Victoria my neighbourhood – Athens’ hidden treasure!
(Please scroll down if you just want to find out some places of interest in Victoria)
‘You can’t live there!’
For many Greek people, Victoria is one of the dodgiest areas in Athens. My husband and I have gone through a lot of mixed feeling for this area from the moment we moved in just over a year ago. Now we think Victoria is Athens’ hidden treasure and the best place to live. Well, at least for us it is.
Let me give you some examples about how bad in some Greek people’s mind Victoria is.
Shortly after we moved in, my husband got in touch with his long lost Greek friend. When my husband told this friend where we were living, his friend’s eyes welled up and he asked if we needed help with money and said he would find another rental flat for us and help us move away as soon as possible.
Our friends in Australia told us that their Greek nephew who used to live in Athens said he wouldn’t step foot in Victoria metro station even if he were paid to do so.
I greatly enjoy people’s reactions when I told them where we live, usually one or some of the followings: wince or finch with their faces or bodies or both; quickly change the topic; abruptly finish our chance meeting e.g. at a party; quick glance at my clothing (they really do that!); tell me that ‘you can’t live there’.
My husband and I are the living proof that ‘you can live there’. I pointed out to some people that many people live in Victoria and I had met many neighbours in our building. They would say these people were either immigrants, too old to move or too poor. I don’t know the poor part but for a while I thought Victoria failed me because my neighbours were either immigrants or old.
Finally I met a young man in the lift and I interrogated him.
How old are you? 28.
Are you Greek? Yes.
From Where? Athens.
Do you live here in this building? Yes.
Since when? Several years.
Do you like Victoria? Yes.
I couldn’t exactly ask if he was poor so I glanced at his clothing – not brand new nor old or worn, not trendy nor old fashioned. He looked like a nice regular man and his glasses made him looked intelligent. I hope my interrogation didn’t drive him away from Victoria.
What makes Victoria undesirable? Many Greek friends confirmed that Victoria used to be occupied by wealthy people in the 60s and 70s. Then apparently people started moving out of the centre to live in the suburb which is more pleasant especially during the hot summer months. Then I’m not sure how many years ago, a Greek man was killed by three dark skinned men for his camera. After that there was some uprising of some extreme political parties who were migrant-haters but I don’t really understand this part. Anyway since then Victoria has become a dangerous area or so many people believe because Greece is really a rather peaceful place.
Now the area seems quite run down, full of broken pavement and graffiti (which is like most of Athens really). I guess the main undesirable factor is the large amount of immigrants from countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Iran.
Before you jumped to the conclusion that Greek people are racists, I would like to quote one of my Greek friends. He said growing up, Athens has always been filled with Greek people with a few Albanian migrants but it was as if overnight, some areas of the city were filled with African and Middle Eastern people. He said in these areas, he felt he had stepped into another country. Although he felt for the migrants who just wanted a better place to live, he found it difficult to settle into the change.
In search for a flat that had everything
So how did we end up in Victoria? Well, long story short, after one week of staying in the middle of nowhere in a flat that was virtually empty saved for the bed, we realized we had to find a place that was fairly close to the city centre and that had everything like wifi, towels, stove, pots and plates, table and chairs, all that you probably use daily and wouldn’t know the importance of said objects until one day you found yourself without, like we did. In Athens, it is common that people rent out completely empty flats so we stalked Airbnb a little bit and contacted two flat owners that offer long term rental within our budget.
The first place we looked at was in Ambelokipi which is an okay area. However the landlord wasn’t. He lied about the flat being 10 minutes walk from metro (it was half an hour and involved crossing a wide busy road without traffic lights) and also the number of bedrooms (only one, unless we put a curtain up to block off another area). He was also unapologetic and said we should have looked at the pictures in detail. Er… why didn’t he tell the truth when my husband asked him on the phone?
When we arrived at the flat in Victoria, as promised only a few minutes’ walk from the station and consisted of two bedrooms, we were already pleased. Our landlord and landlady are two of the kindest and most honest people we have ever met and we liked them from first sight. It also helped that the landlady’s family is from the same island as my husband’s great grandfather. What sealed the deal was when we found that there was no television in the flat (televisions are strange, foreign objects for us) but there was a home audio system (landlord is a well respected electronic musician). The flat was also fully furnished with every little thing that we needed. We couldn’t believe our luck!
