I dedicate this blog to the memory of Godfrey Holdsworth, fellow teacher, colleague and caring friend for over 30 years, who lived and loved Athens’ old and winding streets. The world is better that Godfrey lived in it and my life is better for having known him. Goodbye my friend and rest in peace.
Monastiraki! People watching. Lively. Hanging out on the square. The ruins of Hadrian’s Library and the Roman and Ancient Agora. Souvlaki. Tavernas and cafes. Views of the Acropolis. The flea market! Some expressions that come to my mind and others about this dynamic area of old Athens. And Psyrri? Quirky. Art. Graffiti. Nightlife. Trendy. The Plaka might be better known and more beautiful and charming but in this blog we’re going to wander a bit in Monastiraki and Psyrri, two beloved areas of Athens.
You can easily walk from Syntagma down the shopping pedestrian street Ermou, past the tiny and beautiful Kapnikarea church but the most convenient (and dramatic) way is if you take the metro to Monastiraki and exit at Athinas Street, then take a look across the square. It never fails to produce a “wow” from me: your eyes fill with three cultures: the ancient, looking up at the Acropolis hill, the Tsisdarakis Mosque from the mid-18th century in the starting- to-wane years of the Ottoman empire (now with a ceramics collection owned by the Museum of Greek Folk Art) and the little Byzantine church (future blog: the small Byzantine churches throughout the city.)
The church, Panagia Pantanassa (meaning “Queen above all”) was built in the late 17th century over an earlier 11th century church, and originally called the “Great Monastery,” as it was part of a large complex including a convent and shopping stalls where the nuns sold fabrics that they had woven (the forerunners of the small shops in the area) After the convent and stalls disappeared, the church came to be known as the “small monastery” (monastiraki) which then became the name for the whole area. The wall around the church is full of people sitting, many eating souvlaki, the quintessential street food and kebab from Savvas, Thanassis or Bairaktaris, places in competition for the best kebab in town. (They’re all mouthwatering and delicious). I remember during the 2004 Olympics, every night these places were full of athletes and tourists, singing at the tables on the street, or drinking to the rhythms of “Zorba.”
Still another architectural style is on the square: the art nouveau metro station itself, the original from 1895, the “electriko” line from Piraeus to the northern suburb of Kifissia, the only line before the new metro lines were opened in 2000. Monastiraki, like Syntagma and Acropolis station and a few others, exhibit the archaeological remains found in the area in the station. (future blog!)
You can’t help but notice another structure on the square, an excavation where you can look down, down… it’s the Eridanos River that used to flow through Roman times (but still flows) and a reminder of how much lower the city was in ancient times. Inside the metro station you can see more of the Eridanos river bed.
If you exit on the square itself and cross over to the entrance to Hadrian’s Library, there’s a marvellous view of the houses of Plaka and the Acropolis, well, it would even be more marvellous without that camera in the foreground.
A group of musicians usually sit outside the metro, playing bouzouki and guitar to the enjoyment of some, indifference of others.
We could turn down Adrianou past the restaurants and cafes with their views of the Acropolis, many with music, across from the Ancient Agora and “elektriko” tracks, and the 3 card monte dealers (the “papatzides” — here the game is called “Pappas” – priest.) But we’re not going down Adrianou today or visit monuments. (Roamin’ Through… Roman Athens…) We want to experience a little more eastern flavor to Monastiraki with the flea market. So one idea is to walk down Ermou Street with its old furniture places and household wares until we get to Avyssinian Square and go left.
Lest we forget the other side of Athens, under the awning of the huge toy store “Moustakas” on the corner with Ermou, a group of homeless people have set up their bedding. Athens unfortunately has a sizeable homeless population, of all ages. The city offers a number of heated shelters during the cold winter months with blankets and food; although that doesn’t address the root of the problem –lack of jobs or the resources to afford housing–it is a help to those who have no alternative but to live on the streets.
Another way to reach Avyssinian Square is to enter the narrow street of Ifendou, the flea market which eventually leads down to Thisseio.
These are regular shops, many of them very touristy with the usual olive oil soaps, magnets and imitation red and black figure plates and vases. But there are also some real finds and bargains in suitcases, leather and sandals. Here there’s no bargaining. Then we hit Avyssinian Square, the heart of the Sunday flea market.
