It does not come as surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions it caused boosted the popularity of podcasts. During lockdown, this new form of audio entertainment came to the fore in Greece, reminiscent of the time when radio was at its zenith. As the Greek capital reopened for tourism, pod.gr, in the collaboration with the official visitors’ guide This is Athens, created a brand-new 8-episode podcast series called “Athens Unpacked,” presented by the writer and journalist Sofka Zinovieff.
Sofka was born in London and studied Social Anthropology at Cambridge University, later conducting PhD research in the Peloponnese. She has lived in London, Rome and Moscow, but for the last 20 years is considered as an Athenian who explores the Greek capital further than the pages of any guidebook.
“I haven’t done any podcasting before, but I like them and I listen to them as a medium,” she shared with Greece Is. After the initial approach and with the help of Katerina Bakoyanni and Tyler Boersen, who steered her in the direction of “This is Athens,” which commissioned the project, Sofka prepared a skeleton outline for the podcasts during the lockdown.
“At the beginning, I was speaking with Tyler (Boersen), who is an ex-Anthropologist like me, and I saw we had common ideas. The thought of creating something conservative, classic, and touristic was immediately abandoned. I wanted to create something that, from the one side, it would be interesting for someone who arrives for the very first time in Athens, and from the other, to discover what exists under the surface of Athens, how is life here and what are the tensions.” This is the start of “Athens Unpacked,” in which Sofka unpacks the layers of Athens, exploring it for the purposes of her “long quest to understand this fascinating city,” as she says in the intro of the podcast series. The first three episodes of “Athens Unpacked” are available on pod.gr, having reached the Top 20 on Apple for Daily News Podcasts in the UK.
So far, Sofka has explored the hills and the underground world of Athens, the Athenian architecture and the communities of villagers, refugees and outsiders who consist of the “urban octopus” of the Greek capital – a phrase from the first episode of the podcast, when she talks with the former US diplomat and archeologist Brady Kiesling on Tourkovounia Hill. “The thing that helped me in Athens is to read, to find details about its history; this helped me understand what it is, because, on the surface, it may appear to be a hard city, but when you start to ‘unpack’ its history, you begin to understand why it is what it is.”
She continued by discussing the “antiparoxi,” the part exchange building program in 60s and 70s that shaped the current urban sprawl and destroyed numerous neoclassical buildings, as an example of a catastrophe that after years led to the development of a unique architectural style. This antithesis of “beauty and the beast” in Athens triggers my curiosity, and I ask her opinion: “It’s both. We cannot say that Athens does not have any problems. Of course it has. It is magical, it contains mystery, the terms “ugly” and “beautiful” are combined. I find the beauty inside the ugliness. The blocks of flats may dominate Athens, but there is the beauty of smelling the orange trees, the view of dogs crossing the road with you, street musicians, or visiting of a small kafeneio (traditional café). It is a bizarre cocktail.”
Listening to “Athens Unpacked” in metro rides, I get the feeling of exploration. Sofka’s narration, the interviews of the “native and adopted Athenians” and insights into pop culture were captivating, inspiring me to explore more of the city that I have been part of for the last eight months. I also get the distinct impression that Sofka is truly an expert on Athens. When I shared with her this thought, she told me that “exploration is something that never ends, and the more you understand about a subject, it is never enough; that’s a rule.”
Sofka gave us a glimpse of the next “Athens Unpacked” podcast episodes, which will include tributes to the arts and the protest and celebration spots in the city’s streets. My last question concerned the uniqueness of Athens and what it is that shapes her relationship with the city. Her answer was the feeling of walking on its streets and climbing the hills, which give her the opportunity to see the whole basin area from another point-of-view. “We are surrounded by history; we walk next to history. It is so beautiful to feel this way in the city of Athens.” “Athens Unpacked” is available in pod.gr, in Google Podcasts and Apple Podcasts.
Special thanks to Tyler Boersen, International Press & Media Officer of Athens Development and Destination Management Agency (ADDMA)