11 Places in Athens That You Shouldn’t Miss, published this year by Emons Editions (Cologne, Germany), is a rather unconventional travel guide for the Greek capital. It forms part of the “111 Places Insider Guides” series of “guidebooks for locals & experienced travellers”: instead of the most famous attractions and touristy spots, the guide suggests interesting and unusual places not found in traditional travel guides, capturing the city’s true essence and offering an insight into the everyday lives of Athens-dwellers, all through the eyes of its three writers: Alexia Amvrazi, Diana Farr Louis and Diane Shugart.
The guide has already drawn a lot of interest, and is now also set to appear in German. We spoke with the writers about the value of discovering the stories behind the places one visits, their writing approach and criteria for choosing the sites they would include in the book, the lesser-known aspects of Athens, as well as the challenges and merits of being a traveller.
Your guide reads like a condensed history of the modern city of Athens, providing details regarding lesser known historical landmarks but also shops and parlours in non-touristy spots. How did your team find out about those places, a few of which are little known even to the average Athenian?
Alexia Amvrazi: There were places that I passed every day and was intrigued by, or others that I’d heard had an interesting story to them, so writing this book was the perfect way of diving into a deeper discovery of those. Meanwhile, while one is on a path of seeking one thing, many other new discoveries appear along the way!
Diana Farr Louis: Living here for over 40 years, I have my favourite spots and walking around almost always reveals something new and intriguing. But I also asked friends who live in the centre for some tips and following their leads turned up places even they hadn’t thought of. Athens can be compared to a family’s basement. It’s full of memorabilia from every era; not all of it is precious but most of it is fascinating. You just might need to dig a little.
Diane Shugart: That was one of the things that made working with Diana and Alexia fun: we each ‘know’ the city in our own way, from our own interests, so I think these complemented each other well.
What were your main criteria, when choosing which of all the places you discovered would make it to the “111” list?
DFL: Our publishers told us they were more interested in the story behind a place than its aesthetics. That synched completely with our own approach, but we were also careful not to put too many places in any one category, whether parks or bars, shops, eateries or monuments.
DS: For me, one thing was whether I would want to see this if I was a visitor.
AA: For me it was the challenge of discovering, exploring and sharing places that were not commonly -or ever- found in an ordinary guidebook. It’s very refreshing for a visitor to be pointed to a new direction – even if it’s just a locked doorway, yet its history leads to a deeper understanding of the city it’s in.
By listing your suggestions in an alphabetical order, do you choose to avoid any classification imposed by status or importance?
AA: Yes, that’s a policy used by Emons in all their 111 Places books, and we agree with it.
You write about many important but relatively obscure places, like the Piraeus Archaeological Museum, while some of the most famous ones -such as the Acropolis Museum, the National Archaeological Museum of Athens or the Museum of Cycladic Art- are not included in the 111 places. Would you say that your book functions as a supplementary guide, for people who already have access to the basic, easy-to-reach info about the city, but also wish to really get to know its day-to-day life and vibes? Or do you think one can also get by without visiting the so-called “greatest attractions”?
DS: I think most people who visit Athens have a fair idea of the city’s ‘greatest attractions’—after all, the Acropolis is probably the main reason people come. So I wouldn’t think of 111 Places as a supplementary guide, but more as a complementary guide, a guide that adds a bit more texture and a broader context to the “top sights”.
Even when including Athens’ most iconic landmark, the Acropolis, the book focuses on a lesser-known, human detail: a real-life story of star-crossed lovers and suicide. Are you intrigued by the ways in which a timeless, emblematic site can play a role in a person’s fleeting existence?
DS: A city is also about people’s stories, and I think that is what we each tried to bring out in the places we wrote about.
AA: Definitely. Indeed, who knows how many millions of fleeting souls have been deeply touched by the Acropolis itself in some way or other. As Diane says, our greatest mission was to reveal the human stories related to each place above all. And Greece, the land of evocative ancient mythology, still has so many incredible stories to tell in its modern day.
DFL: What is a city without people? Just a collection of buildings and old stones. Stories give meaning to life, they connect us with each other. I was so surprised that in this city, which in many ways is so new, there were so many shops whose owners were third and fourth generation, with stories going back one hundred years. Or even more. They provide continuity and a glimpse of Athens’s more recent history.
Is there something that particularly surprised or touched you, among the “secrets” you discovered?
DFL: Apart from the family histories I uncovered, I was also moved by the love stories: Vasso Mahaira, whose shop To Kompoloi tou Psyrri is a memorial to her late husband’s passion for worry beads as a cultural phenomenon; the owner of the last chair repair shop on Odos Tournavitou, who told me the story of how the tiny street’s residents banded together to paint the facades of their houses different colours; Sophia Peloponnisou, who fell in love with Angelos and Leto Katakouzenos and their own love for Athens and has kept their literary salon in their period apartment off Syntagma alive and thriving.
AA: I was deeply touched by a great deal of the stories I uncovered behind the places I wrote about. The story of Loukanikos the dog, and how he was so loved that a memorial was created in his memory; the barber shop where the owner was inspired by his own childhood years in Egypt where his father took him to the barbers… And so many more.
DS: Yes—that there’s still a lot of places that I don’t know. When we started this project, we thought we’d have a problem coming up with 111 places people didn’t know about; after all, this is Athens, one of the most photographed and written-about cities. But now, I can think of a dozen more. At least!
The whole guide series seems to be addressed to those aspiring, as the saying goes, to be “travellers, not tourists”. How easy is it to be a traveller nowadays?
DS: As I mentioned earlier, I live here and am constantly surprised by what Athens reveals. But I think if you set out to ‘know’ a place, you can do that -to a degree- even if you just have a day. You need to be curious. And you need to put aside your expectations or preconceived ideas about a place and open yourself up to it. Walk. Eat the food. Talk to people.
DFL: I would encourage visitors to follow their own interests and not be stuck with what their app or Trip Advisor gives 5 stars to. Use this book for inspiration, find a spot you like and then follow your noses, your intuition, your spirit of adventure and discover something that may not be in anyone’s book. And don’t be afraid to talk. Athenians are apt to be friendly and most have at least a smattering of English.
*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi for Greek News Agenda.