Travel

Kawai’s Guide to Athens

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Taking you back to your art school days: the mighty Parthenon

I was in Greece for the latter part of October (hence the solo post that month!) and unsurprizingly, I didn’t find much in the way of an Anglo comic scene there although you can definitely find interesting small press material. I tagged along with a couple Classicists so this guide is going to be somewhat more random than my previous ones.

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Street food by the Akropolis

It’s been six years since the last global economic meltdown (yes, meltdown, not downturn, not recession. Personally, I’d prefer that we’d have called a spade a spade, something more along the lines of late capitalist neoliberal cockup but that’s probably why I’m not a business journalist). While business scions have regained their former wealth – and then some – six years of “austerity” (how about bleed them dry – and then squeeze more blood from the stony, osseous remains?) in Greece means that the economy is still at the forefront of everyone’s minds in Athens.

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No one has a real pension anymore – but the streets are still paved with marble

In fact, the majority of the conversations I had in Athens with strangers proceeded as follows:

Athenian: So, where are you from?
Kawai: Canada.
Athenian: How’s the economy over there?

Seekers of comix and small press materials are advised to head out to the Exarcheia neighbourhood, known for its political protests and large student population. Start at the platea for some prime people watching and then wander the neighbourhood, where the streets are crammed full of used bookstores, cafes and graffiti.

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Lots of political organization in Exarcheia, but notably, stores will assiduously avoid using the word “political.”

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“Venus in Furs: The Absolute Fetish Event of the Town”

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Greek small press

I wish I’d had more time to explore this area. A friend of mine has called Athens a “lived city” which means it doesn’t reveal itself easily to tourists or short stays. I found this to be the case, but still managed to pick up some independently printed zines, an erotic comics magazine (in Athens, you can pick up all kinds of porn – comics, hardcore gay DVDs, whatever, at some of their newspaper stands, it’s terribly convenient) and a couple copies of Babel, an anthology magazine which featured Greek cartoonists and a mix of European comic artists like Moebius, translated into Greek.

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You can see some graffiti on the thigh

Of course, there is also the vast wealth of ancient artefacts and ruins displayed in a casual manner that would probably shock most N. Americans (there are rarely any barriers so you can more or less touch everything – please don’t). My favourite museum was probably the National Archaeological Museum where you can see the famed Mask of Agamemnon (did I mention it’s a DEATH MASK?) and incredibly well preserved artefacts of Akrotiri, the “Pompei of Greece.” Rather than waxing poetic about all these sites of antiquity and the richness of ancient Greek culture, I’ll just say, bring your sketchbook.

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MEAT CEILING

Also, as an aside, the common food in Athens is amazing and you do not have to spend much to eat extremely well. The central market is remarkably cheap. Olive oil and olives are a no brainer of course, but pick up a bag of fresh pistachios while you’re at it. I promise you won’t regret it. I’d also suggest trying some Greek pine or thyme honey, mountain tea and these little chewy snack bars made of pure honey and sesame seeds.

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From the imaginatively named Beer Store in Athens. Featuring local craft brews and imports from the US

As for sit down restaurants, the two places I would recommend are both Cretan:

Kriti, which is within walking distance from the National Archaeological Museum, tucked away into different stores in a wee street arcade and converted into a charming little dining space. The tapas style menu has a dizzying array of dishes; I would just ask your waiter for recommendations for what’s good and fresh that night. In addition to stuffing ourselves with beet salad, fresh anchovies, rusks topped with tomatos and herbs, cheese-stuffed zucchini flowers, we were served dessert (poached pears over yogurt) and raki on the house.

Aster, located near the Akropolis. Aster has a more boisterous, youngish crowd and a simple menu, also tapas style. We gorged on cheese drizzled with honey, rusks, spinach pies, vinegary sausages and more.

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Ἰώ Πάν

Uncommon travel tips:

  • If you’re not going to learn Greek, at least learn to read the Greek alphabet. Seriously. It’s not hard and it will help a great deal.
  • Transliteration of Greek into English is not standardized, especially as some transliterations will take their cue from Ancient Greek while others from Modern Greek. In other words, the same places and names may take fairly different spellings in English.
  • You might get stares in the non-tourist areas of Athens if you’re not Greek. A Caucasian friend confided that she is sometimes assumed to be a prostitute when she goes out with her Greek spouse.
  • If you are a Hellenophile, pick up The Blue Guide instead of (or in addition to) your more typical travel guide. Written by Classicists and scholars, it’s a cut above the rest when it comes to touring the country.
  • Like many other countries in the world, when driving, traffic signals, stop signs and the like are taken as suggestions and the act of crossing intersections is a negotiation.
  • If you plan to visit the Korykian cave up in Mount Parnassos (pictured above), you can do the five hour long hike from Arahova or take a car. If you take a car, take heed that the road is unpaved, riddled with large stones – some that cannot be removed and could give a lower riding vehicle a fair scraping. Also, it gets much narrower as you near the top so if you change your mind, there is no way you’re going to make a 3 point turn to head back. As for provisions, aside from things like food, water, etc., it is recommended that you also bring a strong flashlight and an offering of illicit goods to Pan, who was once worshiped at the site. Advanced travellers may wish to invoke Pan through ancient “orgiastic rites” at their own risk.
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