The Place Where Beautiful Myths Start: Wandering In Athens
OF ALL THE examples of crisis-era entrepreneurship, one of the most heartwarming is the rise of cooperative cafes. The traditional Athenian coffee shop, or kafeneio, has been a fixture here since the Ottoman occupation. For many people, it’s a second home—a place to hash out family problems, play back-gammon, enjoy the day’s first drink. It is of course also where you take your coffee, which in the summer is Nescafe whirred with sugar and ice into the classic Greek frappe.
In Athens, mom-and-pop kafeneia, with their straw-seat chairs and cheap table wine in metal carafes, have been overtaken by bigger, slicker establishments. But the economic crisis has given this traditional staple of Greek culture a new lease on life. A few years ago, unemployed and overeducated young Greeks began opening their own austerity-era versions of Greek coffee shops. Helped in part by a new business law, they pooled whatever money they had or could borrow, raided their home kitchens, used humble local ingredients, and split whatever they made.
One of the first cooperative kafeneia was To Pagaki, which opened in central Athens in 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis. It established the template: modest prices, anarchist literature, Zapatista-grown coffee and a contagious spirit of youthful solidarity. Others have since riffed on the original recipe. In Petralona, I visited a foodie co-op cafe, To Perivolaki, which serves delicious meze, house-made lemonade and unpasteurized beer from the Ali microbrewery in Thessaloniki. A 15-minute walk takes you to yet another iteration: Beaver, which calls itself a cooperativa. Note the feminine ending. This place was created “by and for women,” though men are welcome. The vibe is hard-edged: found furniture, raw concrete columns, lights hanging from electric cords. The beer is cheap, the room filled with smoke and laughter.
It’s impossible to visit these co-op cafes without being struck by their scruffy charm, by the sweet welcomes of the workers, by how each place prepares a little €2 or €3 peasant platter loaded with cheese, bread, cold cuts, olives—away for those who are hard up to eat well cheaply. The cafes reminded me of a line by the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis: “How simple and frugal a thing is happiness.”
Alas, frugal happiness is the only kind many young Greeks can afford. Three out of four recent university graduates have left the country to find jobs. For most who remain, like Maryanne Kanellopoulo, a 32-year-old with degrees in psychology and education, there is no work. “I tried to find something, anything,” she told me. “Restaurants, tutoring Greek, nothing worked. This was my only chance.”
By this, Kanellopoulo means Saites, the co-op cafe she and five friends created a few years ago in the Athens suburb of Nea Smirni. It has wooden mobiles, political literature espousing workers’ rights, and excellent homemade meze like tatziki and chickpea fritters. “We’re trying to find solutions together,” Kanellopoulo said. “It’s hard because none of us planned to do this, but at least we know that we’re helping our friends, supporting small Greek farmers, and not taking advantage of people. That, to me, is more important than making money.”
This depression, while difficult, has also given many Greeks a chance to rethink what their lives should be about. “This is not just an economic crisis, it’s also a crisis of values,” said Gerazouni, the gallerist, echoing a sentiment I heard often during my visit. “This situation forces us to be more innovative, to be happy with less, to enjoy the sunset, the sea, or country life, to grow our own vegetables. Slowly, this is changing the whole mentality. In a way, it sets things straight.”
Scoot has just launched direct flights from Singapore to Athens four times a week. Otherwise, several carriers can get you from Southeast Asia to Greece with a layover.
AthensWas A luxurious refuge steps from the Acropolis, this Design Hotel is done up in a postwar style that’s heavy on marble and natural woods.
City Circus If you’re game for staying in the edgy Psirri neighborhood, this quirky, up market hostel is a real value.
Coco-Mat Get a great night’s sleep on the famous mattresses from the Greek bedding company behind this eco-friendly hotel.
Hotel Grande Bretagne Europhiles will feel right at home in this classic embodiment of a 19th-century grand hotel.
RESTAURANTS & CAFES
Beaver Run “by and for women,” this cafe-bar combines great music, a charmingly gritty scene and an eclectic, found-furniture aesthetic.
Seychelles With its open kitchen turning out refined small plates and a long list of esoteric Greek cheeses, this restaurant gives traditional Hellenic cuisine an elegant update.
To Perivolaki A laid-back spot in Petralona serving meze and local beer on a pretty terrace.
To Therapeftirio This fish- focused taverna in Petralona is justly famous for its mashed fava beans and taramasalata.
GALLERIES & SHOPS
Benaki Contemporary Museum This private museum is known for its millennia-spanning collection of Greek art and artifacts, but it also hosts daring contemporary exhibitions.
The Breeder With a mission to promote Greek art abroad, this gallery represents the best artists of the crisis generation.
National Museum of Contemporary Art Greece’s new home for contemporary art is in a former brewery from the 1960s and connects internationally renowned artists like Bill Viola and Shirin Neshatwith their local counterparts.
Rebecca Camhi The country’s top gallerist for international artists like Nan Goldin and Rita Ackermann also runs a shop with Greek ceramics and hosts an occasional supper club. rebeccacomhi.com.
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center The first major work of architecture to arrive in Athens since the crisis, Renzo Piano’s temple to high culture houses the Greek national library and opera.
Yoleni’s A new gourmet emporium in Kolonaki stocked with delicacies like gold-flecked Corinthian honey.
Zeus & Dione By blending ancient craft traditions with modern design, this young fashion label has become one of the most successful in Greece.