocktail menu.
“It’s a little fruity and light tasting,” said Lamia. “It doesn’t taste of alcohol at all which is what I prefer in my drinks.” It certainly had a kick though; Lamia was giggling rather more than usual after a few sips.
I had the Greek ‘Septem Wet Hop Pale Ale’.
It’s a slightly bitter beer from Evia with a hoppy, fruity taste. I found it very smooth drinking, it went down in no time at all!
Before our food arrived Athanasia bought us Onion Soup.
“We give this to everybody who comes to eat here,” she said.
It smelt beautifully rich and buttery and was topped with croutons and coriander. Lamia doesn’t like onions normally but she finished hers in double quick time.
“It’s delicious and even though it does have a strong onion taste it’s not overpowering at all,” she said. I agreed, it was a great soup.
For starters I had the Gorgonzola and Honey Bruschetta.This was like a crunchy starter and dessert all wrapped into one. There was plenty of topping and the honey soaked into the bread making a beautiful combination of taste and texture. It’s a very unusual take on brushetta and one that I totally recommend trying.
For main Lamia had the Burger and Fresh French Fries.
“Wow, this dish is like a dream for me,” Lamia said. “They really have their burger on point, it’s perfect, and coming from North America as I do, where burgers are a really big deal, I’d like to say I’m a pretty good judge on this. The meat in the burger is firm enough but also so soft and tender it’s falling apart in my mouth as I take a bite. The fries are cooked French-fried style and sprinkled with herbs. The burger toppings have fallen into my fries and it’s kind of become like a plate of nachos or chilli fries. The salad is nice too, there are croutons in it and a mixture of lettuce, tomato and rocket in a vinaigrette. Believe me, this is a perfect burger.”
I had the Souvlaki of Grilled Veggies and Talagani Cheese.It consisted of courgette, red pepper, baby tomatoes, crunchy onion, mushroom and the chewy cheese, all of it chargrilled and served on a bed of pita with yoghurt on the side. I thought it very tasty and fresh; if you were looking for a dish that was more traditionally Greek than the burger and fries then this would be it.
Our drinks had been long drunk by the time our mains arrived so we ordered a second round. Lamia had the Bloody Mary off the Cocktail menu whilst I had the Mexican Trap off of the Beer-Tales menu. Athanasia asked Lamia if she wanted her Bloody Mary spicy. A few weeks ago we were in an Indian restaurant in London and Lamia had drunk a cocktail called a Bloody Spicy and loved it, so she went for the spicy version this time around.
“It tastes of tomato but not overpoweringly so,” Lamia said. “It’s got ice cubes in it, a slice of chilli on the rim to show the spicy ingredient and a cucumber slice at the bottom. There’s a light spice aftertaste and it doesn’t taste alcoholic at all; it’s my sort of drink.”
My Mexican Trap was served in a glass whose rim was speckled with salt. It was a sweet drink (thanks to the agave syrup) but it’s kick warns you from very first sip to take things easy. With a 10% beer base and a tequila shot it’s not a drink you want to take lightly! Alex had said that he thought it important when drinking beer cocktails that you taste the individual beer used, as the beer wasn’t just a soda-style mixer but a vital ingredient of its own. I certainly could taste the beer in this drink and thought it a really interesting take on a tequila cocktail.
We both agreed that if we lived in Athens then Bock Beer would be somewhere that we visited every week. The food is excellent, the atmosphere very comfortable and relaxing and both Athanasia and Alex are fun, friendly, individual characters with genuine, honest smiles and hearts and are the sort of people you’d want to spend time with again and again.
They serve a lot of decent German beers and German inspired food but that doesn’t make it a German restaurant in our opinion. Lamia drank cocktails and ate a brilliant burger whilst I had a Greek beer, a local beer cocktail and very decent vegetarian food so really what’s on offer at Bock Beer is a unique fusion experience fashioned by the owners’ own experiences and lives. The quality is there, the atmosphere is there and the variety is there, and we believe that you should be too!
Vegan Friendly? 1/5
Vegetarian Friendly? 4/5
To discover more, please see http://www.bock.gr/index_en.html
Tirbouson is definitely more of a locals place than a tourists hangout but considering the high standard of food and wine and the fact that the staff speak great English there’s no reason why tourists shouldn’t go there. John greeted us and was our waiter for the evening. He spoke great English, was very knowledgeable about the menu (not just the food but also it’s history, which is an interesting topic as there are so many foreign, ancient influences on Greek cuisine) and was also a charming, light-hearted host.
The music playing was jazz, old style (1940s/50s/60s American) with some Arab tracks interspersed as well. Intelligently chosen world music, I guess you could call it.
We ordered our food and then took a few images of the interior as we were waiting. Tirbouson has got that urban, hip, semi-industrial feel that we find at several restaurants nowadays which have been converted from old workshops and factories. They’ve retained some of the original feel of the building whilst also adding their own personal, arty touches in the form of wall decoration and inventive light fittings (the central chandelier is made from bottles – it looks fantastic – and the shower fittings ‘drip’ light).
We’d ordered a carafe of house red; house red is always a safe choice in Greece, I’ve never, ever had a bad one. John explained that it was a Cabernet Sauvignon with a 20% Merlot mix from Nemea in Macedonia, in northern Greece. We found it to be smooth, slightly fruity and very easy to drink from the very first sip. As we drank our first glass and waited for the food John bought a tasty dip of yogurt with red peppers and capers and homemade, rustic white bread.
Our meal started with the chickpeas, which we shared. In fact, all of the dishes we ordered (we’d asked for five or six) we’d decided to share. It’s the way that many Greeks eat and we like to do it that way too sometimes. The portions are small but they’re priced fairly and designed to be eaten over conversation, rather than during a more formal, sit down meal. Of course, there were many items on the Tirbouson menu that could be eaten as a regular, western style meal but we fancied chilling out and picking around the dishes on this occasion.
The chickpeas were tender and served warm. Most retained the texture you’d expect but some were also mashed to provide moisture. The dish was topped with a sprinkling of fennel and coriander. We loved it. Next up were the courgette balls with feta. I love this dish, I eat it whenever I can. The balls look deep fried and heavy but in reality they’re really light in the mouth. The medium crispy outer encases a very soft courgette, mint and herb-feta-gooey inner. This is another classic dish that we’ve tried only in Greece but which we try to reproduce at home because it’s so tasty, and I must say that this version that they serve at Tirbouson is among the best I’ve had in Athens.
Next up was the Soutzoukakia with sweet wine. In many restaurants this is an appetiser but here the portion size is that of a main dish. The presentation reminded us of an Afghan or Pakistani dish. The second thing we noticed after the presentation was the delicious smell of tomatoes, and then the fact that the meat was so tender that we didn’t even need a knife to cut it. This was quality, tender ground beef. The last time I’d eaten something like this was in a small town in the north of Turkey; it’s not a dish I come across often and especially not as well cooked as this was.
By the side of this we had the green herb pie. The filling was mostly spinach and herb with flecks of feta to bind it together. Topped with crispy, buttery filo, this was a superb, satisfying dish. For dessert we had the nut pie with dark melted chocolate and mastic ice cream.It’s a little difficult to describe mastic as it’s not a widely used taste outside of Greece. We find it a very pleasant flavour, the taste of Chios (the only island in the world where it can be grown). Used as it was in this ice cream, it’s not a million miles away from a vanilla, floral taste.
There was a slightly cool sensation to the firm, crunchy nut cake. The bottom of the cake was soaked in a syrupy sweetness and the top covered in a sweet, thick, melted chocolate sauce. It was definitely not your usual mass-produced dessert. We’d been eating out in Athens every night for two weeks by the time we got to Tirbouson and this was the first time we’ve been offered this particular dish, and we weren’t to be offered it for the remainder of our stay either; it’s somewhat special to Tirbouson in our opinion.
We’d finished and were full but, as is the case with most hospitable Greeks, John was reluctant to let us out the door without something to warm us on our way.
“Here’s some Raki with crystallized sugar and spices, coming from Amaros island,” he said as he set down two glasses. This wasn’t your normal Greek grappa that you have to throw down in one go, more something you could sip and enjoy. Lovely.
We were the only tourists in Tirbouson, it’s definitely more of a locals place but considering the standard of food and wine and the fact that the staff speak great English there’s no reason why tourists shouldn’t go there. It’s slightly out of the way – it took us about twenty minutes to walk there from central Plaka – but that’s the only reason why it ranks out of the top 200 restaurants in Athens on TripAdvisor in our opinion. We visited many of the top thirty in the list actually and we’d say that Tirburson was easily as good as or better than all but two of them. It’s not fine dining, it doesn’t set out to be, but it is a genuinely welcoming and friendly, great value restaurant serving excellent food – some dishes you’d find often in Athens and some which are much rarer – and a place that we think of with pleasure often now we’re back in the UK, reminiscing about satisfying, home cooked-style Greek food.
Make the effort to visit Tirbouson if you’re in Athens, it’s worth your time.
Vegan Friendly? 1/5
Vegetarian Friendly? 4/5
To discover more, please see http://www.tirbouson.com/
We received a warm and professional welcome on arrival at Mono. Jazz lounge fusion music played, the napkins smelt fresh and the decor was an earthy green mixed with Japanese/modern city style. We ordered our meals – sadly there wasn’t a satisfactory vegetarian or vegan option and this was the only letdown of our visit – and snacked on a side of garlic bread; the bread was thick, warm and had a beautiful aftertaste of quality olive oil that settled in slowly after the garlic. To accompany our first course the waitress, who we must say really knew the menu inside out and had a great knowledge of wines, suggested I have a Merlot from the Peloponnese area and Lamia have a white from Santorini.
