Although I’m a Pagrati girl to the core, every once in awhile I get a chance to go on vacation in Athens, heading across the historical center, and landing at a lovely, romantic Neo-Classical home just off the Grand Promenade which wraps around the Acropolis and Ancient Agora.
Recently we spent three days and three nights in Thisseio, visiting our longtime favorite restaurants, and exploring parts of the neighborhood we didn’t know so well. It was an activity packed, food filled midweek break that reminded me of what a great base Thisseio makes for exploring the heart of Ancient Athens, while still experiencing the culture and gastronomy that makes Athens an amazing place.
We arrived just before noon and immediately set out for the Acropolis Museum. Since we’re staying just a block off of one of Athens finest walking areas, we choose to journey on foot to the Acropolis Museum and the Acropolis, rather than heading to the nearby Thisseio metro station (and besides, we’d need to transfer to get to the Acropolis metro station, and the day was so lovely ….
Our walk took us along the “Grand Promenade” otherwise known as Apostolou Pavlou pedestrian walk. Once a wide, fast road circumventing the Acropolis and Ancient Agora, thanks to the vision of the actress and former Minister of Culture, Melina Merkouri, the street is now a peaceful, elegant, cobblestone paved pezodromo or pedestrian only road (well, in truth, it isn’t lined with cobblestone, but with blocks of Naxos gneiss and slabs of Tinos marble, and though it was quiet on this sunny late autumn afternoon, by nightfall it will be packed with people, mostly Athenians, with the random, savvy tourist). The promenade is lined with cafes and a few restaurants, an outdoor cinema, and within a few minutes we leave behind the sounds of the cafes and music, finding ourselves before the Sanctuary of Pan (on our right), and a bit further on, at the base of Pnyx Hill we discover some caves, which we learn are the springs of the Pnyx. As we continue, to our left we have a chance to view the mosaic floor amidst the greenery in the Agora park … we’ve marveled at this intricate design before, but almost always at night. It was nice to have a better look at it in daylight.
Somewhere along our journey Apostolou Pavlou converges with Dionysiou Areopagitou street, and here we entered Athen’s verson of Disneyworld, where coach tour buses and taxis perform an auto-batic ballet, pausing to let out daytrippers from cruiseships and Athens city tour guests. We left them to explore the Acropolis en masse and headed off to the right, where uphill a bit we checked out the 60s style restaurant on the hill to the right, Dionysios, which has been taken over by the reincarnated once and now again famous Zonar’s (an Athens landmark, recently reopened in the Attica shopping mall on Venizelou street off Syntagma, but that’s another post), where the price of a cup a coffee comes with a terrific view of the Acropolis (or rather, you pay for the Acropolis view that comes with your coffee).
Rested from our short but slightly uphill walk, our journey continues past the Herod Atticus Theater on our left, and a hodge podge of architecturally interesting and rather plain buildings, most notable being the controversial “Vangelis” building, owned by the acclaimed composer (famous for the Chariots of Fire music), which the powers that be in Athens wanted to raise because they claimed it impeded the views from the New Museum. Having personally opposed the destruction of one of Athens few remaining Art Deco Buildings, I was pleased to see, in place of the clipboard with the petition Basil and I had once signed, a notice celebrating the court victory that has allowed the building to remain. The building has some interesting detail work, and I wondered if the typical, non Athenian passing by realizes that this gem barely escaped the wrecking ball (just as I wonder each time I stand in the Acropolis Museum and look out toward the Acropolis whether any of the visitors to the museum are at all bothered by this building, or do they simply marvel at the object of their visit?)
Just after Vangelis’ home and studio (hmm, now I wonder, does it have another name?) is the stairway leading to the museum’s entrance.
The Acropolis museum is, in a word, fantastic. I love the building, both inside and out, the collections, how they are displayed, and I love the New Acropolis Museum Café and Terrace for its healthy budget friendly menu and its views. I need not say more (but of course, I have).
