It’s been a few weeks since my last post, due to the general chaos of everyday life here in Istanbul during the holiday season… which always coincides with the hectic ‘end of term’ moments of teacher life. It’s about to be semester break for teachers/students and final exams need to be created, given, and graded. Also this past week, Istanbul had the biggest snowfall in record years. The week before that we had crazy winds and storms and the whole city lost electricity on and off for 4 days. But… that’s life here in Istanbul…the city which simultaneously steals your heart and at times kicks you to the curb. It’s not a city for those who love calm and serene environments. It’s the total opposite, a city that is always pulsing and moving…and yet that’s always where I’ve found the most beauty.
That being said, celebrating the holidays abroad is one of the biggest sacrifices of living here. It’s not easy. I miss my family and our own special traditions. I miss all the cousins running around and my grandmother’s cooking. I miss the moments that I know I might not get the chance to ever have again. This year I got two days off for Christmas, and like every year here so far, I chose to get away from Istanbul for a few days. I’m incredibly fortunate to have my best friend from High School as my roommate…at least we have each other, ‘sisters’ cherishing the holidays together and waving to family via the internet.
For the past 3 years, Athens, Greece has been my ‘Destination Christmas’ spot and each year it feels more and more like a home away from home. Athens is simply put, THE BEST. To be fair I’ve never really spent longer than a few days there and I’ve always gone in the ‘off-season’…but I’ve had nothing but beautiful experiences. It’s only a 50 minute flight from Istanbul (it takes me longer just to get to the airport!) and unlike other cities that nearly shut down completely for Christmas festivities, Athens is pretty lively throughout. Surprisingly on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day all restaurants are open and you will see families-from grandmas to small children-walking around and then eating out together. All streets are decorated with colored lights and music plays everywhere. The most magical part of Athens though is that from within the city center, at almost every vantage point, you just look up and see the Acropolis sitting on the hill… perfection.
Each year I discover new things but I also have some well trusted favorites in terms of food too. We stayed at the same hotel as last year which is in the Psirri Neighborhood. It has become a kind of ‘tradition’ when in Athens to start the day off right by heading to Loukomades Cafe, serving ‘loukomades’ Greek doughnuts and coffee. I have to be honest and admit that I just go for the coffee. You can’t beat a perfectly made double cappuccino for 2 Euro!
This trip, like previous ones, was spent wandering around beautiful streets-coffee in hand- and stopping in at cafes for snacks and wine while gazing at the Acropolis. There’s
an area of the Plaka neighborhood, up above the maze of tourist shops, with tiny perfectly picturesque streets sitting literally underneath the Acropolis. Over the years we sampled most of the teeny little cafes snuggled into the rocky alleyways, and they were all good. However, there’s one cafe that is such a perfect gem that I really feel I should hoard it as a secret for myself…but… I will tell.
It’s called Cafe Klepsidra, and it serves roasted potatoes that will make you rethink your life. I know. Potatoes. But seriously… these potatoes are so good you feel like you are eating a rack of lamb. They must be glazed in some kind of meat stock and are cooked with some peppers, tomatoes, and lots of rosemary. There’s a kind of salty brine-y flavor as well that I couldn’t figure out. I think that flavor was a combination of lots of fresh lemon juice and also capers.
Another favorite area of mine is the Psirri district itself. It’s the ‘bohemian’ section and feels incredibly cozy and friendly. There is graffiti everywhere and at first glance it can seem a bit dodgy, but then you see that everyone knows each other and there are families and small children out until late at night chatting and strolling through the cafes and shops.
Oineas Restaurant is a really good place to sit and spend some time. It’s a bit pricier than some of the other places in the same area, but the food is really outstanding. First of all, I wanted to go back there because of the wine. Last year I remembered drinking the best white wine there…and of course I didn’t write down the name. This year, I retraced my steps in the name of wine sleuthing and found it! I still can’t tell you how to pronounce the name, but it went perfectly with our meze of baked feta covered in honey and fava bean puree with caramelized onions and of course a Greek salad filled with huge fruity olives.
