A Greek winery near Athens

Back to some positive stuff, now that the garbage problems seem to be over and the trash from the streets of Athens has been cleaned!
About two weeks ago, when the strike was still ongoing and walking in the center of town was not a pleasant experience, we chose to spend a Sunday afternoon at the Katogi & Strofilia winery, located south of Athens, about 1-1.5 hour from the center, 18kms before Cape Sounio.
The winery was organizing a Holiday bazaar - which as we learnt is a pre-Christmas tradition for them - offering visitors the chance to sample their wines, along with some accompanying snacks and Greek Christmas pastries.
It was a nice, sunny day, and the coastal road was fairly free of traffic. Quite a pleasant drive, even for us who are kind of used to it and take if for granted. The sea was blue and the sky was clear and sunny.

Katogi-Strofilia is the result of the merger of two formerly independent wineries: Katogi-Averoff (located in Metsovo, at the Region of Epiros) and Strofilia (located in Anavyssos, Attiki south of Athens). The result seems to have been a successful one, both commercially and quality-wise from what I'm reading... and tasting. The name "Strofilia" comes from the old, wooden, mechanical press that was used to extract the juice from the grapes.
Strofilia vineyeard, right next to the winery, in December

Winery entrance

Tasting room, behind the main building

Inside the tasting room. Pictures from the winery's past on the wall
I was most impressed with the wines produced in Epiros. The Traminer is a very aromatic dry, white wine while The Rossiu di Munte series showcases red, dry varieties (local and international ones)  cultivated at high altitudes in the mountains of Epiros, around Ioannina and Metsovo. You can read detailed information about  each wine in the winery's website. We bought some bottles for Christmas gifts and a few more for personal consumption... Again, you will find tonnes of details on the company's bilingual website.

Nice wrapping net, to protect the bottles...

Here they are... net-less, on our kitchen counter
An interesting linguistic notice is that many of the names are in the "Vlach" language, which was heavily used in Metsovo and other areas in Northern Greece. The Vlachs were a nomadic people, mostly practicing commerce and herding sheep, traveling between the areas of the current Balkan countries. They have for long been assimilated into the existing Balkan countries but you can still find traces of their culture here and there. The "Floara di Munte" (Mountain Flower) is another Vlach-named wine; a sparkling one for that matter,  made from the local Debina grape variety, which we will be drinking tonight, in lieu of champagne, to welcome the new year!

Getting there (updated 2013-03): First of all, make sure the winery can accept you on the day you want to visit. To get close by, take one of the "KTEL Attikis" (peri-urban) buses leaving almost every hour from Egyptou Sq. in the center of Athens going to the direction of either Anavyssos or Paralia Fokaias or Legraina or Cape Sounion via the coastal road. With either of these you may get off at Anavyssos (1.5hr. away ) and take a short taxi from there to the winery.

P.S. The name of the winery comes from an old winery machine. It is not connected with the Strofilia wetland  and forest in the west of Greece.

Why don't you follow me on twitter?


A clear, if dirty, picture...

If this blog aims to be one thing, that is to provide potential visitors of Athens with a clear, even "boring" or brutally honest perspective of what is going on in the city and its surroundings without the usual fake enthusiasm and exclamatory remarks found in - too eager to sell - travel guides and articles. High expectations lead to disappointment, nine times out of ten, so it's much better to bring all the deficits and shortcomings to the fore rather than pretend to ignore them or hide them under the rug. When something good happens, and lots of things do, I will try to present it as well, but there are many others who do this and one more site with nothing but love and admiration for the city wouldn't have much to offer I believe.
Why am I saying this?
Take a look at the two pictures below [sorry for their low-quality]. As I hinted in my previous post, a series of strikes, work actions and internal restructurings of the city has resulted in piles of garbage gathering up in most streets of Athens during the last 3 weeks. Even though the center of the city (where most tourist attractions lie) is being kept mostly clean, side-streets and passages and far-out neighborhoods are suffering, as garbage pick-up is much more scarce there. And not all residents are helping to the extent that they could.

