So, here we are in the final instalment of my ‘food memories’ of Greece. If you’ve not read the previous posts, you can read part 1 about our beautiful hotel Kinsterna, part 2 about our day trip to the island of Elafonisos, and part 3 our journey exploring the Mani Peninsula.
Now, on to Athens.
The journey back to Athens from the Peloponnese was much the same as the journey out, but this time with a brief stop off for lunch at what can only be described as one of the world’s quietest motorway services.
I remember driving on motorways in Sweden was pretty pleasant because there were so few cars on the road, but where in the UK you stop a services and hear constant traffic whizzing past, here we stopped and it was silent. Eerily silent. Then once or twice you’d hear a car pass. And then more silence.
I’d like to be the kind of traveller who only goes off the main roads to find lunch from a local eatery, enjoying their lunch in some scenic spot – maybe one day I will. But for now we still stop of motorway services, even abroad, and eat bog standard sandwiches.
What I often find is that abroad the food is usually of better quality, even at motorway services. I ate my cheese filled pastry coil in the car as Mr Rigg drove on towards Athens and it was actually quite pleasant.
For our two nights in Athens we booked into the Marriott. I would much rather support local people by staying in B&B’s or Greek run hotels, but it seemed a nightmare in Athens and I just went in circles reading very mixed reviews about hotels that all seemed to cost a fortune. I decided if the prices were all about the same, I’d rather stay at Marriott – having worked with the Marriot staff in a previous life I know them to be friendly and the hotels nice wherever they are.
Driving into Athens had been fun in itself – Greek drivers seem much like Italian drivers (Mr Rigg swore he would never drive in a big Italian city after taking a taxi through Naples from the airport) in their disregard for any kind of rules or regulations, or agreed etiquette of driving. We had spent many moments discussing our plan of attack as we drove into the city – our advice is to keep alert for all kinds of craziness and hold your own.
Dropping our hire car back at the city centre car hire office was the most fun – we could see the office which was situated right on a very busy road through the centre of Athens, with no clear place to pull over and park. We did a few circles, before I jumped out while Mr Rigg went round the block again. On entering the office in a bit of a flap, I was told you just put on your hazard lights and pull over…even with three lanes of traffic storming up behind you. It worked.
After dropping off the car we wandered into Athens and towards the Acropolis. Although we didn’t go up to the Acropolis, I love that you can spy it from different parts throughout the city, and at night it looks stunning lit up (a few pictures of that below).
Again, there was more of Mr Rigg’s favourites…cats. Lots of cats everywhere around the Acropolis, lounging about, looking out for tit-bits and even a lady playing music to a crowd of them.
My favourite cat in Athens…he’s the one you don’t mess with…
Like you, Mr Rigg is wondering if I’ll ever stop taking so many photos of those damn cats…
It’s like one of those pictures where you have to spot a certain number of things – in this case, it’s cats…
And finally, the lady playing music to a crowd of kitties…
We also had our weird holiday moment near the Acropolis – wandering along we passed another young couple who we had only a few days before seen all the way down at the south of the Peloponnese taking the same ferry to Elafanisos, on the same beach we went to, and even eating dinner at the same taverna we ate at. Now, here they were, many miles away from Elafanisos, walking down the very same street as us in Athens. They looked as surprised as us!
For dinner we headed to Monastriki Square which has many touristy restaurants around it, and not the normal kind of area I would try and look for food, but there was a restaurant here that Jamie Oliver had visited and recommended so we thought it must be pretty good. Turns out this restaurant – Thanasis – now owns most of a street with what must be hundreds of tables. Even if we hadn’t been planning on eating there it would have been pretty hard to turn down the big bellied man who almost dragged us in to a table.
Mr Rigg and I both ordered the Thansis kebab which was moist skewers of beef and lamb served on warm pittas and served with blistered tomatoes and finely sliced red onion. The pittas were nothing like you’d find here in England, they were soft and pillowy flat breads with dimples all over them.
After taking a few photos, the big bellied man (I think he might have been the owner) came over to our table, took up my knife and fork, prepared a forkful and popped it into my mouth before I had a chance to know what was going on. I recall he might have even used my napkin to dab my face…but perhaps that bit I’ve dreamt up in my mind. Whatever happened, it was a pretty surreal moment!