So we moved in with our few suitcases and all was well till the next day we went somewhere via the metro. Something didn’t feel right – the square where the metro station is was full full full of migrants! All the benches were occupied and many other people were either standing in groups or sitting or lying on the ground with their belongings. Men, women, children. We didn’t understand what was going on so when we got home, I did a google search and found that Victoria Square had somehow become kind of a meeting/greeting central for refugees. There was even a banner that said ‘Refugees welcome’. Whenever one was taken down (not everyone welcomes refugees), a new one appeared the next day.
Our mixed feelings started from that day. My husband has always been at ease with different races of people. He had traveled extensively to under privileged parts of the world to get to know the people and their environments through his photography. It didn’t mean that he was comfortable seeing the misery though. He was also concern about me.
I didn’t express my fear to my husband initially till one day he asked me what happened to my wedding ring. After walking through the street that was filled with many refugees/migrants the first time with my husband, I took it off. There were many men and they stared at me, my husband and then my gold ring. I thought they might chop my finger off for my ring if I were there by myself. Only much later through conversations with my refugee/migrant classmates I realized that these men were probably only curious about my marital status. For some of them, the idea of a mix race marriage was even more foreign than the land they were in.
Oh yes, classmates! One of the advantages of living in the refugee/migrant central is that we were close to many migrant centres which welcome everyone whether you would like to contribute your time, skills, money, or you would like to be the recipient of their kindness. I was very fortunate to have attended free Greek language classes with migrants/refugees from many different countries. It was a huge eye opener for me and a very humbling experience.
The best way to overcome fear is to understand the subjects we fear. After sharing the classroom with so many refugees/migrants, they become my friends and for the first time I really understood what my husband says often that we are just one human race. The fear for my safety in our new neighbourhood thus lessened.
Soon it was summer and we followed my husband’s job to Mykonos for 6 months. On our return, Victoria Square was no longer a squatting place for refugees/migrants. Locals get to hang out in the square undisturbed and by locals I mean both Greek people, migrants as well as some refugees/migrants who took over a hotel that closed down in the street behind the square. The cafes around the square are getting more customers again. Harmony restored and so did Victory Square’s former glory.
But there was another small matter.
White Light District
One week after we moved into our then new home, my husband’s cousin visited us and while hanging out at the balcony, she asked if we knew that there was a brothel opposite our flat. Huh?
No, we didn’t know. One odd thing we noticed in our streets was that people left their lights on outside their doors even during the day. I actually wanted to ring some door bells to remind them to switch off the lights to save on electricity but I didn’t because my Greek was so limited. Lucky… Cousin explained that the white light outside a door means this is a brothel and is opened for business whenever the light is on. We also understood then why we saw so many men going in and out of this door. Her husband told us that actually Filis Street which is adjacent to our street is a well known red-light district. Or… White Light District.
Filis Street is also where the local λαϊκή (street market) is every Wednesday. I wonder if the market slows down the white light business or if the customers find it easier to go in and out of their place to be in camouflage.
What would you do if you find yourself living opposite a brothel? No… we didn’t become customers… What we did was that we wandered out to the balcony rather often and observed who went in and out. The customers were all men of different ages. The youngest ones we saw were about 20 years old and they walked out of that door with great mood. I wanted to yell after them to just stay home and play video games. But then again, it wasn’t my business what people do.
We also saw a middle age man and a middle age woman who looked like they were in management positions. We never saw the actual workers whom the customers went there for. We thought either the workers were sort of imprisoned at their workplace or there could be a back door.
That was the first time I witnessed miseries every single day. I had heard of these things before through media and saw poverty briefly whenever I was in India. But living in the middle of all these did affect me in not such a good way. I felt immense guilt to have complained about not having the essentials like table and chairs just the previous week. But guilt never helps anyone nor feeling sorry for people. What helps then? I’m not sure how I can contribute to make the world a better place but one thing I am sure of is that I’m not much use while I dwell on misery. So after many meditations I began to see hope again and notice that there are many people doing good things, such as the volunteers at the migrant centres that I visited.
Still, living in the middle of the White Light District was a sore point because I didn’t want to tell my mum. She’s worried about me always especially since I moved overseas. I had no choice but to tell her before her recent visit because she is a great observer and she would probably have noticed the many white lights.
My mum was silent for a bit on the phone when I told her the news. Then she asked, ‘How can you not know?’ I explained the discreet white light system and the benefit of living in such area is that there are no ‘workers’ looking for customers in the streets like some other parts of Athens. The customers know where they are going and no one ever bothers me. So my mum ended this topic by her usual ‘be careful’ and that was it.
