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Letter from Athens

Mufidah on Lykavittos Hill, Athens

Mufidah on Lykavittos Hill, Athens © 2015 Sean M. Madden

Once again, the below started out as a brief update within our #CreativeTribes Slack community. I wrote this longer version this morning, left it for the afternoon, and returned to it again this evening.

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Well, two days in, Mufidah and I have walked all over a bunch of neighborhoods here in Athens, spoking out in various directions from where we’re staying (in Mets, a short walk east of the Acropolis).

Yesterday we walked up Lykavittos Hill, the highest point in Athens. This affords a great 360-degree view of the sprawling white city, and even the port at Piraeus. And, not surprisingly if you know anything at all about us, we’ve been exploring various places to eat, and cafés, including a couple of places we’d learned about prior to arriving here that we wanted to check out.

One such place, Stani, is known for its Greek yogurt made on the premises, and for small plates of rectangular portions of it, with a creamy skin on the top, covered with chopped walnuts and honey. We first visited Stani shortly after having eaten lunch on Saturday — at the second specific place we’d wanted to try once we reached Athens (see below) — but were still too full to sample the Stani delights. So we returned yesterday and shared one of those aforementioned small plates, accompanied by a cappuccino each, and were happy we’d thought to share one. It was scrumptious, and just the right amount for the two of us. One each would have been too much.

The other place, the café where we had lunch and a Greek coffee, each, on Saturday, is called Καφενείο τo 111. As we were hungry as well, I got a salami and cheese sandwich in a toasted pita; Mufidah also had a toasted pita sandwich, but filled with the makings of a Greek salad. Both were simple but delicious. And we shared a bottle of Alpha lager.

Lunch was followed by the Greek coffees for which we’d originally hunted down the place. It’s a brilliant little spot, and we enjoyed sitting outside in the sunshine, overlooking a busy scooter/moped/motorcycle parts shop directly across from the café, all the while a steady stream of customers showed up, obviously intent on buying something for their bikes, usually installing the part(s) right there, and then driving off as quickly as they’d arrived. We bought a small sticker — a blue and white Greek flag — to put on the Punto, alongside our legally required GB sticker and a small Écosse one which we bought in Scotland during our first summer back in the UK (2013), a similar atypical, spur-of-the-moment purchase for us both, but which seemed right in both moments to mark Mufidah’s half-Scots, half-Greek heritage.

Neither of these cafés were tourist destinations, at least at this time of year. We were the only folk at the latter, and there were just a couple of tables of Greek folk at the former. Nothing like the places in Plaka, where you’re continually hit up by folk trying to lure you into their restaurants, this having the unintended effect of causing Mufidah and me to keep on walking.

We ate one meal in Plaka, the night of our arrival, but won’t make that mistake again. We would have avoided the tourist trap even then, except we were hungry and tired after nearly twelve hours of travel between Ithaca and Athens, via Lefkada and Patras, and had thought we might just have stumbled upon a little find, it being quite inconspicuous (underground), offering traditional Greek fare, etc. It was mediocre at best. My grilled octopus was tough — nothing like what I’ve had many times in various parts of Spain. Mufidah’s moussaka was the least impressive we’ve yet had in Greece, or Bulgaria. Fortunately our own homemade version is, by a good margin, the best we’ve yet tasted. Fortunate, that is, in that it’s always available — and at a fraction of the cost — so long as we have the time and inclination to prepare it.

We’ve since learned of a few restaurants in and around our ’hood that come highly recommended. We’ll be giving at least one or two of these a try before we leave Athens (and Greece) on Friday. We’ll be driving back to Patras that morning for a 16.5-hour scheduled ferry journey to Brindisi, Italy. This will be interesting, particularly as we chose not to book a cabin, it hugely bumping up the price of the overnight trip. That said, we do travel with a lovely double sleeping bag that zips into two individual bags, bought just before we embarked upon our slow travels in May 2012, and which we spent much of that first summer sleeping in, at our campsite just outside of Vichy. So our plan is to make use of this/these while en route to southern Italy on Friday, assuming we can secure a spot on the ferry to lie down for the night.