Leaving the Acropolis museum we headed across the pedestrian walkway, and then up the stairs to our right for an attempted peak at the Herod Atticus Theater. We weren’t allowed access, but no matter, we’ve been to many a concert there, and will certainly visit again in the summer during the Athens Festival, so we’d get inside again eventually. There’s also a nice vantage point looking down into it from atop the Acropolis for those not lucky enough to go to a concert.
From the Herodion theater the path wraps around to the Acropolis entrance. Day trippers and buses mostly (but not all, they are never all gone from the Acropolis) … we slowly climbed the steps upward to and through the Propylea, the entrance to the Acropolis which brings the Parthenon into full view. After spending about 2 hours revisiting the temples (no matter how many times I see them, I still get goosebumps), we wandered back down toward Dionysios Areopagitou street and enjoyed the slightly downhill walk back toward Thisseio.
In Thisseio, you’re never more than a few dozen meters from a café, and although it was by typical American standards it was already dinner time, by Greek standards we were still in the ice cream and/or coffee time zone, so we opted for a visit to Café Chocolate on Apostolou Pavlou Street. Heading to the roof via the elevator and the stairs, we managed to nab a window seat where we were in time for the sunset (you won’t get a sunset over the Parthenon from this angle, but all that marble does magnificent things awash in the setting sun.
After a stop back at our Thissieo home base just off of the pedestrian zone, we settled on dinner at Kuzina, after which we join the Athenians who have returned to this newly revitalized area en masse, in their evening stroll, a volta, through the recently pedestrianized park that runs from Thisseio to Gazi/Keramikos.
We returned to our historical home just after midnight, it was a long and fulfilling first day in Thisseio.
Morning in Thisseio is like any morning in a small town in Greece. The quiet streets wake up slowly, merchants raise their rolling shutters and unlock their gated windows, cafes workers move about quietly delivering coffees carried on traditional “diskos”, a round pyramid like tray designed for ferrying drinks and food about. The manavis, or grocer from the small Naxos market on Poulopoulou street sweeps the sidewalk in front of his store while the bookseller on Irakleidon street sets up a small table of bargain books out front of his shop. Although we have a kitchen and lovely garden to enjoy, we opt for visiting the bakery on Poulopoulou a couple of doors from the Naxos store where we select a variety of pitas, and a tyganopsomo (cheese bread) and head for the square on Apostolou Pavlou street where we can gaze at the Parthenon over coffee and breakfast.
It’s easy to wile away the day over coffee in Athens, but today we’re heading to the Haridimos Shadow Puppet Workshop inside the Melina Mercouri Cultural Center on Herakleidon Street. If we’re lucky, our visit will coincide with a school field trip, in which case we’ll sit in the back while the children are treated to a traditional Shadow Puppet performance by Sotiris Haridimos. Our luck isn’t perfect on this day, but we do spend a great deal of time with the puppets themselves, and a puppetmaster gives us a brief lesson in performance, first as an audience, and then from behind the screen, where we learn the secret to keeping your own shadow out of the light, along with the history of shadow puppetry and the case of characters Basil grew up knowing and loving as a child in Greece.
Upstairs from the Workshop the city has created a replica of an Athenian neighborhood at the turn of the last century. Exploring this exhibit fit nicely with our stay in this neighborhood full of neo-classical architecture.
Leaving the Cultural Center we walk back down Herakleidon street, as it turns back into a mostly pedestrianized street, though the old streetcar trackes remain in the cobblestone path, until we reach Amfiktyonos Street, where we hang a right to Nileos Street (it’s only a couple of hundred feet, narey even a Chicago city block) where we find a table at Gevomai kai Magevomai. This indoor only dining spot is frequently by locals and people working in the area and serves freshly prepared Greek “cooked” dishes for lunch and dinner.
