The Greek island Tom Hanks missed?
The Panathenaic Stadium, the world's only all-marble stadium, nestles in the lush folds of the Ardittou hill like a chick in its nest. This is an urban island mostly unseen by visitors, mercifully ignored by Airbnb and surrounded by the Sea of Athens...
Disguised—for the foreign visitor or Cycladic island snob especially—might be the operative word when attempting to describe Pagrati. What made me happen upon this particular patch of the Athenian jungle was something less glorious than the gleaming white stadium, but just slightly...hear me out:
One evening a few years ago while staying at a six-room boutique hotel in slender Fokianou Street called Pi Athens, opposite artist Dreyk the Pirate’s head-turning street rendition of his “Athenian Sailor” character, I had a craving for (sorry) a pizza:
“Just go up those stairs behind the hotel,” Pi’s owner, Sokratis, counseled me.
“What’s up those stairs?” I asked.
“There’s a pizzeria called Colibri, and a bunch of other stuff. It’s Pagrati.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a neighborhood,” he replied, perhaps sensing my trepidation.
“You mean there’s a whole neighborhood up there?”
Indeed there is, and it’s one that the guidebooks mostly forgot. No tourist sights to speak of, no tour buses, not even a metro station (or at least, no very convenient one) and this is still the center of Athens? Catnip dangled, and oh—Greek yogurt–topped pizza at Colibri found and devoured.
For the legions of tourists who hoof it from the Syntagma Square side of the National Garden to the Kallimarmaro, as Athenians call the horseshoe-shaped Panathinaiko Stadium, and ditto for those disgorged from the tour buses that pull up in front of it on freeway-like Leoforos Vasileos Konstantinou Avenue, Pagrati is the unseen urban island behind the stadium. The reason they don’t see it is because the structure itself obscures the view of a good chunk of it. The street that turns into the staircase that Sokratis had me march up is called Agras, and you must ascend it to get to the good stuff, which I’ll get back to in a minute. For now consider that the locals do what anyone else would in such a magisterial setting: use the stadium for jogging practice. To do this yourself, all you have to do is continue on Agras and go right on Archimidous Street where you’ll find the back entrance to the top of the stadium. (It’s free, by the way.)
Or you could take the winding path to the top of Ardittou, where a council of Athenian judges held court eons ago, where there is a fragment of an ancient shrine to Tyche, goddess of fortune and on any given day a ravishing view that stretches from the Acropolis all the way to Piraeus and, yes, the sea.
You can look far and wide in Antiparos (and actually, I have!) but you won't find anything on that island like Pagrati's Athens BlueBuilding. take a look around...
Ancient associations define the DNA of Athens and they inform the very name of Pagrati (incidentally, also called Pangrati), too. Back in the day—in the range of about 500-475BC, that is—there was a popular, very hands-on sport in these parts that was a mix of wrestling and boxing called pankration. And it was not for the faint of heart, as the athletes could do anything they wanted to their opponents except bite them or poke their eyes out (kind of like electoral politics in certain countries today). Where a lot of this ancient tussling took place was the Lykeion, situated between what is today Kolonaki and the northern perimeter of Pagrati and which would eventually become the Lyceum of Aristotle and his famous Peripatetic school (that there was also once a shrine to Hercules Pancrates here is more apocryphal). As it happens the palestra, its central structure, was unearthed only in 1996, a finding which put the kibosh on plans for the Goulandris Foundation’s original plans for a
contemporary art museum to be built there—but it's finally open, bringing Monet, Picasso, Kandinsky, Van Gogh and a very good cafe into the heart of Pagrati 2.0.
While not exactly amorphous, Pagrati is somewhat ungainly in terms of its geography. Its core is defined by the Panathenaic Stadium in the west, Leoforos Vasileos Alexandrou Street which extends south of the Athens Hilton and Immitou Avenue along the southern perimeter. The neighborhood lacks an iconic peak like Koukaki’s fabled Filopappou Hill or Kolonaki’s Mount Lycebettus, but it is very hilly in places. Pagrati is not exactly hardscrabble but neither is it posh. Renowned art house cinemas like the Petit Palais (near the Hilton) and Cinema Palas (on Immitou) give a whiff of culture to the place but you can tell from from the number of empty storefronts that despite the current quiet renaissance—particularly with respect to the foodie scene— Pagrati did not emerge from the Greek financial crisis unscathed. You could even say it looks quite shabby in spots, but one thing everyone can agree on is that Pagrati is big, and far more densely populated compared to a more classic Athens neighborhood like Plaka.
