I’ve been to Athens about five times now, and every time I come here I try to blend in. I also try to avoid getting on the plane and coming back home, but that doesn’t normally work out for me. After doing a student conference in Piraeus way back when in university, I have a few people I call my friends here, and I know my way around the Athens Metro well enough. I love it here, and I’m truly blessed to have such a great connection with this vibrant city.
Let me tell you why I love it. It’s the capital city of my favourite nation on earth, and it’s chocked full of history. The citizens are friendlier than in any other major city I’ve visited thus far, and they make the place incredibly lively. The nightlife and food scene are varied and awesome, and around every corner you’ll find something ancient or something politically significant. Travel a little way out of the city centre and you’ll find stunning beaches, the mighty port of Piraeus, and mountains all around you. It is, in the words of my pal Konstantinos, the city that has everything.
But, like any city, it has its problems. It can be grubby and rough around the edges, some of the buildings don’t meet construction standards, and of course in places there is trouble with drugs, crime etc. caused by a plethora of underlying social, economic and political issues.
However, I’m not here to tell you that. I’m here to brag about how much of a local I am these days. The student conference I was talking about was based on Model UN, and was called ‘EuroPaS’, held at the University of Piraeus. I applied on a whim because I was sad at being rejected from the Model UN in Geneva, and I really wanted to visit Athens, so off I went. I was the only foreigner there, save for a lovely Italian girl, so I made lots of Greek friends. I am still in touch with many of them, and one of them is my man Konstantinos.
This is me, Konstantinos and his girlfriend Antonia last year. Huddling under a canopy to hide from the rain.
Every time I am in Athens, I will drop him a line. We have a tendency to spend our days wandering the city streets. Last year, we thought we saw Yanis Varoufakis driving on his motorbike near Panepistimio metro station. This time, I wanted to explore the infamous neighbourhoods of Omonoia and Exarcheia, areas renowned for political upheaval, left wing politics and demonstrations. I didn’t see any political action when I was there, but a few hours after I’d left, I missed a protest about the Greek government’s appalling treatment of refugees.
The two districts are also famous for their street art and graffiti. Like Greek Banksy, I guess. Cue slideshow with Art Attack gallery music.
I’ve been to Exarcheia’s neighbour, Omonoia, before – albeit by accident. I sat for too long on the bus and ended up in Omonoia Square, a busy intersection jam packed with discount shops. We were told by locals to watch our bags for pickpockets, but I didn’t stick around long enough to find out what it was really like. Driving through it on the way in, I noticed there were a lot of Pakistani businesses around, and I fancied a look around (shoutout to my Pakistani bae Anaab).
It’s a surreal experience to wander around Omonoia. I know some Greek and my ears are familiar with the sound of Urdu, yet it’s strange to hear them both in the same place. Also to see Greek writing above Urdu, with little bits of English scattered all around. Alas, there’s nowhere to buy good Pakistani food, or even some kind of weird Greco-Pakistani hybrid food (10/10 would try that). Many of the Pakistanis who live here are young men who came over from Pakistan within the last decade, so haven’t had a chance to settle in yet. It’s primarily just barber shops, electronic markets and cheap clothing. It’s a world away from Southall – Pakistani culture hasn’t made its mark on Athens yet.
Meandering around the city, we did a zigzag around the centre, through Monastiraki, Kolonaki, Panepistimio, Syntagma, Gazi and Thissio. In total, I think we did around 30,000 steps, stopping only for freddo cappuccino, gyros and tea (because it is unseasonably cold in Athens, about 15 degrees and raining – I assume I brought the British weather with me).
Halloumi is rare to find in Greece, but when you find it, it’s far better than the stuff at home.
Konstantinos proved a very knowledgeable tour guide on everything and anything, even demystifying the outfits of the Evzonoi presidential guards who hang around outside the palace for me. The skirts are pleated with over 300 pleats, one for every year of the Ottoman occupation. The pom poms in the shoes once hid knives, so even if you ran out of bullets, you could stab your foe with a flick of your toe.