A street in an Athens neighborhood, 2010-12-14
Merry Christmas in Athens! Love the Xmas lights? Athenians just won't give up that easily...
Now, no travel guide will tell you that Athenians and other Greek urbanites are faced with pictures like this about every once a year more or less (for a few days or more) and - for lack of other options - have become "accustomed" to the annual strikes of garbage collection personnel who are asking to receive tenure and / or to be transposed to other municipal services ("behind a desk").
Now, if and when you come to Athens you may see none of that, either because the strike will be over or because you will move in the limited area of the, better cleaned, city center. But wouldn't you rather know what is going on around you, or of the potential to encounter pictures like this, instead of relying merely on the picturesque images painted even by sites like TripAdvisor which, today, highlights Athens as the No. 4 "history and culture" destination in Europe with this raving description:
"Once known for smog, traffic and tacky architecture, Athens is a city reformed thanks to fortunes brought by the 2004 Summer Olympics. Spotless parks and streets, an ultra-modern subway, new freeways, an accessible airport and all signs in perfect English make the city easily negotiable."
The underlined part (by me) is the part that is true. The non-underlined part (and what's implied by it) is probably the result of hallucinogens! Of all things, I couldn't for the life of me understand how the Olympic Games could have helped any city get rid of its old architecture, tacky or not! Was the city razed and rebuilt for the Olympics? I don't think so! And this is not just TripAdvisor, which I use myself quite often in order to plan my trips, but a great many travel guides.

So, instead of that hoopla, I will choose the option of giving you the clear, even if dirty, picture...

Why don't you follow me on twitter?


Walking to work (2010-12-08)

As much as I may like to walk, I almost always go to work by car in the morning, and just a few times a year by mass transit.

Public transit employees are on strike today (the necessary price for a much needed reform) and my car's in the garage for service (bad timing on my part!). So, my wife drives me up to a certain point -on the way to her job- and then I have to walk for about half an hour.
Garbage collection workers were also on strike for about a week and called it off just a few days ago (but will strike again?). Most of the garbage from the strike has been picked up. Sidewalks are mostly free of …stuff.

Smell of bleach on the sidewalk, as some store-owner has been doing some early morning washing.
To my surprise (I shouldn’t be…) I notice I am moving faster than the cars.
Honking from some quick-tempered, late sleepers. Their red, green and yellow lights are dotting the early morning greyness.
Exhaust fumes… I thought we had gotten rid of those. People have been putting off the purchase of new cars, especially with the crisis. The car market is about 35% down from last year, which was also 30% down from the year before, so we will be seeing more and more clunkers in the foreseeable future.

Pigeon droppings complete the smelly landscape.

I reach an avenue and fast-moving cars start to pass me by again.

Walking through a park (we have a few of those) to cut through.
It’s mostly empty, with a few people going to work with rather dormant looks, a Japanese(?) couple jogging and a man walking his dog (or the other way round?)

Exiting the park and going back to my favorite side-streets. I dislike the early-morning sun and anything (like a wide avenue) that lets the light pass through is my enemy.

Children going to school. A girl is proding her younger brother to hurry up.
I bet she’s picked that expression from her mother.

A lady’s sipping on a coffee. I am zig-zagging through the narrow passages and I’m already there. Not too late…

Why don't you follow me on twitter?


Cleaning up Athens

I have written before about a new urban movement of Athens residents called "Atenistas". These are people who -disappointed with the city's gradual but steady decline over the years (with the noted exception of the 2004 Olympics)- are trying to take things into their own hands and set an example for the rest. They identify problem spots (an abandoned lot full of garbage, a dirty park, a flower-bed that has been left to dry, a beach with garbage) and take concrete, hands-on, D-I-Y action to try to turn things around.

I had the chance of taking part in such an event today, cleaning building walls and columns, covering 4-5 city blocks of Patission St., one of the main thoroughfares of Athens, for about 4 hours. A large number of Greeks show no respect for public space -although they'd go ballistic if you touched their own private property-  and walls are full of advertising stickers, political or advertising posters, "for rent" and "to sale" labels, "tags", graffiti, etc. Cars and motorbikes are often parked on sidewalks. The fact that city authorities have failed to deal effectively with this has only exacerbated the problem in recent years. 