Become a cat and scamper about these streets whose names amusingly outdo the actual thing for aesthetics and do this without a map or GPS for even five minutes and you are bound to get lost in the cement sea of the polykatoikies–the charmless multi-story apartment blocks that are about as unlovely as unlovely can be but that are a defining characteristic of much of urban Athens outside the very center–but in doing so you may find a hipster café or a secret bakery, or catch a surprise glimpse of the Acropolis lording it over this concrete kingdom.
Yes, Pagrati plays the scruffy underdog to Kolonaki’s unerring chic and you often have to look past the aesthetic deficit, just as you do in many parts of New York City or Tel Aviv. Peer through an illuminated window as you navigate the shadowy streets at dusk, perhaps on the trail of that insider restaurant you might have read about (see below), and you’ll notice that the residential décor in these parts is often decidedly vintage but with none of the irony. This is where real Athenians live, work, eat and play.
Even the big hotels, the Athens Hilton and Divani Caravel, may have been renovated but their oversized bones are clearly a previous century’s vision of modern. And so what? Because they are also still very much in use. Case in point: For the Love of Benji, the definitive doggie movie for a generation of American kids, was shot in Athens and partly filmed in the then-new Divani Caravel Hotel in 1977. Now in an era of minuscule boutique hotels, a big concrete stalwart like that is newly cool.
No one would say the hotel is swanky but, it does have a certain understated Athenian je ne sais quoi, plus it’s now home to the new JuJu Bar & Restaurant, cinematically inspired by Fellini’s surrealist ‘60s classic 8½.
The French have a word for this kind of assemblage: hétéroclite, which of course comes from a Greek word but in any case signifies a sort of hodgepodge. Not exactly this or that, in other words, but a thing or a place with multiple parts adding up to something discrete. Speaking of the French, there is a corner of Pagrati called Proskopon Square that feels much more like a bit of Paris than Athens. Its brimming with sidewalk cafés, all clustered around the square, shaded by tall trees and tall apartment buildings too; this patch of Pagrati rocks a way more Continental than Mediterranean vibe. But still, you’re in Athens: Everybody seems to be in a hurry to slow down and give the latest pocket-sized bistro a whirl, and this is not a bad thing at all. The nibbling and sipping options just keep multiplying...like that "spanakopita salad" from Juju: major Greek yum going on with that one. Pricey and worth it!
Proskopon Square and its side streets find their boho-hipster counterpart on the other side of the neighborhood in and around the petite but always percolating Varnava Square. The most straightforward way to find this mythic locale is to go from Agras Street (behind the Kallimarmaro), right on Archimidous Street and then a sharp left on Empedokleous Street. As you walk down Empedokleous, you’ll notice fewer polykatoikies and more villa-style apartment buildings in pastel shades; east of this byway the neighborhood transitions to the airier neighborhood of Mets. Which is definitely worthy of exploration, but not before you do as the locals do which is to linger, socialize and nosh around the surprising smorgasbord that is Varnava Square.
T and Toggs for hipster coffee, or Geppetto works nicely too. Spondi for a five-star dinner to remember. Mouries for that local Greek taverna flavor and the tangiest avgolemono (lemon chicken soup). Baba Ghanoush for the best authentic falafel. Or settle in to hipster café Superfly or Skazē, just past the south side of the square, the latter with an interior mural by Dreyk the Pirate and a jazzy soundtrack that makes you want to linger over a second latte. Just want a gyros? Don’t worry, you’ll find a spot for that too in this self-contained village within a neighborhood, where parrots sometimes fly in from the National Garden and give you a raucous serenade you as you sip or roam.
A serendipitous stroll might lead you to the First Cemetery of Athens, the entrance to which is on the Mets side but which is overall part of Pagrati. This is the ethereal Athenian equivalent of Père Lachaise, and though far less frequented than the Parisian necropolis it’s worth inspecting for the sylvan grounds, the tall pines and cypresses forming a buffer to the traffic whoosh of the city. The tomb of Heinrich Schliemann is here, elaborately designed by adoptive Greek architect Ernst Ziller.
