Athens Street Food Festival

Athens’ Urban Scene – where to go when you’re done with the classics

Athens is undeniably one of the best cities in the world for immersing yourself in the ancient world, but what do you do after a few days when you hit ‘peak history’? Where do you go for more modern, urban entertainment? According to my list below, the answer is Gazi, the cool, industrial area north-west of Athens’ Old Town. Here’s seven places where you can get yourself a mix of food, drinks and music, plus art that isn’t quite as old as all the rest up there on that ubiquitous hill. And yep, four of them are in Gazi.

Technopolis

Located on the site of an old gasworks, Technopolis is a mixed arts venue where you can see just about every form of art and performance you can think of. It’s an interesting space to check out but unless you’re there for a specific event, you’ll probably not need more than an hour or so to have a good nosey about. Entry to the site is free, but there’s a small charge for some of the exhibits inside, like the small museum that tells you about the history of the gasworks.

Technopolis

The Technopolis gasworks chimneys make finding the place in the dark a cinch.

Technopolis

People gathering to enjoy the free jazz festival concert.

Athens Street Food Festival

The very first Athens Street Food Festival happened to take place when I was there (May 2016). From what I saw it was a huge success, so keep an eye on their Facebook page to see if there’s one happening when you’re there. Held in a huge abandoned building, it was just across the road from Technopolis (cnr Ermou and Peireos Streets). Handy. Inside there were over twenty street food stalls with food from Europe, America, Asia and Africa. There was also a DJ and stage set up for live music later, a couple of bars and a genuinely friendly vibe all round from both the staff and revelers. It was family and dog friendly too, not that you’d have your dog with you while you’re traveling, but anyway, now you know there’s dogs to fuss over if you’re missing yours.

Athens Street Food Festival

Athens Street Food Festival

Bios

Bios is another mixed media venue with arts and fashion events, film screenings, seminars, photography exhibitions, dance, theatre and, my favourite, a rooftop bar with a view of the Acropolis. I would definitely check their website or Facebook page to see if there’s any events on that interest you while you’re in Athens, but if not, the roof is a chilled place to have a few drinks. It’s a little tricky to find though, so here’s a tip. Bios is on the corner of Peireos (very happening street it appears)  and Salaminos Streets. If you walk into the bar on the ground floor you’ll not find any stairs to a rooftop inside. The stairs are outside on Salaminos Street. Again there’s no signage and it looks like the entrance to an apartment block, but head on up a couple of flights and you’ll find the terrace. There was a very mixed crowd when I was there early evening (even an elderly couple sitting on some sun loungers enjoying a cocktail) but I suspect the younger, hipper kids turn up en-masse closer to midnight.

Bios rooftop bar

Bios rooftop bar

Avdi Square

Bordering the corners of Leonidou, Kerameikou, Giatrakou and Germanikou streets in Gazi, Avdi Square is where the locals go to hang out and where, if you do too, you’ll get a real feel for what Gazi is all about. The square has the Municipal Gallery, restaurants with chairs that spill out onto the square and, as Gazi’s also known as the LGBTQI centre of the city, you’ll find the very popular lesbian bar Myrovolos here too. There’s regular street parties, festivals and art displays, but even if nothing much is going on it’s simply a good place to wander to during the day (closest Metro station is Metaxourgio), have some drinks or a meal and enjoy some prime people watching.

For some reason I have no photos of the time I spent in the square. Probably something to do with the fact it was our last stop on a six venue ‘hop’ and I may or may not have lost control of my arms and/or vision by then.

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Barcelona’s Gracia – the artsy neighbourhood

I recently went to Barcelona for the fist time. By myself. And once again I’m left pondering how many things have to go wrong whilst solo travelling before you can credibly declare yourself cursed? And more importantly, why don’t I have more friends? By my calculations it’s three. Not friends, I mean you need to have a shit solo holiday three times before you can start believing there’s been some jiggery pokery in the universe and your travel fortunes.