So, fully aware that this was just a minuscule action compared to the massive amounts of dirt that surround us, we scrubbed,  sprayed, pulled off stickers and washed and scrubbed again, until a good number of walls and columns was reasonably cleaned; not anything spectacular but enough to realize that something had... happened.

We had all kinds of reactions, typical of the different attitudes you may find around. Some people were simply curious and inquisitive as to who we were and "who had organized this". Some with a positive, even impressed tone; others  with a sarcastic, dismissive one. Some were plain indifferent. We even came across a couple who were shocked that we had the nerve to scrub a slogan with the "A"(narchy) sign; I guess these two were coming from the next Harry Potter film: Harry Potter and the Magical "A"...  We even came across an old, public, analogue clock -outside the central post office at Aiolou St.- that probably very few people had noticed till then, and tried to clean that one too.

All in all, this was an interesting way to spend an early Sunday afternoon and do something for the city at the same time.

Why don't you follow me on twitter?


New mayors. Feeling good!

A brief update on the municipal elections I mentioned last week. All 4 major Greek towns changed hands in the run-off elections that took place this past Sunday. Athens, Thessaloniki and Patra in particular, were won by outsiders who did not belong to the political establishment and were not professional politicians. So, there is hope after all, for Greek towns, and finally Greeks have a reason to be... cautiously optimistic!

In the spirit of feeling good and doing good, here is a fascinating project featured in Kickstarter, related to travel: Just play the video and you should be immediately overtaken by the joy of African music. And do consider making a donation (or actually advance purchase) to help these 3 cinematographers accomplish their dream project! They only have 2 days left to gather the necessary funding!

Why don't you follow me on twitter?


Athens City Hall Square, Tonight

This just in, from a happening that took place at the square in front of the Athens City Hall (aka Kotzia Square), tonight.
The candle-lighting event was organized by "Atenistas"; a group of Athenians aiming to bring life back to those city neighborhoods, streets and corners that have been left behind to decline. Unlike this one, most of the events they've organized are not symbolic but action-oriented. It's a kind of law-abiding, hands-on activism. Cleaning up an abandoned lot full of trash, painting public flower pots that looked filthy, putting up informative signage (in Greek and English) for historic buildings that have been abandoned, marking the obstacles that pedestrians face in a central Athens street, etc. But tonight was different, still with a feel-good feeling, full of hope.

Why don't you follow me on twitter?


Municipal elections in Athens

Next Sunday, November 7, is the day of municipal and regional elections in Greece.
The legal and administrative framework is such that many Greeks do not vote in the town where they actually live but in the town where they are registered, which may be the town they live in or the town they were born in, or the town where their parents were born...
So, many people leave Athens and go to vote for the mayor of another town who doesn't affect their daily lives. Sounds twisted, doesn't it?
Even so, during the past few elections more and more people have started to break partisan barriers and vote for people who they think may actually do a good job. Not just for "their" party's favorite. And especially in smaller towns where it's easier to actually know who the people running for office actually are and what they stand for. This trend seems to be getting stronger this year, although Athens seems likely to suffer another four years of the same corrupt and incompetent leadership. Why that? Take this as a partial explanation: The Radio Station of the City of Athens has -hold on to your hats- about 300 journalists in its payrolls, most of them also having a second job. Do you think that most of these journalists will be decent or brave enough to level any kind of critic towards their employer...? And I'll leave it at that.
However, people do realize, when asked in surveys, that the city is dirtier than ever but it's not certain how much factors like this will weigh on their decision. Anyway, the winner has to get a 50% majority, so in case nobody gets that many votes there is a 2nd round (the following Sunday) between the two runners-up.

Furthermore, Greeks will vote for regional governors this year, for the first time ever. Up until now, regional governors were appointed by the government (and had fewer responsibilities) and people only voted for the Mayor and the Head of the Prefecture. The Prefecture is an administrative unit larger than towns but smaller than regions and it is now being abolished. From now on, there will only be Regions (divided in subregions) and Towns.