He also accosted my camera – this is about the time when all my father’s drumming into me about being careful with my possessions when I’m on holiday or just out anywhere in general flew me into a moment of panic!
He literally walked up and grabbed it off the table, walked out into the street and took a picture of us sat at our table…wonder if you can tell that some big Greek man just stole our camera…
We also had a big plateful of tzatziki and beer for Mr Rigg.
As it begun to get dark we had a final wander around Athens, with these beautiful ancient churches that appear out of nowhere, quite un-at-home amongst the bigger, modern buildings that surround them.
There were also quite a few street carts selling corn on the cob. Wish I’d be brave enough (and hungry enough!) to try some.
The next day was our only full day in Athens before our flight back to the UK. I had prebooked us onto a guided food tour of Athens – going on guided tours is not usually top of my holiday to-do lists, in fact they are probably somewhere near the bottom, but knowing that we knew absolutely no Greek I was worried we wouldn’t really get to experience food in Athens properly left to our own devices.
After a slightly botched attempt to get the metro to Panepistimiou station (turns out we were waiting for a tram to begin with…and that the tram drivers were on strike…many thanks to the nice man who literally walked us to the metro stop and showed us how to validate our ticket), we were finally stood out in the morning heat keeping a look out for our tour guide.
Another young couple – Canadian’s on their honeymoon we later found out – came cautiously up to us and asked if we were waiting for the food tour. I love how tourists stand out to each other. It was a lovely small group in the end, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and us British. Our tour guide Despina was so lovely and bubbly and full of knowledge, and most of all it was lovely to visit local places that we probably wouldn’t have ordinarily gone into.
The first stop on the tour was actually just beside Panepistimiou metro station, at a koulouri stand. These snacks look a bit like a pretzel and are topped with sesame seeds. Despina bought a couple and we all tried some, they were surprisingly nutty and tasty.
Our next stop was a fantastic deli/grocery shop called Pantopolion tis Mesogiakis Diatrofis (1 Sofokleous St & Aristidou St) which specialises in traditional Greek products, most of which are organic.
We took home a tin of this Santorini tomato paste – SO good!
If I remember correctly these were local liquers from the area of Greece that our tour guide comes from, all made by a handful of ladies in a small village…
We got to try a variety of items, including Peloponnese olive oil (also in lemon and orange flavours), feta cheese drizzled with olive oil and thyme, a Gruyere type cheese from the Peloponnese, and Kalamata olives that are unlike anything I’ve tasted at home in England.
We got to browse the shop (Mr Rigg and I returned to stock up on a few items later after the food tour had finished) and on the way out we tried yoghurt with quince jam swirled into it – it was sweet and delicious, and I have a jar sitting in my cupboard ready to try out on yoghurt.
Next we visited a traditional home cooking restaurant called Doris (30 Praxitelous St) – it was the kind of place you’d never know about, nor probably consider going into as a tourist, which was what I loved so much about the food tour. Just some of the food on offer for lunch that day…
Here we tried loukoumades, an ancient Greek snack, which this restaurant is famous for. They look like mini doughnuts, drizzled with honey and walnuts and dusted with cinnamon.
Once you bite into them your discover that they are in fact super light and crispy, with only a small doughy centre. Delicious!
Next we made our way through the local markets, we didn’t stop but it was an incredible experience. We started in the central meat and fish market – Varvakio Agora (42 Athinas St), which are undercover and a complete shock to your senses. It was loud and crowded and full of smells and weird and wonderful products to buy.
I particularly liked how the fish was being packaged up in these paper cones.
There were a number of people sitting in the entrance to the covered market selling just a few items – green olives and bundles of greens. I like these kind of stalls best.
Out on the other side of the covered market is the the fruit and vegetable market (Armodiou St), as well as stalls selling nuts and olives.
The difference between these two pomegranates (if I remember correctly!) is ripeness…
Such an amazing selection of produce – I’m always jealous of cities when I go to markets like this…
From here we headed to Miran (45 Evripidou St), a traditional meat deli established in 1922 by an Armenian family. The shop itself was a sight to behold, with hundreds of meats (not real, I might add) and strings of garlic hanging from the ceiling.
