Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Tuesday 28 April 2009

The meaning of life (Το νόημα της ζωής)

During one of my wild web-surfing stints, the kind where one page leads you to another and then onto another and yet another, until you forget what it was you were initially looking for, or how you came across the page that you find yourself on at that moment, I landed on an article in the Huffington post by Alex Pattakos. I didn't know who he was when I initially read the article, but I did like the sound of his name: Pattakos reminded me of some of the children I taught when I was working in Paleohora where it was a familiar surname, and in Crete, we have this rather annoying overly nepotistic habit of remembering people by the name they carry and all the family traits that the name implies.

dr meaning alex pattakos

The article was quite short, but there was one brief paragraph in this text that made an instant impression on me:

"... [If you] haven't figured out the ethnic origin of my last name, 'Pattakos,' let me help you. It's Greek. And importantly, it's Cretan! Proudly, I can also say that the Pattakos clan, whose roots are deeply embedded in the "soul" of Crete, has been actively engaged in the political arena throughout Crete's history, long before it became an official part of Greece...."

This statement makes a profound impact; Crete, a small island in the Mediterranean Sea (in actual fact, the fifth largest in the Mediterranean), with about 350,000 inhabitants living on 8,335 square kilometres of space, is being singled out from Greece, an opinion that has also grown on me over the years while I have been living here. It reminded me of a very poignant moment in my life, one which I do not often recall these days. This moment in my life had been packed away in my mind all this time; Alex's words flushed it all back up to the surface.

the ferry boat in port at souda bay
The view of the ferry boat from the balcony of our home

Having left New Zealand in September of 1991, I arrived in Greece, after spending three months travelling through Western Europe. I had already been warned about what Athens was like: dusty, hot, crowded and polluted; I found it no different. Two weeks later in early October, I boarded the overnight ferry boat from the port of Pireas to Crete. When I woke up the next morning, I could not believe what I was seeing: I instantly fell in love with the sight of the green hills visible from Souda Bay, the ferry port of Hania. After my first visit into the town, I wondered how it was that I had found paradise; surely this place should have been found out by others before me long ago. How on earth did my own ancestors bear to leave it in the first place?

Alex Pattakos may be American, but he takes great pride in his grandparents' island origins which are steeped in the history of human civilisation. He even shares the facial features of my own ancestors; anyone who knows enough of the Cretan race will instantly recognise his appearance as Cretan: his height, the white hair and the thick moustache are unmistakeable characteristics of a veritable Cretan face (in fact, he looks incredibly like my dad). Alex connected with his family roots in Crete only relatively recently, and even got the chance to dance like Zorba the Greek, a dance that he says:

"helped my ancestors and their fellow Cretans not become 'prisoners of their thoughts,' even when they were prisoners of foreign powers." (In her past, Crete has been under Venetian, Egyptian and Turkish rule before gaining independence at the end of the nineteenth century and joining the newly formed Greek state.)

.hania chania old port venetian harbour lighthouse hania chania
The evening started off like this... and ended like this.

At the end of the article, Alex invited readers to share their experiences about their kind of "dance", if and how they have connected with their ancestors, and how such a connection has been meaningful for them. His origins also form a central theme in his book Prisoners of our Thoughts. He was visiting Crete recently, and I had the chance to meet him in person. Our common heritage put great meaning into our life, despite the different paths we took to find it. In essence, our roots play similar roles in our life. If we had not found them and made a tangible link to them - of which, as Alex recognises, even food plays an important part, after experiencing his first Greek Easter on the island - we would still be feeling that sense of emptiness that overtakes one when there is nothing to fall back on, when the material world loses its importance and contentment can only be reached by a tangible link to the land and people that breathed life into you.

Economic crisis? Personal crisis? Identity crisis?
Forget the material world and come and solve all your problems here.

