Like many Athenians, I’m a big fan of the Varvakeios Municipal Market on Athinas St (number 42), which has been selling a colourful and aromatic array of fresh fish, meat, vegetables, herbs and spices since 1886. Athinas St is also the place to go for random Bits N Bobs – you’ll find everything from horseback riding accessories, falafel shops and honey-combed oat biscuits to hardcore DIY tools, varieties of churchy incense and faux Doc Marten boots.
Yet Varvakeios is only one of the many reasons to visit the area, as leading off from Athinas are a number of streets packed with fascinating shops, an amalgamation of old Athenian shopping institutions selling cheese and preserved meats like pastourma and sausages and random household items and mainly Pakistani-run barbershops, grocery and spice stores and restaurants.
Although over the years I’ve wandered through the area, for this article I sought the guidance of my friend Omaira Gill, a Pakistani-British journalist who is a regular visitor. “I love exploring this area with its labyrinthine streets,” she says, “because there are so many interesting and specialised shops, like one shop that just sells every kind of rope and nothing else for example (Trezos on Pallados 2).
“My favourite part of this area is the part leading from Evripidou St to Menandrou St where there are all the spices sold by weight rather than the overpriced little bottles you find in supermarkets and all the stuff I can’t find anywhere else!”
Gill is mother to two little boys so when I ask her whether she ever feels the area a little dodgy in terms of safety she says “I hear that all the time – not at all! Obviously don’t go there when it’s dark and there may be some drug addicts or sex workers lurking around, and don’t go there dressed in head-to-toe designer gear. Otherwise it’s safe; I go there all the time with my kids and they love it. There are also a lot of great Pakistani-Indian restaurants in the area , and they serve completely authentic, fresh cuisine for next to nothing – don’t bother with all the fancy Indian restaurants in Glyfada or elsewhere, you’ll find the real thing here!”
Entering the labyrinth
Near the top of Evripidou you’ll observe a queue of people patiently waiting to buy anything from Chia seeds and turmeric to walnuts and a choice of over 2.500 herbs and spices at Bahar (number 31-33). A little further down is another popular herb and spice store, Elixirio (number 41) where products are showcased in wood and glass shelves that take up the entire wall. Further down, things get meaty at Arapian (number 41), Miran (number 45) and a favourite of those in the know Ta Karamanlidika Tou Fani (number 52 with Sokratous 1). All three stores specialise in cheeses, cold cuts, sausages and other specialised meat concoctions like kavourmas, products that are brought in from around the country and usually made according to traditional, regional recipes. Ta Karamanlidika Tou Fani also has its own restaurant with a lovely courtyard where you can savour meze or main dishes accompanied by regional raki, wine or tsipouro.
Every kind of household or restaurant item you can imagine, from cutlery and teapots to pots and pans and porcelain crockery can be found at Kioutzoglou (number 47) and Katos (38). If you’re looking for plastic fruit and flowers and the most incredible variety of bric a brac, from the practical to the fancy, however, start your hunt on Pallados St at Pasialis Tis Pallados (number 5). The street branches off from the start of Athinas.
Omaira’s favourite spice shop is located toward the lower part of Evripidou “where most people don’t bother to venture,” she laughs. It’s O Anestis (number 57-61) and she swears by the quality and variety found here, as well as the prices in relation to nearby spots.
Just before we turn onto Menandrou St, Omaira stops to press the buzzer at the Krishna Temple (number 74) with an unassuming metal door entrance. “I sometimes go up there and find my peace,” she smiles, “and they are always welcoming to everyone, people of any faith.” There’s no answer so we head to Menandrou St, where we leave familiar aspects of Athens behind. There are rows of shopfronts with bold signs in Urdu and Chinese – from tiny holes in the wall selling phone cards and barber shops, numerous grocery stores and mini markets selling exotic products. This wonderful world of ethnic life pours onto Sapfous St too. We stop for handfuls of fresh chillies in every shape, shade and size at the Bangladesh Mini Market (number 6 Menandrou) before heading to Sapfous to look around in the Halal Mini Market (number 2) and Bangla Town Mini Market (number 6).
With all these fantastic aromas and ingredients our appetites are calling out to us so we head to Omaira’s favourite restaurant, the Pak Tikka (number 5), which is very much like a Greek mageireio in that they prepare different foods every day that one can look at and select amongst from behind a glass window, with fragrant and delicious meat and vegetable dishes sold at as little as 3-4 euros.
After a few hours of our multi-sensory walk and a satisfying lunch, Omaira takes me back to Menandrou to show me a glistening, multi-coloured window of Pakistani sweets at Sitara Sweets and Bakers (number 22). Seeing my eagerness to sample everything here, Omaira artfully makes an eclectic selection of syrupy Ladoo dough balls, bright orange carrot halva, canary yellow coconut cake, smooth, milky Barfi, and crunchy glistening orange spirals of Jalebi. We sample every single one, and above all I enjoy the sweetness of now knowing Athens is even more exciting than I thought.
*All images by Alexia Amvrazi (Copyright)