Last year I went to Istanbul solo. Wasn’t the most successful trip ever. No power or water in my apartment for two days out of four, humid September weather I hadn’t packed for and an early morning groping by some arsehole on the way to my airport bus. Barcelona on the other hand gave me two firsts, but not the kinds you can show off on Facebook about. Nah. Barcelona gave me my first ever dose of food poisoning and a £350/14hr flight back home when I realised way too late, like, at the departure gate, I’d booked the wrong date for my return journey. I have one more chance. After that, god help me, I’ll have to resort to solo travel group tours (is that an oxymoron) for my own safety.

I’m still not sure what I thought of Barcelona. It was January, about ten degrees, but that’s not a complaint because the sun was still out and there were no crowds. There was a palpable relaxed vibe to the whole city which I enjoyed, especially in the deserted, calming, beach-side Barceloneta. It’s undoubtedly beautiful, the architecture is stunning, the people are friendly and the food is good. But it just didn’t have that thing for me, that thing that hits you about a place almost the second you get off a plane, the instant click, like meeting a stranger at a party who gets your t-shirt quote without having to explain where it’s from.

So here’s the best I can do, the one thing I did quite like; Gracia, a village directly north of the Avenue Diagonal. Experiencing a bit of a surge in popularity lately, it’s essentially a family neighbourhood, but if you let yourself get lost wandering the grid-like streets you’ll soon see it has a lot to offer visitors too. Gracia is full of beautiful architecture (again), decades old specialty food shops (cheese, ham, legumes, bicycles, confectionery), endearingly cluttered bodegas full of colourful locals, street art, restaurants and little hidden squares just made for sitting to take a breather and people watch.

Gracia Barcelona

There’s some of that architecture. The first floor is always the fanciest because it was typically where the owners lived

Gracia Barcelona

Late afternoon sun makes for great shadows in shots.

Gracia Barcelona

I love old school shops. So much more character than modern chain stores.

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Beyolgu, Istanbul’s trendy hood – in pictures

Think Istanbul and what springs to mind? Mosques, markets, kebabs, Turkish Delight? Well, yes probably, if, like me, you’d never been to Turkey and just had stereotypes to go on. But surprise surprise, there’s another side to the city that straddles two continents. Once you’ve ticked off all the usual suspects, hip and happening Beyoglu is definitely an area you should spend a day wandering around.

Here’s why.

Istanbul 10

Amidst trendy, tourist magnet shops, much of the area is dotted with grand Ottoman era mansions. Once known as Pera, Beyoglu’s Greek, Italian (particularly Venetian and Genoese) and western European influences are evident in the Neoclassical and Art Nouveau styles of the beautiful buildings you see on every street. They’d been left empty and crumbling for decades, but the young are moving in, the buildings are being done up and cafes, restaurants and bars are doing a huge trade. The area is still very rundown, but walking around the streets it’s very easy to imagine the grandeur of the past. And it’s easy to see how that grandeur may soon return. Personally, I kind of like the current shabby/cool vibe.

istanbul 7

istanbul 8

istanbul 9

Istanbul 6

Street art seems to be quite popular here too. (more…)

Istanbul Hans

Most visitors to Istanbul will find themselves in a market sooner or later, and while shopping meccas like this are my idea of hell, there is one little known aspect to them that are well worth seeking out; the hans. And when I say seek, I do really mean seek, because if you didn’t know they were there, well, you wouldn’t know they were there.

Long ago the hans functioned as small inns, places where the travelling merchants who supplied the markets with goods from far and wide would stay for a night or two. These days they are workshops for what’s left of Istanbul’s craftsmen. If you’re brave enough to wander down passages off the main isles in places like The Grand Bazaar, The Spice Bazaar and the Old City Market, you’ll no doubt soon find yourself in a han. Here you’ll get to see workshops where men practice skills passed down for centuries to make textiles, shishas and probably most of the items you’ll see for sale out in the main thoroughfares of the markets.

While the hans are not exactly sign posted for tourists to find, don’t be shy, there’s nothing stopping you walking around and having a look. Some people will be busy and not want to be approached, but if you whip out a smile and a hello, many will be happy to show you what they are doing and let you take a photo. These men are true artists and their skills are dying out, almost as quickly as the hans themselves are. With parts of a roof missing here, chunks of a wall falling apart there, there’s such an ancient and authentic feel to them, but they certainly wouldn’t be passing any health and safety checks.