In the midst of a lot of kitsch and junk — dolls and doilies, busts of Alexander the Great and Chinese alarm clocks, old Nat King Cole LP’s, oil paintings of the Last Supper, maps and engravings, musical instruments, typewriters, binoculars, gramophones, Russian cameras, vases, miniature cannons, old Singer machines and brass lamps and door knockers, bronze dolphins, even elephants —
you can find many beautiful objects. My eye went to a display of cut glass Turkish liquer sets, also antique carved wood desks. We also stopped to admire a miniature bicycle made from wire, which resembled a Calder sculpture. All around, you hear Greek and Russian, as many of the stall owners, are Russian immigrants, also Asian. And here, you should definitely haggle or bargain.
The Cafe Avyssinia, which is peeking out of the photo below, is a landmark there. As for the name, “Avyssinian,” which became official in the 1980’s, 111 Places in Athens That You Shouldn’t Miss tells us that the derivation of the name for the square might refer to a neighborhood of Ethiopians that used to live in the vicinity, or to honor a visit by the Emperor Haile Selassie, in the 1920’s to offer aid to the refugees from Asia Minor.
To most Athenians though, the area is known as the “yusurum,” with the meaning of a place where second-hand wares are sold. I found fascinating the derivation of this name;. The Yusurums were descended from a Sephardic Jewish family from Spain. As they moved eastward, the family settled in Smyrna (modern Izmir) and became merchants. In 1863, Bochor Yusurum, a tailor, moved his business to Athens and gradually started selling his products to the main bazaar until he died in 1887 and the business went to his oldest son. By this time the name had stuck as people would say they were going to the “yusurum,” the bazaar. Another little note: The Yusurum family home housed the 1st synagogue in Athens and this area around Monastiraki/Psyrri became the center of the old Jewish quarter in the late 19th century. (Eventually two synagogues were built not far away, off of Agion Asomaton: Etz Hayyim (tree of life) in 1904, and Beth Shalom (house of peace) in the 1930’s) And a final note: One of the grandsons of Bochor, Mois Yusurum aged 95, was honoured by the Athens Jewish community in 2015.
Had enough of the flea market? Let’s enter Psyrri now from one of the streets of of Ermou. Some people might feel a bit assaulted by the graffiti – it can be overwhelming.
Let’s be honest, Psyrri lacks the charm and beauty of the Plaka, and the ancient monuments of Monastiraki, but it’s got a vitality, especially after dark. A traditional commercial area of small manufacturers, it started to become a half abandoned area of warehouses, shoe manufacturers, apparel and artisan workshops. The area was rezoned in the the early 1990’s, allowing shops like copper, metalware and used furniture, to turn into bars, ouzeries, mezedopoleio and tavernas, and the area has become “gentrified” with all the good and bad that the word evokes. A few old houses have managed to survive. I love this color!
On Agias Theklas, you search in vain for at least some marker for the house where Byron lived at the time of the 1821 Greek revolution next to the Makri family (“maid of Athens ere we part give me o give me back my heart”) but there’s no trace or plaque, just a building with a “parking” sign (graffiti-splayed of course).
There are a few large impressive neoclassical buildings on the periphery, one that looks recently painted but it’s been so vandalized with graffiti the owners could have spared themselves the expense of the paint. I do concede that sometimes you do see something artistic in the graffiti… but too often not.
What is that fairytale Disneyland display ahead of you on Karaiskaki? Are we dreaming? It’s the famous “Little Kook” — more on that later.
If you follow Karaiskaki, you’ll reach a square full of cafes and restaurants: Palateia Iroon or “Heroes Square,” given this name as supposedly some of the 1821 Greek Revolution heroes liked this area. Streets nearby have names of Revolution heroes, such as Miaouli and Karaiskaki. A fun fact from Sofka Zinovieff’s book Eurydice Street: King Otto (1st King of the new Greek state) liked to visit the area incognito eager to experience Athens “low life”(!)
The name “heroes square” was actually a little ironic in the 19th century as the area was frequented by not so noble revolution fighters, but a group of Psyrri gangsters or mobsters, who aligned themselves with local politicians using them to intimidate their opponents. (This might sound familiar). (Outside of Athens, there were many bandits that made the country at this time rather dangerous). The Psyrri gangsters, known as koutsavakidhes are described as having twisted moustaches, very pointed high heeled boots, black hats they wore far back to show off their long greased back hair, striped pants, yellow shirts and black jackets, worn only on one arm (!) the other left dangling. They also limped, which in Greek is “koutsos,” explaining a little the derivation of their name. According to Zinovieff, a police chief who wanted to humiliate them, gathered them together, used a pair of scissors to snip off their moustaches, the tips of their pointy boots and their dangling sleeves, and left them “shamed though free.” [The koutsavakidhes were the forerunners of the “manges” working class who acted in a kind of arrogant way, became associated with the rise of rembetika music.
