Taking it easy around the Acropolis
Want to hang out like an Athenian? Accept spontaneity and welcome a night of broiled lamb and the promise of bouzouki music
By DANYLO HAWALESHKA
The plan had been to meet for coffee at 8 p.m., which in Athens is code for drinks. A friend of mine, Simos, had generously offered to show me an authentic Athenian night out on the town, sans tourists.
No small feat in Greece, population 11 million, considering that last year almost 16 million camera-clicking, Bermuda-short-wearing, Acropolis-swarming foreigners invaded the birthplace of democracy.
I had to prepare. First and foremost, an afternoon nap because the Greeks take nightlife seriously. Dinner is rarely before 10 p.m. (if you eat at 7:30 p.m., it's a virtual certainty your fellow diners will be tourists). Moreover, it's not unusual for a night out to end only when the sun comes up.
A couple of hours before we are to meet, Simos sends a text message to my cellphone, saying he's running a bit behind and asking whether we could rendezvous half an hour later. Fine, I think, this is Greece, no one's ever on time.
Athens has a fabulous public transit system, the heart of which is its still new and pristine metro, seamlessly integrated with its 138-year-old, thoroughly modernized, and in some cases mercifully air-conditioned electric railway, the electriko. Running along the city's so-called green line, predominantly above ground, the electriko links Athens to its biggest port, Piraeus.
Simos and I planned to meet at the line's Thissio station, a short walk from the remarkably well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus, in Athens's ancient agora. Located in the Thission district of Athens, it is only one stop west of the Monastiraki station and Plaka, the oldest part of the city, which sadly has been ruthlessly transformed into a warren of kitschy tourist shops flogging sun hats, ouzo and komboloi (worry beads). Tourists go to Plaka for drinks and dinner; Greeks go to Thission.
The pedestrian bridge over the tracks at the Thissio station, just outside and to the right of the building, makes for a good meeting place because you can't get lost. Thissio is also great for people watching. Pods of giggling teenage girls, packs of teenage boys checking them out, and always families - children, parents, grandparents, yaya and pappous.
I had been living in Athens a little more than two months now, having ditched the 9-to-5 Toronto media scene to be with my Plaka-born, raised-in-Canada wife, Stavroula Logothettis. She came to make television shows, and for me, Athens is my Paris. I'm here to write and rekindle my love of photography. A night out like this was overdue.
Simos arrives an hour late. No big deal. It's a state of mind. They call it halara, which loosely translates to "easygoing." The halara ethos permeates much of Greek culture, for better or worse. It applies equally to not getting all worked up when someone's late, as it can to shrugging off a deadline at work. I was warned by a Canadian Greek before I came. She taught me the Greek word avrio, which means tomorrow and some Greeks will tell you, when you want something of them, "Avrio, avrio."
We stroll over to a pushcart brimming with pistachios, almonds and cashews, behind which stands Dimitris Goumenos. At 67, Goumenos has been selling nuts to Athenians for more than 50 years.
He jokes about what he does for a living, and the physical demands of hauling all those nuts around. "There's an expression in Greek," Goumenos tells us. "If you don't have brains, you need feet."
We join the throngs along Apostolou Pavlou, a broad, elegant pedestrian boulevard with the Acropolis on our left and artisans and buskers to the right.
We could go to the Thission Cinema, one of Athens's many wonderful outdoor movie theatres, just up a ways from where we are. Why go see a movie on a visit to Greece? Because there's something ethereal about sitting under the open sky on a warm summer's night, drink in hand, watching a movie with the Acropolis visible out of the corner of your eye. Another time.
We take a right on Iraklidon Street, and enter a café-club scene that, if you know Montreal, is not unlike St. Denis Street, circa the Jazz Festival. Only more intimate because Iraklidon is narrow, with little or no traffic.
The first little stretch of Iraklidon is a bit of a meat market, lined with places "where Greeks go to see and be seen," Simos says. But only a couple of blocks down, the madness abates and gives way to a quiet, tree-lined promenade.
We stop at Absinthe, a quaint café with a courtyard and tables under a green canopy of trees that rustles with one of those remarkably refreshing breezes.
Owner Nicos Kranas, hair shoulder length, goatee meticulously groomed, prides himself on his selection of coffees from Jamaica, Costa Rica, Haiti and India. About the only type of coffee not on the menu is Greek coffee, that potent, espresso-like jet fuel with the grounds in the bottom of the cup. His customers, Kranas says, "don't like Greek coffee."
Simos gets a call from a good friend, Andreas and twenty minutes later, Andreas and his wife, Anna, join us. Spontaneity is a big part of life here.
For dinner, I thought we'd go to Paramithi, which features a pan-Greek cuisine in Sepolia, a working-class neighbourhood in Athens. Owner Christos Spirounis will tell you that Paramithi means "myth, fairy tale, anything you want."
Cabs are cheap in Athens. From where we are, it's about a $7 ride to Sepolia. But watch the cabbies in Athens, they're notorious for trying to rip off tourists. Any more than $7 from Thission to Sepolia, and you're being had.
