If you have been to Athens and haven’t been to the Athens flea market, you have missed out on one of the best spectacles of the city.
If you haven’t already been to Athens, plan your trip to fall over a weekend, and get up early Sunday morning. Follow the Apostolou Pavlou around the acropolis and slow down when you start to see stalls of wallets and flashy, handmade jewelry. Then enjoy, as it will only get more crowded and more eclectic. There are literally too many stalls and tables to count, and off the main road in the grass people spread out blankets and lay out lines of shoes, cell phone batteries, and books. When you get through the first street, find where the crowd looks thickest and dive in. The flea market is supposedly defined in a single square, but it’s more like an octopus that’s stretching its tentacles over multiple streets in unpredictable directions.
I tried not to stand out. There were only Greeks around and the people at the tables spoke with sometimes curiously high voices and other times with voices scratched by years of cigarettes to the point of sounding like a caricature of a smoking ad. Make no mistake, I still stood out. I was eyeing a particularly old pocket watch on one mans table and trying desperately to exude Greek vibes, when he began to tell me, in English, about the quartz face, the style, and the year it was from.
You can find anything there and you should try to look at everything; old pocket watches, coffee sets, old jewelry, gaudy jewelry, flashy jewelry, antique pocket knives, cell phones and cell phone batteries, camera lenses, records, books, CDs, DVDs I’m every language, lamps, coins for every price from every year, old photographs, vintage postcards, flatware, shoes, pants, belts, wallets, and everything else. I spent the most time in one square devoted to antique furniture. Shops were overcrowded with upholstered chairs, china vases, and one specialized in old fashioned brass cash registers to antique radios. Smaller shops, more like three sided sheds, had smaller, odder assortments, from turn of the century cameras to what appeared to be outdated surgical tools. One shop with no less than three flutes, two violins with broken strings, and one piano had an umbrella stand holding swords, honest to goodness rapiers with curved, embellished grips and tassels hanging from the sheathes.
I didn’t buy anything, but I looked at several old pocket watches and a few compasses. I fell in love with a heavy silver stopwatch that still actually worked and had “made in the USSR” inscribed on the inside face in neat letters, but couldn’t justify spending 20 euro on one item. A stand filled with old canes made me decide that if I need/want a cane when I reach old age, I’m going to make it a fancy one. There were several glass topped ones with dice over the green that covers poker tables, and others with brass animal heads or functioning compasses.
Athens is a lot like its flea market. When I came out of the antique circle, I realized it was surrounded by streets selling refurbished clothing, army surplus jackets, and bicycles. I saw that they weren’t all horrible makes and models either, which I had expected. It had been just earlier the day before during breakfast that I had realized there was a fairly young looking bicycle store across the street from the hostel. The guy working and his two friends knew a good enough amount of English to tell me about the shop. Years ago no one would have ridden a bike through Athens, and the traffic was beyond congested. Now, with the financial crisis, more people are on bikes and young people are taking to the fixie craze. I saw a good amount of vintage frames, the kind I only ever see a few times a year on repairs at the shop at home, mixed in with the custom track bikes they had built for the store front window and themselves. They were curious how cycling worked in America with all the snow. Athens is a mix of shockingly old and surprisingly new like that.