The red was smooth and easy to drink. I didn’t have to work hard to enjoy it’s slight smokiness at all, it tasted good from the first sip. I was shocked to hear that it was 15% in volume, it tasted so light that I was totally convinced it was only around 10%. Lamia’s white was also very light in feeling and paired well with her starter, which the menu called ‘Countryside’.
“It’s a mushroom ragout on top of a crispy ciabatta scented with garlic and thyme and fresh burrata cheese with truffle,” said Lamia. “Wow, it’s great. I didn’t like truffle the times I ate it in Italy but this dish is so intelligently created that the combination of flavours is delicious. The mushrooms are tenderly cooked while still retaining texture and the ragout is a pleasant, slightly caramelized sweet sauce that compliments the stretchy mozzarella ball well. The dish is well spiced, but not hot spicy at all.”
My dish was called ‘Memories’. It consisted of stuffed cabbage leaves filled with cod and Mediterranean hartwort, with a bottarga sauce scented with kaffir lime leaves. I found the combination a pleasant surprise; I thought the leaves would be more noticeable but they were as translucent as a fine filo pastry and instead of being crispy or stringy they were very soft. The slight citrusy zing of the lime leaves was subtle but gave a beautiful edge to the cod taste; overall it was a very light starter.
Next, to share, we had a Winter ’14 salad and to go with it a Thessalonika agiorgitiko wine that was fuller bodied and smoother than my first red yet a little less potent, which was a good recommendation from the waitress as if I’d have carried on with a 15% wine throughout the meal I’m not sure I’d have been in any fit state to enjoy my dessert. The core salad ingredients were lettuce hearts, iceberg, lolo rosso, grilled chicken breast, warm goat’s cheese, croutons scented with garlic and soy and an orange and smoked paprika vinaigrette. As the ingredients suggest, there was a huge and complete range of textures within this dish. The chicken was lean, moist but well grilled, the goats cheese warm, soft and full of flavour, the croutons light, crunchy and slightly garlicky and the salad leaves bursting with freshness. The vinaigrette was light but full of flavours and, along with the orange slices, really added life to the dish without any chance of overpowering it. The portion size was perfect for sharing between two.
The waitress suggested our next drink be a rose from Thraci – we found it perfectly suited to accompany the wide range of flavours we had coming to us with our main courses. For my main I had the salmon. It consisted of sautéed salmon with blood orange and lemon beebrush sauce and beluga lentils with green apple and celery. The fish fell apart under the fork and there was a overall feeling of lightness (this was a feature of the whole meal) surrounding the eating experience. The sauce was fruity and really worked to compliment the salmon and liven up the lentil, apple and celery. The oranges, reds and yellows also reflected the autumn season well, I thought, reflecting well the attempt at seasonality that was a theme of the menu.
Lamia had the chicken. The menu described the dish as ‘corn starch and almond crusted chicken fillet served with couscous scented with saffron and vegetables, preserved in a bergamot orange sauce’.
“There seemed to be a strong smell of delicious ghee as it came to the table,” said Lamia, “and the first bite gave me a strong aroma of herbs, and a nutty crunch. The chicken is soft, fat free, and cut into big slices, in fact, it’s a huge portion overall. This is so good and rewarding I’d try to make this at home. A lot of care has been put into presentation with all the dishes offering visual pleasure as well as being, for instance, here you can see the threads of saffron, showing what’s in the couscous. Like your salmon, this is very autumnal. Nuts and a thickish sauce like this equal comfort and comfort is what you need as the weather turns colder, and of course the use of lentils, apple and these warm colours also place it firmly in autumn. You might say that this is an ingenious Greek take on Beef Wellington, I suppose, I’ve never tasted this combination before and I’m finding it a really interesting, fresh idea, and extremely satisfying food.”
We were offered a dessert wine to finish with, an Omega Harvest Estate from Thessaloniki. Apparently it’s a popular producer and we found it fruity and sugary, naturally, but also hearty and capable of adding depth to the dish. For dessert we shared (we were quite full at this point, the main dishes were of a very generous size, so we couldn’t face a full dessert each) a Floating Island. The experience was of an extremely light island of meringue topped with almonds floating on a creme anglaise with ricotta cheese sauce drizzled with lemon. This wasn’t the fireworks that you get at the end of a contemporary Italian meal (we’d just come from Rome when we visited Mono so our experiences there were fresh in our minds); it’s a braver dish than that. It wasn’t afraid to be soft and understated, and it was clearly a finale created by a confident chef.
A little about the chef; Vassilis Vasiliou is becoming known in the Greek food world as a quiet, creative man full of clever and innovative ideas, and that’s certainly a description that we can endorse having met him and tasted his intelligent, tasty food.
We’ve mentioned the word ‘intelligent’ several times during this review and that was the overall feeling of dining at Mono. To summarize, we thought the food to be conceived and created with great thought (the use of colours, flavours and the effort at placing each dish in a seasonal and geographical context were all impressive), the wine chosen well to provide a near seamless transition between eating and drinking and the staff, both Vassilis and our waitress, to be hugely experienced and well capable of enhancing our experience with their knowledge. It’s a shame, for us, that they had no vegetarian or vegan options on the menu as we try to lay off animal products if we can but if this doesn’t worry you and you fancy a little fairly priced fine dining with good sized portions then you’re in for a great treat at Mono.
Be sure to look out for Mono as you pass, it’s very central and near the cathedral but unlike the touristy restaurants nearby where there’s always someone standing outside trying to entice you inside, at Mono there’s no one beckoning you inside so you have to look out for it. By the time we left, the place was filling up with locals (Greeks generally eat much later than tourists and Mono is popular with locals, which we take as a good sign) so if you want atmosphere, perhaps plan to arrive after 9pm.
Vegan Friendly? 0/5
Vegetarian Friendly? 1/5
To discover more please see http://www.monorestaurant.gr/
Klimataria is a ten minute walk from Monastiraki and is very much a local’s restaurant, a place where Greeks go to relax, eat good value, home-cooked style food and listen to traditional live music. If you visit before 8 in the evening you’re likely to have the place largely to yourself whilst if you go after about 10 you might well be the only tourists; that was certainly the case for us and for others we’ve spoken to who’ve been there.
Look on a map before your visit to work out where you’re going. Like I said, it’s only a ten minute walk out from the more touristy restaurants but it does feel like you’re walking out into the suburbs as there’s mainly just residential properties around the restaurant and it’s likely you’ll doubt you’re in the right place if you haven’t got a fair idea where you’re heading. When you do get to the side street where Klimataria is located, there’ll be a sign above your head pointing up to it and then you can’t miss the place, although the wooden sign is rather covered in vegetation.
Inside we found the atmosphere to be relaxed and friendly, as was Maria, the owner. Maria was to be an attentive host and not just to us, we noticed her being the same to all the Greek guests during our time there. Maria also spoke perfect English so we had no problems understanding how the evening was to go. I don’t mean the menu as that was in English, but more like things such as when the music was due to start, what we were going to hear and how the food is cooked (we’re interested in that sort of thing).
You should also note that like most taverna-style Greek restaurants people do smoke inside here and get quite animated with their laughter so if you’re looking for a delicate evening out with quiet conversation, this isn’t your place. If you’re after an authentic Greek experience, however, you’re going to get it.
Having looked at the menu we could see that Klimataria was a little different to other tavernas we’d eaten at in Athens. For instance, they didn’t serve zucchini balls, ‘traditional’ moussaka or souvlaki like almost all of the others do (not that any of those things are bad, I love zucchini balls). And although we recognized some of the other names of dishes the way they were described made it seem that they weren’t going to be the same as we’ve tasted before. It was clear that Maria had observed what’s traditional and classic in Greek cuisine and decided to make it her own (she told us she still makes a lot of the dishes served in Klimataria herself, even though she has a very capable chef on hand).
Whilst we waited for our food to arrive the waitress brought us some homemade bread with a caper salad dip alongside a complimentary raki. The bread was dense and substantial and really tasted of, well, bread (which isn’t as common an occurrence in restaurants as it should be) and later we found it delicious when dipped into our various sauces.
To drink we ordered a half litre of house red. It was served chilled and in a red metallic jug. You couldn’t really taste the quality of the wine when served cold (we’ve never had a bad house red in Greece though so we guess it must have been ok) but it was a very refreshing drink.
We decided to share appetizers, as the Greeks like to do. We started with traditional spinach pie. We’ve had this pie several times in Athens and this was the thickest version (twice as thick as the previous nights) by far. There was a centimetre of spinach mixed with feta encased in a crispy filo. Most enjoyable and it was a large enough slice to suit the two of us comfortably.
Next up were the stuffed peppers with feta cheese, spring onion and dill. These sweet peppers were absolutely packed with feta cheese. Our final appetizer was butter beans with spinach served with rice and freshly chopped coriander. Again, like all the dishes, this had a very traditional feel to it. It also tasted healthy and the sort of dish I’d expect to find at a village grandmas house; full of experience, texture, simple ingredients and subtle tastes.
For my main, although I’m not sure I needed it as I was quite full by now (the appetizers come in quite large portions) I had the vegetarian eggplant cooked in tomato sauce, white wine, olives, capers and peppers. This was a rich spicy, luxurious feeling dish with the sort of oily sauce that I normally associate with British-Indian cooking. There wasn’t a lot of texture to it but when I dipped the bread into it it was better. I generally don’t think of aubergine as a main dish as there’s not enough texture in it for that and nothing I ate here changed my point of view but I did really like the spicy olive and tomato sauce.
