In October 2014 I set off to Athens with a single item of business on my itinerary: Eat. And that’s exactly what I did.
Over the course of five days I ate my way through the city, pausing only briefly for a few hours to visit the National Archeological Museum or climb the Acropolis before getting back to the business of savouring every mouthful of this delicious city.
Less than a year later, I’m sitting in bed watching the news with a heavy heart as flashes of the city I fell in love with, now in the grips of a crippling financial crisis, flash across the screen. Images of pensioners standing in line to cash their pension checks at empty banks are followed by scenes depicting angry people, desperate people, heartbroken people.
During my time in Athens, I met up with a few locals I had connected with online before my departure, to talk about our mutual love of food and to learn more about their city. Andreas Litis is a young Athenian I met through the This Is My Athens program - an initiative started by Athens Tourism, which pairs visitors with locals.
On my first night in the city, he took me to a small restaurant called Ta Karamanlidika tou Fani (which I have still never been able to say out loud), which serves the most incredible Turkish-Greek fusion food. It was clear by the fascination on the faces of the owner and waiters that they do not often receive tourists.
Andreas ordered plate after plate of warm vine leaves stuffed with rice, pan-fried eggs with potato, sausage and spices and potatoes fried with chilli and dill. We washed it down with a couple of bottles of what was to become my favourite local beer, Fix. I still think of it as one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
I reached out to Andreas to ask him a few questions about the current situation in Greece. “From my point of view, the worst is the feeling of uncertainty in society - a bit of fear and a bad mood. But still, the funny thing is that you will still see so many people outside drinking, flirting and talking, Greeks are happy people!”, he says.
The situation at the moment sees Greece and its European creditors having reached an agreement on July 13 aimed at resolving the country’s debt crisis and keep it in the eurozone. Details of the new aid programme still need to be agreed upon, with the deadline set for 20 August 2015.
When I asked whether he thought now would be a good time to visit Greece, he replied “Of course! I think visiting Athens and getting to know this unique city and her people is one of the best way to help Athens, one of the most interesting countries in Europe. Greece is Europe. Don't forget traveling is one of the best ways to invest your money in yourself! Now is a really good time because we have huge discount period. That’s a travel tip for our friends in South Africa.”
After chatting to Andreas as well as local food blogger Elena Sbokou during my trip, I learned that there were two Souvlaki spots vying for number one with the locals. This ever-popular snack of pita, stuffed with grilled meat and fried potatoes and covered with lashings of tzatziki is a staple in the Greek diet and I was on a mission to decide for myself which Souvlaki spot offered the best variation.
Confusingly both named Kostas, the two kiosks are a short walk from one each other and I hit one after the other. The Kosta’s on Agias Irinis Square serves their version smothered in a tomato sauce, while the Kosta’s on Pentelis 5 (at the intersection with Mitropoleos) in Plaka serves a lighter version with a yogurt sauce. It’s hard for me to say which was better, so I’ll have to go back for a second helping some day.
I recently got in touch with another local food blogger, Artemis Tsipi who says “The crisis in Greece is not just an economical one, it's a social, political, ethical and personal crisis for every citizen of this country. I'm trying to be optimistic and get on with my life with more passion and work and at last, I see people getting involved with everyday matters that really can change not only their lives but affect people outside our borders too.”
I asked her if she’d like to keep seeing tourists in her city and she replied “Of course! That's a big wish because tourism is one of the few “products” Greece has and must promote in order to raise funds. There is so much beauty everywhere and variety, from every single little island to every mountain, that everyone should experience once in a lifetime.”
How can South Africans help? “I believe that this is all you could do to help right now! Visiting Greece is your support and great help to local businesses, hotels, restaurants and locals who don't want to see their places empty! It's an economical and most important an ethical support!” says Artemis.
I feel that, as South Africans, we have a lot in common with what Greece is experiencing right now. A lack of trust in the government, feelings of uncertainty about the future of our country and economy, a burning need for tourists to visit our country in order to keep it afloat and of course, friendly people. Because of this, I believe we should stand with the people of Greece and support them as much as we can.
I spent five days in Athens and it wasn’t enough. I find cities fascinating and the combination of ancient architecture and modern life made this one of the most interesting places I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. I say, visit Greece, explore Athens, take advantage of the current special offers and stand with the people of Greece during their time of need.
Tips for visiting Athens
I booked through Airbnb, which is always a great way to meet locals and explore different sides of the city. I found so many great apartments but in the end I chose this one, which is located in a great up-and-coming neighbourhood, walking distance from public transport.
The This Is My Athens program is a great way to connect with locals. The people of Athens are incredibly friendly and always willing to help you find your way, recommend a great restaurant or just chat to you over a glass of wine.
It’s best to take cash. As South Africans we are already used to keeping our wallets safe, so don’t be scared. Just take extra precaution and be as vigilant as you would be here.
Make sure to walk the city. There is so much amazing street art to see and getting lost is half the fun.
See more of Natalie's foodie pics here...