Athens

Posted on June 15, 2010

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Now I have always loved  big cities, they seem to have a life of their own, almost like a living organism. Some areas are stronger than others, some weaker, or shall we say ‘poorer’. This does not mean that the poorer areas are  less interesting, in fact it can be quite the opposite and areas change from one era to the next. Take an area like Thisio for example, only a few years ago it was just a run down area on the other side of the Acropolis to Plaka  but the pedestrianisation of the road around the Acropolis changed that, and now its über  trendy with lots of  up market bars and  restaurants and should not be missed on a visit to Athens.
I remember looking down on this dusty area just before the second world war with Miller and Dural, the poet Katsimbalis and fellow travellers  the boogie woogie bugle boy himself Louis’ Satchel Mouth’ Armstrong and Blind Lemon Jefferson, we talked, drank and sang up a storm that night.

But I digress, back to the Athens of today. I don’t get there as often as I like,  maybe 2 or 3 times a year,  here is a run down of my last weekend there.

I am and always will be a creature of habit  so there are a few rituals I have to get under my belt, or at least try to,  such as taking flowers to Sleeping Girl but more of her later. One food ritual is eating at Café Avyssinia which is a beautiful cafe in the heart of the Monastiraki flea market. It is reminiscent a of a classic Parisian bistro and  it’s strange when you first walk in as you sort of look around and then feel that you should check back outside to see if Plataea Avyssinia has not changed into the rue de Rivolie.  On our first visit we perused the menu and found it slightly different from the Greek food we are used to, still homely but with a touch of sophistication.  For starters we ordered the marinated herring with the yogurt and dill dressing which was marinated in the classic French style and a complete knockout. The tarama which the waitress, who I later found out to be Ketty the owner, had suggested and she was not wrong, was very original and not the usual bright pink crap one gets dished up in many establishments around Greece, the only colour came from the lightly smoked mullet roe and  the flavour was smokey yet creamy at the same time with just a hint of acidity from the lemon – yummy.
For main  the Goddess had ordered the chicken in a tomato and coriander sauce,  it was succulent and fragrant at the same time. For myself, as it was lunch time and I’d had a lamb chop fest the previous evening, I had ordered just a side dish of grilled mushrooms, when they arrived the smell of garlic, mushrooms and the grill just with the hint of caramelized onions  was enticing to say the least and  they were Portabellos with the right amount of criss-cross from the gridle. I sawed a chunk off and bit down “ what the! what the! holy shit” the flavour was astonishing, quite simply the best plate of mushrooms I had ever tasted. This takes real talent – you can have the best, the most expensive ingredients in the world  then its easy,  but to coax this amount of flavour out of grilled mushrooms – that’s talent.  I told a vegetarian friend about the dish and on his next visit to Athens he tried them,  he later told me it was the best plate of food he had eaten in his life – now that’s what I call a compliment, no wonder I go back and back.

And so it’s the morning after and while the Goddess is shopping for beads I am heading for the Central Market  for breakfast. Now I love food markets no, love is too small a word, I belong in them, it’s where I feel whole, and the Central Market in Athens is one of my favorites; it has everything, one stall is just selling goat and sheep heads another ready-made kokaretsi.  I wander a few streets across and there are stall after stall selling  olives in all there guises,  then I am over to the fish stalls, the best bit for me, it’s so fresh, look at the bonito tuna they look like they have just this second leapt out of the sea onto the stall. If I lived in Athens I would shop here daily, but I’m not here for that I’m here to eat, so it’s into Taverna Papandreou and there is one dish and one dish only that I am here for – Patsa ( tripe soup ) the legendary hang over cure.  This place is open 24 hours and it’s now ten in the morning and the clubbers are gone but I look slightly out of place as I am one of  only a  few not wearing  market chic, what I would give for a white apron decorated with arterial spray. Oh well, anyway here comes the soup and it looks err well, not great, let’s have a go, hmm it’s really good; it’s mainly honey comb tripe which has been simmered with lambs feet and an avgo lemono sauce added at the death, the tripe has a texture I’m not sure about but the liquor is amazing, I can feel my thick head begin to lift.