So, anyway, we are also voting for the Head of the Region for the first time, but if I said that anyone knows what these people will be doing exactly, I'd be lying big time. The main thing is that they'll be managing large amounts of money, among other things...

Back to Athens, there are about 515,000 registered voters and only 58% (297,000) voted in the previous elections in 2006. I just checked out and it's funny when you realize that for a "city of 3 million people" the mayor was actually voted for by around 130,000 people! Of course the "3-million" number is deceptive since it includes the many suburbs and peripheral towns. The actual population, as measured in the 2001 census was 790,000 people. But again, I forget that just like in elections, many people (fewer, but still many) leave their permanent residence town and go back to their village / place of birth, to be counted there, so even the official population of Athens is underestimated.
"Greek statistics" anyone?

Why don't you follow me on twitter?


Classic Athens Marathon 2010

It's not very often that you come across a 2500-year anniversary. The Athens Classic Marathon taking place this Sunday (October 31) may be just marking the 28th occasion of this sporting event, but the historical event it is commemorating (the run of Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens after the victory of ancient Athenians against the invading Persian army) took place 2500 years ago, in 490BC.
Twenty thousand runners have joined to run the Athens Marathon and the associated 5k, 10k and Power Walking races. Most races will end at the Panathinaikon Stadium, in the center of Athens, on Sunday morning / noon. I plan on being there and taking some hopefully interesting pictures, so I may post some here.
Some related books that may be of interest are:
26.2: Marathon Stories, by Kathrine Switzer and Roger Robinson (26.2 is the distance of the Marathon race in miles. In kilometers it is 42.195).

Here is the race's official site.

P.S. 2010-10-31 I didn't have the courage to get up this morning so I just watched the finish of the race online. There was a good number of people (but not too many) in the Panathinaikon Stadium, where the finish of the race(s) takes place, and it was a sunny day, but not hot, good for running (I guess :) ). To make it up to you I am posting a couple of photos from an earlier celebration that took place in the Panathinaikon Stadium, in 1996.
Olympic Games Winners Reception, 1996-08-06

Olympic Games Winners Reception, 1996-08-06 - Kind of a similar situation today (2010), only with fewer people in the stands.

Why don't you follow me on twitter?


O Tzitzikas ki o Mermigkas (restaurant review)

I've been keeping notes / reviews from restaurant visits for the past few years and I've decided it's finally time to start doing something with them. I don't have a bias for or against any particular type of restaurant. I understand that high-end restaurants will be judged differently from lower-end or mid-range establishments (fast-food, taverns, grill-houses, neighborhood restaurants, etc...) but each one has to be honest to itself and try to provide the best that it's supposed to. I have been exposed to many different cuisines and types of restaurants from my business and personal trips, in Greece and abroad, so this experience gives me the ability to at least have an informed opinion on what someone might expect. If I'm inexperienced or even clueless about a particular type of cuisine I am always ready to acknowledge it. As far as restaurants are concerned, I can't stand dishonesty and sloppiness. I hate it when clients are treated like just one more order to rush through. I abhor pretense and bootlicking. I believe that local cuisines are better off sticking to their local ingredients or traditional recipes, unless they have really mastered the ways of incorporating foreign influences. If I had to sum up my motto concerning restaurants it'd be: "If you can't do it, then don't. The world will still manage to get by... Just focus on what you can cook / offer, and do it in an honest, simple way".
So, leaving theory aside, here is my first restaurant review:

O Tzitzikas ki o Mermigas

Address – Area: Ag. Georgiou & Aischylou 26, Halandri, Athens, 210-68.10.529 (see page bottom for other locations).
Latest visits: 2009-06-06
Cuisine: Mezedopolio (appetizers / tidbits)
Overall Opinion: Very positive
Methods of payment: cash
Working hours: Evenings. Also open for lunch on Saturdays / Sundays but make sure you call ahead. Certainly book a table, esp. for Saturday night.

