How Greece’s grittiest district swapped anarchy for culture
Exarcheia was once the scene of riots and political gangs, but now it’s a buzzing cultural hub, says Anastasia Miari
Bathed in spring sunlight, sipping on iced coffee and surrounded by young people playing backgammon, this hardly feels like anarchist central. Yet many Greeks still steer clear of Exarcheia, widely known for its politicised riots and Molotov cocktail-throwing far-Left gangs.
Neoclassical buildings with wrought- iron balconies are covered in a plague of graffiti. Tags from the inane to the profane mark each and every wall — a reminder of the area’s anti-Establishment ties.
Today, however, this central neighbourhood is a cultural must-visit in Athens. With a distinctly different vibe to any other part of town, Exarcheia has retained its old-world Greek charm while welcoming in a new artistic crowd. Galleries Hot Wheels and CHEAPART host a regular rotation of shows featuring local and international artists. With new openings every month and a handful of pop-up artists’ studios such as 3137, this is the place to see the city’s burgeoning underground art scene.
Attracted by cheap rents and plenty of studio space, a new generation of creatives is giving Exarcheia its new buzz. “There are empty shops and abandoned buildings,” says artist David Robert Fenwick, who left London to open a studio here. “Exarcheia is in an important European city but it has the feel of a more far-flung guerrilla republic.”
Exarcheia has long been a symbol of opposition to the Establishment. It was here that, in 1973, the Athens Polytechnic uprising took place, when students demonstrating against the dictatorship were confronted with a tank that killed 24. More recently, in 2008, violent riots exploded here, with residents setting police cars alight in anger at the police shooting of a 15-year-old boy.
Today, graffiti tours of the area (try Magda’s through guruwalk.com) offer an alternative insight into Athens’ political and economic situation, while the lively kafeneion (café) and meze scene is a draw for those wanting to rub shoulders with city creatives in an authentic Greek setting.
Coffee culture is strong in Exarcheia, with a kafeneion on every street corner. Stroll down Koletti Street in central Exarcheia on a Tuesday afternoon and you’ll find twentysomethings pouring out of trendy café-bars such as Cusco and Karagiozis, whiling away hours in the dappled shade of orange trees, nursing sludgy Greek coffees. Coffee shops here aren’t sterile spots to plug in your MacBook; neither are they the preserve of old men smoking Camels as is the case in many a kafeneion.
At Chartés (facebook.com/hartes.exarhia), old-school jazz floats out of the open doors and into the street where young people smoke, sip coffee and play backgammon as their grandparents might have 70 years ago. Meanwhile, Mauros Gatos (facebook.com/MavrosGatosBluesBar) on Koletti serves as the sweet spot between an afternoon coffee slot (that’s 7pm-9pm on Athenian time) and cocktails in speakeasy surroundings.
If you can handle the cigarette smoke, the tiny Intriga Bar (intrigabar.gr) is a local favourite. Inconspicuously tucked off Exarcheia’s main square and open till late, it serves cheap drinks, plays classic rock and gives a glimpse of the anarchic side of the neighbourhood.
In the city centre but much more affordable than moneyed Kolonaki next door, Exarcheia is a bewitching mix of neighbourhood institutions drawing a young crowd. “People like the restaurant’s character because it used to be old-school,” says our waitress at Ama Laxei (facebook.com/amalaxeiresto), the long-standing taverna on Kallidromiou Street which draws well-seasoned locals to its fairy-lit garden.
The colour-saturated weekly farmer’s market (or laiki) on Kallidromiou Street every Saturday is another institution. Next to Lofos Strefi — a verdant hill where people gather to meet, drink Mythos and watch the sunset over Athens and the Acropolis — Kallidromiou is a microcosm of Exarcheia’s diverse residents.
Every Saturday, from 8am to 4pm, families, young artists, refugees, pensioners, and even the anarchists hit up the laiki for cheap, bountiful fruit and veg. After they’ve done their shopping they spill downhill, the hipsters heading to Yesterday’s Bread (facebook.com/yesterdays breadathens), a vintage shop packed with Seventies, Eighties and Nineties finds — think Nineties Tommy Hilfiger for under €10.
Meanwhile, Café Paraskinio and Café Erodios are in prime position for people-watching. Or, to really live the Exarcheia lifestyle, grab a beer and take it to the steps leading up to Lofos Strefi. That’s where most locals perch for a full view of Exarcheia’s colour: fruit, people, graffiti and all.
Aegean (aegeanair.com) flies from Heathrow from £164 return. Andronis Athens (andronisathens.com) has doubles from €120.