A trip to Varvakios is not for the faint of heart!
An old man is sprinkling salt on his cold, hard boiled eggs. A very large, very dead fish of unknown origin is staring at me with its milky, unfocused eyes. In fact, eyes are all around me - teeth, noses, tongues, and tails are too. A tiny plate of bread, olives, pickled hot peppers, and grilled meats are in front of me - strong foods, says the chef, as I need something to regain my strength. For I'm at the Varvakios, otherwise known as the Athens Meat Market, and I just caused a scene.
Despite my notorious motion sickness, I wouldn't normally consider myself a queasy individual. But as I passed row after row of animals, some emancipated from their skins, others not so much, with dozens of eyes and hundreds of teeth flashing at me, my stomach started doing back flips.
I'm a somewhat failed vegetarian, a girl who went without eating meat all throughout my teenage and college years, and even today I rarely venture beyond a solidly cooked chicken breast when it comes to animal protein. Varvakios may be a well lit, well ventilated market but when the smell of blood and flesh hit me at the same time as I saw a bag of skinned, decapitated sheep heads, I very nearly went from spectator to main attraction!
I wasn't in Varvakios by chance. I was a participant in an all day food walk of the city with Culinary Backstreets Athens, an incredible adventure that included phenomenal feta and yogurt, hidden donut shops and gelato windows, and sizzling dinners of small fry fish, wild mountain herbs, and creamy courgette fritters. This was one adventure I was mastering until I stumbled upon the sack o' sheep skulls!
Fortunately, our amazing guide Despina recognized that my gag reflex was going in over drive. She deftly guided me over to our next stop, a tiny hole-in-the-wall meze stand adjacent to the fish market. I like to blend in like a local as much as possible when I travel but suddenly I couldn't be more conspicuous!
I'm not exactly sure what Despina said to the meze stand owner, but within seconds elderly men where vacating their stools and plates of food and glasses of ice water were being pushed in my direction with a friendly, sympathetic smile. I contorted my face into what I hope passed for the mask of world weary travel writer instead of what I actually was - a wimpy, weak stomached, queasy anti-adventurist who was entirely out of their element!
I took a few calming breaths and the salty, slimy stench of fish wafted by. For once I was grateful for the heavy cigarette smoke around me which filtered the air. I wrote diligently in my notebook and nibbled on my strength-inducing meze, doing my best to blend into a scene where I clearly stood out like a sore thumb.
My disastrous anti-adventure in Varvakios reminded me of an old travel tip I read years and years ago. You should always travel with a tiny tube of Vicks vapor rub or a similarly strong smelling menthol product to mask strong and unpleasant orders. I always though that was a tip for people heading to rural or developing countries but even in central Athens it would have come in handy!
Everyone else on my tour loved their time in the meat market and I absolutely loved the tour as a whole. I would heartily encourage anyone visiting Athens to give it a try. While I failed at meat marketing, I did succeed in getting a great story and having a few minutes of feeling like an intrepid explorer and that's worth all the indignity in the world!
Think you're tougher than me and want to check out Varvakios for yourself? Or are you on a quest to visit my meze stand rescuers? This isn't the kind of place you stumble upon accidentally, so I'm including a map to help you on your own adventures!