They're tough to flag too. The yellow cabs barely slow, and into the open window you have to shout where you're going: "Sepolia!" Quite often you'll be greeted by a dismissive throwing back of the driver's head, accompanied by a rude sucking noise made by drawing air through the teeth. They only go where they please. Don't take it personally.
We don't end up going, but I can't help to think how it would have been nice to tuck into one of Paramithi's deliriously fresh dishes, which feature fruit and nuts, and include an amazing concoction of grilled pork fillet stuffed with chestnuts and figs. No salt. No butter. "I'm trying to cook with everything fresh," Spirounis says, "and I try, try, try to find things without preservatives."
Half the fun of going to Paramithi is the playful atmosphere, a pleasing blend of warm colours, antique light fixtures and artistic flourishes that include hand-painted tabletops and a mannequin with frequent wardrobe changes. The other half is the price; two salads, two main dishes and a half-litre of house wine will set you back a very reasonable $44.
Instead of flagging a cab, Andreas and Simos have another idea. There's a taverna around the corner, traditional food, great atmosphere, value for money. I wonder if it isn't getting too late to eat. Simos plays the halara card. "It's midnight, we haven't eaten, but we're having a good time!"
To Steki Tou Elia - roughly translated, Elia's Joint - harks back to simpler times when Athens wasn't the congested megalopolis it is today. We round a corner at half past midnight, and to my astonishment, it looks like every outdoor table is taken in this rare, quiet corner of Athens.
To Steki Tou Elia specializes in charcoal-broiled lamb. We order freshly cut fried potatoes (do not call them French fries; they taste too good to be lumped into that category), a couple of so-called village salads, or horiatiki - tomato, cucumber, red onion, olives, feta and virgin olive oil. And we add a side order of horta, braised dandelion greens sprinkled with lemon and olive oil.
A couple of stray dogs linger. One catches my eye, a patch-coated white and brown mutt with maybe some lab in him sniffs quietly, patiently at the table next to ours. Diners, casually dressed and ranging in age from child to grandparent, are seated at wooden tables with red-and-white checked tablecloths. Now and then, someone tosses the poor fella a bone from tables heaped high with communal dishes that everyone digs into. As the beer flows - and it certainly flows because in Greece beer seems invariable to be served in half-litre bottles - we wonder whether we want to catch a bouzouki concert.
The bouzouki is a pear-shaped, long-necked stringed instrument similar to the mandolin. It doesn't get more Greek than the bouzouki. Think Zorba the Greek. The place to see bouzouki played is Romeo, a boisterous theatre club by the sea in Glyfada, a posh suburb of Athens down the coast from Piraeus.
Patrons are seated at communal tables of 12. Before long, you're all friends. Dancing on tables is common. In fine Greek fashion, Romeo doesn't open until 11 p.m., and closes somewhere around 6 a.m. The songs are about love, cheating and loss. "People used to think bouzouki was trashy," Anna says. "But now, everyone goes. When your heart is broken, you have to go to bouzouki to drink and cry - it's great therapy."
But the Gazi district is only 10 minutes away, and the convenience factor sways us. Gazi is a marvel of a post-industrial cultural renaissance. The Gazi Factory was a grimy gasworks that began operations in the mid-1800s and closed only in the mid-1980s.
The city of Athens took over and created the Gazi Technopolis, a sprawling cultural locale that features art exhibitions, as well as dance and music festivals, while preserving many of the old buildings and smokestacks.
To try and single out a bar to recommend in Gazi would be torture. There are so many, and they're all so full at 2 a.m., when we arrive. It's hard to go wrong. We pick one, enter and realize there's no roof - an open-air bar. The music is loud and pounding, and the gin and tonics stiff. We dance, talk and laugh until 4 a.m., when someone briefly floats the idea of catching the last bit of the bouzouki concert, and maybe the sunrise.
Mercifully, common sense prevails. Another time, we agree. Halara.
Pack your bags
Things to dO
Thission Cinema: 7 Apostolou Pavlou St., Thission; 30 (210) 34-70-980 or 30 (210) 34-20-864. The cinema is one of Athens's many outdoor movie theatres.
Romeo: 1 Ellinikou St., Glyfada; 30 (210) 89-45-345; http://www.romeoplus.gr. The boisterous theatre club by the sea is open from 11 p.m. to 5 or 6 a.m. Reservations are required.
Gazi Technopolis: 100 Pireos St., Gazi; 30 (210) 34-60-981. The cultural locale features art exhibitions, as well as dance and music festivals.
where to eat and drink
Absinthe Café: 19 Iraklidon St., Thission; 30 (210) 34-24-224. Absinthe is a quaint café, which prides itself on its blends of coffee from locations like Jamaica.
Paramithi: 176 Ioaninon, Sepolia; 30 (210) 51-32-747. The restaurant's chef tries to cook with as much fresh ingredients as possible. Paramithi is open from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. and reservations are required. It is closed on Sundays.
To Steki Tou Elia: 5 Eptahalkou; 30 (210) 34-58-0523. The taverna, which specializes in charcoal-broiled lamb, is open from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. It is closed on Sundays.
To learn about more things to do in Athens, such as visiting museums and horseback riding in the mountains outside the city visit http://www.medestino.com