Right down the street from Oineas is another great place called Krasopoulio Tou Kokkora. It’s a tad less expensive and the food is a bit more on the heavy side. It’s more ‘comfort food style’ but sooooo yummy. We ordered the house salad and more baked feta, as well as some dolmades (grape leaves). The salad was OUTSTANDING…lettuce, raisins, feta cheese, onions, mint, sun-dried tomatoes and kalamata olives drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and layered inside a crispy crunchy flatbread shell. To eat the salad they served it with tongs for the purpose of breaking the bread shell into pieces to be like croutons…genius.
The baked feta and dolmades were delicious and seasoned perfectly. However, the real star of this restaurant was the atmosphere itself. It was filled pretty full with locals eating lunch and the owner was bustling from table to table greeting everyone. At the end of our meal, the owner came by and plopped two desserts and mulled wine on our table as well as two pairs of earrings made from Greek bottle caps. He said “Everybody needs something for Christmas” with a wink. It still makes me smile remembering his joy as he wished us happy holidays. Small things like that are beyond priceless.
One of the desserts that we were given at Krasopoulio was the melomakarona cookie. It’s a special cookie made for the holiday season (in the picture on the far right) out of semolina flour and spiced with orange and cinnamon. The cookie is baked then soaked in honey and topped with chopped nuts. They are my new obsession and as soon as I have time, I’m determined to figure out how to make them! When you eat them, you literally just taste Christmas in one single bite.
The highlight of my trip this year though was an adorable new discovery, Little Kook Cafe. It’s also in the Psirri neighborhood and although we were on these very same streets last year, this must not have been open because I definitely would not have forgotten this! It’s just a little cafe serving cakes and coffee…but they had decked it out to epitomize every Christmas wonderland fantasy! The street leading up to Little Kook was covered in lights and the exterior featured Santas, trees, and giant nutcrackers! The inside had Christmas lights and ornaments stuck into every square inch of the wall and hanging from the ceiling. They had even covered the chandeliers to create a giant lit up bean stalk with ornaments hanging down. It was like walking into my childhood vision of the North Pole or something. We went there every night of our trip just to feel the Christmas spirit and to warm our hearts.
On our last day of the trip, before heading to the airport, we headed to a place suggested on TripAdvisor as one of the ‘best tavernas’ that just happened to be not too far from our hotel. Again in the Psirri neighborhood (but towards the outskirts of it), you can find Klimataria Taverna. This part of the neighborhood is not the nicest but don’t let that fool you because this place is like stepping back in time away from the rough modern surroundings…and I think it’s now my favorite restaurant that we’ve eaten in. The building itself is just a shell of walls that connect to an old church. There’s no actual roof, but just some metal beams and a tin sheet they have created a covering with. The whole back wall is made out of wine barrels! There are even barrels stacked on top of seating. It’s the most charming ambiance… you really feel like you are sitting in a vineyard and having dinner with a Greek family.
The food was out of this world good. On the menu, it seemed simple. ‘Stuffed peppers’, ‘Greek Salad’, ‘Fava Beans’. But these were not simple at all as the flavors were rich and complex. The food had lots of fresh herbs and spices… still clean and elegant and not overpowered by the seasoning, but at another level of flavor intensity. It’s the kind of place where when you take a bite, you know that these recipes are special. They are something that someone’s grandmother made and perfected and passed down. We ordered an assortment of meze that included grilled eggplant, spicy feta cheese, tzatziki, bell peppers stuffed with feta, fava beans with onions, and a Greek salad, along with their house white wine. Everything was delicious. Lots of fresh lemon and parsley were splashed over everything, and the spicy feta had crushed red peppers and tomato paste which made it savory and fresh. The eggplant was the star…smoky and seasoned with garlic, onions, and lots of lemon.
It was the perfect last meal and way to say ‘goodbye’ to Athens. For me, food is such an important part of celebrating the holidays. It’s food that brings everyone together for the purpose of sitting down and sharing. You are allowed to be indulgent and celebrate being together. We didn’t get to have dinner with our family, but we definitely indulged in beautiful traditional meals that felt like we were eating a ‘family meal’. In walking around the city-so full of life and decoration, speckled with families smiling together and restaurants bursting with noisy chatter, it felt like ‘home’ in a sense. Living abroad, you have to make new traditions and learn to let go a bit of things that are familiar. Celebrating the holidays in Athens, although never as perfect as it truly would be with family, was very special and made me feel warm and rested-ready to go back ‘home’ to Istanbul and conquer the end of the teaching year!