When my mum and my relatives visited our flat in Victoria, they excitedly took pictures of the white light. They also observed the activities downstairs on our balcony hoping to see some customers.
Since my family’s departure we have moved out of Victoria to be in Crete due to my husband’s work. We are happy to be closer to the nature but we do miss the convenience of Victoria and the many friendly faces that we greeted so often. We witnessed perhaps one of the lowest points of Victoria and we also witnessed the positive changes and the opening of many new shops. There is even an art project going on in the neighbourhood at the moment. It just shows that although the world is not in a good place at the moment, there is always hope for a brand new beginning.
To the Greek people who think Victoria is dangerous – perhaps in the near past but whilst we were living there, we had only pleasant experiences. The only dangers I encountered in Greece were the pickpockets in tourist area, dishonest restaurant owners/workers in Santorini and dodgy taxi drivers in Athens. The second and third categories were always Greek people.
Now let me share with you some of the places I love in Victoria!
1. Agios Panteleimonas
The Agios Panteleimonas (Saint All-Merciful) Church is a huge orthodox church on Acharnon Street and is about 100 years old. It has the biggest dome amongst all the orthodox churches in the Balkan area. Its website says that it is the biggest church in Greece but my friend from Patras checked on some Greek websites that Agios Andreas in Patras is the biggest. It really doesn’t matter which is the biggest as both are magnificent.
The inside of the church is decorated with many icons and wall paintings. Photos are allowed but please be discrete in order to respect the peaceful environment. I love sitting in there to absorb nice energy during the non service hours.
Agios Panteleimonas is about 10 minutes’ walk from Victoria Station.
2. National Archaeological Museum
The National Archaeological Museum was built in 1889 and is the largest museum in Greece. At the beginning it was built for housing all the excavations found in Athens but now it includes many exhibits from all over Greece.
The museum itself is a beautiful building in a lovely garden. There are two cafes, one outside the museum building and the other one is in a courtyard inside the building. I love the one inside the building as there are some ancient statues in the courtyard where some of the tables are.
It’s less than 10 minutes to walk there from Victoria Station.
3. Pedion tou Areos
Pedion tou Areos is the largest park in Athens. My husband goes running there sometimes like other locals. There are people playing chess and children playing too. There are quite a few statues there and it is interesting to go for a walk there if you are in the area.
If you decide to visit the park, beware of which entrance you use though. The first time my husband and I went there, we disregarded our noses’ warning and entered this small area through a side entrance. There were squatters with tents and rubbish everywhere and a very strong toilet smell. We left right away and entered through a much bigger entrance.
We didn’t see any squatters or suspicious people in the main area of the park where people hang out or go jogging. Potentially it could be a really beautiful park but it now looks a bit run down like most of Athens, apparently due to mismanagement.
4. Ktel Attikis bus station
One of the Ktel Attikis bus station is on Mavrommateon Street which is parallel to 28th October Street and right outside the big park Pedion tou Areos. From this station there are buses to Rafina, Sounio and a few other places.
From Rafina port you can take a ferry to Mykonos and some other islands. Although it is very convenient to take the metro from Victoria to Piraeus, I prefer the port in Rafina as there are usually less tourists and less hectic there. The journey to Rafina is about an hour.
I have yet to explore Sounio but I heard many great things about its beaches and historical site. Have a search and you will see many beautiful photos which will tempt you to pay a visit.
5. 28th October Street
Shopping! Many shops on this street have closed down in recent years due to the economy but then there are also some brave new shops and the new ones are usually discount shops.
28th October Street is long. The shopping starts around where the National Archaeological Museum is. There is a rather nice vintage shop opposite the museum. Go up the road on the museum side and you will find some high street shops like Bershka and Zara. There are only a few more shops beyond Zara so the shopping ends about there.
On the side opposite the museum, you will find many discount shops. By discount shops I mean shops that sell clothing with slight imperfection, old stocks from factories and other very cheap clothing.
I enjoy shopping here than in the city centre because it’s much less crowded. There aren’t as many shops as in the centre but there are plenty for me and of course I like the cheap shops. Some days there are also street vendors on both side of the street selling just about anything from fake handbags to nail clippers.
