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Back in Athens | Visiting Exarcheia and the Central Market

Athens view of Acropolis

Back in Athens, our first time since just a week or so before the first COVID lockdown began in Germany. We spent about a week between the city, where we waddled our gluttonous selves across an Athens food tour, and Hydra. Now we’re back to take care of some unfinished business.

Athens is both a wake-up call and a shot of adrenaline. Cars and crotch rockets whip around skinny streets before the road suddenly turns into a pedestrianized zone. Not that I––a pedestrian with bones that don’t hold up well to getting bulldozed by metal––am complaining.

Anarchist Exarcheia

We head straight for Exarcheia, known as the anarchist neighborhood of Athens. I missed getting there during my last visit to Athens, so I made it my first stop this time.

COOKooMÉLA Grill is serving up vegan souvlaki––the first in town, according to the presumable owner. Mushrooms replace the typical shavings of meat, swimming in vegan tzatziki. The pita wrap is soft and fluffy; itself notably delicious.

We missed lunch in our travels from Berlin, so Melanie advocates for a second dinner. We pass by a pedestrian street full of bars and find something that looks like a village restaurant. We opt to split some starters––feta wrapped in phyllo, pan-fried and covered in Cretan honey, yiayia or grandma’s potatoes with, you guessed it, feta, and a thick batch of tzatziki to go with the breadbasket. That more than made up for the missed lunch, but room was easily made for some loukoumades that grabbed us by our increasingly hedonistic salivary glands and demanded we order a batch. No regrets.

Running in Athens

We start the next morning with a run––straight to the National Garden behind the Greek Parliament and their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I try to swing us through the old Olympic Stadium for a lap around its narrow, oval-shaped track, but I forgot there’s a price for admission. So after Bonnie, a Greece first-timer, snaps some photos we continue around the base of the Acropolis and charge up Filopappaou Hill where the eponymous monument stands surrounded by eagle-eye views of the Acropolis. Not to mention there’s the incredible urban sprawl of Athens that stretches to the hazy blue of the ocean. There are worst ways to start the day.

Athens Central Market

After breakfast, we shower up, leave our bags with reception at the hotel, and head out with the intention of visiting the Acropolis. I’m usually indifferent to such things but remembered how glad I was that Melanie convinced me to climb the hill up to the ancient ruins the last time we visited.

But it wasn’t to be. Tourism is back in full force with lines stretching beyond our patience to purchase a ticket and enter the Acropolis grounds. Instead we head over to the Central market in hopes of finding some yum-yums to nosh on. I thought maybe we’d find some food stands like at La Boquería in Barcelona or at the Central Market in San José, Costa Rica.

Not the case. This is a market first and foremost for shoppers, especially folks looking for lamb. I don’t mean lamb chops, mind you. I mean an entire freakin’ lamb, head and all. Sometimes the heads are displayed separately like a pile of bowling balls with their beady eyes planting future nightmares in my soul. I note one sign of protest against the slaughter. “No animal abuse,” the graffiti reads. I consider each word to the rhythm of the butcher behind me hacking away with his cleaver.

“If you weren’t already vegetarian…” Melanie says as we step back outside. Two of us already are to some degree, but the point is nonetheless salient. If you’re going to purchase and consume flesh, this should be where you have to go buy it––several steps ahead of the packaging that hides the reality of what you’re consuming. Kind of like the European smoking labels with their horrific images of looming death. Feel free to light up and devour that lamb. But you can’t be ignorant about what’s happening.

Ferry Anxiety

We while away the rest of the early afternoon, noshing on some pre-lunch dessert. I was on the hunt for some baklava but had to settle for a savory slice of bread stuffed with feta and oregano next to bites of a layered, gelatinous piece of pie with walnuts, pulled wheat, and whipped cream with cinnamon and pistachios. Then, more souvlaki. This time a halloumi pita with paprika-seasoned french fries stuffed inside.

Full and anxious to get to our ferry for Hydra, we grab our bags, hop onto the metro, and make way for the port. Our collective anxiety was borne from some confusion before we even left Germany that continued right up until our asses finally found their seats on board.

First we were told by the Hydra trail race organizers to write to some gmail account for a ferry discount. To pay, this gmail offered two different accounts for me to wire the funds. Neither had the name of the ferry operator––Hellenic Seaways––but rather the name “Loulou Loukia,” which sounded like a made-up name. I thought it was the kind of name a lazy writer comes up with for a Greek mobster. There are literally three “Lous” in the name! It’s 75% Lou.