A meal at Monastiri by the old harbour near the former mosque, with a view of the lighthouse in the former Venetian port, was a perfect place to talk about how our present life is linked to our past, how we both eventually connected to our roots and how ingrained they are in us, whether we (are lucky to) live in Crete or far away from it. I've been to Monastiri restaurant many times and have never been disappointed. (In fact, this is the only place I go to at the harbour, if that is any endorsement.)

monastiri taverna hania chania
Monastiri taverna at the Venetian harbour in Hania, the dome of the former mosque barely showing in the background.

At my instigation, Alex and his wife Elaine Dundon tried (and loved wholeheartedly) marathopita and boureki; apart from well-cooked traditional Cretan meals, Monastiri also serves monastic twists (as the name of the restaurant suggests) with a shocking appeal, such as: Sin, The Nun's Mistake and Little Devil. The meal finished with some cheese and honey pies (Sfakianes pites) and a shot of tsikoudia, the locally brewed fiery alcoholic spirit.

sfakiani pita and tsikoudia raki haniachania

Sfakianes pites
and ice-cold raki (tsikoudia)

The evening was cool and calm, the harbour was full of people; as the early diners (the tourists) left their seats, the restaurants would fill up with more hungry people (Greeks always dine much later than the tourists). A relaxed atmosphere always whets the apetite. The tables at the edge of the harbour were all full, as everyone wanted to enjoy the best view of the eternal icon of Venetian harbour of Hania, the lighthouse, which never fails to please. The view from the restaurant and the peaceful atmosphere of the people strolling around the port in the middle of the evening was enough for Alex and me to put all the meaning we needed into our life, a meaning that cannot be expressed in words; it was as if this place, our island, had helped us to make peace with ourselves.

Thanks to Global Greek World; I finally realised it was this site that led me to Alex!

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Saturday 25 April 2009

ANZAC biscuits (Μπισκόττα για τους στρατιώτες)

And here's the grand finale of my family's recent adventures in Athens.

Two years ago on the 25th of March, we found ourselves in London, and we did what all good Greeks would do on that day, even if they find themselves outside Greece: we attended the church service in the Greek Orthodox Church Of Agia Sofia in Bayswater. The 25th of March is a dual celebration for Greek people: it is both a religious holiday (the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary) and a national holiday (Independence from the Ottoman regime in 1821); hence, it is considered the most important national celebration.

This year, we found ourselves in the centre of Athens on that same day, not a particularly good one for ticking things off a list of things that you intended to do in Athens on a limited stay: everything is closed, as well as blocked off. On this day in Athens, the most important military parade of the year takes place immediately after the church service ends between two of the most central squares in the city: Syntagma (Constitution Square) and Omonoia (the Greek version of Times Square, translating to "Place de la Concorde"). The parade in Athens takes place rather differently from the other parades that take place around the country (and every town, village and suburb has its own parade on that day). Normally, schoolchildren are part of the parade, but because Athens is the capital city of Greece, the parade takes place over two days: on the eve of the celebration, the schoolchildren take part in their own parade, while the next day is devoted to the military parade, a state-organised event. Never being a fan of displays of nepotism, I felt my last day in Athens would go wasted.

Children were waving the Greek flag; this kind of display of patriotism was never a part of my Kiwi upbringing. A black man - well, he was very black, nothing compared to the skin colour normally encountered in Greece - was selling flags on the street; I bought two for my children. I felt out of place here. But what were half the spectators feeling, who weren't even Greek? Some had the distinct features of a different race, notably skin colour; the darker shades were probably from Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan (at least that's what Landomircales claims they are), while the paler blonder spectators were probably Eastern Europeans, judging by the language they were speaking; is Greece more multi-cultural than people are willing to admit? One reason why so many non-Greeks attended the parade is that the area around Omonoia Square is infamously a migrants' hangout (whether legal or illegal), especially once the sun sets.

