Follow the Little Owl- A Spring Visit to Athens

A little discouraged that the previous flat I had stayed in in Athens, on the edge of Exarcheia, was not available for our planned weekend, I set out to scour for alternative options, looking for a sign that would point me to the right direction. The sign showed itself in the form of a pun, and of course I can’t resist a good pun: The CucuWow is a wordplay on the Greek word κουκουβάγια, owl, which happens to be the source of the Romanian word cucuvea. While Romanian has several other words for different owls (we seem to be particularly preoccupied by the species), cucuvea is indeed the little owl, Athene noctua. The CucuWow turned out to be a splendid choice: a lovely little apartment in the Kynosargous neighbourhood, a leisurely walk away from the Acropolis. The neighbourhood, fairly small and without any sights to speak of, is served by the Syngrou-Fix metro station. As suspected, the Fix does come from the beer of the same name, as their former brewery used to be located in the proximity of the station. The one quirk of the otherwise pleasant neighbourhood is that its fairly grid-like street arrangement will suddenly morph into a labyrinth at night, almost as if the streets suddenly entered a parallel dimension where everything is just a little bit off as compared to our reality. Importantly, do not use pharmacies as your anchors for orientation: every street corner has one, and they look very much alike. To my pleasant surprise, the street where the CucuWow is located, which seemed particularly sedate on a lazy Sunday afternoon, turned into a bustling, ad-hoc market come Monday morning. Come to think of it, I may not have thought of the scent of fresh fish as the ideal companion for my morning coffee, but somehow in a city by the sea it just all falls into place,  the reassuring hum of human activity in the morning, stalls being erected under the trees laden with heavy, ripe, oranges and mandarins and then being packed with fruit, vegetables and, of course, the daily haul of fish. Another great companion to my morning coffee was one of the books from the small but well chosen selection to be found in The CucuWow: At Home in Greece is the kind of coffee table book you can enjoy both on a sunny Athenian balcony, or holed up in some dark room in the dead of winter, there to remind you that sun and warmth exist in this world.

On our way towards the Acropolis, we crossed the National Garden, which lies just behind the Greek parliament, and houses the Zappeion, one of the first buildings to be commissioned, in the late 1860s, for the forthcoming revival of the Olympic games, which ultimately took place in 1896. The building was designed by Danish architect Theophil Hansen, who is responsible for extensive Neo Classicist work in Athens and Vienna. The garden itself, though, was commissioned by Queen Amalia, the wife of King Otto, the Bavarian prince who became the first king of modern Greece. We were there for the turtles, though. While last time I had glimpsed two decidedly large and well fed specimens, this time around we reveled in the reassuring sight of smaller turtles, which seemed to take a particular delight in being stacked on top of each other, and lazily blinking while doing absolutely nothing at all. The most famous/infamous animal to have graced the National Garden was, however, a pet monkey. In 1920, the beast bit King Alexander, who died of sepsis within three weeks. His death saw the return of his deposed father, King Constantine I, who was a sworn enemy of prime minister and national hero Eleftherios Venizelos. Venizelos lost the subsequent elections and was replaced with a prime minister who had considerably less military experience, with many generals also being replaced, which led to the Allied forces withdrawing their support for Greece. While seemingly farfetched, many historians do believe that this ultimately led to both the great fire of Smyrna and the Greek defeat in the Greco-Turkish war, thus sealing the fates of both modern Greece and Turkey.

Since we’d already done our cringe tourist pilgrimage to the Acropolis during one of our previous visits to Athens, we decided to investigate the area behind it, ending up in the neighbourhood of Thissio. (The quirkiness of the Greek alphabet and its transliterations means that you might also see it spelled as Theseio or Thiseio.) Thissio comes with stunning views of the Acropolis and Pnyx Hill. Pnyx could have been an IKEA product- as in when the name of an IKEA table literally means just that, table, in Swedish, because pnyx means ‘place where people are closely packed together’. And the reason for which they packed together was the first ever iteration of democracy, when the roughly 18.000 men of the Athenian assembly squeezed in to decide on Important Stuff. We were there for the coffee, though. And we were in the right place as we got our fix of caffeine in the shape of excellent flat whites in The Underdog– we were sadly a little late for their brunch, which was so popular that by the time we arrived, the kitchen was unable to take more orders. No need to panic about food in Greece, though, and soon enough we noticed the pleasant terrace of Mezedopoleío Thiseío To Koúsoulo, which encouragingly looked like the kind of place where locals have their Sunday lunches and definitely lived up to our expectations. It was while leisurely sipping my crisp white wine that I became aware of a very Greek phenomenon the extent of which grew increasingly apparent in the next few days. Irrespective of the weather, Greeks often opt for the freddo espresso. While its name would hint at an Italian origin, the freddo espresso is in fact a very Greek drink- the Italian connection is occasionally explained away by the fact that the drink may have been invented by a representative of the Nespresso brand. The trait which distinguishes it from other cold coffee drinks is its milk foam topping, called aphrogala in Greek. To keep its coolness, it is served over ice. Should you shoot the drink in one go, or consume it quickly from a cup, it will obviously stay nice and cool for the entire time. However, Greeks love to take freddo espressos away. They will do this in largeish plastic cups and carry the beverage over long distances, often while holding a lively phone conversation and wildly gesticulating to accompany it. As per the general laws of physics, the ice will melt. This will inevitably result in people roaming about with giant cups of sloshy, almost transparent coffee and look positively blissful about it.

Another strange phenomenon we witnessed during our stay is the Lycabettus funicular. Since last time I took the long way up, I felt that maybe a quick and easy ride this time around would be a welcome change. We duly showed up at the departure station on Aristipou street, purchased our tickets and joined the queue. The timetable seemed somewhat besides the point, so we assumed the car would start its journey uphill as soon as enough people showed up. This may have been the case, and after about ten minutes of idling about we all packed into a tiny car which, at least, had windows. This filled us all with childish hope that at one point during our ascent magnificent views would open to our enraptured eyes. Alas, this was not the case. The funicular hurtles through a dark tunnel all the way up, in one of the most uneventful and stuffy rides you can experience. Sure, you get there faster. But whether it’s worth it is another question altogether.

Of course, it is. The long way up is more adventurous and I would recommend it any time, but a sunset from Lycabettus Hill remains a highlight of any stay in Athens. The blog’s industrious co-photographer would also agree, even though he was not a big fan of the mass which took place in the church atop the hill, and which was blasted out from loudspeakers, so that the Holy Spirit could envelop you just as decidedly more mundane spirits did in the adjacent restaurant. I didn’t mind it though, it was the mass held in the weeks after Easter, the one where the chant of resurrection, which has a very similar tune in Romanian Orthodox churches, is repeated obsessively. It is a very simple song and I could make out the Greek words immediately, because they are the same as in Romanian. Jesus has risen, treading with death upon death. Set against a dazzling sunset, it held a strangely comforting promise even to a non-believer.  We should all hope. Life shall prevail.

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