Our order (4-5 persons):
1 Tzitzikas salad (green vegetables with anthotyro cheese, mastelo cheese and vinaigrette / mustard sauce)
1 pitakia mix (assortment of various small pies)
1 kolokythoanthoi (zucchini flowers stuffed with rice and herbs)
1 vegetable mille-feuille (grilled vegetables w/ mastelo cheese & pesto sauce)
1 saganaki (4 cheeses fried in olive oil and boukovo spice)
2 roumeliotiko (very tasty meat dish – don’t remember details)
1 kebapakia (small kebabs)
1 white Moschofilero house wine
1 500ml bottle of Kaiser beer
5 Bread
Price: 76,40 €

Presentation / Ambience: A mezedopolio /taverna with a modern twist and very good food, which has expanded into a small, family-owned, chain (currently has 4 locations). Its name derives from Aesop’s fable “the grasshopper and the ant” (actually in Greek it's "the cicada and the ant"). A large open yard with about 20 tables. During the winter you’d probably prefer to sit indoors. The walls are decorated with glass pots full of spices and bottles of vinegar, wine and liquor barrels like an old-time, Greek liquor store. The tables are also old-style, wooden kitchen tables and you’ll find your napkins and silverware inside the table’s drawers.

Food / Drinks: A Mezedopoleio is a type of restaurant that doesn't focus on main courses but offers small plates of various appetizer-like creations (mezedes, sing. mezes). Somewhat similar to the Spanish tapas bar. The food here was excellent except for one dish (read service, below). Greek cooking / ingredients with some measured and highly successful modern twists. Even the house wine was good and that is quite rare.

Service: Courteous and quite fast for a Saturday evening. We did not like one of the dishes (the meat was just too hard to chew on) and the waiter inquired since we had almost not touched it. We told him the reason and when we got the bill we saw that we had not been charged for that dish! That is something you rarely ever find in Greece and tells a lot about the quality of this restaurant.
On a different occasion (late 2010) we had dinner at their restaurant in Ano Patissia neighborhood (Plateia Papadiamanti) and our non-Greek guest was presented with an English language menu before we had even asked for it! Impressed!

Location / Getting there: At the northern Athens suburb of Halandri.
Option 1) Get a taxi
Option 2) Get bus E6 (express-last route at 19:50) or trolleys No.18 or 19 from the National Archaeological Museum which take you to Halandri. Get off at the Halandri Square bus stop and from there you can walk 5-10 minutes along Agias Paraskevis St. and turn left at Aischyllou St.
A number of other buses and trolleys also go to Halandri.

There are three other locations which should be much closer to most visitors' accommodations:
-The first one is at Plateia Papadiamanti in Athens (Ano Patissia neighborhood) at the terminal stop of trolley-bus no. 14 which runs on Alexandras Ave. and Patission St. Trolley-buses 5 and 13 (running on Eleftheriou Venizelou and Patission St.) also make a stop one block away (Papadiamanti bus stop). I have also dined three times at this location and was equally satisfied, except for the rather confined space. Outdoor tables, on the square, also have to put up with the passing traffic. Open in the evening. [Last dinner here on 2010-10-26 and still excellent. In 2014 this particular location has made a slight turn towards grilled food / meat without abandoning its roots]
-The second one is at 12-14 Mitropoleos St., in the center of Athens, 2 blocks from Syntagma Square, at the ground floor of an old apartment / office building. Also open for lunch.
-The last and newest one is located at the northern suburb of Kifissia at 12-14 Drossini St. Also open for lunch.
See map of Athens restaurants at the bottom of this page.

Why don't you follow me on twitter?


Immersed into the movies...

When I was writing about the Athens International Film Festival the other day I didn't expect to be so enthralled by the whole thing. Sure, I had watched the occasional screenings in past years, others more and others less interesting, and I had enjoyed the atmosphere, but I hadn't been so much drawn into this whole thing up until now.
Three days and four films later I almost feel like I'm living in a different universe with my daily life just filling in the time between screenings.
I even took a half-day off work today (not much to do anyway...), so I could watch a documentary about the making of the 1972 Rolling Stones double LP Exile on Main St and as I just checked out it was released on DVD this summer.

