Psyrri Square, in the heart of the Athenian neighbourhood that bears its name, is one of the historic eight squares of Athens. Five main streets feed into it: Aeschylus, Agioi Anargyri, Aristophanes, Karaiskakis, and Miaoulis. Considered one of the oldest parts of the city, it couldn’t be more different to where I stayed last time I was in Athens, close to Syntagma Square.
Psyrri, Psiri, Psirri, or Psyri (take your pick), is loud, wired, and in your face. It’s full of life. Bars, restaurants, cafés, art galleries, craft shops, antique shops all compete for attention. Cars navigate narrow streets lined with tables and chairs, passing within millimetres of elbows and tablecloths. Walls and shop shutters are the perfect canvas for local and international street artists. Framed art hangs in the most unlikely places, not for sale, just hanging there. The music stopped at 5 am and took off again once the church bells had finished tolling in the late morning. I’ve just heard John Denver’s Country Roads for the fourth time and have yet to hear the original.
Psyrri wasn’t always as popular as it is today. Back in the 1980s and 90s, it was quite derelict and didn’t receive its facelift until early 2000, before the Olympics in 2004. During WWII, German soldiers walked the streets by day, while the resistance daubed the walls with motivational messages by night. A century earlier, in the 1800s, it was home to the koutsavakides [trans: those who walk with a limp]. They were a dubious lot, making their money from prostitution and selling hashish. Many worked as bouncers on the doors of gambling joints, bringing the modern mafia to mind. They were easily recognisable as they wore their coats with an arm in one sleeve, the other hanging loose, making it easier to divest themselves of restrictions at the first sign of trouble. Always spoiling for a fight, they’d also wear their belts long, with one end trailing the ground just begging someone to step on it and cause affront.
They were eventually neutralised by the famous police chief Dimitrios Bairaktaris, but this was after he had availed of their services to keep an eye on suspicious foreigners visiting the city in 1896 for the first modern Olympic Games. Employing thieves to catch thieves worked – not one theft was reported during the games.
When Byron was in Athens, it was here he stayed. I read earlier that he’d scrawled his name on the Temple of Poseidon in Sounion Bay, so I thought it time to read up on the man known to his mother as George Gordon. I hadn’t known he was so involved in the Greek Revolution or that he had done so much to further the Greek cause. He was one of the great Philhellenics.
Philhellenism was an intellectual movement prominent mostly at the turn of the 19th century. It contributed to the sentiments that led Europeans such as Lord Byron and Charles Nicolas Fabvier to advocate for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire.
It’s a fascinating place. If you want some recommendations on where to eat, check out this post on the Real Greek Experiences blog. Me? I’ve had my fill of Greek food after sailing in the Cyclades for two weeks. I’m taking advantage of the multinational offer and so far have enjoyed superb fresh Vietnamese from Dao and excellent shrimp po’boys from the aptly name Po’Boy BBQ.
The nearby neighbourhood of Omonia, home to the Central Market, is different again. Overshadowed by tower blocks and lined with bazaars and huckster shops selling everything from silver icons to spinning tops and parrots, it has some amazing street art, too. The fish market has us seriously considering a week in an Air BnB in the city just so we can cook something new every evening.
Given how quiet my life is and my low tolerance of noise, I felt surprisingly at home here. Had I not done something to my foot, I’d have been hoofing it around Plaka and Monastiraki, too, the latter set against the backdrop of the Acropolis, and encompassing the remains of both the Greek and Roman agoras. It’s also home to the official flea market which, this time, sadly, had to get by without me.
There is no shortage of churches, either, all untouched by paint spray and graffiti. A chap on a scooter holding a wooden orthodox crucifix drove through the streets ministering his message of the one true God, bothering nobody with his smattering of a Christian Sunday.
As I write, my foot propped up, and yet another rendition of Country Roads blasting through the window, himself is out walking the local neighbourhoods, choosing where we’ll stay for our week in winter. Given time, I could subscribe to Philhellenism myself.