The wind blew in our faces as we walked, so we had to lean forward and put our sunglasses on, to protect ourselves from the onslaught of dust. The nightlife district and former gasworks at Gazi was something I particularly enjoyed seeing – it’s a little way out of the centre, so a lot of tourists don’t go there, just trendy locals. I wanted to stop and pretend I was one, but it was too cold to stay too long, so we settled down to a cafe in Syntagma.
Facing onto the busy road, the Greek Parliament and the National Garden, this cafe didn’t seem to be anything special. But boy did it turn out to be. Our English Breakfast came to us, and so did some proper good tunes. First, we heard Alvaro Soler’s ‘La Cintura’ – a Spanish hit that I absolutely adore, but had no idea was famous in Greece. Konstantinos tells me otherwise.
I couldn’t believe it would get any better, but it did. I’ve been trying to hear Eleni Foureira’s ‘Fuego’ (my favourite song) on the radio since we got here, but have had zero luck. But when those violins started playing in the cafe, I knew my time had finally come. I couldn’t help myself. The dance moves came out. My poor friend looked at me like I’d gone mad. But it’s okay, he knows me now, I’m harmless enough.
I GOT THE FIRE. AH YEAH AH YEAH AH YEAH YEAH AH YEAH AH YEAH. FUEGO!
They kicked us out shortly after.
On the way home from my tiring day, someone spoke to me in Greek, asking if the train went to Akropoli. I replied yes it did, and that it was the next stop. She thanked me and we both got on the train. Seems like the most boring conversation in the world, but it gave me a real boost. My Greek must be improving, hooray! I can hold a short conversation!
To anyone wishing to visit Greece, I really would try to learn the alphabet (it isn’t that hard, promise) and some words and phrases. It will make your trip so much more meaningful, and many Greeks will be absolutely thrilled you’ve bothered to learn anything at all. Nobody does usually, and many tourists go straight to shouting at Greek locals in English, which is a bit rude. Even just being able to read a few road signs will give you a little buzz.
As I’ve definitely mentioned before, Modern Greek history is my particular area of specialisation. It’s a bit of a niche, but it’s my niche, and I love it. But for some reason, I’d not got round to visiting the National Historical Museum near Panepistimio Metro station, which is housed in the old Greek Parliament building.
The Greek Parliament sat here until 1934, when it moved to its current location.
Inside, you’ll find countless artefacts and fascination information relating to Greek history from the late 18th century up until World War 2. The Greek War of Independence (1821-1831) is a particular focus, and they’ve got a big exhibition on Greece in World War One on at the moment.
The museum, like many Greeks themselves, has an odd reverence for British poet (and general wasteman) Lord Byron. Okay, so he went to Greece to fight in the War of Independence, and sent them a load of money. But he basically had to leave Britain because he had committed crimes and was in a lot of debt. He was a horrible misogynist. He abandoned his daughter. He hated fat people. He also died shortly after getting to Greece – but not in battle, in bed. Basically, wasteman.
This camp bed is where he breathed his last. Malaria got him in the end.
If you’re not interested in that part of history, you can always go and admire the incredible clothes on display – anything from Greek national and regional garb, to beautiful officers’ uniforms, to the dresses of the ladies in waiting to the Queen of Greece, Amalia.
They look like realllllly fancily dressed Cybermen.
Because it’s my area of special interest, I spent hours in the museum, furthering my studies into Eleftherios Venizelos and learning how the turbulent years between 1821 and 1921 have shaped the Greece we know today. The architecture inside the museum is lovely, too. But I had to leave because I was getting hangry.
Lunchtime in Athens affords a plethora of choices, but not necessarily for vegetarians or vegans. But the tourist influx has meant a better selection of cruelty-free foods has arrived. Vegan Nation, in Plateia Monastiraki, is one of these. It serves a selection of juices and fake meat wraps. I was tempted by the gyros, but went with the ‘chicken’ shawarma because I wanted to try something new.