Lamia had the beef in tomato sauce, red wine and spices garnished with rice. “It tastes and smells very similar to a Bengali beef curry,” she said. “The rice has a little texture, the beef comes apart easily, there’s a sweetness to the tomato sauce and it’s a very fragrant dish. The chunks of meat are similar to what I’m used to at home as well, big tender cubes with a little bit of fat to flavour the stew. I think I can taste cardamom and cumin in there among it all. I like it a lot, it’s very home-made, you know, like, it hasn’t been produced with ease of eating or with all the senses in mind as food is in some restaurants, only the taste is important here.”
Locals started coming in around 10pm, when the live music was due to start. The band played traditional Rebetika style (urban folk music) and were better than other, younger bands we’d heard. It was the sort of music that the crowd listened to but talked and laughed over at the same time.
We left at about 11pm, just as the atmosphere was getting lively – we hadn’t planned on such a late night so we were tired by then – but if you’re looking for the full experience maybe stay until past midnight. Klimataria is a place to laugh with your friends, eat simply, cheaply but well (it’s the cheapest sit down, real Greek restaurant we’ve been to in Athens – share a few of their filling appetizers and glasses of red and it won’t be too expensive at all), and listen to traditional Greek music. We recommend you check the place out.
Vegan Friendly? 1/5
Vegetarian Friendly? 5/5
To discover more, please see http://www.klimataria.gr/
Beer Time is a bar and restaurant situated right on Iroon Square in Psiri, one of our favourite Athenian districts. It’s a lively square and although it’s just a five minute walk from Plaka’s Monastiriki Square (tourist central) it’s mostly locals who come here of an evening. If you’re looking to learn about (and taste) the world of Greek microbrewing, then without a doubt Beer Time is THE place to come in Athens.
Thanasis, the owner of the pub, worked in Germany for over twenty years in the communications industry and gained a passion for beer whilst travelling around central and southern Europe. After taking early retirement he decided to come back to Athens and open the city’s most authentic beer pub.
“Beer Time is known as the house of Greek microbreweries,” he explained as we sat waiting for our drinks and food to arrive. “We stock beers from every microbrewery that exist in Greece at the moment, which means we have over twenty five individual beers including a couple of organic varieties. As well as these beers from Greece we also have a strong selection from Germany and others from around the world that are considered must-haves in pubs, such as Guinness from Ireland, Fullers London Pride, Brew Dog Punk from Scotland, Leffe Blonde from Belgium and Flying Snake Dog from the U.S.A.
Lamia doesn’t usually drink beer so she started with a strawberry beer. She could have had a choice of Greek wines instead but when in Beer Time, well, it seemed appropriate to check out the beer.
I had a beer sampler. This is a wooden paddle/holder which carries five different beers of 0.2 L size each. It’s likely that you won’t know these or most of the other beers available at Beer Time but that’s no problem, Thanasis understands this and is happy to let you try before you buy; you get a shot glass tester of anything you want here free of charge and then you order from there.
In my beer sampler I got a Charma dark lager from Crete, a Zeos pilsner from Argos, a Corfu ale special and then two varieties from Germany called König Ludwig (voted the worlds best wheat beer in 2008) and a Hacker Pschorr Original Oktoberfestbier. This was indeed a fine selection of beers, the Hacker is usually only served at Oktoberfest in Munich so to find it outside of that is a rare occurrence whilst the Charma dark lager can’t be found anywhere else in Athens due to the high cost of transportation.
“It’s unfiltered and unpasteurized,” said Thanasis. “Fresh beer like this has to be transported whilst refrigerated and I’m the only person in Athens who wants to pay for that sort of transport from Crete.”
Another thing to mention is that the beers at Beer Time are served at the correct temperature. At lesser pubs in Greece and indeed around the world many of the beers are served ice cold so that you can’t really taste if they’re sub standard or not (which if they’re mass produced modern beers then invariably they are). But here at Beer Time everything is served at about 1 degree centigrade, the correct temperature to allow the beer’s flavours to shine.
As we looked around, Lamia almost started crying tears of joy. Not because of the decor, but the music.
“Oh my god, it’s ‘In a Manner of Speaking’ by Martin Gore. It’s an extremely obscure song that I’ve loved for years. You never hear it anywhere in Canada apart from a really hip place. I mean, not hipster places, but really, really hip places…” Later, sandwiched between 1980′s music that included Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, A-ha and Soft Cell, another Martin Gore song played, Thanasis said that his 13 year old son had made the play list. We passed on our compliments, anybody of that age with such good taste should be told about it (later some lesser known Stone Roses was played, another credit to the young lad.)
Downstairs is a cellar bar that’s only open on the weekends; it felt pretty German-gothic to me with it’s wooden ceiling and dim lighting.
“Groups often hire the place out,” said Thanasis, “I can give them a tap and draft barrel to themselves, they choose their own music, they have it to themselves.”
The barrel cellar is visible through a perplex panel beneath the upstairs bar. This was influenced by many visits to Italy where it’s usual in cheese or meat shops to be taken into the cellar to try before you buy, a concept that Thanasis has embraced enthusiastically at Beer Time. The first photo below shows the view from the bar area, the second photo shows the view from the cellar looking upwards towards the bar.
Every one of the five beers in my Beer Sampler were very good although I have to say that the Greek Pilsner was the best, followed by the Charma and the Corfu Ale. Both German lagers were not as much to my taste; they’re traditional and of a guaranteed quality but with the Greek breweries it’s like they’ve said ‘let’s take this traditional beer brewing and put some happiness into it’. My sample indicated to me that if you mix German brewmasters with the Greek knowledge of wine making then the results are some really enjoyable, sunny drinks. Even if there’s hints of caramel and chocolate, the overall taste will still have some sunshine in it.
The food menu helpfully signifies what’s vegetarian, vegan or gluten free.
“There are two menus,” said Thanasis, “one for Greeks and one for foreigners. People have different expectations you see. Greeks only eat certain foods with beer, whilst tourists do expect to see feta and moussaka on the menu, so we cater for them all equally.”
The good thing about Beer Time is that there’s no language barrier here, if you want to just have the touristy Greek food then it’s there but if you want a more all round modern Greek experience then you can speak to the staff and find your way using their recommendations.
For starters we shared the Pikilia, a series of three dips (Tzatziki, Taramasalata and Melitzanosalata) with pitta breads on the side. The dips were very light and the pittas crunchy, almost like nachos. I really enjoyed the very subtle smoky eggplant dip; it grew on me slowly as we at, a little more so than the garlicky Tzatziki which was very strong in taste.
Then we had another starter, the Beer Mezes. With this platter there were crunchy onion rings, cheese pies, delicious crispy chicken wings and a BBQ tomato dipping sauce, a smoky sausage with crispy skin that was nevertheless easy to cut into and finally crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside meatballs. The onion rings were lightly fried, crispy and not oily. The cheese pies were deep fried and packed with melted feta. I picked them up and my hands weren’t too greasy by the time I finished eating them.
Another dish was brought to the table, melty, chewy cheese encased in a tangy BBQ sauce and sweet honey. It was called Soutzouki and it was truly delicious. I think it’s usual in some Greek restaurants to be bought extra dishes for free now and again so when this arrived with a salad, we didn’t worry too much and just enjoyed the taste.
If you’re not really hungry we’d say that two starters would be plenty enough to share between two people. The Greek salad itself was a very big portion (and fresh too, the onions hit the back of your throat and the olives were juicy and plump).
For mains we decided to sample the specialty dishes of Beer Time’s Persian chef. Lamia got the Chicken souvlaki and I got the Kebab. The chicken souvlaki slid smoothly off the metal grilling spike.
“I can tell the meat was marinated well, it’s like mom makes,” said Lamia. “The green and red peppers are soft and have charred edges. The marinade makes it a slightly sweet dish, I like it a lot.”
My kebab was very juicy. The meat comprised of two strips of beautifully spiced beef served over pittas and under crunchy fries with an extra thick cool yogurt on the side; there was a satisfying range of temperatures, textures and flavours. It was also a good portion size; after eating it I was certainly feeling full and ready to lean back, listen to music and finish my beer. Speaking of beer, we’d moved on by now from our original choices. Lamia had chosen an Ionian Epos. It tasted of malt, nuts and spices. It was sweetened with honey and to me it was exactly like the barley wine we make back in Kent in the UK. It was also just as strong as that English brew, about 7.5%. I had the Rethymnian brewery Brinks dunkel organic beer. As with all the beers sold at Beer Time each bottle comes with a dedicated glass to get the best out of the beer. Despite its medium-dark colour it has a very light flavour and offers extremely easy drinking. Excellent stuff!
For dessert Thanasis bought Halva to the table, along with Tsipouro shots. “The Halvas tastes exactly like Shuji, a Bangladeshi dish I used to eat for breakfasts at the weekend,” said Lamia. I liked it, not overly sweet but firm in texture. The Tsipouro was from the island of Tinos and tasted a little like Ouzo (with anise). Made from grapes to a traditional recipe it had a strong kick, like grappa. It certainly warmed us through and got us ready to be on our way.
Our verdict is that Beer Time is a must-visit place in Athens if you enjoy beer. You can learn lots from Thanasis about Greek microbreweries if you like – he’s knowledgeable and passionate about beer – and you can sample all the beers that are made in the country.
The interior is comfy, the rest of the staff are friendly and the customers are almost entirely Greek so you can be sure that whilst Beer Time may not be a traditional Greek experience it most certainly is something that the locals enjoy now. And last of all, if you need any more convincing, the Greek beers are excellent and there’s a long happy hour with buy one get one free available!
Vegan Friendly? 3/5
Vegetarian Friendly? 5/5
To discover more about Beer Time, please see here - www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g189400-d3621711-Reviews-BeerTime-Athens
Prosopa is a half hour walk or a quick and easy taxi ride from the central Plaka district. We’d read about it online and thought it sounded interesting, their website is really well done (classy and a little arty) and their food seemed worth checking out, so we walked down past Kerameikos Cemetary and called in early evening on a Sunday night.