Today, we’ve a couple of errands to run while continuing our on-foot explorations of Athens. I need to visit a haberdashery to find a new button for my CK jeans (replaced once already while living in Burgos, Spain a couple of years ago), and Mufidah wants to buy an extension for her Mac adapter. We’ll also look for one or two iPhone cables; unfortunately, we burn through these quite quickly, and also like to keep a dedicated one for use with our iPhones in the car, to power our GPS apps while en route.

One last thing before bringing this update to a close. We want, one day, to do what we’re presently doing but on motorcycles. And Athens being chockablock with bikes of every sort (we’re also surrounded by motorbike shops where we’re staying), we’re always stopping to discuss the finer points of various bikes during our walks around town. I can’t tell you how many BMW 1200, F800 and 650 GSs we’ve seen around the city. Not to mention Ducatis, Aprilias (including one fashioned into a police motorcycle), Harleys, and, of course, the ubiquitous scooters and mopeds — all flying around the city at breakneck speeds (despite 50 km/h, 31 mph, speed limits), while winding in and out of heavy car traffic, with an ever-present swarm of yellow taxis, and coaches and trams to boot.

Ideally, at some point, we’d like to pick up a couple of used lightweight enduros (I grew up tearing around Texas on one, illegally, as I was too young for a license) so that I can get Mufidah comfortable riding a bike on- and off-road. Bicycling together around Berlin all this past summer was a great first step as well, as she got used to riding a bicycle on the road amidst lots of traffic, as opposed to sticking to bicycle lanes. Then I’d like to perhaps trade these in for a couple of mid-sized bikes — perhaps larger enduros so as to keep building on the off-road skills — and then, finally, get an F800 GS for me and perhaps a 650 GS for Mufidah, unless by then she might be comfortable making the leap to an F800. We’ll see.

This is still a dream at this point, but a long-held one which we’d both really like to make good on, sooner than later. Quite tricky, too, given that we’re presently traveling by car without a home base. And we’d need to go through the rather cumbersome and expensive British motorcycle driving license requirements. But, in truth, this could work well with our strategy to want to get comfortable on smaller enduros and working our way up. I know from my own experience that starting off on smaller bikes, and learning to take these to the edge, off-road, is a great way to become a far better rider than going straight for large street bikes.
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Update (9 pm):  Since writing the above, we’ve been to one of the aforementioned restaurants in the ’hood, a Spanish restaurant aptly named Paella Barcelona. Doesn’t everyone travel to Athens for Spanish food? Well, it’s hard for me to miss out on a highly recommended paella joint no matter where it is. One of my favorite restaurants back home in Brighton is likewise a Spanish restaurant that serves a fine paella.

Anyway, we enjoyed Paella Barcelona, and talking throughout our meal with the husband-wife owners, who’ve an interesting background as well. The wife is from Mexico City, though her mother is from Andalusia. The husband is Greek, but lived for six years in Mexico City with his wife, ran a Greek restaurant there, and later moved to Barcelona for many years, where they still own a restaurant. Anyway, I had the traditional mixed paella, while Mufidah had the chicken version. The one thing we don’t see eye to eye on is seafood — I love it, she avoids it, though sometimes bravely tries a mussel, a piece of calamari, or a shrimp or two when encouraged. I always hope she’ll one day get over the fact that she’s eating small crustaceans, with little eyes, heads and what not, or a squid with tentacles and such.

We also shared a large carafe of homemade sangria, and topped off our meal with a crema catalana each, which turned out to be on the house as he couldn’t get his culinary blowtorch to light. I actually preferred it without the crusty sugar coating. Anyway, we left him an over-sized tip to essentially split the difference, and said our goodbyes. Just as we we’d left to begin walking home, he came shooting out of the restaurant to hand me my trusty ol’ baseball cap that I’d mistakenly left behind. He says he’s going to open up another restaurant on one of the Greek islands this summer. Sadly, it seems he’ll be doing it on his own this time, leaving his wife back in Athens. That made Mufidah and me a bit blue. But we hope they’ll continue to stick together through thick and thin, as they’ve been married now for nearly 35 years and have done so many amazing things together — in Greece, in Mexico and in Spain. We wish them all the best.

As alluded to above, this was meant to be a combined trip to the haberdashery as well, but it turns out they close at 3 pm on Mondays. So we’ll have to return another day. I suspect that will carry us, too, to another one of the two restaurants that are highly recommended within the Pangrati/Mets area of town.

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