It was good and flavourful, but not freshly prepared. Still tasty though, and the staff were friendly, so what the heck. Plus, finding vegan food in Athens is not exactly easy.
The trouble with eating anything is that I usually end up with garlic breath, because garlic is the best ingredient in the world. So now, I was on the hunt for something to freshen me up. But I came across a Loukoumades shop I went to last year with Konstantinos and his girlfriend Antonia, and couldn’t resist having some more.
Loukoumades are a special type of Greek doughnut, and have many equivalents elsewhere in the Ottoman world.
You can choose your fillings and toppings, so I went for something traditional. I wanted my little bites of heaven to be filled with mastiha cream, flavoured with resin from a tree you can find on the island of Chios. It’s got a strong flavour, vaguely reminiscent of aniseed, but a must-try when you’re in Greece. Pair this with cinnamon and honey topping, and you’ve got a “perfect combination”, or so the lovely waitress told me.
I didn’t eat them there, I took them back to the flat. Or tried to – taking them on the Metro wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had. But they were still warm when I got there, so all’s well that ends well.
You’d think after all that food, I wouldn’t be hungry, but dear reader, you underestimate my appetite. My favourite cafe in all Athens is CapCap, which was recommended to me the first time I came to Athens by my Greek conference colleagues. It’s a themed cafe, and has gone through different phases, such as Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s been stuck in the Harry Potter theme for about 3 years now, but it’s still charming and lovely all the same.
Something tells me JK Rowling doesn’t know about this place.
So, later that evening – after sleeping off my lunch – I hopped on the metro to suburban Egaleo and sat myself down in this funky place. When I first visited, I asked my Greek friends what to order, and they all said the same thing – Mud Pie. It’s a super rich chocolate cake/brownie thing, and you can smother it in whatever sauce you want. I usually go for the biscuit sauce, but I’ve also heard Bueno sauce is pretty darn special.
You’ll only be able to finish half of your dessert. Tops.
CapCap’s desserts are a meal in themselves, so don’t go ordering their pasta or savoury dishes before you have dessert. Just enjoy your chocolate coma and a drink (or potion as they call them here), then roll on back to your accommodation and go to sleep. Because that’s what I did.
Today, I’ve clambered the Acropolis in driving wind and rain – storm Xenophon they’re calling it. Apparently it’s a freak weather event, but it doesn’t look like it’ll go away before we leave tomorrow. It’s like Britain on a bad day- it really is quite horrible. I nearly got blown off the Acropolis, and I’ve come back for a siesta soaked through to the skin. Thank god I’ve already done it a few times – read this if you want to get my opinion on it.
A couple of days ago, I was sunbathing on a hot ass beach. Now I’m huddled up in a blanket with a mug of something hot, not wanting to go outside at all.
Before I have to leave tomorrow, I’m going to meet up with some more friends this evening, to sample a little of Athens’ incredible nightlife in Monastiraki. But first, I have to go out and buy something to wear. Not because I don’t have enough clothes, but because I did not bring a jumper with me. You know, didn’t think I’d need one, and all that. How foolish of me.
I’m angry that the weather has been so bad. All the previous times I’ve been here, it’s been beautiful, but I guess Zeus was not smiling on me this time. Still, the weather has been great most of this trip, so I can’t really complain.
It’s been so good to spend two whole weeks in this incredible country, but it’s never enough time. Just as I start to feel at home again, and get a bit more confident speaking the language etc, I have to up sticks and go back to grotty England again. I really would love to live in Athens one day, but with the economic situation for young people being what it is right now, it’s not looking like a realistic option for the next few years. Maybe I’ll just do what they did in Mamma Mia and open up my bakery here, totally on a whim, but luckily it’ll become an enormous success anyway. One can only dream.
Until then, Ellada, I must away. But I bet I’ll be back again within 12 months – just like I said last time.