CIMG6729Align Centre
A lot of anti-immigrant leaflets were being handed around during the parade; this is only one example: "The country is being given away for free to foreigners and international interests;
Real estate agents: Greek political parties". In Hania, things are less damning for the economic migrants, but racist undertones still exist, mainly in the classified ads of the local newspaper, along the lines of: "Apartment to rent. Not for foreigners", or "Barman/woman wanted - must be εμφανίσιμη - emfanisimi' (good looking) - only Greeks should apply."

There are many things being said about the presence of foreigners in Athens and the rest of the country. Generally speaking, people don't have a lot of nice things to say about them. It is common practice all over the world to despise, criticise and look down on people who may be seen as uninvited guests, a kind of invading force in an old established country with a racial homogeneity of more than 90%. Having been raised in a liberally-minded country, I find it highly egotistical to think of a supreme race of Greek citizens that does not include people of all colours, especially since Greeks themselves migrated to and were welcomed by different countries all over the world for economic reasons. Legal migrants sound like a good idea to populate a country that has a very low birth rate. Unfortunately, a high number of these people are illegal immigrants, and the state is clearly not doing anything about it; the lax authorities are the ones who should be rounded up and punished.

*** *** ***
We managed to catch up with the parade just as the last army vehicle passed by (a tank), followed by some kind of vessel used by the Navy. A few police cars and motorcycles then drove by slowly enough for everyone to show their despise of authority; only half a dozen people clapped (I may be over-estimating). I'm sure these guys do their best, but sadly, their best is simply not enough these days to defeat the increasing crime rate in the capital of Greece. Not a day passes that we don't hear about a murder, mugging, attack or some other ill taking place in various parts of the capital, more so now than at any other time in the history of modern Athens.

Planes flying in formation over Omonoia Square

A long time seemed to pass without anything happening on the street. That was when we heard the sound of an overhead roar as planes flew in formation above our heads. We could only catch glimpses of them as they suddenly appeared in between the small open spaces enclosed by the tall buildings around the square. During this quiet spell in the parade, I was able to observe my surroundings a little more closely. Glued to the wall in the most prominent places (building walls, signposts, etc) were proclamations against the presence of foreigners. Leaflets were scattered below our feet expressing similar opinions. The foreigners (many of them) walking up and down the street paid little attention to the flyers and posters denouncing them; they probably couldn't read Greek.

After what seemed like ages, we finally heard some band music making its way towards us. This was when things picked up and became more exciting. The sight of the young men and women looking very smart in their uniforms caused a flutter in the hearts of most of the spectators. Everyone clapped their hardest as soldiers marched with stern faces down the street. These people are in the prime of their youth, and it is a well-known fact that they are in charge of looking after the borders of our country, a job they do very well. By watching the parade, I felt that I had seen our guardians close up, as if I had personally met them. There were even a few black men marching in Greek military uniform, a noteworthy point if anyone wants to argue for a homogeneous Greek race, or debate whether black people should or should not be living in Greece.

My husband recalled the years he spent marching in the parade. Being tall for his age, he was always part of the national day parades during his school years in Hania, which also continued in his three-year army stint at bootcamp. He particularly remembers the antics of his fellow soldiers who weren't taking part in the parade, but were simply watching from the side of the road. They had filled their pockets with pebbles and small stones, and would toss them at the metal hats of the paraders when no one was looking. Clink, clink, clink all the way home.

CIMG6769 CIMG6760
Don't they look smart?
CIMG6757 CIMG6763

An unexpected twist was my daughter's reaction to the parade. She was impressed by the many women also marching and expressed a desire to be the proud wearer of one of those uniforms; it was hard to choose just one! (A career in the military still sounds too regimental to me.)

The moment in the parade which received the most applause was when a group of special forces walked by chanting loudly:
Έχω μια 'δερφή! (I have a sister!)
Ειν' αληθινή! (She's genuine!)
Μακεδονία την λένε (Her name's Makedonia)
και την αγαπώ πολύ! (and I love her very much!)

I abhor nationalism, but I couldn't help feeling slightly moved myself at this point.

*** *** ***
At the end of the parade, we joined the masses of people leaving the parade, forming an orderly queue, except that at the end of the line, there was nothing to take.