Inside, the decor was what you might call modern/industrial courtesy of the use of existing features such as the air condition ducts overhead and big factory-like windows that looked out to train tracks. The style would fit excellently in a hip North American downtown area. Once seated we were given substantial-feeling menus decorated with hand-drawn designs. We looked them over whilst enjoying a complimentary aperitif – a sweet, fizzy wine together with two cheeses and a selection of breads and breadsticks, olives and olive oil. The bread was lightly toasted and gluten free and both it and the breadsticks were delicious. The cheese was sprinkled with crushed nuts and served slightly warm with the outer a little melted over a solid inner. Overall it was a very classy, interesting introduction to Prosopa and it put us in fine spirits; if the aperitif was this good it boded well for the rest of the meal. To give a fuller picture of Prosopa here are a few more observations.
The music was a real personal mix. Not the usual stuff you might hear in a fine dining restaurant, ranging from Abba to The Stranglers to Duran Duran to easy listening lounge and jazz.
There’s no language barrier for English speakers here; the three waiters we had serve us plus John the manager all spoke good English. The waiters were also attentive, in a understated way. For instance, our glasses were never empty but they weren’t afraid to smile and we were left alone when we wanted to be.
The cutlery was heavy and the napkins were refreshed regularly but although there was this very hip, fine dining experience going on the restaurant was also family friendly. When the inevitable spillage occurred at another table where a family was dining there was no fuss, just a seamless continuation of traditional Greek hospitality. A super-quick mop of the floor, a few smiles to ensure the family were ok and everything was back to normal.
We started with rocket salad with spinach, sun dried tomatoes, mushrooms and grilled haloumi cheese. The cheese was chewy and perfectly complimented the taste of spinach and sweet balsamic with the sundried tomato giving an occasional hit of flavour. The salad was served at room temperature, perfect.
“Usually I don’t enjoy salad as I find it too bland and even the usual seasonings don’t liven it up enough,” said Lamia, “but this is really tasty. I’m loving the variety of textures, chewy cheese, hard sun-dried tomatoes, soft mushrooms, and of course the tastes and also the balsamic is clearly good quality, like we got used to eating whilst in Tuscany.” A point to note is that the salad has a lot of dressing and is rather oily so if you prefer yours drier then advise the waiter of this.
We’d asked the waiter to recommend a wine; he bought a light Greek red from Nemea. It was a sound choice, we enjoyed the bottle no matter what we drank it with throughout the evening.
We’d read on TripAdvisor that it’s normal at Prosopa to expect certain items to arrive at the table compliments of the house. This was the case with the next item brought to our table, a Cretan spinach pie. The cheese was strong, there was a hint of fennel and the pastry was crunchy. Exactly what you’d expect from a good Greek spinach pie. This is quite possibly my favourite Greek dish; when it’s cooked right the fennel is at the same time the most powerful flavour yet also very understated. It took me a while to tune into the experience but now I love tasting a good Cretan pie, and this was certainly a good one.
Next I had a fresh ravioli filled with mushrooms. The pasta was firm and filled with earthy tasting mushrooms. I wasn’t sure but I’d say the sauce contained truffle as it had the taste of the forest about it. I thought it a great success and I loved the way the mushroom seemed to appear within the pasta itself as well as being a filling.
We then shared a mushroom tagliatelle with Parmesan cream. It was a medium cooked pasta, not al dente, and it was tossed in a thick creamy cheese. It was ok, not my favourite pasta ever and not one that I’d be satisfied with as a main, but ok to put somewhere between starter and main perhaps.
Lamia next had the Gruyere cheese in crunchy pastry with orange sauce. “It’s crispy, lightly fried filo triangles packed with the warm stretchy cheese,” said Lamia, “in a reduced orange syrupy sauce. The sweet and tangy orange sauce totally complements the subtle flavour of the cheese. It’s not a full blown orangey taste, just a slight citrus tang.”
For her main course Lamia had the rib eye black Angus steak with baby potatoes and aromatic butter. The plate, when brought to the table, was placed at an angle to best emphasise the thin streak of sauce.
“The meat is very tender and cooked medium,” said Lamia. “I don’t normally order medium, I’m always going for well done, but this new experience of seeing red is interesting. It’s the most expensive dish on the menu so I didn’t want to massacre the meat and order my usual well done and I’m glad I didn’t as it doesn’t actually taste that different from well done, just more tender. It’s also much juicier and visually it adds more colour to my experience.
It’s a very authentic and fine tasting cut, and the roast potatoes are tender and herbed offering a pleasant and earthy taste to compliment the meat. John the manager asked if I wanted my meat more well cooked just after it arrived, I thought that was a kind gesture.”
For my main I had a sweet pumpkin risotto. It was a thick risotto and it held it’s upside down half moon shape on the plate perfectly. The sauce was reduced so what you’re left with is sweet, drier rice on the outside and juicier rice at the bottom. It’s a comfort food, almost, as it’s quite heavy and not afraid of it’s strong and peppery flavour.
For dessert we moved onto a selection of dishes that we shared. First was a creme citron on butter biscuits. It was an airy, citrus creamy mousse served in a cocktail glass with tiny pieces of crystallized biscuit at the bottom. This was probably my own personal favourite out of all the desserts we sampled.
Then there was a chocolate soufflé with vanilla ice-cream. It took fifteen minutes to come as it was made fresh and I loved the combination of soft, moist, hot melted chocolate with cold, lush ice cream. The presentation, on a piece of black rectangular slate, was lovely. Lamia liked this one the best.
Next to the chocolate soufflé was a vanilla ice cream topped with butterscotch sauce, that you can see at the bottom of the photo above. The biscuit was mixed with hardened toffee and the vanilla ice cream was subtle in taste, smooth with no frozen crystals. The showing of butterscotch sauce finished it off nicely.
Another complimentary dish then arrived, a banoffee pie with banana and cream. It was as luscious and creamy as it looks and the light base broke up easy as we dug into it. It was a satisfying and decadent dessert that despite it’s creaminess also felt light and easy on the stomach, which it needed to be as we’d eaten a lot by the time we got to it!
We finished with an espresso with sparkling water on the side: also complimentary. There was a citrus flavoured chocolate chip biscuit with it, nice.
We left Prosopa full and happy, considering that it was well worth the half hour walk from our hotel. I really liked the staff, the atmosphere, the wine and the food (how great is it to find a decent restaurant that has a full range of options for both meat eaters and vegetarians). The music was fun, the decor really interesting, the food contemporary but not overly so (you’ll recognise everything on the menu but it’ll probably be presented in a way you’ve not experienced before) and overall we’d say that the restaurant is really worth your time and money.
Vegan Friendly? 1/5
Vegetarian Friendly? 5/5
To discover more please see http://www.prosopa.gr/
Liondi restaurant is less than five minutes from the Hera Hotel in what is for me the best part of the Plaka, very near to the Acropolis Museum. There’s a large row of restaurants on this section of pedestrianised road, of which the Liondi is said to be the best. It’s touristy, sure, and not really a place where locals would ever visit (we passed by often in the eighteen days we stayed in Athens and Liondi was always full of tourists during this time) but that’s ok and in our experience the food is some of the best you’ll find in this part of the city.
Overall we really enjoyed our visit, but first impressions weren’t good. We waited more than half an hour before we even spoke to anyone, which for us was a very bad start. When we did finally speak to somebody it was the head chef and joint owner, Stavros, the sort of friendly, enthusiastic, larger than life character whose impossible not to like. He’d spent many years in the USA and the UK giving seminars on Greek cooking and cooking at high profile restaurants, he said, and had even cooked a private dinner for Jeremy Irons at his home. I can imagine this happening, Stavros has a sparkling way with people, he’s a lot of fun to be around.
It was enjoyable listening to his stories, and we soon forgot the half hour that we’d been kept waiting. He said that if we agreed, he wouldn’t offer us a menu but instead he’d create something for us. That was fine by us, we said, just don’t bring any pork for Lamia as she doesn’t eat it, everything else is fine.
The waiter served up a bottle of house red wine as we waited.
“It’s created on the owners’ family farm, in the village of Liondi, in the Peloponnese,” he said, “the farm is big enough to provide three times the wine that the Liondi restaurant needs, so we provide the surplus to other restaurants in the Plaka area.”
The wine, made from the agiorgitiko grape, was bottled in 2010 and was light and easy to drink despite the fact that it was a hefty 13% volume. It was superb quality. I’ve never had a bad house red in Athens, even in the cheapest of restaurants; they do have excellent wine there.
We only had to wait ten minutes or so for our meal to arrive but as we did we looked around the restaurant interior (not many people sit here as there’s a great outdoor seating area). There were stories chalked on the walls, in Greek, telling the history of the restaurant, and wine bottles lining the mirrored walls. Then our dinner arrived. It was a Greek style affair with several different dishes placed on the table that were meant for sharing. First was a Greek salad. It hit all the right notes; it was fresh and every ingredient tasted of something. You know how it is sometimes, when you get tomatoes that don’t taste of much. Well, this wasn’t like that. The tomatoes, the olives, the cheese, it was all full of fresh flavour.
The second plate, and my favourite, was zucchini patties with a plain yogurt dip. They were crunchy outside and soft and gooey inside. The zucchini was a very flavourful ingredient and for me every texture requirement was fulfilled.
Beside this was refreshing Tzatziki dip with warm pita. I was also served lean pork chunks in a tomato and green pepper sauce topped by a sprig of mint. It was very soft meat, as if it’d been slow cooked for many hours. There was just enough fat to give it some flavour and the sauce wasn’t overly spicy.