We have arranged to meet on Adrianu street in front of the Ancient Agora. This street is full of cafes spilling out on to the pedestrianized road  but as usual in Athens you have to watch out for the motor  bikes and scooters who flaunt the law. This is one of my favorite places just to people watch and I find the Goddess at  To Kouti – it’s the kind of boho chick joint she likes.   She is sipping a cafe freddo, I order a frappe medium with fresh milk not evaporated, I tell her about my break fast and she pretends to gag, she tells me about the beautiful beads she has found and I pretend to be interested.

For lunch  we went to a little place I found, again near the Central Market. It’s got no sign above the door, it’s in a cellar, and you have to climb down  a ladder to get in to the place, and I have not climbed down a ladder to a dining room since the blitz. It’s on the corner of Socratus and Theatrou and I had not mentioned about the ladder untill we get there but with some cajoling she finally relents. There are barrels on one wall and wine is produced as soon as we sit down. There is no menu and the very distinguished looking owner takes us in to the kitchen to show us what is on the stove and in the oven, I go for the pork fricassee and the Goddess for red mullet and a plate of horta ( wild greens). For the centre chips also arrive without being asked for, but they are sprinkled with sea salt and oregano. It’s a bit like a working mans canteen this place, in fact the Goddess is the only woman,  the food is the real deal – we will eat here again.

So it’s the last day and I have to perform another ritual: I pop in a flower shop to buy a bunch of freesias and go to the First National cemetery – it’s full of tall cypress trees, the Greeks say the trees help the soul ascend to heaven. This place is like all great cemeteries – full of mini grand architecture from different periods, but I am not here to linger but just to visit Sleeping Girl,  the resting place of Sofia Afentaki.  It’s hard to even look a her because she looks like she is having a siesta on a day-bed, she looks like you could  give her a nudge and she would sit up and shake her sleepy head. The sculptor Yannoulis Chalapas went mad shortly after finishing her, I thing he  just got too close. She was taken so young with so much missed promise,  more than any other tomb I have ever visited you can  feel the spirit of the person it belongs to, so I tell her,  of my life since I last visited, and of the world in general, leave my flowers and a promise to come back soon. I walk away blinking into the bright sunlight.

For me, as you would expect its the food that defines Athens and one food in particular, souvlaki.  Here food seems like it’s the life blood of the city, this I think is because the Greeks eat out a lot and the Athenians more than most. You can get souvlaki in Athens 24/7  unlike Robert Duval who in apocalypse now said “ I love the smell of napalm in the morning”  me, I love the smell of souvlaki in the evening especially in Athens .  And Its something to do with eating such a simple dish with a view the Acropolis; she sits lit in the center always around the next corner, she’s  like a beautiful woman in a room full of men, it’s like she has Athens on a leash  but the smell of the grill grounds her totally. She is not only a rich man’s feast but she is to be enjoyed by all,  and lets not forget that Athens is over crowded, there is always’s a buzz, the chatter, the chink of glasses, the laughter,  the knock of Komboloi.
As the mixture of our three most powerful senses come in to play, the view up to the Acropolis, the smell of freshly lemonated  souvlaki, and the back ground chatter,  everything comes together in perfect unison – this for me is the essence of Athens.

We stop for one last drink before our drive back to the Mani at a cafe at the foot of the Acropolis, it’s the sort of place that young suited and booted Athenians come after work to people watch and flirt and there is the soft pulse of chill out music just at the right level. Then from nowhere I get an odd sensation, my heart skips a beat,  the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end  and I know there is a fellow traveller near. I scan the crowd  and can’t see anyone, but then the Goddess squeezes my hand and draws my attention to the waitress walking towards us, it’s her, her hair and make up look like Cleopatra drawn by Manga comics.  She is wearing Levi’s, sandals and an off-the- shoulder tee shirt that just has one word on the front ‘Virgin’. Her and the Goddess hug like long-lost sisters and every body stares at their long embrace but I still can’t place her. She goes to take our order on the palm pilot but then stops and says “I’ll just bring something good”.  They are both giggling hysterically now at my confusion so while she is away I press the Goddess for info but this just makes her double up with laughter. Our drinks arrive and the waitress, still smiling,  announces that she has to work now, gives the Goddess a hug then winks at me and says  ” see you around …”, here she uses a name I have not been called for a long long time  and it all falls in to place. I should have got it from the tee shirt in a blink! I take a sip of nectar and look up  where I can  see the temple they built to worship her over 2000 years ago…….

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