CIMG6768 CIMG6770
No one stopped this fellow from joining in the fun;
at the end of the parade, the spectators walked behind the last marching band group.

Everyone looked as though they had somewhere to go, even on a day like this one when there was nowhere to go. Athenians don't smile much on the street, but not because they are unfriendly; the city has become a bit of a hell-hole for the ordinary citizens who live and work there on a daily basis. Ask an Athenian for directions, and you'll get them; if they see you carrying a heavy suitcase, they'll help you. The fact that Athens has lost its 'safe house' status in just the last few months has made the inhabitants weary. They are tired of being savaged by the traffic, roadworks, strikes, protests, pollution, slow or non-functional transport system, and generally, the fear of not knowing what one will encounter when they venture out of their house to go to work or get a job done.

It was an eerie feeling walking amongst so many people in central Athens, while all the shops were closed. It was as if the parade hadn't finished; everyone marched away in quick steps - no dawdling around the streets of Omonoia. It was almost lunchtime, and we were all thinking about food, not because we were particularly hungry, but because food forms a central part of a holiday experience. So we began to look for a cosy place to sit down and eat. The weather was moderate but cloudy. Not being locals ourselves, we moved in the direction of Psiri, a popular area for eating out in central Athens.

I like to wander through narrow side streets away from main routes; a bit of sightseeing off the beaten track. We turned off the main road and eventually found ourselves in Evripidou St, close to the central fruit and vegetable market in Athens. As it was a holiday, nothing was open, but there were still throngs of people walking along the road. At one point, we ran into a large group of black men, no women, no children, just men, black men, lots of them, maybe too many for such an old narrow street in central Athens. Our presence there looked out of place; we turned away from this crowd in search of something more familiar to us.

evripidou st athens
At one time, this may have been a very grand mansion; now it is an earthquake risk sitting in a central position on Evripidou Street. Where are its owners to give it some TLC?

I don't normally feel intimidated when I find myself among people of a different race or colour, but this situation didn't feel right; it actually felt ridiculous. Evripidou St is normally a busy commercial district with a bustling market atmosphere, reviving memories of old Greek films with its narrow pavements which the store owners use to display goods. It is also filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Despite its significance, it is one of the filthiest streets in central Athens. Derelict buildings look as though they are about to give way any minute (not a good place to be in during an earthquake).

We continued walking, making for Athinas Road, which would eventually lead us into the tourist's haven, Monastiraki, sitting below the Acropolis. On our way there, a well-built blond man bedecked in leather with a highly pierced face (there were holes filled with silver bits all over it) asked us in perfect Greek if we could give him some money, 'even 50 cents is OK', he said. Maybe it was the time of day, or because we were a family, that we didn't get mugged. Children act as a protective sheath in a family-oriented nation like Greece. If we had been mugged that day, it would probably have been by one of our own kind.

We carried on our way (without giving the junkie any money), and finally met up with all the tourists in the Monastiraki area, who had taken up most of the outdoor seats in the eateries there. We managed to squeeze in at Thanasis kebab house, a carnivore's paradise. That was the wrong food for the day; food on the 25th of March in Greece is traditionally associated with fish, not meat, as it always occurs during the Great Lent of Easter. The kebabs were delicious nonetheless, but at this point, I was glad I was going home.

*** *** ***

I know it's not the 25th of March today; it's the 25th of April, ANZAC Day, a public holiday down under, commemorating the contribution of the Australian and New Zealand 'diggers' who fought in Gallipoli, T
urkey, in the Great War, what we commonly refer to nowadays as World War One. ANZAC biscuits were created during this period to send to the soldiers fighting for the cause. Since they contain ingredients that do not spoil easily (these cookies do not contain eggs), they could survive the journey half way across the world. Both New Zealand and Australia claim rights to the original recipe. As the word 'ANZAC' is heavily loaded with nationalistic feelings, it cannot be used with any other biscuit that does not resemble the original recipe. This is a rare form of censorship coming from a very liberally minded country like New Zealand, a clear sign that the military is not to be taken lightly anywhere.