The documentary was titled Stones in Exile. Most of the film (61 minutes) consisted of still photos, with a camera panning and zooming in and out of them; interviews and narrations help describe the events of the time and how and where this piece of work was produced, while the album's glorious music is filling in all the rest. Did you know that the lyrics for "Tumbling Dice" (the Rolling Stones' best song in my view) were inspired by a black maid, in L.A. who taught the guys about rolling the dice and that kind of gambling?

Getting out of the movie theater -it's been hot and humid lately in Athens- I passed by Papasotiriou Bookstore, at 37 Panepistimiou St., and caught a glimpse of people, in the ground floor, spread out in couches and checking out the latest books. That reminded me I had some books to check out as well, so I headed to Politeia bookstore, which is nearby, at 1-3 Asklipiou St. If you ever need a photo-book / album (what is disturbingly referred to as a "coffee-table book") with pictures of Greece (and not only), Politeia is one of the best places to start looking. Plus, the people working there are very helpful and knowledgable about books.

On my way there, I had to pass through the siren smell of a traditional grill / souvlaki restaurant called "To Prodorpion", at the corner of Asklipiou St. & Akadimias Ave. This is an old time grill, not only in terms of age but also because -though clean- it isn't over-sanitized, in the sense of ultra-powerful ventilator hoods that suck in all the smells, sending them to food-smell heaven and leaving a "cleaned" -exhaust-fumes only- air for us to enjoy... In simple words, you can smell the grilled meat (gyros and souvlaki) every time you approach the place and I find nothing wrong with that!

Anyway, I managed to pull myself away (all tables seemed occupied anyway) and get into the bookshop, with the Stones' music still playing in my head. I was searching for some books on 1940s-'50s Athens that a reader of this blog inquired about. I didn't manage to find exactly what I had in mind but I will give it another shot.

I ended up walking back to my car, parked far away, trying to prolong this nice overdose on the senses and to keep my current work-life out of them...

This brought to my mind the film I had watched on Sunday afternoon - a 1960 "cinema-verité" documentary by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin called Chronicle of a summer. It's funny how people, even back then, different time and different place, still felt trapped in their jobs with their interest diminishing, when working for large organizations...
And allow me to make an... honorable mention to a wonderful music film I saw last night, titled Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, which was a biopic to the great, late English songwriter and performer Ian Dury. Andy Serkis (of The Lord of the Rings / Gollum fame) was starring in the lead role and he really shined in it. I've only wathced him play the Gollum and ...this, but he really seems to have established himself (in my mind) as a great actor!

Why don't you follow me on twitter?


Athens International Film Festival: It's that time of the year again!

The Athens International Film Festival - "Opening Nights" (AIFF for short) opens its doors tomorrow (all four of them!) for the 16th year in a row, with movie screenings in four Athens movie theatres. The festival features a competition part (like every self-respecting festival does), Greek films, international films (independent and Hollywood), international premieres, special thematic sections (last year the theme word was "space"; this year it is "hole"), discussions with movie people, after-midnight screenings and -what makes AIFF really stand out in my view- a permanent special section / focus on "films and music", showcasing music documentaries and/or music-related films.

This year the festival runs from 15 to 26 September 2010.
The movie theatres where the screenings take place are: Danaos I and Danaos II (Panormou Metro Station) and Attikon Cinemax Class and Apollon Cinemax Class (Panepistimiou Metro Station). Tickets cost 6€ while morning screenings (at 11:00am and 1:00pm) are only 4€.
Full schedule can be downloaded from the festival's website (.pdf).
Feel free to contact me for any further info.

P.S. And something I only remembered to write about after I went to my first projection this year. The people! There's just something different about going to a festival screening than to an ordinary movie show. You can see all shorts of people, but they all seem to have one thing in common. A sparkle in their face and the eagerness / happiness to be part of something out of the ordinary! A small touch or spice and (movie-) magic when this city needs it the most. Enjoy the show everybody!

