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My visit to Athens wasn’t turning out the way I’d hoped
I was sitting in the roof top restaurant on one of Athens’s most beautiful five-star hotels, The Royal Olympic, near Syntagma Square. Through the picture windows I could see the majestic Acropolis, so near I thought I could touch her. On my table stood my favorite drink in Greece, iced coffee, which is a sort of cold cappuccino, heavenly sweet and with a thick layer of foam on top.
The sun was shining, the sky was blue, it was two days before Easter. I was surrounded by luxury and attentive waiters and I was deeply miserable and utterly exhausted.
In short: for the first time in my life – entirely unexpectedly – I was afflicted by a simple bout of travel fatigue. This made me very angry with myself and set me off thinking about how best to rouse myself out of my (totally unjustified) funk.
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My elegant and sophisticated friend obviously had a condo in the red light district and, to boot, was waiting for me on a street corner. My travel fatigue and black mood were quickly forgotten; I was on my way.
My phone rang and on the other end was a friend of mine. A Greek lady who lives part of the year in Athens, whom I should have called but didn’t have the strength to do. “What are you doing today?” she asked.
I couldn’t possibly tell her the truth, so I said I didn’t have any specific plans. “Great,” she continued, “do you want to see a secret part of Athens – the former red light district?”
That perked me up immediately. “Sure.” I said.
“Good. It’s easy to find. Just walk to Syntagma Square, turn left into Ermou, then continue straight on until you reach the outer border of Psiri. I’ll be waiting on a street corner for you. I can’t leave because I have some workmen in my flat, so come and keep me company.”
Ermou is mainly a shopping street and pedestrian area with a few department stores, fashionable boutiques and great shoe shops; tree lined and interspersed with benches, fountains and the odd orthodox church. After about twenty minutes strolling at a leisurely pace, window shopping and enjoying the warm spring sun, I saw my friend.
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She let me off Monastiraki Square, turning right into a maze of narrow, cobbled streets, lined with one and two story stone houses. Many of them having been restored and brightly painted, housed fabulous antique shops, restaurants, cafes and boutiques on the ground floor.
“This,” she explained, “is the outer border of Psiri, an absolute insider tip, the new Plaka and where the Athenians go to shop, eat and party”. Then she continued to tell me the history.
In the beginning of the 19th century, many immigrants came from the island of Naxos and settled here. They were, in part, poor people and rather seedy ones too.
Psiri became home to the kontsavakides – a rather unsavory gang of pimps and criminals, distinguished by their drooping mustaches, boots with (very) pointed toes, wide sashes where weapons were concealed and jackets with one empty sleeve. Brothels, drugs, petty and not so petty crimes were the hallmark of Psiri. In 1893 the then prime minister put an end to that by taking drastic measures.
Psiri continued to be a rather modest working class neighborhood with leather workshops and tiny industries until about 15 years ago when a law was passed which triggered the gentrification of the entire area. Workshops gave way to shops and restaurants, and several buildings were divided into condos. Everything was prettied up considerably.
Psiri became famous for clubs and galleries which quickly replaced the popularity of tourist riddled Plaka. The district is now the favorite nightlife spot for locals and the few visitors who are in the know.
The first surprise, when we turned yet another corner was the Naxos Cheese and Lamb market. This particular street market is held only once a year, always the week before Easter. The people from the island of Naxos come over to sell their juicy cheeses, and prepare roast pieces of Easter lamb on the spot.
After having a few samples, my friend guided me to one of the most interesting restaurants I have ever been to. It’s called Oineas, and its owner is a passionate collector of everything to do with advertising and storing food during the 30s, 40s and 50s.
Going down to the restroom, another glass case contains vintage make-up and perfume bottles. Wherever the eye strays there are boxes, containers and posters, bottles and a lot more.
It is a living museum of everyday Greek life during the period.
The food is excellent. The squid is tender and the salad’s fresh; not to mention the tasty olive paste to be eaten with bread in between. I threw calorie counting to the wind and for 20 Euros each, we had about seven different dishes to share between us.
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Then it was time for coffee and my friend had another surprise in store for me.
She stopped in front of a nondescript wooden door set into a thick wall. Pushing it open, a traditional three-story Greek house was revealed.
It is a huge, canopied courtyard cafe with an art gallery on the upper floors. Inside of that, the stunning art is displayed in tiny rooms – kept in their original state – by Greek and international artists. The place is called Taf, and you would never find it if you don’t know about it.
During the day, Psiri is rather empt. It is nice because this allows you to admire the houses with their elaborately painted facades or browse in the many antique shops.
But at night – it’s hopping. You can listen to every type of music, visit the bars and nightclubs and mingle with the Greeks to your heart’s content.
My friend and I parted company after several hours. I was glad to have discovered a part of Athens I would not have known about on my own.
And, an added bonus was that my travel fatigue had vanished like a bad dream, leaving me happy and excited about the next day’s trip to Cap Sunion.