I’ve wanted to visit Greece for a long time. Because it’s so far away from the rest of Europe, it wasn’t an easy add-on to our previous European travels. It is also a long flight (15 hours from LA). Though once we knew we were going to Turkey and then Albania, Greece, being between them, was an easy choice and with only staying a few days, it wouldn’t break the bank.
Because we only had five days, we decided to stay only in Athens and forgo a trip to the islands (we had beach time in Antalya and more to come in Albania). Islands are nice but c’mon, it’s Athens. While a trip to the islands would have technically been doable, after spending the fifteen prior days in intense Istanbul, we felt like staying put and chilling. Now, the idea of chilling in Athens may sound funny given that it is a major tourist destination, especially in summer. Compared with Istanbul however, Athens is a relatively small city.
In Athens we had an entire rental to ourselves! No more box of a hotel room that barely fits around the bed! We had a full on apartment with a separate bedroom, bathroom, living room, and kitchen. It was so very nice to spread out. I was even able to fit in some yoga which I hadn’t been able to properly do in several weeks given the size of our accommodations. The apartment also had AC! Athens is hot, very hot, so being able to chill in a cool apartment during our down time was a dream.
We arrived in Athens around 9am and couldn’t check into our rental until 2pm. Schlepping around luggage in the hot hot is not fun so we found a cafe and hunkered down for a few hours before grabbing lunch at a fantastic restraunt right around the corner from our rental called the Traditional. Our lunch consisted of a Greek salad (with an entire flippin’ slab o’ feta cheese on top!), mousaka, and what the menu simply listed as “piglet” which was roast suckling pig. It was nice to have pork again after being in Turkey where it is tough to come by. I do love lamb but pork will always have my heart (if you keep eating so much pork it will, Jess). It was all delicious and at prices that rivaled those in Turkey which was a surprise indeed.
The next day, we had an Airbnb experience booked; a food tour of Athens hosted by a native Athenian, Julia, who was assisted by her husband George. A few days before, Phil and I had been talking about some religious images we’d seen and I said I thought it was St. George. He wasn’t convinced. My logic was that we had seen the image in a Greek Orthodox church and I thought George was probably a pretty common name in Greece as almost every Greek restaurant I have ever been to in the U.S. was named George’s (we later discovered, it was indeed St. George). Julia informed us on our tour that George (pronounced Yay-or-hee-os… kind of) is the most common male name in Greece and said if you find yourself in trouble and simply call our “George!”, someone is bound to come to your aid.
I was very excited for the tour as the reviews were great and promised we wouldn’t leave hungry. It did not disappoint. We met Julia, Geroge, and the four other folks on the tour; a newly retired couple from Pennsylvania and two friends in their late 20’s who had met studying abroad in Germany during college (one lives in Long Island, NY and the other is Bahamian) at a bakery near to our rental. We sampled an Athenian pastry, bougasta, made with filo, custard, and plenty of cinnamon.
After introductions and the pastry sampling, we were off to the next stop; spice shops. We walked past shops, some 3rd and 4th generation, filled with beautiful looking and fragrant spices. Probably the most loved and most often used spice in Greece is oregano. I can totally support this. I too love oregano. They even have oregano flavored potato chips that are super tasty (not on this food tour, on the food tour that is my life). After the spices, we saw meats, delicious cured meats hanging from the rafters, literally.
As we walked through the neighborhood we next stopped at an olive cart with bins upon bins of olives, at least thirty different ones. We tried kalamata olives, green olives, back olives of all curing times and styles, spice pairings, and sizes. My favorite was probably a large green olive brined with lemon. So delicious. I probably ate fifteen to twenty olives. Good thing we brought a large water bottle with us.
After the olives, we stopped at a quaint local restaurant where we sat in the small back room and Julia made us simple, homemade tzatziki: full fat Greek yogurt, red wine vinegar, garlic and olive oil. We ate it atop a grilled Greek bread called lathobrekto that is a bit like a thick, square crostini with a distinct olive oil flavor. We also tried local red and white table wines that one could commonly find in Greek homes. The restaurant served us a generous charcuterie board of cured meats: pork and lamb salami along with a dried beef that is coated in spices and then air dried called bastruma or pastrima (a cousin of pastrami that is neither cooked or smoked). It’s distinctly bright red, hard casing looks a bit like wax but is not and really packs in the flavor. We also had feta and graviera (Greek gruyère) and learned that true feta can only be of Greek origin and made with at least 70% sheeps milk and can have up to 30% goat’s milk), otherwise it is not feta. It can be called feta-style or Greek-style cheese but true feta meets the origin and milk criteria (and a few others) set by the EU after Greece petitioned them to do so.
After the restaurant, we were off to eat a bit more. Por qué no (wait, that’s not Greek)? We stopped at the local meat market. Before heading in, Julia and George ordered up souvlaki makings. Julia showed us what she considers a perfect bite of food; a small pita triangle, the ground souvlaki meat dipped in a mustard sauce, topped with onion and tomato. She made two perfect bites and customarily, just like her grandmother used to, served them to the [two] men in the group (they’d be unable to do it themselves, she said) and then the gals were free to make up our own bites. They were delicious though pretty dang big bites.
After our bites (I was beyond full at this point), we walked through the meat market. Julia’s grandfather had owned a shop in the meat market when she was growing up and she knew the vendors and her way around well. We saw a variety of animals and their hearts, livers, testicles, heads, and faces. Living in Spain, it was fairly common to see heads and faces on butchered animals (unlike in the states) but in Greece for the first (and hopefully last) time I saw a skinned sheep’s head, complete with wide, staring eyeballs. It was extremely unsettling. Luckily I didn’t get a photo of it because it was something nightmares are made of. Clarice! Clarice! Yikes.
After the meat market, we stopped at Polykala distillery, a one hundred and twenty-five year old family run distillery. Rena, whose grandfather started the business, told us a bit about the various liquors and liqueurs they make, complete with samples! We tried small servings of coffee, lemon, sage, cherry with cinnamon (that tasted like Christmas), grapefruit, and rose flavored liqueurs. My favorite was sage. It was so, well, sage-y. Phil’s favorite was peppermint. We compromised as he did not like the sage and I did not care for the mint, and purchased a bottle of the lemon, or limonata. It tasted similar to limoncello but not quite as sweet. I like Rena’s style. Inviting folks in and getting them a bit liquored, or liquered up as the case may be, tends to loosen the purse strings more often than not I imagine and everyone walks away happy from the experience.
After the distillery, we were off to eat more food. The booze did help to counter balance the extreme fullness I had been feeling so I was up for tasting a bit more. We went to a tiny, unassuming little restaurant and all sat together outside. The owner, from a small Greek island, uses fresh local produce to make different menu offerings daily, using his mother’s old recipes. On the day we visited, he offered us meza (small plates similar to Spanish tapas) of meatballs, zucchini fritters, fresh tomatoes with seaweed, and more tzatziki and lathobrekto bread and served with small glasses of rosé. Julia and George left to meet their next tour and we all sat and chatted for a bit. The owner of the restaurant came out and gave us and himself all a shot of Tsipouro, a grape distilled spirit very similar to raki. After taking mine, I looked at Phil and gave him the look of, “that was surprisingly smooth”, to which the owner responded by giving me, and only me, another shot. When in Greece I suppose.
We walked with the twenty-somethings back toward where we began the tour as the four of us were all feeling quite chatty at this point. We parted ways near our rental and we made our way back so I could promptly lay down and take a nap. It was a fabulous tour and a wonderful day in Athens.