Lamia had a Lemon Potato dish. The potatoes were soft with a slight crunch from the roasted edges.
“They’re herbed in the Greek tradition,” said Lamia, “very tasty, full of flavour and easy to eat. I really enjoy dipping them in the tzatziki.”
And finally we shared a beef moussaka.
“I’ve eaten moussaka in the Plaka before,” Lamia said, “and this tastes and looks much better. It’s got a crunchy and soft, melt in your mouth taste. We know that real Greeks don’t eat moussaka very much so it’s a bit touristy to have it, yet still, it’s a fine example of the dish all the same. The dominant tastes, the cheese, the beef, the eggplant, all come through at the same time, which they should. The texture is varied, moist but firm and everything holds together well. I’m loving all the different tastes, flavours and smells of this meal. Crunchy, herby, saucy, fresh, each bite is delicious.”
Greek cooking is well known for using fresh ingredients and this is certainly true of this meal that we had at Liondi. One of the joys of this meal was also that everything tasted as you would expect it should, of what the ingredients were. Zucchini tastes like zucchini, for instance, which sounds obvious but when you’re not using fresh ingredients things can start tasting like nothing in particular. This isn’t the case at Liondi, everything seemed fresh, simple and tasty.
We recommend you pay them a visit and enjoy Stavros’s jokes and company and also the food he cooks. We ate more memorable meals in Athens, for sure, but it’s also fair to say that we did enjoy our meal here, that we consider the restaurant good value and also, that it’s hard to find more hospitable hosts than Stavros and his team.
Vegan Friendly? 0/5
Vegetarian Friendly? 3/5
Find out more at Trip Advisor, here - http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g189400-d5041914-Reviews-Liondi_Traditional_Greek_Restaurant-Athens_Attica.html
Lithos Restaurant is a couple of minutes walk from central Psiri. It’s housed in a large turn of the century building with pale cream coloured walls, green woodwork and a grand balcony from which the Greek flag flies. Inside there are two floors of seating with simple wooden chairs set around tables that are the same colour as the walls. The decor is spartan with a couple of small olive trees growing from bare brick alcoves and some backs of chairs hand-painted with roses in a style reminiscent of that more often seen on Alpine lederhosen. Outside seating is plentiful and there are portable heaters (which was essential as it was pretty cold) and a really nice concrete smoking area around a tree decked out with flowers and padded seats.
Vassilis greeted us, he spoke great English and made the evening more interesting for us with his genuine friendliness. Don’t get us wrong, the food was ok (although it didn’t have the home-cooked, made-on-the-premises feel that we’d gotten used to in other Athenian tavernas) but we always enjoy meeting decent people and Vassilis was most certainly that and his company really took the enjoyment level up a notch or two, for sure.
Vassilis brought some crusty fresh bread and an olive tapenade and advised us to spray olive oil into a plate and dip the bread to get the most out of it. For drinks we shared a bottle of fizzy water whilst Lamia had a coke and I a house wine from the Peloponnese, bottled especially for the restaurant and served at the correct temperature. It was an easy drinking red, although slightly acidic.
We had decided to share our dishes, and we started with zucchini croquettes. They were lightly fried, filled with cheese and aromatic herbs and served with a thick yogurt that was topped with a sprig of dill. They were much denser than other zucchini croquettes and tasted more like sub-continent potato kebabs than the light croquettes we’ve had in much of Greece.
Next we shared a cheese saganaki cooked in an earthenware container with chilly and tomato. This was the cheesiest thing I’ve ever eaten. It was basically a pure piece of cheese baked in the oven with a crusty edge and slice of tomato embedded into the melted middle. It was a challenge to eat, we took it little bits at a time. If we cut pieces off too soon it would be mouth scorchingly hot but if we left it too long it went cold and too chewy. We got it right towards the end and enjoyed it although it must be said that it’s a very rich dish, as you would expect a pure piece of flavourful baked cheese to be.
Next was another Greek taverna classic, a fennel pie made to a Cretan recipe. The two strips of filo sandwiching the fennel mixture were crispy and held a very subtle taste. I love the fact that the Greeks think to make a pie out of such an understated flavour that wouldn’t really be considered a strong enough taste in many regions. This pie is undoubtedly peasant food in the same way as a lot of the cuisine of Provence is, it’s simple and making use of readily found ingredients. I love it and think it’s generally a very nice starter so I enjoyed this but as you can see in our photos this one did look a little too perfect and lacking in wholesome filling – like it came from a pack rather than the kitchen – and not the home-made pie that you’d expect to find in a taverna.
Our next dish was chicken rolls in flaky pastry stuffed with cheese. The chicken pastries were also stuffed with mushrooms, Gouda and another cheese and were served with a beautiful plain yoghurt and sweet paprika mousse topped with a cape gooseberry. They resembled hearty but well presented chicken and mushroom pies, the light and non-oily type of finger food you might eat at a lunch buffet. There wasn’t any overpowering taste but it was a nice, colourful, easy eating dish.
Our last dish was called ‘small kebab with mincemeat served with tomatoes, onions and tzatziki’. They were served in a very traditional Greek grill style that reminded Lamia of the Afghan kebabs she’s used to eating at her friend’s homes in Toronto. They were hearty and filling but the dish title was deceiving as there was nothing small about them, they were very substantial indeed.
“I’ve tasted many grilled kebabs and shish from eastern kitchens ,” said Lamia, “and I’ll say that this is really an excellently made dish. The meat holds together on the fork well, it’s delicately spiced with cumin and the tomato salad on top, along with the yoghurt dip, adds a fresh balance to the dish. Lovely.”
For dessert we had a baked cake made from flour, semolina, honey syrup, coconut and a twist of lemon topped with vanilla ice-cream. The ice cream was soft and vanilla flavour was noticeable, made by the ‘Kayak’ company, who are known in Greece for their excellent ice cream.
So, all in all we spent an enjoyable few hours at Lithos. It’s very much a medium-value, tourist-orientated restaurant and the food is safe, familiar and subtle. Whatever your tastes and eating choices you’ll find something to suit you here, I think.
Vegan Friendly? 0/5
Vegetarian Friendly? 3/5
If you’d like to discover more, please visit http://www.lithospsiri.gr/
The tour included a visit to the new Acropolis Museum. Now, we’d already seen that a couple of times recently and since I’ve never felt the same affection for it that I do the Acropolis we considered the possibility of dipping out of the tour at this stage but Ezgi, our contact at Context Travel, suggested we give it a chance.
“Perhaps, this time you’ll be able to see something different or hear a different story at the museum,” Ezgi said, “or, if you have any questions in mind about the museum, this is a chance to ask to an expert.” His advice made sense and by the end of our tour I was happy that we revisited the museum as Vassilios did indeed expand on our knowledge of the place, using it skillfully as a tool to highlight key aspects of ancient Athenian society.
Context had emailed us and said to meet Vassilios, along with the rest of our group, at the museum entrance.
“Now, would you like to visit the Acropolis first, or the museum?” Vassilios asked. There was only three of us on the tour so we quickly conferred and since we were all very keen photographers we decided to go up onto the Acropolis first to take advantage of the early light.
“You chose a good time to visit Athens,” remarked Vassilios as we walked from the Plaka up wide marble steps to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, “from April until about mid-October, around 7,000 people come off the cruise ships each day to visit the Acropolis. It can get very crowded up there!”
As it was we were alone in front of the Odeon, a theatre built in 161 AD (and performed in more recently by artists such as Sting, Pavarotti and the Bolshoi Ballet), and the crowds were relatively light as we ascended the winding path that leads between the olive trees (heavy with fruit this time of year – don’t think about eating straight from the tree though, they have to be marinated for over a month to make them edible!) to the final flight of marble steps that take visitors into the ruins of the monumental gateway known as the Propylaea.
“This path we’re following now,” said Vassilios, “was made in the 1950’s using ancient building materials. Here you can see we’re standing on the base of a column…” I was surprised to see the slab embedded in the path, I’d walked this route so many times before and never noticed it at all. “And if you turn around now you can see there, on the horizon, the island of Salamis, where the Athenians won a great sea battle against the Persians in 480 BC.”
Then, as we looked up at the Temple of Athena Nike, we learnt the differences between the varying orders of architecture (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) and moving around the corner slowly, took advantage of the lovely early light to capture the small temple’s delicate façade.
It may have been low season but it was still very crowded and the west end of the Parthenon itself was encased in scaffold (the plan is that the renovations will be finished by 2020). Yet still there were opportunities to get photos; in our case we used digital and pinhole to try to capture something of the feeling that the site can induce. Vassilios imparted much as we toured the Acropolis for the next hour or so but for me what was really interesting was hearing how some modern historians believe that the Parthenon was created as a homage not only to the gods but also to the human form. Sure, there are references to the old, pagan ways and therefore to other animals within the structure but what it was really about was using it’s mathematical dimensions (which adhered to the ‘Golden Ratio’) to celebrate the human being and elevate it above everything else. With this knowledge. the Parthenon took on a different light for me. No longer was it a symbol of the Golden Age, rather, it has become a symbol of the descent, a fall from grace, a departure from the garden of Eden, however you want to phrase it.
Some say that the Egyptians built the Pyramids according to the rules of the Golden Ratio, or ‘Phi’ as many know it, so we can’t load the fall from grace all onto the poor old Athenians yet still, with the building of the Parthenon, it was clear that human beings, or at least the Athenians and others like them, no longer possessed the intelligence to recognise their real place in the natural order of the world. Now they actually believed their own hype, that they were no longer just part of nature but instead the world was a backdrop set to any play they wished to create. The fall from grace, equilibrium and insight cushioned by possessions, prosperity and other false safety nets has perhaps never been so beautifully portrayed than in the Parthenon.
