Learning from Athens: Lessons in Art & Food

“Learning from Athens” is the title of documenta 14 ’s Athens leg. It is the very first time in documenta’s 60+ years history that the festival leaves behind the spatial confines of provincial Kassel in Germany.

Reason enough to escape from Istanbul & make the short trip to Athens to view & experience some serious art ... accompanied by some serious eating & drinking.

In the span of a few days it was only possible to take in a small fraction of the numerous sites & venues which host the various public exhibition & event programs of the Athens documenta. But it is this multi-site character which is one of the drawing points: it makes visible certain parts & places of/in the city which did not register during previous stays in Athens.

Visiting a space like, e.g., the Odeion, Athens' music conservatory, which was designed and built during the late 1950s as part of an otherwise unfinished urban development masterplan, was one of my highlights. It sets the scene for, among many others, Nevin Aladağ's work 'Music Room' (see below) or a sound installation (by an artist whose name I unfortunately forgot) in the concrete shell which is the Odeion's concert hall.

The controversial Germany-Greece axis cannot go unmentioned when discussing this year's documenta as these two countries have been the two main antagonists since the start of the Greek financial crisis, which is far from over and is very much present in many parts of Athens and in almost all interactions with Athenian residents. A prominent and often elitist art festival such as the documenta - since its inception an instrument of German soft power - must be perceived as controversial in a crisis-struck locale like Athens. It is thus no surprise that the documenta was met with mixed emotions by the local audience as well as by the Athens' art scene.

Grafittis such as “Crapumenta 14” or “I refuse to exoticize myself to increase your cultural capital. Signed: The People” were frequent writes Helena Smith in her piece about the documenta in the Guardian.

While I did not spot those, I found the one right below equally fitting & amusing.

View from the terrace of EMST,

Athens' brand new museum of contemporary art in the former Fix brewery.

The most exciting and engaging artwork I saw in Athens was actually not part of the documenta. It is a site-specific installation by Adrian Villar Rojas entitled ‘The Theater of Disappearance’ who I first got to know through his spectacular work at the last Istanbul Biennal, 'The Most Beautiful of all Mothers', at the Trotsky mansion on Büyükada.

Villar Rojas had been invited by NEON , a contemporary art foundation powered by big money, namely the collector and entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos'.

Villar Rojas' work uses the entire site (the building, the grounds, the landscape) of the Athens Observatory and develops a multi-layered narrative of soil, land, conquest, exploitation, cultivation, bounty, conflict. The on-site team helps the visitors along their route through the installation, seems genuinely enthusiastic about the work and happy to engage everyone into a conversation about his/her observations & reactions.

There is another aspect to what appears to be Athens' emerging image as an up & coming city, as a place to be: it is the sometimes uneasy alliance between the (international) artworld & its protagonists and the real estate market. "Athens is becoming the new Berlin" speculated Markus Bernath, the Istanbul-Athens based correspondent for Greece & Turkey of Der Standard in a recent piece in the ‘NZZ am Sonntag’ (German only). Not the hipster-Berlin of today, but rather the Berlin of the 1970s.

While still far from the current rent price hikes of the German capital, it is true that the Athens real estate sector has started to bounce back slowly & slightly, fuelled by the increased international demand not only from artists but also from many Turks seeking to escape the increasingly oppressive atmosphere in their home country.

One thing Athens does very well is classy and at the same time simple, unpretentious neighbourhood restaurants. If one stays away from the main tourist areas such as Syntagma, Plaka or Monastiraki but rather heads for the other central districts of Koukaki, Exarcheia, Stadiou or Pangrati, high-quality inexpensive eateries seem to be the norm.

I had the first dinner of my visit at a Cretan restaurant in Stadiou, called Katsourbos. A couple of tables on the pavement, a modest but stylish dining room inside. Ingredients (olive oil, cheese,...) are brought in frequently from Crete and are turned into dishes such as a salad of mixed pulses (chickpeas, white beans, black-eyed peas) with sweet peppers & onions and pimped-up by slivers of air-dried octopus. Dressed with what must be some of the best olive oil in the world. The main course was a take on the French coq au vin which actually is a Cretan classic: rooster braised in red wine on a bed of hand-made pasta with nuggets of a tangy goat cheese. The organic house wine comes from Crete, too, and was perfectly drinkable.

The next day, after my visit to the observatory and Adrian Villar Roja's installation and on my way to EMST I walked down and around the Hill of the Muses, through the Koukaki neighbourhood (which has a great Friday food market on one of the district's main streets). Less than a hundred metres from the museum is the funky, slightly industrial-looking Fabrika tou Efrosinou, another of those brilliant bistros which showcases the best regional ingredients. Lunch consisted of a substantial salad with cherry tomatoes, rusks, wild herbs and an interesting sheep's cheese as well as of fava, a silky cream of split peas, capers and caper leaves, spring onions and, of course, excellent olive oil. The waitress recommended a crisp white from Naousa in Central Greece.

Other tried & tested places to eat are:

Karavitis, again in Stadiou, a traditional tavern, complete with massive wine barrels and beloved, rightly so, for their succulent lamb chops with hand-cut chips. With a plate of the simple but addictive Horta (steamed or boiled seasonal wild greens, dressed in olive oil & lemon juice) on the side and a jug of house wine, dinner there felt almost healthy.

Oxo nou, another Cretan restaurant, this one in the lively Exarcheia neighbourhood, there I had smoked pork sausages and snails in a punchy sauce of vinegar, rosemary & garlic (pictured below).

Taverna Epirus in the main market which serves home-style meals to the market's butchers & fishmongers as well as to the occasional tourist.

Right next to the market, on Evripidou Street, I shopped for Cretan ingredients at Zouridakis.

More of Athens' interesting eating options can be found on Culinary Backstreets, a source of culinary insights into cities like Istanbul, Lisbon, Barcelona, Tbilisi etc.

Smoked pork sausages and snails

in a Cretan restaurant (Όξο Νού: @oxonouathens) in the Exarcheia neighborhood.

Most people outside of Greece know next to nothing about Greek wine, beyond Retsina or old-school, sickly-sweet dessert wines.

Greek winemakers are working hard towards improving the reputation of Greek wines abroad as a stepping stone to make them more popular and boost exports.

And, in fact, there is a lot to learn & like about indigenous Greek grape varieties and the very modern wines which are being made from them.

A good place to start is the charming wine bar Heteroclito on a corner next to the Athens cathedral, which has a comprehensive wine list with a frequently changing selection of Greek wines by the glass and friendly, knowledgeable staff.

The Nemea region in the Peloponnese, Central & Northern Greece (Naousa, Drama,...), the Aegean islands and Crete, all have their own local grape varieties and ambitious winemakers with distinct styles which, in combination, make for exciting discoveries.

Needless to say that, especially for somebody coming from Turkey, Greek wines' (and spirits') value for money is almost as much of a joy as the drinking itself!

More on Greek wine can be found in the wine section of the rather nice Greece Is website.

Jancis Robinson, who knows a thing or two about wine, is a fan of Greek wine, too! Her take on it you can read here and here.

Athens, Greece & Greeks are going through a rough time. And it is yet uncertain, if, how and when the country will get out of it.

There is a spirit & momentum though, a strong sense of hospitality and pride in what people, especially in the food & wine businesses but also in arts & culture, are doing; a certain feeling of fluidity, of things being unfinished, which mitigates the precariousness of it all.

Turkish artist's Nevin Aladağ's work 'Music Room' as part of the documenta in Athens' Odeion

A performance of & with the work can be seen here.

All pictures by Michael Kubiena

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