Why don't you follow me on twitter?


Parko Eleftherias: the newest (half-)park in Athens!

When the Athens Concert Hall was created, 19 years ago, there was a certain controversy raised, as is the case with most big projects. The controversy had to do with an open lot next to the main one (the main one would be used for the Concert Hall itself anyway), which was, up until that time, used as a park but also (mis-)used as a parking lot. The "Friends of Music" organization, which operates the Athens Concert Hall, had pledged to create an underground garage under the lot in question and, afterwards, to re-create an urban park on top of the underground structures.

To make a long story short, the day for this new park came this summer. The park was inaugurated, without much fanfare in my view, and is now open to the public and operating. The funny - and awkward - thing is that one part of the park is now open 24/7 (the old, untouched and semi-abandoned part) while the newer part (the one built and operated by the Athens Concert Hall Organization-ACHO) has iron bars and shuts down at night. This probably has to do with the presence of the US Embassy across the road and the extra security precautions taken these days.

Parko Eleftherias (ACHO) w/ Lykavittos Hill in the background
Parko Eleftherias-ACHO, looking east, w/ Mt. Ymittos in the background
What sets it apart from almost all other parks in Athens is that, this is a park that clearly seems to be well landscaped, thought out and well kept, at least for the short time that it's been open. Most Greek town squares seem like copies of the same 2-3 designs being implemented in a hundred different locations, in total indifference for their surroundings or their intended public and their interaction with them. This is not just my impression. Some years ago a colleague gave me a call, asking if I had "some plan for a town square" available somewhere! He was part of a team that was going to place a tender for a town square in some other Greek town -far away from Athens- and they just needed a drawing / plan to use as part of their bid (or to be inspired from, although that didn't sound like the case...)! Thankfully, I had no such thing to offer and I never bothered to ask what happened next.

But Parko Eleftherias-ACHO has an original design, dictated by its location and its interaction with the underlying structure but also quite suitable for an urban area. The US Embassy in Athens stands on the opposite block, a hospital lies in the back of the park and the Athens Concert Hall in the front. On the side, there is "another" public space (the part of Parko Eleftherias which is still under the jurisdiction of the Municipality of Athens). The "two" parks are separated by tall, iron rails and you have to exit Parko Eleftherias-ACHO from the Vasilissis Sofias exit, at the front side, to go to the Parko Eleftherias-municipal, which also has a cafeteria, hidden behind the trees as well as some buildings supposedly housing cultural exhibitions.

Parko Eleftherias-ACHO: Exit towards Vassilissis Sofias Avenue.

View OMIG-Parko Eleftherias-ACHO in a larger map

If you zoom out of the map you will see that  Illissia wood (that I wrote about last month) is very close to Parko Eleftherias. Yet, the two are different in many respects. The former is an urban pine wood, very large and left (on its own) in a rather... natural state while the latter is a landscaped urban park, which closes at sunset, that you feel much safer in, even though the... (imaginary?) cameras from the US Embassy next door made me feel kind of uneasy :)
Anyway, you can see that Athens could have a huge, continuous, urban public space with a relatively small effort (cost) if it united all these parks (from Illissia to Lykavittos) with the missing pieces (blocks) in the puzzle.

Back in the day, from ancient times till the great reconstruction of Athens in the 1950's, a stream named Illissos was running through Athens, underneath the current Michalakopoulou St., and ended up into the Saronicos Gulf several kilometers down the road. It's not hard to imagine its presence today if you find yourself in Michalakopoulou St. /Vasilissis Sofias Ave. and you look at the slopes of Lykavittos on the one side and the slopes (much shorter) of Illissia wood on the other.

Why don't you follow me on twitter?


Return to Athens (with some juicy burgers...)

As much as we like traveling, it is often a joy to return home after a long time (or seemingly long time) away from the simple comforts we are used to. We just came back from our annual, summer pilgrimage to the islands. We stayed for about 1 week in the island of Sikinos where we came across what seemed as one of the largest concentrations of rude, inhospitable and greedy people. We had a really fine time but it had nothing to do with most business owners on that island.