6. Victoria Square
Some people refer to Victoria area as Πλατεία Βικτωρίας (Plateea Victoreeas) which means Victoria Square. As mentioned before, all the refugees are now relocated to (hopefully) appropriate places and the square is once again available for locals to hang out.
The square is surrounded by cafes and we usually go to Γλυκιά Γωνιά which means Sweet Corner. There are two large birds in a large cage making funny loud noises.
You probably will go to Plaka and Monastiraki and would like to stop for a coffee there but I highly recommend that you have a coffee in any non-touristic area too. In local area the cafes usually provide you with complimentary little sweets or biscuits. They always serve coffees with glasses of water and they would never hurry you to leave. In fact, it is common for Greek people to hang around at cafes for 2 to 3 hours with just one coffee.
7. Victoria metro station
One of the great things about Victoria is that there is a metro station there and it is so convenient to go around Athens with metro (unless it is on strike). I was also excited that it is one of the very few areas in Athens that I could pronounce correctly. Or so I thought! The first time I noticed the sign inside the metro station, I was so confused because when written in Greek alphabets, Victoria is Βικτώρια. Looks very foreign, doesn’t it?
There are two entrances. One of them is located in the square and the other one across the street. There are yellow spheres on the street leading to the station so if you are walking on the parallel roads, you would know when you have reached the metro street. You need to check which direction you are going and use the appropriate entrance to enter the correct platform.
Victoria station is just two stops away from Monastiraki and is the same (green) line as Piraeus where most ferries to the islands depart from. It is also two stop from Syntagma with one change at Omonia.
There is a small but very nice bakery called Victoria just outside the entrance opposite the square. I’ve had many spanakopita (spinach pie) and bougatsa (custard cream pie) from them. There are many more bakeries in this area as many people do live here. Another proof that the ‘You can’t live there!’ statement is false!
There is a little fruit stall on a trolley outside the station near the small nice bakery. I don’t know what the quality of the fruits is like because I attempted buying from them twice without success. First summer I asked for half a kilo of strawberries and the man insisted that I bought a whole kilo. This summer he sneakily (but not sneaky enough) put extra strawberries in the bag before weighing it. Both times I walked away. Maybe better luck next summer.
9. Malamos Patisserie – fancy bakery with homemade ice-cream
A patisserie is a fancy bakery that mainly sells sweets, cakes and biscuits. The man inside proudly informed me that he made the ice-cream himself. I bought from him many times. Only one euro per scoop! Every flavour I had was as divine as the huge church opposite. If you come all the way to visit Agios Panteleimonas, reward yourself with homemade ice-cream!
Address – 124 Acharnon. Opposite Agios Panteleimonas, second shop from Magnisias Street.
10. Coffee Orange Juice bar
Recently a new juice bar opened near the metro station. Very cheap price thanks to the people who think ‘you can’t live there’ because the rent must be rock bottom low now. They also sell coffees, sandwiches and some other snacks. There are a few tables outside the shop.
The shop is on 3rd September Street which is the street between the two metro entrances. If you are facing the square, turn to your left and you should be able to see those tables outside.
11. Health food shops (dried goods only)
There is a dried goods only health food shop next to the juice bar. It is tiny but stocks many products. There is a good selection of loose Greek herbal tea at good price. Go in and have a browse and you will find other great natural Greek products such as mastiha powder. Next to it is a nuts and dried goods shops selling many Greek natural produce.
12. Enjoy Just Falafel
This cute little falafel shop is located on Aristotelous Street, which is parallel to 3rd September Street. From the metro station, walk down the length of the square, turn right and the shop is about 2 blocks away. They have fresh falafel and a few other snacks. There are a few tables both in and outside of the shop.
13. Georgian bakery
Opposite Agios Panteleimonas, at the corner of Acharnon and Magnisias, there is a Georgian bakery with a traditional stone oven. There is a queue sometimes waiting for the next fresh batch of bread. I like the Greek style spinach pie but now and then I go to this bakery to have the Georgian style one which is more like spinach inside soft bread.
14. Ouzeri tou Laki
An ouzeri is a place where people drink ouzo (very strong alcohol) and in Greece whenever people have alcohol, they also eat! It is definitely fine to just eat and not have any ouzo in an ouzeri.
Our friends told us that this ouzeri was very well known for many years. The menu includes many published articles about this place. Good food and prices are on the cheap side. They have English menus.
