Editor’s note: This is a taste of some of the stops we make on our Athens Culinary Walk, so if you like what you see here, you should consider joining us on a walk when you’re next in Athens.
For the food-loving tourist, city markets and the shops around them can hold far more allure than monuments, museums and elite boutiques. Even for us, as longtime residents of Athens, the Central Market district is where we go whenever we need an infusion of the Anatolian or the unexpected or even a specific item for the larder or the kitchen that would be difficult to find in a supermarket, mall or local hardware store.
A stroll from Monastiraki Square up Athinas Street to the Varvakeio Market, weaving in and out of the alleys branching off it, will introduce you to some specialties you’d never anticipate in a European capital. Some of them may well be tempting enough to squeeze into your already full suitcase. But even if you wouldn’t dream of buying them, you’ll surely be intrigued or amused. Have your own camera at the ready too, for photo ops will present themselves more often than you think possible.
Start from Monastiraki Square, cross Ermou onto Miaouli Street and proceed from there to Agiou Dimitriou and the Gastronomy Museum at No. 13. Across the street from the museum, you’ll see a shop that seems to have all its wares either piled outside it or hanging above it. Wicker baskets of all shapes are crowded together on high, below them a bewildering array of metal objects, from funnels to buckets, colanders and swinging trays in red, blue, green and turquoise, as well as stainless steel. More stuff lies piled on the sidewalk, anything from plastic water containers and washtubs to ironing boards and birdcages. One wonders about the nightly logistics of closing up shop.
To the left of the shop is some street art. Be prepared for lots of it, some quite good, when you walk around downtown Athens.
Keep going straight and you’ll come to Evripidou, our favorite street in the whole city. Here you’ll find almost anything your heart does or does not desire, sold by herb and spice emporia heralded with garlands of flamboyant Anatolian dried vegetable casings for stuffing and bright chili peppers, looking colorful and pretty enough to be Christmas decorations. There are several such shops, each more enticing than the next and all on the same side of the street, in true Anatolian souk fashion.
Cross over and you’ll find some kitchenware shops to pore over, some selling wine and oil dispensers and small Greek coffee “pots,” or briki, that might make amusing souvenirs. Those are at street level. But you’ll also want to peer down into the many basement shops, where open sacks of rice, beans and flour line the steep stairs and crowd the floors.
Back on the south side of the street are two wonderful delis next door to each other that specialize in Greek preserved meats like pastourma – beef or rarely camel, cured and coated with a pungent paste of paprika, fenugreek and garlic – as well as sausages and cheeses. You can’t miss them. Miran is the larger and more famous, and it boasts a green wall of live plants above its tassels of garlic, sausages and fire-engine-red slabs of meat. But I prefer the smaller, more personal Arapian, which sources many of its products such as lamb sausages, kavourmas (a rillettes-type loaf) and wonderful cheeses from Drama in Macedonia. While they often offer samples before a purchase, you can have a proper sit-down snack or meal at a new casual eatery, Ta Karamanlidika tou Fani (cold cuts and delicacies), opened recently by Fanis, the owner’s son, a few doors down (at the corner of Evripidou 52 and Sokratous 1, tel. +30 210 325 4184).
Although not all the shops on or near Evripidou deal with food and kitchenware, even those stocked with excruciatingly mundane goods like plastic sheeting, balls of twine and coils of rope, trash cans or even shoelaces may stop you in your tracks, they are so fetchingly displayed.
Retrace your steps and head back up to Athinas. There on the corner of Athinas and Evripidou is probably the smallest spice/herb shop you will ever come across anywhere. The cheerful proprietor of this closet-sized emporium sells over 200 herbs and spices neatly packed in brightly colored cellophane envelopes, apart from the extra-long batons of cinnamon.
To your left is the Varvakeio Central Market, a block-long, vaulted edifice from the turn of the last century. Enter at your own risk. The squeamish may not appreciate the unusual cuts of meat dangling from hooks or the unfamiliar aromas of tripe, fish and poultry. But it is quite a spectacle. Be prepared for an assault to the ears as well, as the shouts of competing vendors rend the air.
The fruit and veg stalls, located on Armodiou, parallel to Evripidou, are also worth a look just for their sheer abundance. Shoppers flock to this area for good quality at bargain prices. The stores on the north side of the street carry goods that include songbirds in cages, chickens and even rabbits.
Finally, on the corner of Armodiou and Athinas is Avra Deli, which is not Greek at all. Instead, it imports goodies from Russia and Poland, everything from smoked herring and pickles to kielbasa and smantana (sour cream). All enticingly exotic, but we go there to pick up tins of red caviar (brik), a steal at €20 for a 200-gram tin.
There’s plenty more to explore in this district, but for now just wander back towards Monastiraki on the west side (your right) of Athinas Street. We come here to buy pillow-sized loaves of sourdough bread at either of the two old-fashioned bakeries and always pop into Peri Lesvou, but between them lies one of the area’s greatest surprises of all: a fully stocked tack shop. I always wonder: Who on earth comes to the center of town to buy elegant saddles and bridles or donkey halters stitched with blue beads to keep the evil eye away from their animals? You can scoop up a handful of beads for yourself or your own pets from a bucket.
This tour ends with a fine wall painting close to Peri Lesvou. And then, to digest all that you’ve seen, and possibly tasted, take yourself to the rooftop bar of the A for Athens Hotel at 2 Miaouli Street at the corner of Ermou and have a drink with a view of Athens from above, the Acropolis, the Agora, the Kerameikos ancient cemetery and the ochre façades of the 19th-century houses in Plaka. Quiet and serene, it couldn’t be a more dramatic contrast to the sights and sounds of the market district. (The entrance is on Miaouli Street and there is a separate elevator to the rooftop.)
(photos by Diana Farr Louis)