Perhaps that insight only occurred to me because recently I had a period of living outside modern society for 6 weeks, a time when it was mostly just me and the animals living in peace in the natural world, and such a time of contemplation allows the human to return to the garden for long enough to develop a nose for the egotism of the ‘civilised’ human…
Still, if the Parthenon is a homage to arrogance and foolishness it is indeed a magnificent looking one! It’s hard to tell if it holds the attention of so many photographers because its columns suggest the beauty of our original homes in the forest (albeit tamed into human dimensions!), because it’s old and we tourists like old things or because it’s been sold to us for so many years as the symbol of a style of society that we should admire and indeed be indebted too. Whatever it may be, I was glad that we had fifteen minutes on our own to wander and satisfy our creative cravings.
We did a loop around the Erechtheion and then another loop around the Parthenon, our final views coming from the southern retaining wall from which we could see the city of Athens spreading out below. We could easily pick out the mighty Temple of Zeus, the white marble Panathenaic Stadium and also the new Acropolis Museum, our final destination for the day.
The museum is sensitively and intelligently built, a fact that I hadn’t really comprehended until this most recent visit. The statues on the first floor, for instance, are displayed as they might have been once seen up on the Acropolis with the southern wall transparent so the room is flooded with light, imitating viewing conditions on the Acropolis in ancient times.
There are only three places in the museum where you’re allowed to take photos and I was happy to see Vassilios policing other people as well as us. And when he saw an older Chinese man about to rest his arm on one of the ancient statues, scraping his glasses along the rock as he did so, he jumped towards him and warned him off.
“The ruins have suffered enough damage,” he said, “there’s no need for any more.” Quite true.
We could take photos as we entered the museum, of the Caryatids on the second floorand also of the statues on the top floor and that was enough for us really, partly because the last two things are the museum’s prize exhibits and partly because all we’re trying to do with photography in such a place is to record the sense of space and feeling rather than document every good looking statue (if you want a document of all that you can buy a postcard or a book, of which there are many on sale in the museum shop).
It’s a memorable experience to view the mix of plaster cast and original Parthenon friezes in the museum whilst glancing out of the huge windows up to the building itself. If only the British would return the Elgin Marbles, it would all be complete. In the past this may have not made much sense as the old museum didn’t inspire confidence that they’d be taken care of but with this new museum there can’t be any doubts anymore where their rightful home is. Let’s hope they’re returned to Athens soon.
We ended our tour inside the museum. It’d been a superb 3 hours. It’s true that we’d visited all the sites before yet Vassilios had brought a new perspective to them for us. Lamia said that she’d felt like a student visiting a site with her professor thanks to his comfortable way of interacting with us and his great breadth of knowledge; no matter what question or theory we uttered Vassilios had an easily understandable answer or point of view to respond with. I’d agree with Lamia and add that regardless of any prior knowledge you may have I’m certain that you’ll find this tour an asset to your trip to Athens. If it’s your first visit then it’s a solid introduction to the highlights of the Acropolis and the museum and if like us you’ve seen both attractions many times before it’s going to give you extra food for thought. It’ll also help you take better photos than you may have done before, in my opinion, due to a better understanding of your subject matter that’ll aid you in choosing your angles, framing and feeling more appropriately.
To discover more about this Context Travel ‘Acropolis Seminar’ please visit www.contexttravel.com/city/athens/walking-tour-details/acropolis-seminar
We were attracted to this walk as it looked like an interesting take on the traditional city-intro tour and because the website blurb spoke of Byron, a figure that we British hear spoken of often in relation to Greece and somebody that we personally wanted to hear more about.
Also, the word Orientalism is used frequently nowadays among our educated country-people in a variety of situations (as a rather mean-spirited way to deconstruct the West for the sake of it – usually by those who have done rather well out of the very system they claim to dislike – but also more reasonably as a way to describe the use of age old texts and images by the West to justify acts of aggression towards the Middle East) and we thought we’d see how it was being used in regard to Athens and it’s more recent history.
We met our guide, Nico, at the Acropolis Metro Station (just a ten minute walk from where we were staying; the New Hotel) and proceeded up the road with our group to our first stop, the ruins of a Capuchin monks monastery and library that we’d passed many times that week on our way to and from the more well known ruins.
Nico is a knowledgeable PhD student in Ottoman history and is genuinely sensitive to all the cultures that we were to talk about during the walk. He didn’t know that Lamia was raised a Muslim or that we both know a fair bit more than most Westerners about the religion yet he spoke very knowledgeably about Islam, rather than just hooking his insights onto tired, stereotypical views. Not many Westerners we come across have the education or the temperament to do that; we were impressed. He was relatively new to guiding I think as he seemed a little nervous at the start but he has great passion and knowledge and walking alongside him was like being with a local friend who wanted to show you around and give you the best time possible.
Now, although we were to really enjoy the tour, it’s worth pointing out that the tour description online was a little misleading. Here it is;
“This walk includes Byzantine churches, stately Ottoman mansions, mosques and synagogues and an atmospheric Turkish bath house. Major works of Lord Byron and Shelley will be recited during the walk.”
That was all true except the Byron and Shelley part; no works of any author were recited, although at the end we were given a print out of a poem by Borges which I appreciated.
Ok, back to the tour. The Capuchin monastery that was our first stop had also been home to Lord Byron at one time but surprisingly we didn’t talk about this. Byron didn’t really feature on the tour in reality except for a brief mention and Shelley didn’t get talked about at all. I understand the reluctance to side step the more famous for the more important, locally speaking, but also there’s got to be a mention of such figures, I feel, especially when, as in Shelley’s case, he must have encouraged pro-Greek feeling at a critical time with such lines as “We are all Greeks!”, and also because this area of Athens is so associated with both he (the next street seems to be named after him) and Byron (who also has a street named after him, and who wrote part of ‘Childe Harold’ here in the Capuchin library).
Instead we learnt that the tall tower that remains at the monastery was originally a monument to hold a theatre play directors award, that the area hereabouts was the first place in Athens where tomatoes were grown after they’d been brought back from the New World and that the street we were standing on and were due to follow for much of the tour was in fact the main thoroughfare through Athens for much of it’s history.
We walked a few metres and stopped before a wall covered with street art above which was a pale blue wooden veranda.
“This is a good example of an Ottoman period house,” said Nico. “The houses were very closed in at this time, there were no balconies, all family life was conducted within the walls, largely hidden from public view.” Just up the road, behind a door decorated with more street art, we entered a derelict Ottoman property. It was being used as a squat now and an old man sat in the corner next to his cat, both of them relaxing under a lemon tree. The pale blue paintwork was peeling and there were signs of decay yet the structure wasn’t so far gone that it couldn’t be restored and who knows, if the current financial crisis subsides maybe it will be.
Back outside of the shady courtyard we looked right and Nico pointed out more symmetrical housing with balconies that lined the street.
“You can see there that life after the Ottoman’s left was lived more publicly. People had balconies overlooking the street, there were far more windows, passers by could look in. In just a few years our population had gone from being very private and guarded to feeling far safer and able to open up their lives to their neighbours.”
We left the derelict, sprawling Ottoman architecture behind and climbed steps to a Byzantine church built by a local family.
“People identified their own little neighborhood with their individual church. Even today it’s used to help with directions; if you ask where something is Athenians will often say ‘find your way to so and so church and then go left…’, that sort of thing. Let’s go inside and see the first bell that was rung to celebrate Greek Independence.”
We were seeing and learning about a lot of places (and their relationship to Athenian history and modern society) that would normally be missed as we made our way about the city. It was often difficult to take everything in as we were jumping from 19th century to 10th then back to the 15th before moving onto the 18th and it was hard to completely comprehend that in such a short space of time. But there was no other way it could be; no city is a neat place time-wise, you’ll always find buildings and signs of habitation from different eras situated next to each other, often in no fixed or easily understandable fashion.
As for how the word ‘Orientalist’ was being used in the context of this tour, the best I can describe it was that it was in a friendly, understanding way. It’s true that the early North European travellers weren’t the most honest people when it came to representing their travels in their art. Many painters would take something they’d seen in Italy and put it beside another scene from Egypt, yet another thing from Turkey and then combine it within a painting meant to portray a real life scene in Athens. In reality though they weren’t doing anything more harmful than most people do every day on Facebook nowadays. I mean, who ever tells the truth on Facebook when they travel? Mostly they only show the sunsets and the other heavily photoshopped sights that people back home expect them to show. Only the very best and intelligent of travellers are going to be brave enough to attempt to portray the truth of any given place, and there have been very few human beings in the history of our species who have been capable of doing that…
And it’s really not the fault of the traveler that the politician will then take what they produce and say “Hey, look at these crazy, debauched Eastern people, they really aren’t civilized, we should go and invade in order to save their souls…”
So we didn’t deal with Orientalism in any Edward Said sense of the word, purely with the Europeans who came to Athens over a period of centuries and were relevant to the buidings that we were passing and exploring.
Some houses were like fortresses, built with towers to overlook a neighbourhood that’s now bedecked in street art. Another house whose door was smothered with falling jasmine was half Ottoman and half neoclassical with both parts painted slightly different pastel colours and a hand of Fatima symbol embedded in the plaster beside the door.
We moved into the Roman Agora where we learnt the the Tower of the Winds was once used by the dervishes, passed along a street where we could see several layers of history, from the Roman street level over a metre below us through the neoclassical houses of modern Athens to the ancient Greek structures atop the Acropolis and finished up near the old cemetery in front of the memorial to the holocaust where Nico gave us the Borges poem (it told of the way that 20th century Jews in Greece kept the keys to their old houses in Andalusia after their families had been forced to leave there in the late 15th century) and directions to the synagogues just around the corner.
