Kallithea’s Covered Market at the Magic Number 56

We journey to the central market of Kallithea, where the stories of the people, both old and young, are as vivid as the smells and flavors of the food.


Every Saturday, my grandfather would come home with a cart full of colorful, semi-transparent plastic bags full of fruits and vegetables. It was one of those old metal carts that allowed you to see everything squeezed in or tied to the sides: fruits, vegetables, bunches of parsley and scallions that were easier to see because they protruded from paper bags. White and gray wrapping paper with folkloric illustrations meanwhile wrapped meat and fish. 

He would fill his shopping cart at the covered market in Kallithea, southern Athens, a ritual he followed consistently every week, and then distribute the fresh “spoils” to the whole family. I used to call it a “farmers’ market” because that’s what it looked like to me, except it was open every day and it was indoors, not outdoors like the neighborhood market. I realized along the way that it was more than just a place where my grandfather bought fruit and vegetables; it was an important part of the history of Kallithea, even if passers-by, including the locals, hurry by, not always realizing its significance.

 

Things have changed since I was young, but the market of Kallithea remains almost the same and unchanged, as a vibrant urban institution can be. On the counters of its stalls and stores is almost its entire 70-year history: from the first Pontian merchants who built it, who had arrived following the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1922, to their children and grandchildren who keep the businesses going today, to the younger ones who have chosen it and keep the so-called “little Varvakeio” of Kallithea alive – in reference to the big covered market in downtown Athens.

Haralampos Polatidis: There since day one

Entering from the Gryparis Street entrance, in the first small but colorful store you encounter, you’ll find the whole history of the market. If you pass by early in the morning, you will see Haralampos Polatidis sitting in the back. He is still there every day, even though he has retired, and his daughter Ioanna has been running the store for years – many of the market’s stalls and stores have seen the second or even third generation take over the family business

Haralampos is also descendant from the Pontus refugees who settled in Kallithea after the Asia Minor Catastrophe, and long before the market took the form we know today they set up their stalls with their wares in the surrounding streets. He remembers the times when they would move from Filaretou Street to Platonos Street with their goods. “We were often told to move along and, by doing so, given a grace period.” 

 

However, since business was going well, as Haralampos recalls, in 1956 the open-air merchants managed to buy the two plots of land where the market is now located (flanked by Gryparis, Filaretou, Platonos and Davaki) and by the following year the market, covered with asbestos cement sheeting, had been built.

And even if you don’t believe in luck, you can’t help but admit that something is going on with the number 56 in this case. In 1956 the market was first established. It was divided into 56 stores, which in turn were distributed using a lottery system, and Haralampos was allotted store number 56. 

With a broad smile, the market’s oldest merchant recounts the story of the landmark, which is essentially his entire life. He remembers that when the market opened there was a big frenzy. People came to shop from other areas, such as Nea Smyrni, as there weren’t supermarkets on every corner back then. And he shares some insider secrets, such as that this side, where his store is located, is also the busiest part of the market – it’s the stretch that starts from Platonos and ends at Gryparis. 

 

I ask if he ever thought about leaving the market to do something else. “Go where?” he asks. His daughter, standing in the back of the store, disagrees: “I’m among those who want to leave,” she says. Having spent a lifetime in the market, but officially at the helm of the family grocery store since 1995, Ioanna Polatidi points out that it’s a very tiring job, requiring you to be there around 15 hours a day, with no days or weekends off. She makes no secret of the fact that foot traffic in the market is now down and they often make enough just to cover expenses. “But I’m grateful to all those who come,” she says, because “our market is a jewel.” Even if not everyone knows it.

Stavros Antonopoulos: Second-oldest market resident

“Me and Haralampos have been here the longest,” says Stavros Antonopoulos as he sips his coffee. “I’m a little younger, of course,” he adds. “The others are gone.” He looks elegant in his flat cap and long coat. Although he claims to be there the second longest, it has been years since he stopped working at the market. 

He started working at the market in 1971, the first eight years at one store and the next 25 in another – both of which he rented, so the stores have changed hands since then. But he already knew the area. He had moved to Kallithea a year earlier and taken a job at the cheese counter in the Gavalakis brothers’ supermarket, right next to the market on Platonos Street (to locals, where the Hytiroglou homeware store is today).