For 30 biscuits, you need:
1 cup flour (I found I needed at least 1 1/2 cups to get the right biscuit dough texture)
1 cup sugar

1 cup rolled oats
(I used a muesli mixture instead)
1 cup desiccated coconut
(I didn't have any in my pantry when I made these cookies, so I used extra muesli - they are much crispier and tastier with coconut, even though this ingredient was added to the recipe more than a decade after ANZAC biscuits first appeared)
175 grams butter (I used margarine)
2 tablespoons golden syrup (a uniquely colonial ingredient)
1 teaspoon vanilla essence (in Greece, vanilla sugar is sold in small vials)
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons boiling water

reheat the oven to 180C. Lightly grease 1 or 2 baking trays or line with baking paper. In a large bowl, sift flour with a good pinch of salt. Stir in the sugar, rolled oats and coconut and make a well in the centre. Add the melted butter, golden syrup and vanilla essence together. Dissolve the baking soda in the boiling water. Mix into the melted butter and quickly pour into the well.

anzac biscuits CIMG6956
ANZAC biscuits - lest we forget

Mix all ingredients together quickly. Roll tablespoonfuls of the mixture into balls and place on the prepared trays, leaving some space for them to spread out. Flatten them with the tines of a floured fork. Bake 12-15 minutes until the biscuits have spread, cracked attractively on the top and turned a reddish-brown colour. Let them cool (best to use a cake rack); they will harden as they cool. Store in an airtight container.

Colonial New Zealand recipes tend to contain very basic ingredients. It took a long time for imported products to reach the early European settlers in New Zealand, so people relied on more basic ingredients when they first started creating home-grown recipes. The recipe I used to make these ANZAC biscuits comes from New Zealander Allyson Gofton's collection, with slight variations (thanks to my cousin for the recipe). These biscuits are very tasty. Nothing like a Greek koulouraki, but probably much better for you than the average Greek sweet, as they don't contain eggs. The golden syrup sweetens them quite a bit and helps them to keep their shape once they have hardened. They are also very easy and quick to make and bake, reflecting the carefree nonchalant (albeit at times overly politically correct) New Zealand attitude to life, the universe and everything. My absolute favorite New Zealand biscuits are gingernuts and afghans.

gingernuts afghans
Top: gingernuts (left), afghans (right).
Bottom: pavlova

Talking about New Zealand sweets, let's not forget the great New Zealand pavlova - unbeatably refreshing in the hot weather when served with fresh fruit. If I couldn't reproduce these sweets in my own home, I'd get quite homesick. Which reminds me, I'm almost out of golden syrup.

This one is for you, Stavros.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

The spice route (Οδός Μπαχαρικών)

You guessed it, PART 5 of my family's adventures in Athens.

Besides handling it in the garden, I'm so used to buying unpackaged food items, that I feel put off when I see food of any kind being sold in a packet, jar or can. This is because of the way food is treated in Crete: we touch, we see, we smell, we sometimes even taste (for example, cheese, olives); we buy according to how it feels for us, not how it's packaged or what the labelling says. But that's not the case for spices: the variety in the spice shops of Hania is limited to the ones regularly used in local cooking. They are sold in the supermarkets and the Agora (mainly for tourists), as well as a small number of small stores in the town. Supermarkets stock all the common spices used in Greek cooking (pre-packed). Curry mixes and the like are also available, as are most internationally widespread ingredients, but if you're after something out of the ordinary, like sumac (called 'soumahi' in Greek) or spirulina, you need to buy it in a specialised shop, and always packaged in small amounts.

hania herb shop agora chania
Spice shops in the Agora at Hania; click on each photo for notes.
hania herb shop agora chania hania herb shop agora chania