The race organizers assured me that this was no scam, so I sent the funds over. All was well.

A couple of weeks before our ferry, I get a text in Greek and English informing me that the ferry departure time has changed. Still fine. But when we landed in Athens, I tried to open their website to check in online. “502 Bad Gateway” came up on an empty page. And so my latest bout of anxiety was born.

I later find out that there was a strike of the seamen, which sounds like a boisterous show tune, with no other information available. Eventually, our hotel receptionist is able to reach someone at Hellenic Seaways to confirm our ferry would still be departing.

The Ferry to Hydra

We arrive at the port with no signage or instruction indicating where to pick up our tickets or find our ferry. Greece’s Piraeus port is just as wildly confusing to navigate as our last visit two years earlier.

After wandering around wide fields of concrete surrounded by some vessels, we find an office for Hellenic Seaways. I go in and approach the counter.

“I’m here to print our tickets,” I say. The man behind the counter instructs me to exit the building and go down a few more buildings to print out our tickets at another Hellenic Seaways office. We follow his instructions, entering another building with the Hellenic Seaways branding. Mind you that there is no discernible difference between the two buildings nor is it clear why they need two separate DMV-esque offices so close to one another.

I step up to the plate. The man seems confused by my request to print my ticket. I hand over my phone with a Greek PDF referring to my order. With the assistance of two women working with the frenzied magic of a stock broker on Wall Street, they manage to print our tickets and hand them over.

“Gate E8,” they say. We follow signs and spot our ferry––The Flying Cat 5. And then we watch it sail away to another gate, which we realize is where we ultimately boarded when we went to Hydra the first time.

So we continue our schlepp around Piraeus where we finally receive confirmation that we are at the right spot. I board, feeling 80% certain I’d get to run Hydra’s Trail Event on Sunday––a massive increase from the night before when I really thought it could go either way. But I knew I wouldn’t be at 100% until I heard someone yell whatever is Greek for “Go!”

Moxy Athens City

After the race and a few days in Nafplio, we return to Athens and check in at the new Moxy Athens City hotel right outside the Omonia metro stop. The hotel recently opened, smack dab in between the more touristy sights to the south––the Acropolis and Plaka––and the polar opposite in Exarcheia, the aforementioned anarchist neighborhood, just a few blocks northeast of the hotel. You really can’t ask for a better location to see both sides of the city.

Moxy bills itself as the place to be for “millennial globetrotters.” You certainly get that vibe as soon as you step inside. Thumping electronic music plays in the background and the check in area doubles as a bar. We settled in for some watermelon concoction to go with a plate of dakos (a Cretan mezze with dried bread covered in chopped tomatoes and feta) before heading back out into the city.

Disclosure: We stayed at Moxy Athens City complimentary. As always, all opinions are my own.

Sharpen Your Senses

Our return to Athens was planned primarily to get our “Bird on a Wire” tattoo before flying back to Berlin. The tattoo was conceived at the end of our first visit to Hydra. So enamored we were by the island, I had the idea for a simple silhouette of a bird on a wire to commemorate our visit. (The tattoo makes a lot more sense if you know that Leonard Cohen was inspired by Hydra to write the song “Bird on a Wire.”)

Athens tattoo

The tattoo doesn’t take long, so we spend most of our time wandering around Athens one more time. We head back to Exarcheia. There’s a rally going on against a metro expansion to the area that would, their signs alleged, gentrify the area. I’m sure I’m missing some nuance, but that’s the best I could get holding up the Google Translate camera up to a select number of banners.

We wrap up our week of good eating around the corner from Exarchion Square at Rosalia. It’s not a trip to Greece without some moussaka, so I go with the vegetarian version with mushrooms, potatoes, and eggplant. The crispy bechamel perfectly covers the clay pot it’s served in like a lid.

The city remains chaotic. I still can’t make sense of how the streets turn from large thoroughfares into narrow alleys with uneven, paper-thin sidewalks that require the balancing skills of a trapeze artist to stay upright. Then without apparent reason, it’s a pedestrianized zone for a block or two with some cafés, bars, or restaurants using the space with tables and chairs.

It’s busy all around the clock. Unlike sleepy Berlin where the city is yours before 10am on the weekend, Athens gets moving early. It’s not a city or a relaxing vacation. Between the city layout where you constantly have to turn left and right to go straight and the food, it’s a place to sharpen your senses and enjoy the ride.

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