This association with gangsterism or sin lingered over the gentrified Psyrri. There used to be in fact two themed restaurants: one was called “El Pecado,” (the sin) which burned to the ground in slightly mysterious circumstances a few years back, and another “Cosa Nostra” which closed recently.
Sunday on a winter’s day, overcast but not really cold; as you approach the tavernas, you can hear music from inside, usually bouzouki, guitar, voice. Some have pictures of famous entertainers of the past, like Aliki Vouliaklaki and Grigoris Bithkotsis.
Some of the tavernas, known as koutoukia, have steps leading down to a basement room, where you used to sit under the barrels of wine that lined the walls. We recognized some places we had been to years ago. And some other music places we had gone to during carnival times. Psyrri also has theaters — more experimental type of theater — that have been in the area for a long time, as well as fashion clothing — new and vintage — as well as now some boutique hotels, the sign of the new.
Many of the music tavernas have the same sort of style; though I love the music, we decide to find “Avli” Taverna to eat at, having learned about it from my “bible,” 111 Places; however it indeed looks like a place that seems to resist being found!
But found it is though, for soon after it opens, all the tables fill up and a line forms. “Avli” means “courtyard,” which is in the middle of a complex of two-room houses and workshops in the days before gentrification – see the blue shutters and white stucco. They all face a common courtyard.
Some tables are set up outside with outdoor heaters, some in the middle with a plastic roof that can be taken off and some totally inside. When it rains, the place shrinks in two… we got nearly the last table in the place for Sunday lunch before the line. The clientele was of all ages, enjoying the delicious wine and food.
Popular Greek music plays from a radio at a discreet volume so you can talk. Avli is basically a mezedopoleio, meaning it serves starters. You order a variety of them and have a meal – our table was filled with salad, tzatziki, then fried potatoes and tomatokeftedes, real keftedes (meatballs – their specialty), fried peppers and chicken tigania (pieces sautéed in a kind of sweet sour sauce, and the house red wine.
Here’s the “tigania” — it came afterwards.
Takis, who had started working as a delivery boy in the 1980’s when the place served mostly coffee in the courtyard to the shop owners, was running back and forth along with two others serving the customers. When we left, he told us to come back anytime, that he would be happy to see us. We intend to!
A brief digression about the Greek way of eating, with the dishes set in the middle and shared by the diners, how different from eating out in the states where everyone gets just their own one plate for dinner and there’s no sharing. How much more fun to sample a number of different dishes.
From Avli, you’re near Athinas street with all its markets, including the fish and meat market and the spice market. But we’ll visit that another time.
Instead, we’re going to retrace our steps back to Heroes Square and down Karaiskaki again. You pass the famous koulouri tou psyrri, which supplies koulouria all over the city. A koulouri is a kind of bread-sesame ring, the most common street food except for souvlaki.
All roads lead to Little Kook. I was wandering around there near the middle of November while they were already putting up decorations.
Near the end of January, they’re still there — when they come down, there will be other themes and decorations. Little Kook, in all its kitschy lights and fairy tale figures, is a well known “cupcake shop” as it calls itself where there’s usually a line waiting to get in. Today though on a kind of raw Sunday with threat of rain, there’s no line, but still people are hanging around taking selfies or pictures of each other with the kitschy background.
A santa clad young woman outside reluctantly allowed me to get a glimpse of the inside, “just up to this point.” I peered in to the tables – it looked you were having tea with the Mad Hatter. In fact there is a room with an Alice in Wonderland motif. Before I was shooed outside again, I could see at one table a family with three children seemed to be eating what looked like crepes filled with chocolate and whipped cream. Forget the gangsters and crime — here is the sin left in Psyrri, in the desserts at Little Kook!
Decorations and lights used to come down after the January 6 epiphany holiday here, but now they seem to remain much longer. It was actually a pleasant surprise to come back from the States to Athens after the holidays and find some shops still so decorated. Ok, they are a bit like too much frosting on the cake but still… more on my Stateside visit in the next blog very soon!!
But speaking of holiday customs… now, near the end of January actually is the time for organizations in Greece to have their “pita cuttings,” (so you can still greet others with “happy new year” ) i.e. they get together, perhaps have dinner, maybe dance and cut the vasilopita, or the cake for the new year, named for St. Basil, who traditionally gave gifts on New Year’s Day. It is always baked in a round pan to symbolize the circularity of life, and inside the batter, a coin is inserted. The person who finds it is supposed to have special luck. They might win a prize as well. Here’s my sister-in-law Chryssa’s own fairy tale “vasilopita” for new year’s. Best wishes for 2020!