Monastiraki – in the heart of Athens

The barker’s voice penetrated my mind like a scene from a bad dream: «We’ll find something for you, pal. Come in. We’ve got loads more stuff, come in and have a look.» I was 15 and I’d gone to Monastiraki with a classmate to buy a double-breasted jacket in fake leather because I needed somewhere to put my huge sew-on Clash patch and some pins. «Flight jackets, Doc Martens.» The barker had maneuvered us into the Top Man store and we came out with a Ramones-style jacket that cost me around 3,500 drachmas. It was a fantastic day, until we spotted some skinheads beating up a guy with long hair outside the Clock fast-food place. We dodged them and got away along Adrianou Street. Friday noon The barker has gone gray and the flight jackets and Doc Martens are museum pieces, though Converse All Stars are back in fashion. Cowboy boots with a buckle on the ankle (made in Greece, if you please) have disappeared off the face of the earth. Today’s 15-year-olds buy Vans and wide pants and listen to hip-hop. At the top of Iphestou Street, Germanos is selling mobiles like hot cakes, while the cream of society eats at the famous souvlaki outlets in the square. An American asks me courteously where he can find «old rock vinyl.» Saturday 2 p.m. Monastiraki isn’t punk, or rock, or hip-hop; it isn’t even the home anymore of Spyros Koemtzis, now an old man, who sells his autobiography from a little table next to the station. He is not an attraction to the tourists who are seeking the hot spots of Athens as listed in their guidebooks. Outside the station, girls wait for their friends; boys light up another cigarette and stare at the clock. Thanks to the metro, this spot has gained something of the status that the Bakakos pharmacy once had in Omonia Square – a rendezvous point for generations of Athenians. A group of Indians from the Andes, dressed like Indians from Arizona, play good music. The asphalt shudders as a train runs through the bowels of the earth. A Gypsy raver has been following me for 10 minutes, trying to sell me a watch for only 10 euros, «down from 1,000. Give me whatever you’ve got. Haven’t you got 100?» Then he opens up a bag with three packages: «Perfume, mate. Give one to your girlfriend.» A television crew is getting ready to work; two Africans approach to sell me CDs; a City of Athens police officer shoos them away while talking on her radio. Some people laugh as former Greek pop and disco star Yiannis Floriniotis walks down Iphestou wearing multicolored trousers and huge glasses. The sound of the bouzouki mingles with the beat of techno. Pigeons dive; a dog strolls by; cockroaches scuttle past. The Army Shop, Handres and Top Man are doing good business. A saleswoman who has popped out to buy some bananas sighs as she looks at the Mosque of the Lower Fountain (also knows as the Tzistaraki Mosque). Legend has it that the mosque was built in 1759 with lime mixed with one of the columns of the temple of Olympian Zeus. As if cursed, it has gone unnoticed by Athenians for the last 200 years, even though it houses the Folk Art Museum. Sunday 1 a.m. There’s a traffic jam on Ermou Street. Some drivers blast their horns while others are cuddled up to the boyfriend or girlfriend in the seat next to them. Groups of women laugh so hard that they drown out the deafening sound of Yiannis Ploutarchos’s song «Aimorrago» (I Hemorrhage) coming from a Citroen. On the corner of Athinas and Ermou someone else is playing hip-hop so loudly that the ground shakes. Lights, shadows, women in high heels, BMWs and starlets – Ermou is a torrent of images. A friend who remembers what Psyrri was like before it became so popular says «the old places – the good ones – have moved to the other side of Ermou and disappeared into the alleyways.» Oinothiki in Avyssinias Square still has its own alternative clientele. And Kyvos (on Thiseiou Street) with a fabulous terrace overlooking the Acropolis is doing well. Others prefer the gay-friendly Magaze further up Aeolou Street, or have moved away altogether to the bars of Praxitelous Street and Karytsi Square. At this hour there’s another kind of entertainment going on at Savva, Thanassi and Bairaktari, with kebabs, pitas and lots of popular music. Sunday at dawn The 025 bus goes down Mitropoleos Street and turns onto Aeolou. Bairaktari still has customers at five tables and the waiters have gathered into groups to chat: the Eastern Europeans to the right, the English speakers to the left. A man is cleaning the street with a high-pressure hose and a sour, damp smell rises from the asphalt. The trash is piled into heaps and a cleaning woman hauling huge bags slowly starts work. On Ermou and Athinas, everyone is looking for cabs. «Is there something wrong with us?» yells one youth, who has gone into the middle of the road in the attempt to hail a cab. His friend responds with a tired laugh. Two young women come out of the station on Athinas where they’ve been to repair their makeup. They yawn. Another group seems fed up with waiting for a cab and crowd onto the escalator at the station. The exit on Themidos Street has become a bench for a large group of 20-somethings who are eating sandwiches and cheese pies. All around are torn posters, soda bottles, beer cans and sandwich wrappers. «Kolonaki!» A cab stops. «Papagou!» Negotiations ensue. The next cab driver waits while one woman kisses all her friends good-bye, one by one, before getting into the cab. At the Grigoris and Everest takeout shops, those prepared for a long wait are ordering coffee. Iphestou is deserted, leaving a melancholic but not entirely unpleasant feeling. At one end, a salep seller silently waits for customers. On Avyssinias Square, old cars unload secondhand goods for sale: antique trombones, charcoal-fired metal, picture frames, pitchers and lancets from the days when bleeding was used to treat every ailment. On Astygos Street you can find faucets, wheels and woodcarvings. The stores are starting to roll up their shutters. It’s dawn and Thiseion across the way looks like a painting. The sound of the electric train sets the tempo and the clock of Aghios Philippos at the end of Iphestou chimes the time. Seven! Mist covers the Ancient Agora. In the church’s tiny, almost hidden courtyard, a priest opens the door and asks the man from the kiosk next door who is sorting the Sunday papers about a woman who is ill. His wife? Sister? The interior of the church is illuminated only by candles; two youngsters with excellent voices are singing. Mr Costas the verger fixes coffee for the priest. I stop and watch, enchanted. Outside the secondhand dealers are drinking coffee and buying cigarettes. Two drug addicts lie motionless on the steps of Cafe Monastiraki. They’ll be woken by passers-by out for a walk, would-be collectors who buy whatever rubbish is on offer, collectors who come down to see that there are no real antiques anymore, and the tradesmen. Africans will start arguing with Pakistanis over a small space to lay out their wares. «It’s like the flea market in San Francisco or Camden in London; I love it!» said the American I met on Friday, who turned out to be a well-known designer of rock group posters. I smiled at him as we searched for old rock vinyl, next to Zacharia and Tzamba. «Don’t bet on it,» I said as I grabbed a copy of the single «Rock the Casbah» by the Clash. (1) This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s color supplement K on December 17, 2006.

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