It had been an interesting tour, we’d have liked to have heard more about the Romantic poets but nevertheless, if you tire of the typical Athenian ruins tourism and have the time, we’d recommend it.
Discover more at www.bigolive.org/orientalist
We met our guide Vikki at Korai Street, about 10 minutes walk from Syntagma Square, the centre of the city and an easy 30 minute walk from our hotel in the Plaka (if you wanted to take the uunderground to it, we met right outside the Panepistimio Metro station). Our group was just 8 people and Vikki started by giving us a short talk (she was, like most Greeks we know, a passionately straight-forward talker and justifiably very proud of her country) about Greece and how you can understand much of the culture here through the food people eat and the times at which they eat it. Some foods, she explained, are only cooked at weddings or after a death, and others are restricted for much of the year in traditional homes. One example of this is meat, which in traditional homes is only eaten 6 times a year on religious occasions, and during lent not at all (the regular orthodox diet is completely vegan at this time).
For this reason, sesame seeds (a good form of protein) are used often in Greek cooking and baking, for instance in the hooped ‘koulouri’ breads you see being sold on many an Athenian street corner. And it was a koulouri seller, Yiannis, that we visited first. He was a happy chap and we took the bread he’d given us, which Athenians often snack on for breakfast, and walked to a nearby 10th century church.
“You won’t find this church in any guidebook,” Vikki said, “because it’s still very much a functioning church, rather than a tourist attraction. People come here to pray on their way to work or during shopping trips. We can visit inside if you like.”
It was an ornate interior that greeted us and whilst Vikki explained more about the Greek Orthodox religion, we made some photos. Next on our tour, a five minute walk away (the whole walk only covered about 1,700 metres, even though it takes over three hours) during which we were joined by one of the large, friendly street dogs that live all around central Athens. was ‘Krinos’, a shop that is famous for it loukoumades (syrupy donuts). It’s been run by the same family since 1923 and it’s known as the best place in Athens to try this Greek speciality, which is exactly what we did!
The first floor was interesting, hailing from a time when women were encouraged to stay separate from men. In those days women sat on the top floor, unseen, whilst men ate their donuts down below.
The toilets were also on the first floor, it was the first of two places that we visited where we could use the bathroom (it was useful to have these opportunities as we’d met up very soon after our breakfast and also, we were to be eating and drinking often whilst on the tour). From Krinos we walked a few steps into Varvakios Agora, the central meat and fish market. This is where Athenians shop, for two good reasons.
“It’s around 35% cheaper than the supermarkets,” explained Vikki, “and also, Greece doesn’t have mass production (factory farms) so the meat produced on our own farms is generally of organic standard. The supermarket meat from overseas isn’t up to these standards, and as I said, it’s more expensive, so it’s much better to come here.”
It was a noisy, vibrant place with every part of the dead animals on show. Not pleasant viewing for some I’m sure but it you want to face facts and understand what you eat, then this isn’t a bad place to come. We stayed only long enough to snap a few photos – Vikki’s voice couldn’t be heard over the butcher’s calls and sales patter – before moving on through the fish market (where the catch of the day is snapped up before 7am by restaurants and hoteliers and what remains glistens on beds of crushed ice) to the fruit market over the road where we tasted halva (a sweet that features yet more of that protein packed sesame seed) that had been made by the stall holder (it was lighter in taste than factory produced halva thanks to the stirring process that takes longer by hand, therefore injecting more air into the mixture as the ingredients are combined) and then fresh, sweet pears.
Next we settled down in ‘Miran’, a shop established in 1922 that sells traditional meat products. Here we sat at a wooden table and sampled some spiced, sliced meats, rusks and raki, a fiery spirit that was different to (and way stronger than) the raki I’ve had in Turkey.
“They’re in season now and we Greeks do try, whilst at home, to eat seasonally,” said Vikki. “Moussaka is a dish that most tourists will experience whatever time of year they visit but at home we don’t eat this much, and if we do it’s only when the core ingredients are in season.”
“Anybody can sit at this table and try the rusks and meat,” said Vikki, “it’s a place where we can meet, talk, almost like a coffee shop really except that we’re also considering what products we’re going to buy from the shop.”
Just up the street was Fotsia herb shop where we tasted mastic, a plant resin that is also a natural chewing gum and antiseptic. Mastic has a fascinating story; despite the mastic trees being planted all over the world the only place they can produce mastic is on the island of Chios. And not anywhere on Chios, only on the south coast where ecological conditions are perfect for the trees to release the resin.
It seemed at first to have no taste but after a few minutes I think I detected a slight pine flavour that lasted a lot longer than modern chewing gum flavours last. As well as being good chewing gum mastic is also used in the creating of the liqueur known as Mastichato, which we were to try later, and also as a replacement for gelatin in jam or cakes. This was really useful to know; Lamia doesn’t eat pork at all so it’s great that we now know that there’s a sound replacement for gelatin (44% of which is derived from pig skin). Not that we can get mastic back home very easily, I’m sure, as it’s difficult to produce, very expensive and much in demand, although we could use gum arabic perhaps. Something to experiment with when we return from our travels.
Just around the corner we stepped into the Lesvos shop, a traditional grocery store that sells olive oils, honey, feta, pastes, wine and much more. We’d actually stayed at the Attalos Hotel, which is right next door to the shop, last year for a week and never noticed this shop. This highlighted one of the great things about this tour; it introduced us to parts of Athens that we never knew about before, even though we’d spent a month in the city over the past couple of years. It’s not that this Lesvos shop is hidden, not at all, it’s just that it looks like the sort of place that’s really expensive (it’s not), very specialised (it is, selling only produce from the island of Lesvos and the islands immediately surrounding it) and therefore the sort of place you need a guide to introduce you to (you don’t, but Vikki definitely made the place come alive for us).
First we tasted two types of olive oil (on bread) then feta (straight, and with a drizzle of olive oil and honey over it), olive tapenade and sundried tomato paste before moving onto Lesvos wine (light, pale colour, subtle fruityness) and a sweet liqueur made from mastic that rounded off the tasting session nicely.
Our second to last stop was just a five minute walk awayin Iroon Square in the centre of Psiri. The area reminded us of Kensington Market in Toronto; there were some fine examples of street art and individuality on show and teenagers sat in bars smoking apple scented sheesha. We were heading for Bougatsadiko, a pie shop with an impressive wooden roof, where we sampled fresh custard pie make with the finest filo style pastry (it’s a delicacy that’s popular in northern Greece, apparently, and deservedly so in our opinion, it tasted lovely).
Finally, a few steps away from the pie shop we arrived at a taverna where we sat outside under a vine trellis and were invited to order our choice of souvlaki – chicken, pork or beef.
It provided us with a chance to chat with each other as well as Vikki, and we welcomed that time as our fellow tourists were nice people (from the USA and Belgium) who were as interested in food and Greek culture as we are. We could also look around the inside of the tavern as we waited for our food, a quirky place with many little picturesque corners.
There’s so much more to this tour than I’ve told you, it’s impossible for me to recount everything Vikki told us as every few minutes she spoke of a local food and it’s relationship to some aspect of Greek life.
In our opinion, if you’re looking to be introduced to an area of Athens that’s not usually on the regular tourist itinerary, taste some excellent examples of local delicacies and learn about Greek culture whilst having some great photographic opportunities served up to you then we urge you to seriously consider this tour. We had a great time, we’re sure you will do too.
To discover more, please visit http://www.athenswalkingtours.gr/Athens-Food-Tour
No visitor to Athens could fail to notice the writings, and the pictures, on the city walls. Travelling in from the airport large bill boards are decorated with it as are the cement pillars and walls of the highways and suburban train stations. Then you started to walk around the city centre and, well, everywhere, except for the ancient ruins and some of the more important and grand buildings, are covered in words and pictures that many would say shouldn’t be there. Some would call it graffiti, others vandalism, yet others would choose the description ‘street art’ whilst others would be happy to make a wordy distinction between the rough spray-painted signatures and the more refined (in a traditional sense) textured artwork. All would agree though that there’s more of it here in the city of Athens than you’re likely to see in any city centre anywhere else in the world.
I’ve worked as an independent artist for over ten years in the past within an environment that was very punk rock/self starter in feel. Our little community didn’t place too much importance on galleries, official funding sources, getting paid, having your own workspace or anything else that an outsider might consider an essential part of the art world game, we just went ahead and did our own thing, whatever that was at any given time, however we could. If that happened to mean we exhibited in a gallery because the feel of the project required it then fine but equally you could just stick your work up with tape on a subway wall and that would be ok too, if that’s what the subject matter required.
So the idea of seeing street wall paintings as art isn’t at all strange to me. Art that is 100% confined to a gallery or the internet isn’t art in my opinion, it’s just a commodity, created for sale, and no real art is created just for sale. A real artist will create with the tools that the concept requires (or with what they can find/afford if they can’t pay for what they really need) and then give the work the space it itself dictates. Wall, gallery, book, postcard, pencil, camera, spray can, paintbrush, and whether it’s for public viewing or sale or not, it’s all the same really.
We were excited to join this tour in order to see what the real artists were doing in Athens. Sure, like all art scenes there were going to be a lot of fakers, or con-artists as we in England call them, working the angles and taking the easy routes, but we also hoped to find others that would give us a greater insight into modern Athenian life.
It’s worth reproducing here the blurb on the Alternative Athens website; it makes interesting reading.
“Let a real street artist guide you through the surprising and bustling street art scene of Athens!'
