Wandering back one evening down Athinas I chanced upon Platia Katzia. Opposite the 18th century Town Hall was a full square of people watching traditional Greek dancing. The sound of bazooki music floated through the air and none of the dancers were under sixty. They hardly moved out of first gear, but you got the impression they were enjoying their own culture and the crowd was lapping it up.
And that is the thing about this part of Athens it is so utterly "Greek". The stretch between Omonia Square and the start of Plaka is the Greece that you travelled hundreds of miles to see. And its smack bang in the centre of the city - a rare slice of neighbourhood life in one of the most frenetic of European capitals. For there is a sense of life going on here. It reminded me of what European cities used to be like before they were taken over by chain stores and corporate hotels. You see people stop and talk to each other down Athinas - fresh food is very important and the shops are quirky and individual. Despite its traffic and concrete architecture - Athens can still be a very human city.
All roads lead to Omonia Square. This is about half a mile from the base of the northern side of the Acropolis. From here you can head north down 3 Oktober street to the excellent National Archaeological Museum, or southeast down Panepestimou to the department stores and Syntagma Square, or southwest down Pireous, a massive street which eventually connects with, well, the port of Piraeus. But most people are interested in Athinas as it heads directly south to Plaka. The great sandy bulk of the Acropolis can be seen looming at the end of the street giving the city an epic feel.
But Omonia Square is where its at and many tourists find themselves staying in its vicinity. It has been cleaned up immensely and is no longer the concrete 'junkie heaven' it was ten years ago. Athens, aware that the world was watching for the Olympics, put some effort and money into refurbishing it. The Albanian homeless it used to be so famous for have long gone. It still is full of monstrous sixties architecture with a Victorian effort occasionally poking through but it is most useful for restaurants, hotels, stalls, kiosks and a department store or two. It can entertaining at night as well - stalls are laid out giving it an amateur feel where you can pick up travel bags, sandals, mobile phone covers and knock-off DVD's for a few Euros.
On the eastern side is a bureau de change which deals with American Express and will change up travellers cheques. The surrounding streets are also a good place to pick up essentials. In fact the more you wander the more interesting Omonia becomes. There are a couple of distinctive little shops on the sidelines. I found a tiny little bookshop which obviously does good business and you can pick up English language paperbacks to read on the islands. And a very prominent weapons shop with crossbows, long distance rifles and a large display of swords including lightsabres (I kid you not!). But the surrounding sixties buildings hide little passageways and arcades which house authentic cobblers, keysmiths and coffee houses where Athenians get their fix before starting work.
Eventually you will spill out at Athinas which heads south to the old quarter of Plaka. Athinas is a terrific street. The crowds jostle and there are the prerequisite banks and hotels. But there are some very idiosyncratic shops including a pet shop where you see puppies in the window and a green parrot outside. But most people are interested in the Central Market. This is an agora in the old tradition with everything on display including meat/fish not for the squeamish. It is also very noisy - you can hear the bellowing of stallholders trying to get peoples attention from across the street The meat market is splattered with blood. If you look too closely a stallholder will shout a price at you while hacking away with a cleaver, often with dirty hands and a Greek cigarette dangling from his mouth. EU regulations be damned!
The fish market stinks to high heaven and is laden with tuna, mackerel, sardines, turbots, purple squid, giant prawns and glistening calamare lying on mounds of crushed ice. As the day wears on the ice melts making the floor wet and slippery - which can be fun with crowds of shouting jostling people. Outside the market hall are a number of stalls where you can delve into huge barrels of olives, or pistachio nuts for a tiny price.
All in all, I thought this market was terrific - noisy, bawdy, grimy and racuous. Just like the markets I remember as a child. Want to find the real Athens? Its right here in the Central Market...