The town is too small to support the wholesale trade of spices in baskets and roadside hangings; in any case, most of the locals forage their own needs annually in the appropriate season. I've been given as much malotira tea as I need to last me at least another year, and I've got enough bay leaves to use for the next five years, as well as receiving precious gifts of oregano, sea salt and diktamo tea from time to time. Mint, parsley, fennel, dill and arugula are always available fresh; many people grow their own. Woody spices such as cinammon, carnation, mahleb, masticha and bahari are always available, especially during festive periods, for the purposes of baking or to spice up a special meat dish.

koulourakia and tsoureki spices
Bulk supplies of spices available at the supermarket over Easter for tsoureki and koulourakia; not the most enticing picture, as the fragrances lie in their plastic packages in uniform standard boxes. For the range of spices, click on the photo to see the notes.

It is difficult not to be mesmerised by the variety of colours, aromas and textures of spices, especially when they are piled high in sacks placed on the roadside, or hanging from the top of shop windows. It's impossible to pass by without stopping to admire them. As you check out the whole range offered, you discover a spice that you hadn't heard of before, or maybe something you'd read about in a cookbook or recipe; you think that it is now your chance to try it out. By the time you leave the shop, your hands are loaded with plastic shopping bags exuding exotic aromas. Your senses are exploding and you can't wait to get home and open up the packets.

spices from agora hania chania foreign tastes
Here are my recent purchases as I went in search of new tastes.
Click on the photos for notes.

Although I don't often indulge in shopping sprees, I found myself in exactly this situation on my recent trip to Athens. High fashion doesn't interest me; label clothing doesn't come in my proportions or wallet-size. When it's variety I seek, I go where my eyes can feast on food in its most basic form. It's not everyone's idea of shopping therapy, but if you're looking for real life action on the street, combined with the bright natural colours of Mediterranean food and the sights and scents that pair with it, you should head for the central Athens food market, before you enter The Spice Route.

central athens agora market
Δημοτική Αγορά Αθηνών - the central food market of Athens: not much to look at from the outside, like most other functional buildings in Greece; the truth is in the pudding. At every holiday season in Greece, the television cameras stand outside this very spot and report the prices of the festive table and the rate of trade taking place in the Agora.

If you've never taken this journey before, then I recommend that you put your faith in the gods; let them guide you through the streets of central Athens in search of ambrosia. Don't know your way around this buzzing city full of nook-and-cranny like streets, hiding in amongst the faceless apartment blocks which all sport the same blackened paint work, dirty-brown aluminium shutters and tiny balconies used to store a multitude of household items in full view of the passing pedestrians below them? Then let's meet up at a central point: let's start our walk at the well-known Syntagma Square, where the 300 modern gods of Greece convene in the Parliament buildings, directing the country into an orchestrated state of chaos.

sintagma athensCIMG6835
Sintagma Square with the Parliament building in the background, taken from Ermou St.

From there, let Hermes fly you across the road onto Ermou Street (Hermes, Hermou, Ermou - geddit?); join the throngs of people you will find here, but here's a warning: not everything that shines is gold. Watch out for the seductive Sirens (in the likes of BSB, Folli Follie, Raxevsky, Marks and Spencer, Sprider, et al., ad nauseam); shade your eyes and hide your purse if you fall easy prey to their dazzle and shine.

kapnikarea church athens
It was hard to snap the church in a moment alone; there was a lot of action on the street that day - on one side, the bag sellers; on the other, the string musicians.
bag sellers athens foreign string quartet athens

Just beyond the beautiful Byzantine monument that has been left basically intact (Kapnikarea Church), except to find the surreptitious Aeolus lurking on Aiolou Street and whipping up a storm; winds coming from all over the place will try to confuse your sense of direction. Don't be fooled by the gentle West Wind when an African bag seller entices you to buy fake Dolce Gabbanas; pretend you didn't feel the East Wind when you hear the gypsy musicians playing beautiful melodies with their string instruments. As Johnnie Walker says, just keep walking.