 

Stavros says it was the only supermarket in Kallithea at the time. So, the heart of the district’s shopping center attracted people from the surrounding areas, including Koukaki, Nea Smyrni and Moschato. In fact, in its heyday, the market was so busy that the limit on how far each store could expand was very specific: “We couldn’t even put a crate beyond the line,” he recalls. Today, there are no such restrictions; it’s generally not as busy but traditionally more people visit the market on Saturdays. 

The seasoned veteran of the market has quietly come to embrace the job that had been essentially his entire life and, like many others here, has developed a deep love for it. 

Something still binds him to this corner of his neighborhood so strongly that he chooses to come here every morning to drink his coffee, to chat with friends and acquaintances and to watch people go by. “As long as we’re still around, we will continue coming here,” he says with disarming determination. 

Lefteris Zontiros: Coffee master

The market used to have a coffee shop upstairs (this upper floor is now used for storage), and the employees would lower a tray of hot coffee to the shopkeepers with a rope. There were other interesting inventions at the market: If you see some old loudspeakers somewhere in the center, they were not there to play music, but to make announcements for small children who had lost their parents in the hustle and bustle. 

As one of the newest additions to the market, Lefteris Zontiros has also heard these stories. He is from Piraeus and four years ago was wandering around the area looking for a store to rent. He was not familiar with the market, but he happened to see one of its corner stores on Platonos Street for rent. He clinched the deal the very next day.

 

Since then, he’s been here every day from 5 a.m. brewing coffee – even on sand for the more discerning clients. He keeps his small coffee pots and coffee machines ready from the moment the first catches hit the fishmongers’ shelves until noon, when it begins to quieten. 

It’s the only cafe in the market, so almost every merchant has visited Lefteris’ coffee shop. He also has his standard customers whose orders he’s memorized – he knows who wants what coffee at eight, who wants it at nine and so on. For the rest of the orders, his employee both helps make the coffees and then deliver them on foot.

Kaspar Batanian: Pastourma pro

Kaspar Batanian’s story begins more than a century ago in the depths of Asia Minor, in Kayseri (formerly Caesarea). That is where his grandfather – who had the same name as his grandson – lived, in the claimed homeland of pastourma – well-seasoned, air-dried cured beef.

Grandfather Batanian knew all the secrets of the most famous Eastern mezes, as well as other specialties such as crab meat and the pig head jelly known as “pichti.” Also having fled during the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922, he found himself in Piraeus. The Greek port was probably introduced to pastourma by someone just like him. Initially, Kaspar (the grandfather) opened a small workshop where he prepared his fine delicacies. Eventually, his son took over another small store and began selling the family’s products in the Piraeus market.

 

In the 100 years since, the Batanian family have become masters of pastourma and sausages. Today, Kaspar (the grandson) and his brother Aram have several stores in Attica, while their children, now the fourth generation, have taken over the family factory in Koropi, East Attica.

Every morning, however, Kaspar makes his way to his store at the heart of the Kallithea market, which he opened with his brother in 1980. They’ve moved around the market several times over the years, and today their deli houses some of the market’s most distinctive tastes and smells. Most of it comes from the family factory, which means all the cold cuts, but there are also other delicacies like the spreads, which are handmade. The owner won’t let you leave until you’ve tried at least some of these delicacies. 

At a time when some of the market’s stores in Kallithea have closed and most of the merchants admit that business is down “because young people don’t have time and prefer to get everything ready at the supermarket,” one wonders how a store like Ar.Kas (that’s how the two brothers named it, after the initials of their first names) with more specialized products can survive. 

 

And yet it survives precisely because of this. As Kaspar says, the store is frequented by many foodies, while most others go first to do their basic shopping and then stop by the store to pick up special treats, especially if they are having a dinner party. One thing is for sure, as the owner says: “Greeks like to eat.”

Irini Maroulidou: ‘Market bride’

On the corner of the market, there’s a grocery store with its fruits and vegetables so impeccably arranged that the crates almost look like they’ve been pulled out of a cartoon. Irini Maroulidou sits on a stool among the fresh produce, peeling a pomegranate and placing the seeds in a transparent container, ready to be eaten. 

