Athens

A day in Athens with Anna Anthi Gountra, co-founder of TAG Architects

by Samantha Bacchus McLeod

There are moments I cherish, little bits of memories, nestled like tawny port in sparkling crystal goblets. These memories I swirl gently lest I spill a drop of it.

Athens by foot, and through the eyes of a local. Athens is a city that hugs you and hold you dear, it is a place that will change the way you think about history. Here, history is not just as an abstract thing, it is visible, almost tangible.

Travel and food for some reason stay within the fragile glass of our memories. The aroma of a spring flower, or the whiff of a certain spice, each and all has the ability to trigger an immediate time travel back to a day someplace far away from today. A place where we had dined well amongst good friends. We all love to look back and sip little delectable sips of those honeyed memories, don’t we?

Like this one beautiful day, last December, that we spent with Anna Gountra, architect extraordinaire. Anna and her partner, artist and art teacher Panayiotis showed us an Athens we had not seen and took us for a meal that will forever be in my top ten list.

The evening prior, we were having our usual coffee and wines at café L ‘arrêt du temp in the Ilisia neighbourhood of Athens. We were chatting about yet another day we had spent touring the same neighbourhoods, and eating at the same tavernas.

Anna fidgeted and said, “Enough!” like an Italian would say Basta! Then and there, they decided they were going to take us away from our usual Athens haunts where we had settled in as comfortably bored as a local. The planned day out, according to Anna, was “we will meet for morning coffee, walk to downtown Athens, and have lunch in Piraeus.”

Anna is a beautiful, vivacious woman, and she laughs a lot no matter what life throws her way. Her eyes are the colour of the ever-changing Aegean Sea. Anna has a calm gentleness to her demeanour, which stems from a lesson she taught me years ago…when life seems inconceivable, just lift your shoulders in a slow shrug and say “what to do”.

It works like a charm, do it and you will feel the freedom…when you just let stuff go in that little shoulder shrug gesture.

The next day, Anna as our tour guide, led us down a wide boulevard flanked by many museums, then through little winding streets past cafes, and up steep streets filled with hip folks, and down sloping streets again. That is the short version.

this museum is four floors of eras, plus a great store full of take-home treasures

Most side streets in Athens are lined with beautiful trees on both sides, they lean into each other above making that soft swishing sound, you know the hug of trees with gentle breeze whispering through their leaves.

We continued along the shopfronts of unique boutiques, and walked past bakeries that teased us with their buttery aromas. We hugged crooked sidewalks and clung our way around tight corners.

The walk from gracefully gentle Ilisia, peaceful – through hip Kolonaki, yuppie – and into the blaring downtown core, energetic – was an eye-opener to us tourists.

Anna is a prolific architect, one of the founders of TAG Architects, Athens. She is renown for her work with everything from cool bars and restaurants to dream homes and iconic places like the National Library of Greece.

National Library of Greece

To have her as our guide on that sunny December day was more precious to us than the months of exploring we had already done.

Along the way, here and there, Anna would stop and smile while nodding to a building across a narrow street, her eyes would ask the question, “Would you like to know?”. We soaked up her storytelling because she has a knack of slipping in and out of her architecture-knowledge, the history of Athens, and the current politics of the city like it is one seamless story.

Oh but it is. The everyday life of an Athenian is connected as far back as time, and as close to us as this very moment we stand and breathe. Ancient buildings and relics are woven into modern day life. They live at one with the past and the future.

Dromeas (The Runner), a brilliant sculpture by architect Costas Varotsos (also one of Anna Gountra’s teachers)

On Ermou Street, we veered quickly right, away from the big box stores, and slipped into the ancient alleyways of an older Athens. Here, we perused tiny stores flaunting luxury goods, and little “mom and pop shops” hawking beaten silver jewellery and other hand made goods. We perused the fascinating little stores of various spice merchants. We explored shops filled with wares necessary to every Greek kitchen. And we mingled with people of many cultures, and from all walks of life.

Those alleyways represented the true democracy of the people. The rich and the middle classes, the poor and the immigrants, all seem to shop in this one beautiful, maze-like area. We all have the same needs and desire the same comforts, no matter one’s income or from whence we come.

We crossed a busy roundabout, and on the other side, we settled into a café on a square I had not encountered before. Panayiotis drove up just as our coffees arrived, so in a quick rush we tumbled into the car while banging our bags behind us. Lunch time was a mere 30 minutes’ drive away.

every coffee comes with a freebie, usually

We drove through the city under tall buildings and into brilliant sunshine, sometimes warehouses slid by, sometimes curvy side streets eased up and slipped away beside us. The air smelled sea-fresh as we neared Piraeus.

Anna and Panayiotis were taking us to their favourite weekend place – when most others go brunching in Athens these two like to drive away into the horizon to Piraeus, which is well known for its food scene.

Unlike what we tourist may think, Piraeus is not just the port where you catch the ferry. Piraeus was and still is the aorta of Athens, the main vein that connects Athens to the rest of the world…as they knew the world to be in ancient Greece.

people swimming at 6pm on a December evening

These are the moments I cherish, these little bits of memories that nestle like tawny port in sparkling crystal goblets. These memories I swirl gently lest I spill a drop of it.

We drove by the port and arrived at Thea Thalassa’s, where we had the best Greek seafood-feast of the trip. (Check out the link for one of the recipes.)

Along with our meal, came this breathtaking display of nature as the day melted into the arms of the welcoming night.

Καλησπερα! Kalispera, Good Night, Piraeus.

Piraeus, located in the Southeast of Greece, is the home to Europe’s biggest passenger port, and as such is a huge draw for cruise ships from around the world bringing tourists eager to explore this centuries-old city. Piraeus has many attractions to fill an entire vacation, including religious and historic landmarks and fantastic restaurants.Piraeus Port of Athens.

Note: follow the links in the above to learn more about the many attractions of Athens and Piraeus, Greece.

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