“Ο Μάρτης πότε γελά και πότε κλαίει” – Μarch sometimes laughs and sometimes cries. So the idiom goes here, as has this year. There are many phrases like this about March in the Greek language. Most of them (like in other cultures) focus on the weather’s instability during the month, and folk tradition believes that the weather gives us a glimpse of what will come in summer. This March was unstable, to say the least: one week it was snowing, then the next the spring sun was shining, and then again back to snowy winter!
One of my favorite March traditions is donning a bracelet made with red and white thread. We call it “martis” or “martia” after the month’s name, and we make it on the last day of February and wear it on March 1. It is a tradition rooted in Ancient Greece, in the Eleusinian Mysteries, the initiations that took place each year to honor the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. This tradition carried on through Byzantine times and later spread to the Balkan countries. The thread is worn throughout the month, generally on the wrist – though some wear it as a ring or even on the toe in order to protect them from stumbling! The main purpose of the bracelet is to protect the skin from burning from the (hopefully present) spring sunshine.
I have my own spring traditions. I love taking long walks, and Saturday is my day. Last month, this meant it was sometimes in the rain or the snow, and sometimes in the skin-warming sunlight. This month, it is looking like the sunshine will hold.
Today, my stroll begins early at my neighborhood’s farmers’ market – the largest farmers’ market in central Athens is here in Ambelokipi. Last month, the artichokes started showing up, as did the wild asparagus and other wild greens that we Greeks love. I load up my shopping stroller, then pass by home to unload it and free up my hands. To celebrate a shop well done, I head for a warm breakfast sandwich or peinirli at Peinirli Ionias. Their bread is warm and freshly baked in their woodburning oven. I love their sandwich with grilled eggplant and warmed feta. It’s a perfect breakfast before I take off for a good coffee.
Heading towards the metro station in Ambelokipi around the corner, I stop at Aphrodite for a pomegranate juice. This was the last week for fresh pomegranates, and the antioxidant-packed juice is something I enjoy almost daily throughout autumn and winter.
Instead of hopping on the metro, I continue on foot, walking by the stadium of Panathinaikos, the Athens football team on Alexandras Avenue, and I turn left on Hippocrates Street to enter Exarchia, one of my favorite Athens neighborhoods. And it’s time for a coffee. The options for a good cup are plenty, but I stop at Bayard. A small, corner café off the beaten path, Bayard serves exquisite coffee and snacks prepared by Tromero Paidi (meaning “whiz kid”), a great artisanal bakery in the nearby neighborhood of Goudi. I grab an iced coffee with almond milk, and sit for a moment on the front steps of my favorite ekran – a bohemian open-air cinema, which in a couple of months will be reopened for the summer season.
We Athenians have a special relationship with coffee. It’s absolutely a thing to stroll around holding one, particularly during these warm months when we enjoy our freddo, a shaken iced espresso with or without whipped milk.
Heading downtown, I make a quick stop at Asimakopoulos Bros, an old dairy and pastry shop in the heart of Exarchia with fantastic yogurt and other wonderful treats. I grab a bag of “olives,” the chocolate covered almonds that look like shiny Kalamata olives. My son and I can empty a bag of those in seconds!
I reach the stunning building of the Academy of Athens, the oldest research institution in Greece, established in 1926. Its founding principle traces back to the Academy of Plato. I walk towards Sophocles Street, heading toward the Central Market district. It’s pretty hard to avoid food around here. The options are plenty, and the beautiful smells pull you in. I first enter the fish market to take a look at what’s on display, and I grab a tsipouro (an unaged brandy made from distilled grapes) at Karayiannis, chatting with patrons and fishmongers.
The energy of Acropolis Hill and the beautiful views of the Parthenon looming at its peak make me feel lucky that I am here, surrounded by so much history.
Tsipouro is always served alongside meze, and my usual choice here is pork sausage, grilled cheese and pickled spicy peppers, although Kostas, the owner, will often surprise me with his special off-menu treats. This usually results in more than a couple of glasses of tsipouro and maybe even a beer! Before I leave the market, I stop at Volvi for their divine, old-school-style pork souvlaki grilled on charcoal.
I cross Athenas Street to enter the neighbourhood of Psyri via Protogenous Street, which always has a lively buzz – as well as a nice vintage clothing store that I can’t resist stopping at each time I walk by. Psyri is always very busy on the weekends, as is this whole downtown area. I take the small, curved alleys of Psyri and end up in Thiseio, where I stroll the pedestrian thoroughfare around the Acropolis Hill. Despite being hilly, this is a beautiful walk that I never get tired of. The energy of this hill and the beautiful views of the Parthenon looming at its peak make me feel lucky that I am here, surrounded by so much history.
I make the long walk in the direction of the Acropolis Museum to reach the neighborhood of Koukaki. It’s time for gelato. My number one choice here is Django. They opened in Athens last spring, but their first shop has been around since 2005 on the island of Syros. Beautiful gelatos and sorbets are prepared from fresh and seasonal ingredients, and choosing a flavor is always a difficult task! I go for their famous pistachio, and I pair it with their seasonal strawberry sorbet – creamy and delicious, it’s beyond expectation, especially since it is both a vegan and gluten-free sorbet.
Next, I head towards the Pagrati neighborhood and stop at the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation Museum of Modern Art, a brilliant collection that features works of renowned Greek and international artists, including Degas, Picasso, Van Gogh, Pollock and Bacon. One of the things I missed most during the Covid-19 lockdowns was my weekend visits to museums and galleries, so I make sure to make up for lost time now that I can!
After the museum visit, it’s time for dinner. The weather is pleasingly sweet, if a tad brisk after the sun goes down. Due to Covid, most restaurants and cafes have installed some outdoor heaters, making it easy to enjoy a dinner al fresco without freezing. Mavro Provato has followed suit, and I invite friends to join me there for dinner. We share a large tomahawk pork steak, boiled greens dressed in lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil, and orzo with forest mushrooms. I have a glass of red Agiorgitiko wine from Nemea, one of the most ancient wine regions in the world. We end our dinner with a warm apple pie and find ourselves having a cocktail at Joshua Tree before finally calling it a night. It’s been a long, beautiful day, and I’ll have a good night’s sleep as well because of it.
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