Great Mother Han Istanbul

A textile workers room

The Great Mother Han Istanbul

The Great Mother Han Istanbul

Within the hans there are little cafes where you can go for a tea or something to eat, or have one brought to you throughout the day by a cafe worker like this.

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The Cats of Istanbul

Istanbul’s cats are quite the tourist attraction, but I had no idea they even existed till a few weeks before I got there. I’m sure they didn’t know I existed either, so we’re even. In case you couldn’t tell from my previous Istanbul post, I love the little furballs. Knowing I’d have a virtual army of them to keep me company whilst travelling alone made me happy. But when there, I was left in two minds. Well, actually I was left in about 100 minds. (more…)

Istanbul Galata Tower

Eating Istanbul

I really thought I’d not get a holiday this year. But then it dawned on me, if I cut back from drinking 75 litres of Jack Daniels a week, I might be able to afford at least a couple of days, if I, you know, went full-on budget. Plus I might even remember what I did while I was there. So where to? Hmm. Somewhere slightly more challenging than Italy for the umpteenth time. Somewhere with a different culture. Somewhere to make me think I’d actually left the UK. What about Istanbul? There’s direct flights. There’s Turkish Delight. And there are cats. Oodles of them just wandering the streets, apparently. Perfect.

Normally I research the shit out of places before I go. After an initial couple of hours’ perusal told me that taxi drivers will most probably try to rip you off, there’s 14 million people (ugghh) and terrorists had set off a bomb outside one of the biggest tourist attractions that very day, I decided to stop reading. I also decided not to go to any top tourist attractions, but this was more about having an authentic experience , not silly, media induced fear, I swear.

Come travel day, we hadn’t even taken off before I knew I’d chosen well. I was surrounded with culture the second I squished myself into my seat; the man to my left stroked religious beads, the man on my right sat cross legged and chanted, other men prayed, women in veils outnumbered those without and there was a not unpleasant, but very distinctive, aroma of incense whenever someone in robes swished by me.

Then it all went to shit.

But let’s not focus on the bad things. Well, maybe just quickly – no power, no water, no air con and an unexpected September humidity that had me permanently looking like I’d just jumped into the Bosphorous. Oh and I had to actually punch a handsy a-hole before he understood that no, I did not want to go and make porno with him at 5am while waiting for my airport bus back home. I did say I wanted a challenge, right?

Despite the above, I’d picked a great area to stay in; Beyoglu. Mere steps from my shitty apartment was a lively local community. It bubbled away each day with cafes run by young, trendy twenty-somethings, a Borek shop (pastry stuffed with meat or cheese), a Pide shop (like a pizza), a ‘club’ where old men gathered to play cards and drink tea, a little corner store often run by a bunch of kids serving people between games of soccer and enough neighbourhood cats to keep any cat lady happy for weeks.

It was so nice, not even the Beyoglu hills bothered me, the many, many, 45 degree-angled, narrow, cobblestone lined hills. OK, that’s a lie. I’m betting high heels are not big sellers in Istanbul. I actually wouldn’t be surprised to find Beyoglu is built up over a pyramid. A myriad of paths wind up to the top, shops along the way full of panting tourists trying to catch their breath by feigning interest in Turkish flag t-shirts and all-seeing-eye fridge magnets. That look of delight on everyone’s faces at the top is probably not from seeing the shiny shops of Istiklal Avenue, but because it’s finally, blissfully flat.

The heritage tram on Istiklal Avenue

Flat it may be, but Istiklal is a consumer promenade so long there’s a tram that runs from one end to the other, all day, back and forth, one little narrow tram swaying side to side, overloaded with all those shopping bags and weary shoppers.

I only stayed here long enough to see the famous ice cream sellers making fools of their customers with a deft, almost vaudevillian sleight of hand act. Buy an ice cream from them and try to remain cheerful while he hands you the cone, only to snatch it back at the last moment. Again and again he’ll trick you, to the cheers and ever building mirth of the gathering crowds. By about the twentieth time, see if you can keep your frustration and embarrassment in check and don’t want to punch him in the face. Such fun. (more…)