We were treated to a speciality of the deli, a cure meat made from beef called Pastourma. Traditionally deep cuts are made in the meat which is filled with handfuls of salt, then pressed between two pieces of wood over a period of days while it looses its moisture. Then it’s covered with a cure made from paprika.
You eat it as a nibble, rather than cooking with it. We had it with ‘rusks’, dried croutons type bits of bread that seem to be a popular way to eat it.
We got a few slices packaged up to take away with us…
Miran also had this beautiful display of spices in the middle of the shop, other than the peppercorns and possible cumin, I could only hazard a guess at the others!
Further down the road we went into a small herb shop called Fotsis (39 Evripidou St), with beautiful displays of dried flowers, herbs and spices.
They told us about Mountain Tea, a herb used to make tea, often with a bit of honey and lemon (we bought some teabags home to try – unfortunately you’re not allowed to take the bundles of dried mountain tea home on the plane with you). We learnt that tea isn’t drunk by the Greek’s unless they are ill, and only then herbal tea. Despina the tour guide told us, if you ask people for tea in Greece, people will ask if you’re feeling ok!
We also got to try mastik, which is a resin from a rare tear that comes out as ‘tears’. It’s got incredible healing properties for all kinds of ailments, and is especially good for the stomach. It can be used in cooking in powder form, you can chew the little ‘tears’ of it, or you can make your own powder by blending up the ‘tears’ and adding flour or powdered sugar. It’s recommended that you take it in powdered form once a day with water, which is very good for you.
Look at the selection of dried rose buds on offer…
Our final stop before lunch and the end of our tour was to Bougatsadiko (1 Iroon Sq) which on my tour sheet is described as a ‘traditional fast food store’. They make bougatsa, a thin flaky pastry made with lots (lots!) of butter and filled with a custard mixture before being baked.
It was wonderful to be able to watch them make the bougatsa, first using incredible skill to stretch the pastry out so it was super thin and almost see-through. Then a series of blobs of soft butter and folds were made, adding in a dollop of custard mixture and before you knew it a tray of them were made and into the oven.
I am not a huge pastry fan, nor of pastries or doughnuts that have a custard filling, so I bit into them convinced I wouldn’t like them. I loved them! Maybe it was watching them make it that made them taste so good, or perhaps they just were delicious, but I would definitely recommend a visit to this bakery to pick up a little tray of bougatsa, which you eat with a wooden fork.
The tour finished at a traditional taverna for lunch – Dia Tauta (37 Andrianou St) with the Acropolis watching over us. Everywhere you go in Athens, you seem to turn a corner and catch a glimpse of it.
We sat together and ordered drinks and lunch – Mr Rigg and I shared zucchini (courgette to us Brits) fritters which I had been wanting to try whilst we were in Greece, and these ones didn’t disappoint – they were incredibly light and filled with flecks of shredded green courgette and tomato.
We also tried the eggplant baked with tomato and onion with feta cheese crumbled over the top, and some pitta with tzatziki.
Another dish I had really wanted to try whilst we were in Greece was feta cheese baked in filo pastry and drizzled with honey and sesame seeds.
I always like the idea of this combination of salty crumbly cheese with sweet honey, but it’s one of those things I wonder if I just like the idea of, but don’t actually like it when I try it. It was scrumptious.
In the afternoon Mr Rigg and I returned to the deli to stock up on some nice goodies to take home, we went into a few nice clothes shops, ate frozen yoghurt and generally just pottered around Athens.
I rate Athens highly as one of those lovely cities to just wander around and soak up everything going on around you. These are my favourite types of cities, where you feel happy to just potter.
Before we headed back to our hotel we sat at a cafe in Syntagma Square and drank peach ice tea and a fruit smoothie.
The final part of our visit to Athens was to head up to our hotel roof that night to get a beautiful view of the city lit up. It was pretty magical to see the Acropolis up on its hill, lit up with lights and watching over the city.
You can read my full Greek trip by clicking here on Food Memories Greece.