Acclaimed author and former anthropologist Sofka Zinovieff unpacks her adopted home, Athens, to help you excavate the multi-layered Greek capital.
By Amanda Dardanis
Yes, Athens has been settled by villagers ever since it became the capital of modern Greece in the 1830s. Even today, most people have roots elsewhere and return to their village or island. And that’s before we look at how neighbourhoods can be quite villagey, designed around their plateia (main square) with a traditional coffee-shop and church, etc.
Would you classify Athens as a city that’s easy to get to know; that reveals itself readily to visitors?
Athens is a mysterious city and sometimes challenging. But many of its charms are readily apparent: the intertwining of the ancient and the modern; the neighbourhoods for strolling; and the fabulous places for eating out are all there and waiting.
What was your primary goal or message with your debut podcast series, Athens Unpacked?
I believe in scratching below the surface. The more you understand about a place, the more deeply you engage with it. I’m hoping that these podcasts will encourage people to search out the things that make Athens such a fascinating city.
If someone has only 48 hours or a weekend here, how can they best tap into the authentic pulse of Athens?
Stroll around the neighbourhoods. Eat and drink where Athenians do. Pause to notice the details rather than ticking off a list of ‘the sights’. And, to get a sense of perspective, go up a hill—I don’t mean the Acropolis—there are plenty of others, such as Lycabettus, Philopappou or even a more off-radar one like Tourkovounia (the Turkish Mountains).
Your favourite quality or trait about Athens?
The generosity of spirit in Athenians.
Which quintessentially Athenian rituals do you engage with (regularly or seasonally) that make you feel the most “local”?
Clean Monday. The first day of Lent when Athenians have a luxurious picnic and fly a kite; having the “evil eye” removed in a little ritual by kind friends or my Greek sisters-in-law.
Your favourite Athenian neighbourhood and why?
So hard. Each has its own charms. For today, I’d go with Pangrati, which has gone from slightly down-at-heel to increasingly hip and filled with little shops, bars and nice restaurants.
Your favourite time of year in Athens and why?
Halcyon Days—Alkyonides—in January-February. Those weeks in mid-winter when you get wonderful warm, still weather. According to the legend it’s when Alkyoni (who was transformed into a kingfisher) was granted conditions to make her nest.
What do you miss most when you’re not in Athens?
Living much of life outdoors, spontaneous social life, the freshness of food, sea swimming.
If you had to Pack Athens, which 3 essential things would you put in your suitcase?
A ceramic pot of Hymettus thyme honey, some handmade earrings in an ancient style and a poem written for me on an old taverna napkin from someone I was dining with.
And if it were up to you, how would you bottle the scent of Athens?
I’d take bitter orange blossom (springtime is intoxicating in Athenian streets), a few herbs like basil and oregano, and for bass notes, frankincense (like walking past a church) and freshly-ground coffee. Pine resin and warm figs come into the equation, as does a whiff of salty skin on a beach.
Finally, describe Athens in 3 adjectives
Intense, seductive, shifting.