Athens

Oliver Berry visits the Greek capital outside summer to experience the city the way the locals do: drinking in the atmosphere in backstreet bars, shopping at neighbourhood markets and tasting the season’s new produce.

Words by Oliver Berry

Athens is a city that’s never really quiet. No matter when you visit, it’s a place that thrives on a constant background of noise: the hum of traffic jams, the hubbub of downtown markets, the howls of high-rise house pets, the whine of motor scooters.

But today, early on a warm autumn morning in the normally hectic neighbourhood of Monastiraki, the city is about as peaceful as it gets. Apart from a few shopkeepers setting out their wares, and a cat or two stalking along the sidewalk, the streets are uncharacteristically silent.

I’m hiking up to one of my favourite – and least-known – archaeological sites: the graveyard of Kerameikos. Three thousand years ago, this area of Athens was named after the potters who worked here; later, it became a cemetery, and the site is still littered with 1,000-year-old marble stelae (gravestones). I step through the gates, making my way along the overgrown paths past the intricately carved headstones: some depicting scenes of domestic life, others mythical animals, battles or portraits of the deceased meeting their loved ones in the afterlife. I spend an hour wandering round, and I don’t see another soul.

The lack of crowds is just one of the things that makes autumn my favourite time to visit this ancient, enthralling city. I love the cooler months, when the tourist crush eases (at least a little), and the thermometer drops from skin-searing to just-about-bearable. This is the time when many Athenians return from their summer holidays, so there’s a palpable sense of local life returning to the city, and the calendar is packed with social events, from film festivals to cultural celebrations. And as the heat of summer subsides, locals rediscover the pleasure of spending time outdoors – drinking, eating, socialising, and bar-hopping for as long as the autumn weather allows.

One of the top spots for outdoor drinks is Ipitou St, a little alley not far from busy Syntagma Square, where locals sip cocktails and nibble mezze at one of the side-by-side bars, like the snug Blue Bird or buzzy Ipitou The Bar. Similar bars litter the surrounding backstreets, some old-fashioned and quaint, others brash and brightly lit, all packed with late-night drinkers.

Outdoor cinema is another popular pastime in Athens. There are several places around the city where you can watch a classic film under the stars, including the Ciné Paris, a rooftop cinema that screens movies with a view of the Acropolis. Tickets are like gold dust in summer, but in autumn, seats are much easier to come by.

Autumn is also a great time for festivals, including the Athens International Film Festival and the Athens Classic Marathon, as well as the patriotic Oxi Day on October 28, when a military parade marches through the city to commemorate Greece’s refusal to allow Italian troops to cross the border in 1940 (oxi means ‘no’ in Greek). Outdoor autumn concerts are also staged at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the amazing amphitheatre set on the southern slopes of the Acropolis. Built in 161 CE to seat up to 5,000 spectators, it’s one of the world’s most incredible places to watch a concert.

And then, of course, there’s the fruits of the harvest to enjoy. In mid-September, the Taste of Athens food festival brings together the city’s top chefs, restaurants, and producers for a food-themed celebration at the Zappeion Megaron, an imposing neoclassical building located in Athens’ National Gardens. Meanwhile at the city’s Central Market (otherwise known as Varvakios Market) seasonal produce takes centre stage – from just-caught fish to cured meats, ground spices, salty feta, and small-batch olive oil. Autumn is also the loveliest season to tour the Attica vineyards, a vast 6,500ha area just outside the city, where winemakers have been tending vines for thousands of years. In early September, you can taste the year’s first vintages and take a guided tour to see how the wines are made (including pine-flavoured retsina, made here for more than 2,000 years).

Milder temperatures also make autumn a time for activities that would be unthinkable in the furnace of summer. Located 40km outside the city, wooded Mount Parnitha is a haven for mountain biking; local guides lead tours of their favourite routes. Back in Athens itself, a walk around the National Garden of Athens reveals a side of the city many visitors never see: stocked with exotic trees, Mediterranean plants and archaeological remains covering 15ha, it’s an oasis for Athenians looking to escape the city smog.

But the best reason to visit Athens in autumn is to see the city’s archaeological sites minus the summer crowds – especially popular spots such as the Acropolis Museum, where you can see the treasures of the Parthenon while gazing through floor-to-ceiling glass over to the Acropolis, or the National Archaeological Museum, which contains one of the world’s most important collections of Grecian artefacts, including frescoes, friezes, pottery, ancient armour, jewellery, and exquisite sculptures.

I finish my own trip with a stroll along Dionysiou Areopagitou, a pedestrianised thoroughfare at the foot of the Acropolis, where buskers and street artists stage evening shows, and pop-up stands sell freshly grilled souvlaki and deep-fried calamari to queues of diners. From here, I hike to the top of Philopappou Hill, a wooded mini-mountain rising from the backstreets, criss-crossed by walking trails. Even though it’s early October, it’s still surprisingly warm, and by the time I reach the top, I’m hot and thirsty, but the reward is worth the effort – a panoramic view of the Acropolis, its columns gleaming like gold in the hazy twilight.

As the sun sinks over Athens’ ancient skyline, I realise – with a touch of smugness – that apart from a few sightseers, dog-walkers, and a couple of canoodling locals, I’ve got the best view in the city pretty much all to myself.

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From Colours September 2019

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5 Senses – Taste
Spondi

Athens’ first Michelin-starred restaurant, Spondi remains the premier place to dine in the city, with a delightful courtyard setting and a sophisticated, Franco-Greek menu. spondi.gr