We’re just around the corner from our next stop, Herakleidon, Experience in Visual Arts. This private museum tucked away off of the main Apostolou Pavlou pedestrian street, on narrow Herakleidon street houses its own marvelous Escher collection, but until January 29th 2012 they have a special exhibit, Sol LeWitt, LINE AND COLOR” . The museum is worth a visit to see a marvelously restored neo-Classical, as well as to learn a little (or a lot) about the artistic genius of M.C. Escher and other artists when they have special exhibits. We manage to get out of the museum before closing time, but not before we drop some euro on a couple of interesting Escher inspired puzzles.
Walking back out onto Herakleidon street from the peacefulness of the museum we find the cafes which earlier in the day seemed quaint and quiet have now awoken. Those on this first block off of Apostolou Pavlou are pulsating with music, Greek techno and American dance music fill this narrow walkway going toward the square, and the tables are full of very young Athenians, so we opt for the other direction, in hopes of finding something a bit quieter. We’re duly rewarded within a few moments, as we cross back past the bookseller, and find a table at Morphi Café. Here we feel a bit more in place, amongst the slightly more mature crowd, a couple with a dog and a toddler arrive and take a table nearby, while a group of 40 something women chat over drinks while nibbling on a plate of mezedes. Across the way on one of the cushioned sofas a smallish blond dog relaxes. While the area we’d just left takes me back to Chicago’s Rush street in the 80’s, this part of Irakleidon street reminds me more of Rogers Park. We’re not ready for dinner or mezedes yet, but it’s a nice relaxing spot to relax over coffee (or a drink).
Dinner on day 2 (wow, it’s still only day 2?) is an old favorite: Steki tou Elias is tucked away behind the church on Eptachalkou Street. It’s still summer time, so they’ve got their tables out behind the church – or in front of the smaller church, depending on your point of view. Lucky for us no one told Elias that everyone in the neighborhood was greeting us with that all too familiar sign of winter, “Kalo Heimona” or “Happy Winter”, else he’d start putting his tables back inside (though the food is just as good in the winter Elias’ barrel filled taverna across the street.)
Tonight we head back “early”, time to enjoy a nightcap in our own private garden and review the days events. While Basil and I don’t have postcards to write, our traveling companions, actual visitors from outside of Greece, do have some cards they’d like to post, and of course, we all have email to check, so our full from our feast of paidakia (grilled lamb chops) and glowing from Elias’ house Lefko Xima (white wine) we take one last short stroll through the square to bid good night to the Parthenon before heading home.
After breakfast in our garden, we set out to find the bridge that crosses over the railroad tracks from Eptachalkou street towards Keramikos, the Ancient Cemetery (yes, the Greeks gave us the word cemetery, it comes from the Greek “Kee-mee-teario”. It was actually at a café in Thissieo with some Athenian and Greek American friends about 10 years ago where I finally made the connection between the two words, and more recently that I made the connection between the word for “sleeping”, or kee-mee-thow and the word for cemetery, so it is fitting that my visit to the Ancient Cemetery coincide with my stay in Thisseio. It’s a great, laid back site, from its simple museum (think, only one of each item as opposed to an entire room of the same types of vessels) to its peaceful, pastoral setting. Bordering on outdoor sculpture park, this archeological site sits just far enough away from the tourist trapped Acropolis and Agora to stay mostly free of day trippers, thus managing to keep its character as a sacred passageway straddling the entrance to the Ancient City of Athens and the Sacred Way, Iera Odos.
From Keramikos we cut left where Ermou splits off to the right and Melidoni Street cuts left. We’re stopping to visit the city of Athens two remaining synagoges (I wouldn’t be a very good wandering Jewess if I were this close and didn’t stop by Beth Shalom Synagogue and … light a candle? Yes, although in our American Jewish tradition we light candles only on anniversaries of a loved one’s death, Greek Jews seem to have adapted the Christian Orthodox practice of lighting a candle, or an oil lamp each time they enter the synagogue. ) There’s also the new Holocaust memorial nearby in the triangle bordered by Ermou, Melidoni and Evoulou streets, a large, stone Star of David which memorializes those lost to the Holocaust.