If you managed to do that without detouring, you will eventually meet up with the goddess of wisdom, Athena, on Athinas Street. Congratulations - you're half way there! Give yourself a well-deserved break at one of the myriads of eateries on the corner at Monastiraki; even the fast food outlets were serving lenten food the day I was there, since it was during the Great Lent before Easter.

lenten sandwich roll from everest monastiraki athensmonastiraki athens
I paid a mere 4.50 euro for a coffee and this delicious lenten (read: vegan) roll with courgette fritters and salad; the view I had from where I sat was worth much more.

Once you're fed and watered, look to your left and wave to Athena in her temple rising on the rock of the Acropolis. Few people these days can get very close to the Parthenon; the Greek government only gave Nia Vardalos the right to do so just recently to film "My Life in Ruins". The Guardian - yes, it's a British newspaper - questions why the Greek government gave permission to the producers to use the Acropolis as a backdrop to the movie:

"Despite persistent requests from some of the world's most acclaimed directors, Greek officials had always rejected the idea of the site, dating from 500BC, being filmed - on grounds it would degrade a monument regarded as sacred."

This will mark the first time that an American film studio will be allowed to film on location at the Acropolis. Sounds like sour grapes to me...

Come see the Acropolis another day, because now you're turning right; walk along the road and any moment now, you will bump into the market. Your nose will guide you adequately from here on; the fish market will make an impression on it before you even see it.

varvakeios meat market athens
central athens agora market central athens agora market

The sights and sounds of Varvakeios Agora in Athens.
foreign brass band athens whole lamb athens market
snails market athens dried fruits athens

The fruit and vegetable market is located across the road from Varvakeios, near the Town Hall. Walk down each side of this busy multi-cultural plateia (piazza) and see if anything takes your fancy (but you won't find the quantity or quality I get in Crete; we are more spoilt for choice down there). Stop and listen to the buskers - they are usually from Eastern Europe and they're quite good. People may even stop and talk to you here, about the music, the people, or even yourself.

kiosk outside central athens agora marketAlign Centre
Bought new trousers, but forgot to buy a belt? The Greek sun too hot for you? Robbed of your wallet? Bought too much and can't carry everything in your hands? The Greek kiosk (περίπτερο - periptero) has a solution for all your problems.

Once you've done the rounds there, turn back onto Athena's street and walk towards her temple. If you didn't bring a backpack with you, now is the chance to buy yourself The Big Bag (they're even available in S, M and L sizes!) at one of the kiosks you find here; you will almost certainly need it when you enter the spice route.


At the next intersection, you will encounter one of the greatest playwrights of Ancient Greece. Eureka! Euripides is waiting to lead you through his abode (Evripidou Street) where the spice route begins.

spice shop evripidou st athens spice shop evripidou st athens
See what I mean? The grass always looks greener on the other side. The truth is you don't know how long this stuff's been hanging out in the open, but it still whets the appetite.

Walk up and down both sides of the street to see what's on offer. Watch out for the bumper to bumper traffic on the road and the wares on display on the footpath: what caught my eyes were the huge baskets of spices, rice and beans; there were even plantlets ready for potting, and crates of fresh snails popping out of their shells. Apart from the food, Evripidou is also full of specialty stores selling corks in all sizes, paper food packaging, glass jars and plastic containers, and all sorts of other bits and pieces.

dreid herbs from evripidou st athens
I couldn't resist the temptation of making my own pot pourri with these herbs from Evripidou. Click on the photo to see the notes.

Something doesn't feel good? The decor (or probably the lack of it)? These stores are all found in one of the most run-down neighbourhoods in central Athens. They look the same now as they did 40 years ago. Don't let that put you off; walking down Evripidou St on a busy market day is probably safer than weekends and holidays when immigrants and junkies are found loitering on the otherwise empty streets off Evripidou. I find the over-abundance of 'kinezika' (Chinese-operated clothing stores selling polyester fashion) much more off-putting than the economic migrants and derelict buildings (it's probably not the best place to be during an earthquake). As each small specialist store closes down on Evripidou St, it is re-vitalised by enterprising Chinese clothing emporium entrepreneurs (to phrase it euphemistically).

