Athens' gritty beauty

Athens' gritty beauty

I am walking past a row of souvlaki restaurants in downtown Athens when a waiter, in a bid to draw me into his eatery, shouts: "Jackie Chan! Bruce Lee!"

I am amused, but seriously, call me Gong Li or Zhang Ziyi and maybe we can talk.

My husband and I are in the Greek capital on the last stop of our Greek holiday.

We have just arrived from the islands, where the azure seas segue into the cloudless blue skies at the horizon, and I am suffering from a bit of culture shock in Athens.

While Greece is known for its beautiful islands such as Santorini, reputedly one of the most romantic places in the world; and Mykonos, the Greek party island to rival Spain's Ibiza, Greece's capital Athens is the less glamorous sibling.

It is a gritty place. Many of its buildings are old and grey and graffiti rules the place.

But, as I discover, travellers should not be quick to dismiss the city as just a gateway to the outlying islands. Athens has its fair share of treasures.

Archaeology lovers will, of course, fully appreciate the Acropolis, the most important ancient site in the Western world and the accompanying glass-and-steel Acropolis Museum.

Then there is the Temple of Olympian Zeus, a place of worship dedicated to the king of the Greek gods; and the Ancient Agora marketplace, the heart of Athens in the time of philosophers Socrates and Plato.

But besides these leading landmarks, there are also many archaeological sites scattered across the city in unexpected places such as metro stations.

At Panepistimio metro station in town, for example, there is a permanent exhibition of relics excavated from large burial grounds during the station's construction.

Monastiraki station, near the Ancient Agora, also has a section with a glass bridge over the remains of ancient settlements, also discovered during the station's construction.

And if you are looking for a taste of island life in Athens, you might want to walk around Anafiotika, a small residential area tucked beneath the towering Acropolis.

This 19th-century neighbourhood was built by people from the tiny island of Anafi, who came to Athens to work.

Anafi is part of the Cyclades group of islands, which include Santorini and Mykonos.

The enclave is constructed in the typical Cycladic island-style of whitewashed houses with trims of electric blue and narrow winding alleys, some so tight only a child can pass through easily.

The lanes are lined with flower pots and cats snoozing on perimeter walls. A quick visit here is a pleasant interlude from the concrete trappings of town.

FOOD TOUR

And then there is the food.

I wanted to find out more about Greek food besides the usual moussaka, a casserole of eggplant layered with minced meat; and gyros, sliced grilled meat wrapped in a pita.

And for that, I sign up for a three-hour food walking tour with Athens Walking Tours (www. athenswalkingtours.gr; €49 or S$78 an adult, €43 a child), which will take us on an exploration of traditional Greek cuisine in places off the main tourist track in town.

The first thing I find out from our guide is that moussaka is not of Greek origins.

For that matter, neither is the name. The word is likely Arabic and many Middle Eastern countries have their own versions of the dish.

The moussaka myth busted, we set off on our walk led by a flaming redhead named Artemis, after the Greek goddess of forests and hills, the moon and archery. (An aside: There is also an Aristotle in the tour company's stable of guides. Big names to live up to.)

Our first stop is at a pushcart stall at a corner of a busy street, selling sesame seed-encrusted bread rings called koulouri.

But before we sample that, a quick quiz. "What do many Greeks have for breakfast?" asks Artemis.

We venture an answer. Greek yogurt? Cornflakes? Granola bars?

Artemis shakes her head.

"Coffee and cigarettes" is the answer - Greece has one of the highest number of smokers among European Union member states.

But, says Artemis, by mid- morning, people are starving and so they grab these koulouri as a late breakfast.

She buys a few from the stallholder, breaks them up into pieces and hands them to us.

The bread is delicious. Its crust is crispy and every bite fills my mouth with the fragrance of sesame. It tastes like the fried butterfly snack we get in Singapore, but minus the oil.

Next, we head to a shop which sells agricultural products from the Greek island of Crete, famous for its fertile lands and excellent climate.

We sample Cretan products such as thyme honey, cheese, three types of olives and, a surprising find, olive jam, which is like fruit jam, except with the fragrance of olives.

We also go to a spice shop, where I buy a pack of tea laced with saffron at €3 for a 50g bag ("ridiculously cheap", says Artemis); a cured meat shop where we sample pastourma, beef cured with spices and sliced paper-thin; and a loukoumades cafe for the Greek version of fried doughnuts that are slightly chewy and come with chopped nuts and syrup that oozes out when I bite into it.

There is also a fish, meat and vegetable market, which is not unlike Singapore's wet markets, except it is much bigger and everyone is shouting in Greek.

We end off with a lunch of gyros at a roadside eatery in rough- and-tumble but fast-gentrifying neighbourhood Psyrri, a short walk from shopping district Monastiraki.

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