Earlier, she had also chopped and washed some greens that a regular customer and friend of her daughter had come to buy “ready to cook,” so that she could prepare them before she goes to the office. This is what Irini does every day, while her daughter Julia sells their produce. “We don’t let our mom handle any technology, because every time we have done so, she’s done something crazy,” her daughter says with a laugh. On one occasion, Irini accidentally entered 400,000 euros into the cash register instead of 40 euros.

 

Irini has been at the Kallithea market since 1966. At that time, she came to Athens from Messinia in the Peloponnese to get married. “She is known as the market bride,” says her daughter Julia. She married her Pontian husband, who was the second generation to take over the grocery store – his parents were among the first Pontians to establish the market.

Since then, and with the third generation now in charge, Irini continues to come every day to make sure the produce is properly arranged. “Sunday is the only day I don’t come,” she says. “Well, you need to rest too,” I tell her. “No, we just have lots of cooking to do to feed the children, the grandchildren,” she replies, confirming that it’s as if the older generation of Greek women can never really sit down. 

And while all the old-timers know Irini, and the regulars are now like friends of the store owners – they come, shop, share their news, maybe even sit down for a coffee – Julia admits that “the world of the market has changed a lot. Something has to be done to revive the market. It has remained as it was built.” Nonetheless, she has found a way to attract younger customers who may not know exactly where her store is located: She has put it on the delivery service apps. So even as we speak, she’s sneaking a peek at her tablet to see if a new order has arrived. 

Pericles Antonopoulos: Nightclub influence?

On the way to the second entrance of the market on Platonos Street, the song “Prayer” by Spyros Zagoraios can be heard in the background. A few more steps and you realize that it is coming from the loudspeakers of the Acropolis grocery store. In one corner, the youngest man in the store is cutting and weighing cheese at the counter, while the other two are making small talk over coffee and a cigarette.

One of the two market veterans is Pericles Antonopoulos (no relation to the aforementioned Stavros Antonopoulos), who has been behind the counter for 52 years – now more relaxed since his son, Aristomenis, took over. Yes, it almost looks like a theme store, from the signage to the names, everything is reminiscent of ancient Greece. 

 

Pericles has been working in grocery stores since he was 10 years old. When he joined the army, he was already tired of the idea and said to himself, “I’ll be anything in life except a grocer.” But things have a funny way of working out.

On December 12, 1972, Pericles found himself for the first time as an employee of the Acropolis store – the date is permanently etched in his memory. He knew the former owner of the store, which then operated as an outlet for the factory of the same name producing sausages. “I came for a while and ended up staying for 50 years,” he says. Eventually, the original owner of Acropolis sold him the business to do something else. “To be a merchant, you have to be tough,” Pericles says.

The Acropolis sausage factory was located in Tzitzifies, next to the grocery store where Pericles worked at the time, which was among the nightclubs of Tzitzifies that were then in their heyday: “To become a singer, you had to pass through the Faliriko nightclub,” Pericles recalls, referring to one of the most legendary nightclubs in the area, on the marquee of which were written the names of greats like Vassilis Tsitsanis, Panos Gavalas and Grigoris Bithikotsis. 

The young Pericles was suddenly caught between two worlds: the morning world of the grocery store and the evening world of the nightclub, which was waiting for him a few doors away. He carried supplies from the grocery store to the nightclubs – fruit on platters for the customers and ingredients for the workers to cook and eat.

 

One thing led to another, and he found himself doing some night work, in the form of providing food. “I would use the three-wheeler to take food back and forth all night from the warehouses to the nightclubs,” Pericles recalls, and when it was dawn and the party was over, he would help clean up. “In those days we didn’t have brooms, we collected the broken dishes in barrels with shovels,” he recalls. 

Supplying food to a nightclub seems more tiring than managing a grocery store in a marketplace. But Pericles notes that although it was hard work at the nightclubs, it was fun. On the contrary, in the old days of Akropolis, Pericles would carry heavy loads from the warehouse to the store by hand. At least now his son Aristomenis has taken over and Pericles can enjoy his favorite songs coming from the loudspeakers.

