Monastiraki, the erstwhile heart of the city center, used to be the main gateway into Athens for people coming from the countryside looking for a better life. A hodge-podge of small inns, hotels, mosques, churches, homes, workshops and stores made this area a Balkan-style medina, a place bustling with carriages coming and going between Athens and the rest of the country.
Only a few traces from those bygone days remain, yet nothing has really changed. Indeed, some of the small streets have retained their old Ottoman-Balkan character, and in the main square, three notable monuments (built over the bed of the ancient Iridanos River – discovered a few years ago during excavations for the Athens metro) remind us of the different phases of the city’s history.
From Byzantine times, we have the Dormition of the Virgin, the main church of a small 10th century Byzantine monastery after which the area of Monastiraki is named. We also have the 18th century Tzistarakis Mosque, now a museum. Named after the Ottoman governor, or voevoda, of Athens, Mustapha Agha Tzistarakis, known as Cizderiye in Turkish, the mosque marks the passage of the Ottomans. Last but not least, there’s the ISAP electric railway, one of the first major infrastructure projects designed during the founding of the modern Greek state and inaugurated in the late 19th century.
Together with its modern apartment blocks, multiethnic population, street peddlers selling fruit from small stalls and the smell of roasting meat from the souvlaki joints, the heart of the old city remains vibrant and colorful.
Monastiraki Square is the best place to set off on a treasure-hunting expedition that will double as a tour of the city’s history. Start by heading down the main street, Iphestou, to Avyssinias Square, exploring the side streets and arcades. Around since the early 20th century, Avyssinias is the oldest and perhaps only organized emporium of second-hand clothes, shoes, furniture, books, objets d’art and sundry other goods, and to this day, it is the place where antique buyers come to root out interesting finds. Sunday is the busiest day, with sellers coming out in force and setting up all around the square and into the surrounding streets (down Astigos, onto a part of Ermou and to the start of Leokoriou), attracting hordes of people: the curious, the collectors, the professionals, folks looking to make some extra cash and others who are just there to while away their time.
Depending on the day, you can find all sorts of weird and wonderful things at the market: a lot of stuff from the Balkans (whose countries basically shared the same culture as interconnected parts of the Ottoman Empire up until the late 19th century), traditional Greek embroidery and kilim rugs/throws, Ottoman glassware, pottery from the Aegean, silverware, books, metalwork and “European” objects that you can often find at much cheaper prices in Greece.
Ayvissinias Square is believed to have been named this because, in 1922, aid from Ethiopia was distributed from this spot to Greek refugees from Asia Minor. This initiative was organized by the Regent of Abyssinia, later Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie I.
“Sunday is the busiest day, with sellers coming out in force and setting up business across the square and into the surrounding streets, attracting hordes of people: the curious, the collectors and others who are just there to while away their time.”
The owner is a wise Armenian who specializes in ceramics from the broader Greek world and particularly from the start of the industrial era in Greece. His welcoming store has a 19th century feel about it and should not be missed. 5 Kynetou, Avyssinias Square • Tel. (+30) 694.460.3593
This four-story Aladdin’s cave exemplifies Ottoman style, with furniture, silverware, jewelry, embroidery, porcelain and paintings from that period, as well as a good collection of what can be described as “Philhellene” art. It also carries African art, antique mirrors and modern objets d’art. A visit here is like going to a museum that offers a crash course in local history. Martinos has been around in the area for more than 100 years and at its current location since 1926. Unfortunately, it’s closed on Sundays. 50 Pandrossou • Tel. (+30) 210.321.2414 • www.martinosart.gr
Ta Palia kai Paraksena (The Old and Odd)
The treasures here can be described as Greek bric-a-brac with style: plastic evzone dolls, old soda pop bottles, antique toys, ceramic bird cages, collectibles, stone mortars, wood carvings and more. Basically, it’s all the stuff found at the Sunday market, filtered by the antiques expert and owner Yiannis Skiadopoulos. 7 Navarchou Apostoli • Tel. (+30) 210.322.7901
Don’t be discouraged by the shop’s rather dusty appearance, because a good search through its merchandise is bound to be rewarding. Apostolos Argyriadis has a true collector’s zeal for sniffing out great finds and if you tell him what you’re looking for, he will most probably have it. His shop is like a showcase of bourgeois tastes and esthetics, with art objects artlessly exhibited in a fascinating jumble, where silverware from Smyrna is set beside works by important Greek artists, Chinese porcelain and rare glassware purchased from Greek homes. 42 Patriarchou Ioakeim, Kolonaki • Tel. (+30) 210.725.1727
Esthete Angelos Vlastaris selects one-of-a-kind objects and furniture from the broader Greek world and has created a shop that is like a cabinet of curiosities in the buzzing up-and-coming neighborhood behind the Acropolis Museum. His greatest love, however, is clay jars from the island of Chios, his second home and the subject of many years of research. He is currently writing a much-anticipated book on the pottery of Chios, which is slated for release in 2017. 5 Mitseon, Makriyianni • Tel. (+30) 694.523.8001
IN THE BROADER CENTER
In the 1980s, antique dealers began moving from Monastiraki to other parts of Athens.