From the metro station, walk down half the length of the square on your right side. Cross the narrow street and enter the little pedestrian street Elpidos. The ouzeri is at the end of this little street.
15. Αρχόντισσα (Arhontissa traditional Greek kitchen)
This restaurant is on 31 Kodrigktonos Street which is about 5 minutes’ walk from Victoria station and it serves μαγειρευτά (mageireuta = cooked food).
In Greece there is a type of restaurant called Mageireuta which means ‘cooked food’. Inside you can see a display of dishes available for the day. They serve food that many Greek people grow up eating at home, from bean soup, fish soup to meat stews, mousaka and pastitsio. One best thing is that you get to see what’s on offer and not so good thing (for me) is that I want everything!
Like many other mageireuta restaurants in local areas, this restaurant has a different menu for each day of the week. We have eaten there many times and when my family came to Athens, we ordered a variety of dishes so they could try many things. Everything we had there were delicious and very good prices.
16. Other cheap restaurants
There are several very affordable middle eastern type restaurants run by migrants. I’m not sure which origins they are from as I’m not familiar with their features nor their cuisines. Most of their customers are also migrants so I guess the food must be very authentic.
We went to one of these restaurants a few times and received a very warm welcome. What really caught my attention was that the owner included posters of Afghanistan, Iran and Greece outside their shops. Perhaps they miss their home countries but they enjoy their new home as well. Please don’t expect a lavish meal there though. The menu is very simple but everything we had there were delicious and cheap.
17. Ethnic grocery shops
Ginger and coconut milk as well as other ‘exotic’ spices and ingredients are easily obtained from the shops run by migrants. They also stock normal daily necessities like other grocery shops run by Greek people. The prices are comparable to supermarkets and sometimes even cheaper. Η Ζωή (Zoe means life) is my favourite shop and the owner is a very kind Iranian man. I always buy from his shop in order to support my lovely neighbour. The bonus of living close to migrants is that they don’t follow the Greek public holidays so their shops are opened at times like Easter when many other shops are closed.
18. Charity shop/migrant centres
There is a Salvation Army charity shop on Kodrigktonos Street near the church. I imagine that you would prepare some empty space in your suitcases on the way to Greece in order to fit in souvenirs. You can fill up this spaces with clothing and other supplies that you don’t need anymore and donate to this place. While there you may also find some treasure for yourself. The people who work there are incredibly kind.
There are a few migrant centres in the area and around. If you plan to come to Athens to volunteer, Victoria is a very affordable and convenient area for your stay. Please remember though these centres are for real people who have gone through a lot. These are not tourist attractions.
Have you heard of the artist Rick Lowe and his Project Row Houses? Through the Project Row Houses project, Rick Lowe instrumented the revitalization of a whole neighbourhood in Houston. Since then he has moved on to transform other neighbourhoods through his art and vision.
I never heard of him nor his projects till I walked past the Victoria Square Project community space. I thought there was a new shop selling cool furniture but it also looked like a workshop for some sort of designer. I asked the friendly people who were sitting outside and they promptly explained what it was and gave me a newsletter.
Honestly I still not sure what the Victoria Square Project is about as art things never sit right with my brains. However I greatly enjoyed reading the newsletter which included interviews of 2 local business owners who both share my love for Victoria. I had a look at the project’s facebook page and wish that I am still in Victoria and am able to join their many events.
The community space is opposite to the ouzeri on Elpidos Street.
20. Stationery shop and more!
Stationery shops are my favourite kind of shops and I would visit one whenever come across one during my travels. You can find this Stationery shop near the Victoria Station, next to the toy shop in the corner.
There are also many other shops and places that cater for the locals’ needs such as shop for sewing supplies, a seamstress, supplies for martial arts, a theatre, 2 cinemas and a bowling centre.
Give Victoria a chance!
So you see there are many great things in Victoria! If you find other lovely places or things to do in Victoria, do add on to the comments. Please don’t let some past bad news keep you away from Athens’ hidden treasure. Give Victoria a chance and you may fall in love with it like we have!
Photos with *** by Contantinos Anastasakis. Big thanks to my #PhotoMan for taking time out on a busy days for this post! Other photos are by me.
Yz9 August, 2017
Bakery (cookies) in Greece is always great! How nice if someone could actually brings the bakery team from Greece to operate in Singapore. I mean the authentic bakery!
The Loving Energy10 August, 2017
Singapore has nice bakery too… just different style! I actually miss the food in Asia!