As an alternative to this obviously quieter side of the Pagrati fray, following your round of refueling in Varnava Square seek out the western edge of Ardittou Hill. A foray into streets like Markou Mousourou and Nikiforou Theotoki is step back in time to the Athens of a century ago or more. Free-standing, eclectically-styled villas evoke thoughts of foreign shores and reinforce the notion that, like any island you'd actually want to get lost on, what Pagrati lacks in glitz it more than makes up for in the power to surprise you.
A PAGRATI FOODIE FINDER...developing!
Pagrati is a large and very established Athenian quarter and as such has a plethora of neighborhood bars, restaurants and tavernas. It’s hard to go wrong by any of them, but here’s a selection of mostly newer spots that will really give you numerous justifications to grab a cab and chow down.
Elvis: This vivacious place does one thing and does it well—skewers of grilled pork or chicken (souvlaki) served nude, i.e. without a pita. Open 24 hours, for which the hungry local youths are ever grateful. Archimidous 1-5, tel. 2107566066.
Colibri: This pizzeria cafe near Varnava Square is named for a hummingbird and is a perennial neighborhood favorite on account of its range of pizzas, salads and relaxed sidewalk terrace. Empedokleous 15, tel. 2107011011
Frater & Soror: At the vanguard of Pagrati’s foodie reawakening, this bi-level industrial-chic space on Proskopon Square has achieved renown for its menu of mainly gin-based cocktails but it’s also one of the best gastropubs in Athens now—try the puffy chicken nuggets served in a homemade pancake woth smoked coleslaw sauce and you’ll get an inkling why. The line for Sunday brunch is out the door. Amynta 6, tel. 2107213720.
Musique Café: This is a more sedate but still very sophisticated alternative to close by Frater and Soror where virtually everything on the menu is sourced from the island of Naxos, where the owner has a farm. The Naxos Salad, featuring succulent cherry tomatoes, Naxos farm cheese and kritamo (samphire) is a revelation. Arrianou 37, tel. 2107238900.
Neuf: A range of excellent cocktails (including a peerless Aperol Spritz) and creative nibbles has already earned this airy and cheerful neo-Parisian spot, where the décor is a contemporary homage to Toulouse-Lautrec, a loyal base of neighborhood habitués. Archelaou 9, tel. 2107223724.
Mavro Provato (The Black Sheep): The most established contemporary style Greek restaurant in Pagrati is also arguably the best, and packs them in the rafters nightly. Whatever you order will be great, but whether for lunch or dinner get there early or reserve to avoid a long wait. Arrianou 31, tel. 2107223466.
Monsieur Cannibale: This all-day bar close to Immitou Avenue serves good food to be sure (brunch is very popular) but is more about the expert cocktails, circus-chic design and relaxed urban vibe. Great mix of music too and stays open until 3AM. Profitou Ilia Square 2, tel. 2107526130
Juju Bar & Restaurant: The recently re-imagined, Fellini-inspired (think 8½ Burger with Black Angus, king oyster mushrooms and truffle chips) restaurant inside the Divani Caravel Hotel brings a welcome dash of contemporary flair—to be tasted on the likes of a “Greek Salad-inspired” Greek Risotto with feta cheese mousse and mint and deftly turned out desserts like a lemon cream pavlova. Leof. Vasileos Alexandrou 2, tel. 2107207000
Oroscopo: A cheerful modern bistro with a great range of salads, generously proportioned, and with a good wine list too. The terrace is surprisingly calm for this urban setting. Antinoros 42-44, tel. 2107216458
Ohh Boy: Sweet-seeking girls and boys are very welcome at this popular modern spot within the orbit of Proskopon Square, where they relish reative sandwiches and an even more impressive range of freshly baked tarts, cakes and other desserts, some of which are vegan. Archelaou 32, tel. 2111838340
Katsourbos: If you have a craving for authentic Cretan cuisine, this pleasant bistro at Proskopon Square will hit the spot.Amynta 2, tel. 2107222167