Giorgos Goutis is the last surviving professional tailor of traditional Greek costumes and is regarded as an important proponent in the preservation of the country’s folk history. He first opened his shop in Monastiraki in 1934 and later moved to his current address. The store specializes in local traditional costumes – he has supplied almost every museum in Greece showcasing such collections – as well as embroideries, Greek jewelry and memorabilia from the Ottoman era. 10 Dimokritou, Kolonaki • Tel. (+30) 210.361.3557
Gold earrings with gold enamel and pearls, from the Dodecanese.
A heyday for Sleek Scandinavian design
The advent in Greece of Scandinavian design in furniture (sold for a small fortune in foreign markets and auction houses today) coincided with the construction boom of the 1950s and 60s, and also with the arrival of Anne-Marie, Princess of Denmark and later Queen of Greece. The new style – defined by simplicity, minimalism and functionality, but also by the fact that is was affordable and suited all manner of tastes – was soon embraced by the masses and renamed the “Anne-Marie look,” an all-encompassing term also used to describe Italian and French furniture from that period. The Anne-Marie look prevailed in the interior design of apartments and homes throughout Greece well into the 70s, and today we can find authentic pieces of interesting replicas at Avyssinias Square – usually at very affordable prices – and in a few stores.
Mofu, Vintage & Contemporary Design
This is a temple to Scandinavian design, with an excellent selection of carefully chosen items ranging from furniture to lighting fixtures, lamps and objets d’art. 28 Sari, Psyrri • Tel. (+30) 210.331.19.22 • www.mofu.gr
The second Martinos store, in the upscale Kolonaki district, is more eclectic in style than the first and showcases a very interesting collection of furniture and objects from the 1950s and 60s, pieces by contemporary Greek and foreign designers, and contemporary art. It also has one of the biggest collections in Greece of pieces by local ceramic artist Eleni Vernardaki. 24 Pindarou, Kolonaki • Tel. (+30) 210.360.9449
Before you start exploring the city’s antique shops, a visit to the Benaki Museum’s permanent collection serves as a good introduction to Greece’s history. Bringing together more than 40,000 exhibits, it constitutes a fascinating historical panorama that ranges from ancient and Roman times through the medieval Byzantine period from the fall of Constantinople (1453) and the centuries of Frankish and Ottoman occupation to the start of the Greek War of Independence in 1821, the formation of the modern state of Greece (1830) and the 1922 expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor
The museum is currently closed for renovations, but its very interesting gift shop is still open and contains excellent replicas of the museum’s collections, as well as selected contemporary pieces inspired by traditional themes and figures, including pottery, wood carvings, silverware, jewelry, embroidery, shadow puppets and fashion accessories. • 43-45 Adrianou, Monastiraki
…specializes in old manuscripts and engravings with a Greek focus, as well as in paintings and sculptures done mainly by Greek artists or foreigners who either visited the country or were inspired by its history