Chrysoula Kapiri: The president

Wherever you are in the market, you will eventually see Chrysoula Kapiri walking by. It is no surprise that she is the market’s president; she is straightforward, talkative and on constant alert. When she is not on the move, she is behind the counter of the market bakery, which she owns. 

This is where she found herself 30 years ago when her children were 5 and 12. “It was the market that helped me raise my children,” she says. She often speaks of her children with pride. One of her sons is a photographer in Finland. The other is a confectioner, so he helps with the family business. Many members of her family have similar interests, as Chrysoula gained an interest in baking from her cousins, who were bakers.

 

“There are good people in the market, fighters,” says the president, noting that there have been many changes in recent years. And there is no shortage of difficulties: the market is privately owned, so it doesn’t get any government or city funding, and it’s hard for the owners to renovate the building (which has remained virtually unchanged) without some help, she says. 

Still, she’s not losing hope: “I think the market will hold up and we’ll continue here,” she says. As for being tired, she doesn’t mind because she’s in a place she loves: “We older people have learned to work a lot. I work more than I would elsewhere, but I don’t mind, I like it.” 

Maria Hatziieremia: The shy florist

The market does not exist without its peripheral stores. Around the main stores, the tastes and smells continue to come from small carefully set-up stores. Opposite the entrance to the market on Platonos Street, a small “jungle” will catch the eye of even the most distracted passer-by.

It is Maria Hatziieremia’s flower shop, which also extends to the back of the almost deserted Platon shopping center, while many of the colorful flowerpots are displayed in two vans out front. They come to the store every day from 7 a.m. to lay out the flowerpots, which they put on display and then gather up each day, as Spyridoula Skortaniotou explains to me. She’s been working at the florist’s for 16 years and takes it upon herself to tell us the history of the store, as Maria is a bit shy – she just fills in some of the blanks. 

 

Back when there were still stalls in the streets and before the market took the form we know today, Maria’s mother ran a store a few meters away from the current flower shop. Her grandparents were also refugees from Pontus, they were given some land and that’s how they ended up with the store. 

Long before concept stores combined the most unlikely goods under one roof as a clear sign of the gentrification of a city, the family’s store consisted of flowers for sale on one side and an art gallery on the other, as Maria’s father was a painter. However, he suddenly fell ill and died when Maria was only 6 years old, and since then her mother has kept only the flower shop, which her daughter continues to lovingly run to this day.

All this happened in 1952, before the market was built and long before florists became the kind of stores you find in every neighborhood. “I’ve been here since I was born,” says Maria, and you can hear the emotion in her voice. 

 

Although the two workers are busy helping customers while we’re there, Spyridoula tells us that business is down by their standards. I wonder which plants are selling best. “It depends on the season,” the employee tells me. “Right now, let’s say, azaleas and cyclamen are the bestsellers. In the spring, anemones and freesias are the most popular.”

It takes care, this work, and it’s “nice and fragrant,” Spyridoula tells us as she wraps up two cyclamen plants for us to take home as living souvenirs. Earlier, an excited customer had left with a bright red carnation in his hand, on his way to meet a doctor friend.

Before we left, we took a quick look at the back courtyard of the flower shop, an open-air nursery where the open spaces of the old apartment buildings and the two-story building of the flower shop meet. It is as if no time has passed.

This article was previously published in Greek at kathimerini.gr.



Read More

Athens

Downtown Athens Breathes Again

Forgotten neighborhoods abandoned to their fate get a new lease...


Democracy

Landmarks: Pnyx

The People’s Hill


Athens

Rising, Again: Art in Athens

Over the years, the Greek capital has regularly been described...


Athens

24 Hours in the Athenian Riviera

Our favorite places to hang out along the southern coast,...


Greece Is Blog Posts

An Ode to Local Products

BY Yiouli Eptakili

No more avocado toast and croque-madames. From Thessaloniki to Crete...

read more >

How Can Greece Become a Gastro-Tourism Destination?

BY Yiouli Eptakili

It’s about more than just taking a trip...

read more >

Leaving Room in Greece for Everyone

BY Greece Is

Labor Day, this year September 5, marks the...

read more >