Coming back home to an empty fridge, we decided to have an informal dinner some place outside and picked our local 'Simply Burgers' restaurant. This is a restaurant chain (in-place, take-out and delivery) that has been in operation since 2003 but has really taken off in the last couple of  years in the metro Athens area specializing in affordable, good-quality burgers. It was created by two Greek-Americans who have left California to find their luck in Greece and seem to be doing just fine as of now.
Well, let's just say that the simple (!), yet impeccable, service we received felt like a cultural shock as compared to what we had experienced in Sikinos for the past week. And yet, our waiter was a young guy, college student age,  just as Greek as the rude business owners of Sikinos or their occasionaly polite but typically untrained staff. So, a business franchise run by two Californian Greeks shows respect for their customers and teaches its staff how to do the same while similar, smaller businesses in a remote island (which should feel neighbourly, friendly and welcoming) treat you like a walking-talking wallet...
I am not a big tipper but I left one of the biggest tips I've had in a long time to the guy who waited our table at 'Simply Burgers' and I almost felt guilty for not leaving more.
See map of Athens restaurants at the bottom of this page.

And, by the way, here are some tips on tipping in Greece.

Why don't you follow me on twitter?


"Parko Illission", aka "Illisia Park", aka "Illissia Wood"

The Wood of Illissia ('Alsos Illission') is one of the largest urban parks in Athens and, I would say, one of the least known as well, at least for those who don't live around this area. It is located in the eastern part of the City of Athens and continues further east to the municipalities of Kaisariani and Zografou. The "University of Athens" and the "National Technical University of Athens" have moved their campuses here, in the easternmost part of the park. The campuses are not open to the public for most of the day (not that there is really anything interesting to see there). Further east they connect with the Ymittos Mountain which enjoys a protected area status.

We decided to take a walk in the main part of Illissia Wood, the one closest to the center of Athens, a few Sundays back, in the midst of the July heat. The park has many entrances, one of which is at the NorthWest edge, right next to the church of Agios Charalambos and Agia Varvara, at the corner of Ionos Dragoumi & Iridanou Streets.
Agios Charalambos and Agia Varvara churches, Illissia Park, Athens, Greece

Illissia Park, Athens, Greece
This is clearly a wood, more than a typical urban park, although you will see some attempts at landscaping part of the area, with paved corridors, built benches or water faucets, most of which are functioning (although we chose not  to drink from there and instead had some bottled water with us). It is mostly pine, cypress and carob trees that you'll see; typical Mediterranean vegetation.
The wood seems to be frequented by many dog owners and their four-legged friends. I have noticed this both times I've been here: On a weekday morning and during this Sunday afternoon.
There are uphill paths that take you to several clearings in the wood, which provide interesting views to the hills of Athens and the mountains surrounding it.
View towards Ymittos Mountain, east of Athens,  Illissia Park, Athens, Greece
View towards Lykavittos Hill (Athens center)
A couple of playgrounds can be found on the northern border of the wood.
There is no cafeteria or other attraction here, other than the wood itself. It does provice a much welcome relief in the sweltering summer heat but you won't regret having a bottle of water with you in either case. There are two playgrounds at the northern edge: one at the border with Ymittou & Alkaiou Street and another one to the west, inside the park. Even if it looks kind of rough and unwelcoming, the wood seems to be safe and with at least a minimum level of upkeep by the city's services.

View Larger Map

People who stay at one of the nearby hotels (Athens Hilton, Divani Caravel, Best Western Illissia Hotel) might want to take a walk here, if they're longing for a touch of nature in the middle of metro Athens but shouldn't expect to be blown off by the beauty of the place (unless you feel inspired by the photos above!)

It took us about 1 hour to walk around the eastern part of the wood (the one circumscribed by Ionos Dragoumi, Diocharous, Efroniou and Ymittou streets).
Closest Metro Stations: Megaro Moussikis Station (Athens Concert Hall) and Evangelismos Metro Station.

Why don't you follow me on twitter?