It’s officially 2019 and where exactly did the time go? Wasn’t it just summer? I began writing this post just after Christmas and then again on holiday in Morocco (next post to follow), and I’m back in Istanbul and can’t believe it’s going to be Spring in the blink of an eye. This is a bit late, but here’s a post to wish you all Happy Holidays and Happy New Year…
It’s become a tradition (5 years and counting…) for me to spend the Christmas holidays in Greece. With only 2 days off work, I can’t exactly fly home to the states, and with Athens being only a 45 minute flight from Istanbul, it’s my favorite ‘destination’ Christmas spot. Click here if you would like to read last year’s Athens Christmas Post where I explain my usual hangouts:‘Kalá Christoúgenna’, Happy Holidays from Athens…
This year was filled with returns to many of the same places; however, also new discoveries and one of the best Christmas Eve Dinners of my entire life.
Leaving Istanbul and starting the journey, I settled into my seat and 20 minutes later was wished Merry Christmas and given my first melomakarona by the Aegean Air hostess…these cookies are my FAVORITE thing about Greek Christmas. This one was just an ‘airplane’ melomakarona but I savored it and felt the spirit of all things Christmas and cinnamon and honey enter my soul. Melomakarona are 1 of the 2 Christmas cookies served during the holidays…and I’m obsessed. They are semolina cookies with orange, cinnamon, clove and honey. They taste like Christmas in one perfect bite. Yes.
In previous years we stayed in either Monastiraki, Plaka, or Thiseo (Filopappos Hill) and I have to say those neighborhoods are still my favorite as they are in easy walking proximity to the center and main sites. However, we booked late and found a place in Kerameikos. I’ll be totally honest that I didn’t adore this particular neighborhood and it was further than I realized, but because Athens is always full of Christmas miracles, our Air Bnb ended up on the very street with 2 restaurants a friend had suggested. We weren’t close to the Acropolis, but we were still near GREAT FOOD.
The first day was spent returning to our usual places. We walked directly to Meliartos for a cheese pie (flaky, savory, chewy) and then immediately afterwards walked up the street to Lukumades for an order of lukumades (the name of a mini doughnut) and a double cappuccino. I LOVE LUKUMADES. LOVE. I also LOVE that a double cappuccino is under 2 euro. Lukumades are traditional doughnuts that remind me more of a beignet than anything else. They are very similar to Turkish lokma, although lokma are soaked in sugar syrup and lukumades are bready and fried like beignets. They are served plain or with toppings drizzled over, or filled with various flavors like chocolate and cream.
We over-did it a bit from having two breakfasts and needed a good walk afterwards. We headed to the antiques area of the Plaka and then continued walking over to climb on the rocks and get a view of the Acropolis. As many times as I’ve been to Athens, gazing at the Acropolis never gets old. We climbed down and wandered back through the Plaka then up to Anafiotika. This is my favorite part of Athens. It’s literally underneath the Acropolis and right above the Plaka…and it’s the most charming place. Bougainvillea (yes even in December) drapes over tiny alleyways like curtains and treacherously uneven steps lead up and around corners. Cute little cafes and restaurants dot the pathways and it’s easy to lose yourself here for the whole day. We discovered this by accident on our 1st Athens trip, and now it’s our favorite place to wander and also the home of some of our favorite spots to eat. Our number 1 place in this area: Klepsidra Cafe.
When the waitress came to tell us the daily specials, we apologized but told her we didn’t need to see the menu. We were ready! We ordered the Klepsidra salad, the roasted lamb with lemon sauce, and an extra order of their house potatoes (with a liter of the house table wine of course).
We finished it off with rakomelo: tsipouro (Greek grain alcohol from grapes) warmed up with honey and cloves (basically the same idea as mulled wine, only its like ‘mulled super strong alcohol’).
It was Saturday night and we wanted to check out the bar scene a bit. Athens is fun at Christmas because it’s not touristy and is instead just filled with locals who have come ‘home’ to spend time with their families. We walked by Little Kook to soak in the ambiance and feel the tacky crazy Christmas lights, but we didn’t bother waiting in the line. Next, we headed to Juan Rodriguez, a cocktail bar with a mini-carousel twirling around and antiques lining the walls. At about midnight we made the trek back to our Air Bnb neighborhood and had one last drink at The Blue Parrot, where locals were dancing under a huge flourescent christmas tree. An hour later, we were on the street in search of FOOD. Of course. Here lies a Christmas Miracle: ELVIS SOUVLAKI. Thank you Mr. Presley, cheers to the King. Elvis Souvlaki stays open all night and serves only souvlaki: Greek meet on skewers. This souvlaki at Elvis is truly something special. We ordered the pork belly skewers and were deeply saddened to realize we should have ordered about 20 skewers. It was love at first bite. The pork belly was crispy and charred on the edges but soft and basically like you were eating meat butter that melted in your mouth. I nearly wept it was so good.
