Athens or bust

2016-03-11 07:00:00

Athens is like no other European capital. For me it has a rawness, a unique ambiance that makes it feel truly authentic and uncontrived. Other European capitals have almost become pastiches of themselves, with local culture, architecture and cuisine packaged as a series of clichéd experiences.
Yet Athens, well it’s like a non-conformist city. Admittedly booking a holiday to Greece might at times feel like a gamble, especially considering the images conveyed this year by the main stream media of an angry and sometimes violent Athens on the brink of financial Armageddon.
Yet don’t let this put you off. I felt safe and welcome in the city – it’s like visiting a series of small towns rather than the sprawling metropolis it appears from the air. It is a very manageable, if at times bizarrely confusing, destination for a weekend break or as a stop-over on the way to an idyllic Greek island escapade.
Colourful, chaotic & noisy
Taking the airport bus to the city centre is not a glamorous way to travel, but it somehow prepares you as a visitor for the Athens experience. The traffic, the noise and the mishmash of poorly maintained buildings you pass on the way all combine into a colourful, chaotic picture of Greek urban life.
Despite the immediate temptation to visit the Acropolis, resist and instead get immersed into the city life without the throngs of fellow tourists, by heading out to one of the local neighbourhoods.
The neighbourhoods of Monastiraki, Plaka and Thissio, practically in the shadow of the Acropolis are of course amongst the most popular, thanks to their touristy markets, historical heritage, quintessential Greek charm, and predominantly traffic free pedestrianised streets. Yet one of the easiest districts to get to though, is the market district of Athens. It’s fairly rundown like much of the capital, but it’s a place where one can quickly feel part of the city. Unlike many other capitals, where city centres are often only home to offices or upscale apartment buildings, the heart of Athens is still where local people live and work, creating a rich culture of neighbourhoods. All around the central Varvakeio Market are small shops and trading stalls, arranged like an exotic souk, that are there to serve the local community – these stores are not contrived or gentrified for tourists.
Unfamiliar Europe
The cuisine in Athens is just one of the many things, like the beautiful Byzantine churches with their distinctive round domes, and the romantic ancient temple ruins that make you feel as if you are somewhere a little more special than familiar Europe. With cultural and culinary influences dating back to when Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire, eating here makes for a fascinating mix of European and Middle Eastern Mediterranean snacks and dishes.
Exploring the streets will involve navigating around other disorientated visitors, locals on their scooters, and all manner of products from homewares to artisan foods hanging from canopies and piled high on crates. Expect tempting seasonal produce and typical Greek products. Laid out amongst fruits and vegetables you’ll see fresh verdant grape leaves and exotic herbs and species used for the popular and ubiquitous Greek speciality, ‘dolmadakia’ – vine leaves stuffed with rice. Of course there is also an unbeatable choice of olives too; ask to try a few, as the flavours are as different as their shapes, colours and marinades.
Eating down-to-earth
Walking builds an appetite. With the investment that came with the 2004 Olympic Games, Athens saw a flurry of new restaurant openings; fancy new rooftop eateries all trying to out-do the other for the best Acropolis view terrace. But for lunch, why not make it something more down-to-earth? If you are not tempted by the numerous small cafes with their take-away street food style bars then there are still some traditional tavernas to discover.
I’d heard about Diporto, a classic local restaurant that wasn’t far away. It’s a little hard to find, as there is no sign outside. In fact its corner building location looks derelict, yet there are two basement doors swung open at pavement level encouraging you to come inside. The grubby stone steps lead down into a well-lit basement. One wall has basement windows letting light fill the space, whilst the back wall is of wine barrels. In one corner is an old stone sink with colourful aluminium jugs stacked on each other, and a tray of worn glass tumblers; in the other the owner cooks over a small stove.
The proprietor gave me a friendly nod of welcome and his son gave a quick smile but didn’t say much in English other than ‘you eat?’ As the only foreigner in the place I felt I had struck upon a hidden gem, but the truth is this traditional lunch spot is in a few guides so the place is familiar with dealing with international visitors. Even so, conversation is pretty much zero, and I just allowed the meal to arrive.
Firstly cutlery is placed in the centre of the table, with a half loaf of artisan bread. Then dish by dish, food arrived, without any real need to order. There were a few choices, but I was happy to keep the surprises coming. Scrumptious sardines (grilled in the basement!) were amongst the first dishes, then a colourful Greek salad, a vegetable and lamb stew, and also chickpea soup, which I later learnt was a classic of Diporto. The distinctive retsina white wine came in a rose-coloured aluminium jug resting on a block of ice.
The taverna was lively and noisy, the chatter and laughter of the other tables reverberating off the low season, whilst smoke from the grill was carried through the space by the breeze between the two open doors. Overall quite an experience; and the price for multiple dishes, wine and water was only 21 euros. Athens is still a great destination for the budget traveller.
Exploring up with the gods
A visit to Athens is also, of course, all about its classical heritage and the Acropolis is visible from pretty much everywhere in the city centre – a continual reminder that you just have to get up there and see it. I couldn’t find a way to pre-book tickets online, but in my experience, away from the mid-morning crush of cruise ship tours, the queue outside the small Acropolis ticket office moved quickly. The entrance ticket also included access to the other major ancient sights, most of which are now linked by a broad pedestrian avenue, making for a relaxed day of discovery.
I chose the evening ‘golden hour’ to explore the Acropolis. As the sun sets the warm light exaggerates the colour of the marble – beautiful. However, the rocky plateau with almost sheer cliffs, upon which the citadel sits can be a windswept place yet that didn’t distract from the impact of the architecture. The Parthenon, despite being partially covered by conservation scaffolding and housing cranes and other equipment used in the almost constant battle against erosion from pollution, was truly impressive. Like the city below, it has a rawness though, lacking most of its original detailing and intricate craftsmanship. Of course the remnants of the beautiful marble adornments that once made this one of the most outstanding temples of the ancient world are missing too.
Below, on the approach road to the citadel, is the new Acropolis Museum. Even if one isn’t a great fan of formal galleries, this relatively new addition to the cultural scene of Athens is a must-visit. Poignantly the Parthenon Gallery on the third floor displays replica casts of the missing Elgin Marbles; everything is ready to display them.
But then, that’s a whole other story.source surinenglish