April in Greece, part 1: Athens

April is the perfect month to spend in Greece. I enjoyed four days in Athens from April 4 before taking a ferry to the Cyclades on April 8, returning to Athens on April 13.

Athens can be hard work because of traffic and crowds. The touts around the major tourist attractions are a nuisance. But let’s look at the nice things:

Athens remains a great city for strolling. The sight of two tortoises in the gardens of the museum of ancient music reminded me that creatures that move the slowest tend to live the longest (and vice versa). In Athens it’s important to stroll, and look up and around.

I rented an apartment at Akadimou 9, Athens 10436. It’s a beautiful flat with an excellent kitchen which means I can shop at the markets and cook. Eating at restaurants every night reduces the pleasure of dining out.

Lamb shoulder baked on a bed of onions, carrots and oranges

This was dinner on my second and third nights, and a snack another night. The ingredients cost about Euro 15.

With it I had an excellent 2015 Xinomavro from the Noussa region from my local supermarket (Euro 5.50).

The Xinomavro grape can be aggressive when young — a bit like young Nebbiolo/Barolo from Piedmont — but softens with time. This was deliciously sappy with lashings of red fruit and soft tannins.

The trick with cooking lamb is to use low heat (140C) for at least three hours. The vegetables have a natural sweetness and produce a rich sauce. Slow cooking means the meat falls off the bone. The Greek lamb came from the central markets on Athina Street.

Nearby is Miran, one of the best charcuterie in Athens at 45 Evripidou Street. They have another store at the port of Piraeus.

The Athens store opened in 1922 and the third generation of founder Miran Kourunlian’s family run the business.

They specialise in soutzouki (sujuk), an air-dried salami, and pastourma (pastrami), a fillet cured with Miran’s secret spice blend. I took the photo from the store entrance. The bright red rectangular blocks are pastourma. It’s like an Aladdin’s cave of meat.

This photo shows the blue skies of April and the gorgeous pink of spring trees. I think this is a Judas tree.

The area around my flat runs the gamut from cafes filled with stylishly-dressed hipsters through to wrecked buildings.

Many people are sleeping in the streets, some with needles in their arms.

Often these combinations are in the same street.

The man sleeping rough seems to have a lot of suitcases. It’s much nicer sleeping in the streets when April temperatures are in the early to mid 20s Celsius, compared with grey skies and rain typically found in England in spring.

One of the delights of strolling is the chance to visit churches. Along the most pleasant Aiolou Street, designed for pedestrians, I encountered a superb falafel takeaway named Falafellas and entered three churches.

A service was being held in the church of St Irini on Eirini Square, off Aiolou Street. The aroma and memory of incense was a jolt to my senses as my eyes adjusted to the light.

I lit a candle for my parents and remembered how much they loved me.

Four priests sang, in a kind of tag-team chanting, while a fifth crossed himself as he read silently behind a pale blue Covid mask.

Perhaps eight people were in the congregation. Above is a brief segment of the chanting, which runs for almost a minute. The acoustics are marvellous.

Here are a few small tips for travellers. If changing money, use ATMs at banks rather than the ubiquitous machines supplied by EuroNet. Banks will give you a much better rate (1.18 Euro to the pound from banks versus 1.05 Euro to the pound from EuroNet, as of 6 April 2022).

Dine in restaurants or buy take-aways well away from the tourist hotspots. The food will be better and cheaper. A gyro around Monastriki square will cost you at least 3.50 Euro while the same gyro will be about 2.30 Euro away from the square. Plus you avoid the irritating touts who try to tie “free” strings around your wrist and then ask for money.

Be extra careful on public transport, especially the Metro, because the pickpockets are some of the most skilled on the planet.

Be careful also when buying food from the central market on Athina Street.

It’s a cool place to visit, with lots to see, but it’s a tourist trap and the sellers will palm off their crap produce if you let them choose for you.

These satsuma/mandarin oranges seemed good value at Euro 1.19 / kg but as you can see they are poor quality and bruised. Yet having said that, they were very sweet eating once I had removed the bruises, rot and blemishes.

The Benaki Museum of Islamic Art is worth a visit. Its main branch is close to my apartment, at the corner of Agioi Asomaton and Dipylou streets. It’s only open from 10am-6pm from Thursday to Sunday (most guide books have incorrect details). It was a delight to discover they have a special rate of only 1 Euro for journalists.

This image of a plaque bearing the footprints of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), found in Iznik in 1706, caught my eye. It is said to be the marks Muhammad left before he ascended to the heavens from Jerusalem.

The Dome of the Rock was erected in 691 on the place where Muhammad stood before he ascended, and it’s believed to be the earliest-known Islamic monument. I visited the site in 1983 and can still remember walking on the billowing thickness of hundreds of carpets piled on top of each other.

Make sure you visit the cafe on the top (fifth) floor for the spectacular views of the Acropolis and the Kerameikos area with its cemetery that dates to 3,000 years BC. The cool breezes on the roof are also a pleasure after the heat and bustle of the city.

Another image that got my attention was this court scene on a broken piece of ceramic from 11th century Egypt. It shows two men enjoying music and a drink, presumably wine or something similar.

They do seem a tad nervous as they look upwards, as if expecting to be caught doing something illegal.

Never-the-less, the pair appear to be enjoying two of the most important things in life.

The chap on the right is filling his cup to the brim, which suggests he’s more of a quaffer than a connoisseur. We should all fill our cups to the brim of life. The piece is made from a process known as lustre ceramics, developed in Samarra in Iraq from about 838 common era, which spread around the Muslim world. It’s an intriguing and compelling image about enjoying life’s pleasures.

Feel free to continue reading part 2.

Categories: Greece, Not home

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