When one says “street art”, you would immediately think of London, Berlin, New York or Paris. But Athens? The truth is that the city it is immensely rich in graffiti art, which emerged in the ’90s but really took off and developed its own distinctive style over the past years. The recent economic crisis has spawned a new burst of creative energy that has turned Athens into what the New York Times calls “a contemporary mecca for street art in Europe”, counting 2,000 or so graffiti and street artists painting around the city.
This tour is the result of a unique collaboration between Alternative Athens and Achilles, one of Athens’ rising street artists; through street art, from edgy outdoor murals to elaborate stencils and raw graffitis, you will get to know the city and understand what’s happening at its heart.”
We met Achilles near a central metro station and, along with the other three members of our group, took a look at the subway trains that were sat at the sidings.
“Generally the artists find it easier to paint here in the daytime,” said Achilles. “That’s not always the case everywhere, it depends on the location and also what your message is, but here the light is obviously better in the daytime for doing this large scale painting, the security doesn’t expect you to paint at midday and also it’s safer. A young artist died whilst painting trains recently, in fact six have died over the last few years, they were painting at night, got chased by security and then fell onto the live rail.”
Now, it’s fair to say that I know a few people who would comment, “It’s sad but it’s his own fault. He shouldn’t have been in there, he shouldn’t have been vandalising the trains or making the place look ugly.”
To answer that point I’d like to paraphrase Achilles who commented, what is your definition of defacing the walls? Do you think layers of peeling posters and stickers, left there by local tradesmen for business purposes, are better than a painting by a young lad made from some sort of passion?
The bill boards that you see on the way into Athens are all technically illegal. Not a single one of them should be there. So what should we object to when we see them, that some young lad (only 3% of street artists are women, Achilles said, so it’s likely to have been a lad) spray painted over them or the fact that some rich businessman thought it ok to pollute the countryside with such a thing in the first place? We’re getting into deeper ground here, obviously, talking about the greed that produces tunnel vision, the fear that many adults have when they see the rising of a youth culture that’s clearly unsatisfied with the world they’re growing into, and also the lust for personal possessions that causes some adults to have irrational ownership tendencies over the places they live, eat, drink and work in.
Our walk continued down into the district of Gazi, onto Keramikos, Metaxourgio before walking back through Psiri to Monastiraki. Some of the works had been commissioned (the artists generally got their paint costs covered but no wages), others were painted just because the artist felt like creating something whilst yet more was just something known as tagging, which means little more than the writing of the artists name. This last activity has been around for, literally, centuries; I’ve seen this sort of thing dating from Ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian times. The authorities probably didn’t like it then either, no government likes it’s citizens showing signs of individualism. Individuals tend to not pay taxes. Mind you, that’s part of Greece’s financial woes, I’ve been told, people don’t tend to pay their taxes here so perhaps the government is more appreciative of the individual which in turn encourages the youth to express themselves through street art more than youth in other cities does. Or maybe street art is just trendy right now and something that all kids can get involved with easily, who knows, there’s probably a million different theories as to why this art gets created…
“The painting of the burning car next to the lady there up on the wall,” said Achilles, “that was done with rollers. The people bent over the rooftop, their paintbrushes fixed to poles. They did it in the daytime, it was quite a risk though. You see, you won’t get arrested for doing graffitti here, our jails are already full with more serious criminals. And if you’re just painting a simple picture with no political message then if you’re caught the police might stop you but there’ll be no real trouble for you. But if you’re painting something like a burning car, that indicates rioting, so if the police catch you you’ll be beaten up, for sure.”
We encountered a number of works that Achilles had painted himself, or in conjunction with others, on the tour. I was surprised to hear that on many occasions there wasn’t an awful lot of planning and social meaning behind the street art that Achilles and that of his painter friends do. The location, for instance, I would have thought it would have been important when you were thinking of how to create a piece. You have a certain concept behind your work, you think of what it means and then you find the best place to display it both physically and intellectually and then begin work from there with all this in mind, that’s how I would usually act in the past. But this doesn’t seem to be the case with street artists in Athens. Instead the desire to create and display often overrides all else. You get your paints, you find whatever surface you can and then you start creating.
As I say, most of the art didn’t seem to have any deep social or political thought patterns behind them but some pieces did, talking of an issue that effects all young people in Greece; they’re taught to respect and become philosophers but then they’ve got to somehow forget all that and just earn money.
Achilles said that whilst the tagged names and the more advanced images seemed very different they were often done by the same people. I could understand that. Sometimes I use digital photography, at other times I use pinhole or artistamp, depending on my mood and what I’m trying to convey.
The tour was only meant to last three hours but Achilles was clearly passionate about guiding us and we over-ran by almost an hour. That was fine for us, we were enjoying it. Achilles has an admirable mix of general intelligence, artistic ability and disdain for certain rotten or plain ridiculous parts of society and he verbalises his viewpoints excellently. He’s not going to agree with you, sidestep tricky issues or paint an unrealistic picture of Greece just because you’re a client, either, which is refreshing, and he took us to areas of Athens that we’d never seen before and were unlikely to ever do so on our own because they were just out of the centre and because, frankly, you wouldn’t want to be exploring them on your own at the wrong time of day.
He made an excellent companion on this walk and I reckon if any friends make it to Athens I’d recommend they take this Street Art tour. Of course, it’s not going to be the first thing in the city that you’re going to do but if you want to extend your knowledge beyond the ruins and understand something of what you see as you walk around the modern city then this Street Art tour a great idea.
If you’d like to see more of Achilles’ work, please visit www.artachilles.com
And if you’d like to learn more about the Street Art Tour, please visit www.alternative-athens.com/streetarttour
Cape Sounion is a promontory located 69 kilometres south-southeast of Athens, at the southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula. It's the site of a secluded beach and the ruins of an ancient Greek temple of Poseidon, the God of the Sea in classical mythology. The remains are perched on the headland surrounded on three sides by the sea and they bear much graffiti, including the deeply carved name of English Romantic poet Lord Byron. You can see Byron's name clearly, if you take a set of binoculars (you can't get close enough to the temple to see it with your bare eyes) and the sunsets from in front of the temple are truly spectacular. You can reach the Cape by public bus from Athens but be careful to ask your hotel people exactly where the stop is (it's very near the New Hotel) as the sign is not clear. There's also a secluded free public beach below the ruins which isn't mentioned often in guide books, to the left of where the bus drops you off in front of the temple. It's a five minute hike down there and it's not sandy but the swimming is good and when we went it wasn't busy at all (two others were there apart from us). Take all the food and drinks you need for the day though, there are no shops anywhere!
All Athenians have their own idea of who the best souvlaki seller is in the city, and many would agree that it's Mr Kostas who runs his small shop on Agias Eirinis Sq, where his pita enclosed beef or pork kebabs are E2 each. Expect to queue here as everything you order is cooked freshly for you and since Mr Kostas is the only person doing the cooking you might have a 15 to 20 minute period waiting in line before you're served. You get fries and salad with each pita and you can also order an extra plate of fries and beer, if needed. There are plenty of seats outside. Be aware, there is another Kostas operating at Pentelis 5, much nearer Syntagma Square. This guy is friendly and good but his kebabs are served with only yoghurt and a little spice, which is ok if he has any food left, which he generally doesn't (he says he doesn't plan on tourists buying his stuff). Basically, if you visit after 2pm you won't find any food available at Pentelis Kostas, but at Kostas on Agias Eirinis Sq there'll be plenty. If you're vegetarian then walk for five minutes around the corner to 'Ellinikon' at 39 Kolokotroni St, where a mother and daughter team serve up similarly priced pita delights, but with felafel, salad and chips inside instead of meat (note, whilst Ellinikon is open until late every day, Kostas is only open weekdays and closes when the food runs out, usually early evening).
Veikou street is very near to the Plaka, and to the Art Gallery and Hera Hotels, yet you're unlikely to find it featuring in any guidebooks...at the moment. Imagine London's Camden Town or Toronto's Kensington - just at the in-between time between their first fame and the later time when they were rediscovered by hipsters - and you'll have some idea of what Veikou Street is about right now. Shops selling hand created jewelry and art, where you can talk to the artists before you buy, sit next to abandoned art deco cinemas and decaying ornate facades. Charity shops selling bargain clothes and organic foods are staffed by educated, English speaking people who want to give their time to raising funds to help their fellow Greeks who've been badly affected by the austerity cuts. There's also a dairy selling organic milk and yoghurt and a branch of the magical Mystic Pizza restaurant, which we recommend above all other restaurants in Athens for those looking for healthy, tasty food served in an authentically eco-friendly environment. Consider buying your sourvenirs in Veikou Street, a ring or necklace made by hand will be great value as you're buying straight from the artist and it'll be a unique, one off piece. Call into any independent, arty shop here to get your free map of Veikou street that points out the highlights of the street!
Anafiotika is a scenic tiny neighborhood of Athens, part of the old historical area known as Plaka. It lies on the northerneast side of the Acropolis hill and can be reached easily on foot from the road leading up the side of the Acropolis hill a few metres down from the New Acropolis Museum, or from many points on the north side of the Hill (it's easier to find your way from the museum first though). The first houses were built in the era of Otto of Greece when workers from the island of Anafi came to Athens in order to work on the refurbishment of the King's palace. Nowadays there are 45 houses remaining while the little streets from Stratonos to the Acropolis rock are still unnamed and the houses are referred to as "Anafiotika 1", "Anafiotika 2" etc. The neighborhood was built according to Cycladic architecture and even nowadays gives to visitors the feel of the Greek islands in the heart of the city, with white walls and small spaces, usually with covered in Bougainvillea flowers. Whenever we visited the alleyways were alive with shadows, cats and flowers. It's a photographers paradise and it's also a place where you'll find very few fellow tourists.
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