The roads neighbouring Evripidou St form one of the poorest areas of central Athens. The road itself leads to the infamous Plateia Koumoundourou (also called Plateia Eleftherias - "Freedom Square"), where the buses leave for the suburbs that make up the Western Athens district. But these same streets neighbor some of the most popular tourist sights in Athens: Psiri is a popular place to go for lunch or dinner, while Abyssinia Square (we call it Plateia Avissinias) is where the flea market takes place with an emphasis on antiques (or just plain old stuff).

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A view of Plateia Avissinias; anybody who'd visited our home in New Zealand will remember Mambo (my parents bought him in Singapore after our 1974 trip to Greece) sitting on the white crochet doily on the smallest of a set of nesting tables - here he is in Abyssinia Square.

The rock of the Acropolis is visible wherever you might find yourself in this area. It's a shame that it has had its reputation tarnished simply because economic migrants have moved into the area, and no wonder: it is situated to the west - the western districts of Athens have never been given a fair go.

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These buildings on Evripidou St were once owned by rich merchants; now they're practically lifeless, save the rats and birds that inhabit them. The lower stories are still used as shops.

On the Greek news these days, this area is under constant discussion. It is never regarded in a positive light; the issue of the immigrants is always mentioned, who are usually characterised as trouble makers. This is probably true - fights break out, trouble erupts, but usually amongst the immigrants themselves. I was not perturbed by the sight of the Pakistanis crowding inside and outside of a shop (clearly marked 'Pakistani Information Centre'), as I walked with my purse crossed over my chest, carrying three huge shopping bags down Zinonos and Bulgari Streets just before coming out onto Pireos St (which is also known as P. Tsladari, to confuse matters), where Plateia Koumoundourou is located; no one troubled me, no one talked to me, and if they looked at me, it was only so as not to bump into me while they walked on the same side of the road. The derelict buildings that have been left in a shambolic state (broken windows, the interior strewn with rubbish) on the main roads here are often those which formerly housed government offices; in other words, they are state-owned and have been left to their own fate. People can hardly be blamed if they are using these buildings as rent-free accomodation or for drug-dealing - the empty buildings were never sealed or secured in the first place. It's not a solution to have more policemen patrolling a derelict area; these buildings need to be pulled down or renovated. Desolation attracts desolates.

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Central Athens streets near Plateia Koumoundourou, below the Acropolis; if you don't walk with confidence, you are bound to find trouble, no matter where you are.

When you've finally walked both lengths of Evripidou St, you'll find yourself back on Athinas St. It's time for another pit-stop. Walk with the Acropolis behind you, and you will eventually find yourself at Omonoia Square where there is a metro station. Take the escalator down to the underground and look at the photos depicting the square at the turn of the century. Despite the shiny stainless steel look of one of the newest underground systems in Europe, as you carry your shopping bag full of spices, you will feel (especially if you're Greek and you used to watch those old black and white Greek movies) that you had just experienced old-time Athens only a few minutes ago when you were walking along Evripidou St.

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A sign from home on Evripidou St: a Cretan expat selling products from the Big Island.
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A couple more purchases from Evripidou St and the Agora in Athens: cured meat (pastrouma) and dried sugared fruit.

Come back out of the train station from the exit marked 3 September (that's the name of a road). You'll find yourself outside the Hondos Centre, a department store with a good value self-service cafe on the 10th floor with marvellous views of the Acropolis and the whole city, serving good Greek cuisine alongside international dishes. Apart from the nutritious food and the relaxing environment, it's a great place to observe the variety of people that form the citizens of Athens.
The Spice Route

This one is for you, Leonard.

Just for the record, everything I bought in Athens was also available in Hania (albeit at much higher prices), but the grass always looks greener on the other side, and I felt myself succumb to the temptation of too much variety and choice...

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