Not just a place to drink coffee

Giorgos Pittas has had hundreds of cups of Greek coffee all over the country, taking photographs and getting to know the history of the traditional cafe – the “kafeneio” – an establishment that is present in even the remotest villages.

A researcher of the less obvious aspects of Greek public life, Pittas has already made a name for himself with excellent editions on Athenian tavernas and religious festivals on the islands of the Aegean. Now he’s back with a Greek-English tome titled “Cafes in Greece” (published by Koilada Lefkon, 254 pages).

From the Panellinion cafe in Amfissa, central Greece, where a scene from Theo Angelopoulos’s “The Traveling Players” was shot, to Forlida’s Cafe in the village of Lafko in Pilio – Greece’s oldest, having opened in 1785, and a watering hole for the writer Alexandros Papadiamantis – Pittas spoke to owners and patrons, took wonderful photographs and collected memories that he shares in the pages of his new book in a simple and lively style that transports the reader to an entirely different world: the traditional Greek kafeneio, a place once – and in many parts still – frequented exclusively by men, a place of festivities and games, a social hub and often an arena of heated political discussion.

“The cafe was a place for the exchange of information and values. And of course it created a link between the community and the outside world. Anyone who wanted to get to know a place went to its local cafe,” says Pittas.

The researcher and writer visited 500 cafes and had a very hard time narrowing his choice down to the 80 that made it into the coffee-table book. Most of these are still open today and it is clear that Pittas has a soft spot for the older establishments.

“They have an imperfect aesthetic compared to the perfection we see in new spaces. The wear and tear and the history of a place and its people is imprinted on the old cafes. And this is why we need to salvage them as a piece of living history,” he says.

The tome is separated into chapters describing the different aspects of the cafe story.

It starts with their history. The first cafes, for example, opened in Mecca, the great pilgrimage site for Muslims, before the invasion of the Europeans in the 17th century. Pittas also tells us that many of the popular cafes that later opened up around Europe were run by Greeks, such as Cafe Florian on Saint Mark’s Square in Venice, the Cafe Grec in Vienna, and Caffe Greco in Rome.

In Greece, the first cafes sprang up during the Ottoman era and they were mostly in urban centers, serving as watering holes and meeting points for Turks, Armenians, Arvanites, Vlachs and Greeks.

Another very interesting chapter deals with the different types of cafes that have appeared over the centuries, though the most fascinating is probably the part about the people who go to cafes: The traditional Greek cafe is almost exclusively a male space.

In this chapter, Pittas explores the diplomatic exercise of buying another patron a coffee or a glass of raki or wine and how the favor will be reciprocated. He also says that many men admitted to avoiding the cafe when they were short of cash because they didn’t want to be embarrassed by being unable to return the favor of a free drink.

The other chapters are dedicated to cafe signs, the art of making Greek coffee, the role of tobacco, ouzo, raki, retsina and beer, the snacks that are served with drinks, and the card and backgammon games that are played in cafes. The last part of the book is dedicated to the 80 cafes Pittas picked from his collection along with photographs and brief histories of the establishments.

Overall, “Cafes in Greece” is a wonderful piece of work that is elegant and also has historical value.

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