Shortly before 1 PM we’re wandering the narrow, gritty streets of Psirri, too early for lunch, instead we are in search of the koulouri bakery for a mid-morning (?) snack to give us enough energy to continue on our journey toward Athenas street. Munching our sesame covered donut shaped breadsticks, we wander randomly around corners, Psirri is a street art gallery, we marvel at the creative graffiti that decorates this neighborhood and wonder what most tourists think as they head for the upscale hotels like Ochre and Brown and Fresh Hotel after dark. In early afternoon the streets are brimming with workers: a carpenter refinishes antiques on the street outside his shop; a rug merchant beats the dust from his wares hanging outside and two metal workers lean against a wall sipping frappes and contemplating whether those are rain clouds in the sky or not. We’re headed for lunch at Notos Home Gallery, where we’ll rub elbows with Athenians in the know, mostly area office workers, and shoppers taking a break. Not a tourist in site, we grab a table outside on the terrace just as the server is moving tables inward to avoid the impending rainfall. Fortunately the rain is light, so we remain under cover on the terrace enjoying the view and munching our curry chicken baguettes and mixed green salad.
Heading down from the café we stop to view an interesting piece of artwork, it’s actually a replica of a piece created for the Olympics entired Athens – Bejing. It’s a fitting installation for this home furnishings department store to have, given their location on Athenas Street, at the edge of Kotzia Square, across from Athens City Hall and midway between Omonia and Monastiraki Squares. This is the part of the city where most immigrants start, and depending on your point of view, it’s either a spice filled, richly diverse pot of flavorful stew or a kettle of soup on the verge of boiling over. The art installation pays homage to the immigrant experience, and Basil commented when viewing it that it wasn’t really clear what the differences were in the images cards on the crumpled sheets of shiny stainless steel. I think, possibly, that was the point.
From Notos Home we wander toward the backside of Kotzia Square, to view the excavations beneath the main Emporiki (Commercial) Bank. We swing back around, coming down Evripidou Street, and then back on to Athenas street for a walk through the Central Market. Things are starting to die down, the fishmongers are beginning to clean up, but the nut and candy vendors are still open, so we pick up a bag of Aegina pistachios and continue heading back towards Monastiraki Square, where we peer down at the ancient river and excavations in the metro station below the Square. I was amazed to see water flowing through it, alas, the bonus we got for putting up with a rain shower earlier in the day (a very rate occurance in September in Athens!). We decided to duck into the station below to take a closer look.
We haven’t had a cup of java since the morning, and TAF, the Art Foundation (Normonou 5, Monastiraki), opened at 7 PM, just about the time we came up from the underground archeological site otherwise known as the Monastiraki Sqaure metro station. Housed in a really rundown looking 1870’s NeoClassical in a tiny street in Monastiraki, it’s a gallery – café – club, depending on the time of day you visit. We got there early enough that it was still quiet (we would pass by later at night and it would be packed with very beautiful people, and very loud music). The courtyard, early in the evening, is a pleasant escape (don’t be deterred by the ramshackle building, inside it is all built out).
Our last night in Thissieo, we decide it’s time to head to adjacent Ano Petralona. We could walk, but its uphill, so we’ll ride the spanking new, old metro line and walk back. Hopping on the metro at Thisseio station, we go one stop to Petralona. Here we disembark and head left (in the direction the train was taking us), and look for Drorieon Street which we follow for two blocks until we reach Troon Street. This street is full of locally favored tavernas and ouzeries, lining Troon street around the art film movie theater, Zephyr. We actually turned off the main drag and found a table at Therapefterio.
Our walk home takes us down slightly uphill on Troon street, where we follow our noses through the smell of jasmine in the mild night air, past old stone homes, reminiscent of another time and place, like an old village in the city center, just another tucked away Athens neighborhood, beyond the Acropolis.