Waking up the next morning, still dreaming of the previous night’s dessert of pork belly, we were sad to find that Elvis wouldn’t open until much later in the afternoon. And then…another Christmas miracle! As we were walking in to the center, we stumbled upon a Sunday market…with pork belly souvlaki being sold on the street. Pork belly for breakfast. Is there a better way to start the day?
We wandered the hipster Psiri district and stopped for ice cream at Kokkion, a new discovery. While it was no Italain gelato to be sure, it was a tasty little cup of ice cream. I got the flavor: molasses, bergamot, and marscarpone. It was creamy and fragrant…truly a flavor I had never experienced before (and that’s saying a lot). I will definitely return here to this little ice cream place.
On this day, we actually walked up and then down Lycabettus hill, firing up our appetite and needed a ‘snack’ before dinner. We stopped in at Savvas Kebab, our fav place for pork gyros and ordered what we thought was a pre-dinner snack. What was served to us was an embarrassingly over-sized portion of pork and potato chips. We couldn’t even eat a third of the meal. Best place for gyros in town for the price, plus, the rooftop view of the Acropolis is pretty great.
We walked off the pork (sort of) and ended up at City Zen Bar for another view of the Acropolis and an over-priced cocktail (tip: definitely go here for the view, but just order wine).
Then, it was time for midnight rakomelo and Lukumades-because Lukumades stays open 24 hours (again, Christmas miracles all abounding) and we discovered a ‘Christmas flavor special’ called the ‘melomakarona lukumades’. I can’t explain my joy. Seriously. I may have actually jumped up and squealed with delight upon this discovery. My two most favorite things about Greek Christmas combined into 1 single dessert: a lukumades doughnut filled with cream and topped with honey, cinnamon, and crumbled melomakarona cookies. THE. BEST. EVER.
Needing to walk off the lukumades, we wandered again, and found ourselves led by the sounds of guitar and traditional music to a small hole-in-the-wall place called Taki 13. We sat down and ordered what we thought (wrong again) would be some small meze to snack on and listen to the music. I don’t even know why at this point we were surpsied, when the table was filled to the edges with fava(served warm and in a literal bowl), tzatziki, and grilled feta. We washed it down with more rakomelo and toasted to Athens and Christmas miracles big and small. Yamas!
The next day, back to Lukumades for breakfast: coffee and the melomakarona special. Then we wandered around and decided to do something we had never done before-take the tram out to the coast. We figured we should see another side of Athens. Long story short: you don’t need to see this side of Athens if you’re pressed on time. It took us over an hour of walking to find the tram which we then just rode back. Feeling disappointed about our seaside fail we decided to try our luck at a restaurant very close to our Air Bnb that a friend had recommended: Seychelles.
Christmas. Miracle. Again.
Thank you my dear friends (you know who you are E + P) I am forever indebted to you both for this recommendation. I ate one of the best meals of my life. Seychelles may actually have been life changing. Christmas Eve dinner… one to remember.
We ordered the roasted beet salad, french fries, the papardelle pasta with kavourma and goat cheese, and the slow cooked pork belly with cherry glaze. The beet salad was served with a spicy tangy cheese and carrot puree with cinnamon. It was sweet and salty and a bit bitter…just really different. Then came the pasta…perfectly al dente and rich from the meat sauce ragu and dusted with cheese. It kind of tasted like a roast beef stew over top of pasta…decadent. Then came the fries and the pork belly. Dear God. The skin of the pork belly was crunchy to a near candied texture and with the cherry glaze on top tasted almost like you were eating a pork jolly rancher (this may sound odd but go with me here, it was amazing), then the pork belly itself was fatty and gooey and melty… just phenomenal. The fries were crunchy and coated with thyme and salt…a great tool for soaking up the pork juices and fatty pork belly butter. At the end of the meal, I had that feeling I always get after Thanksgiving: full to the point of bursting and also sadness that it’s over. That’s the test of a truly good meal: If you feel like crying because you don’t know when you will eat such amazingness again.
On our final day in Athens, before returning back to Istanbul, we woke up and grabbed pastries from Meliartos and went back up to Anafiatika to Yiasemi Cafe, one of the nicest places to sit and have coffee -or in our case rakomelo- alongside a plate of melomakarona.
We left Yiasemi and headed into the center and ducked in to ‘A for Athens’ cafe to say goodbye with a drink and a final view of the Acropolis. ‘A for Athens’ never disappoints and even though its cocktails are still overpriced, theirs are worth the splurge. Feeling full on Christmas cookies and with drinks in hand overlooking the Acropolis, it may not have been the Christmas of memories and of my childhood, but it was a beautiful Christmas and one filled with good company, good food, and as always, great adventures.