Psirri

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Plaka is fun for your parents but if you are of partying age Psiri and Gazi are the places to be. Psiri does not have the carefree Never On Sunday feel that the Plaka has. It is sort of a dark place that echos its underworld past. But if you want good food and nightlife there is no area as authentically Greek as Psiri, or as international.

History of Psiri

Psiri has always had a reputation of being anti-establishment. From the very beginning of the modern Greek State people from the provinces and especially from the island of Naxos, came to the area of Psiri. Many got jobs and became respectable citizens but some stayed and made up the underworld of Athens. They were known as mangas. Hash-smokers, petty criminals and people discontent with society their ranks were constantly replenished by new immigrants. One group called Koutsavakideswere known for their long mustaches, long sharp toed boots with high heels, tight pants, a broad sash which hid their weapons and their jackets worn with one arm out of the sleeve. They terrorized Athens using Psiri as their base for over 50 years. They literally governed the neighborhood and even the police were afraid to set foot in Psiri. Sort of like the way Exarchia is now.

In 1893 Prime Minister Harilaos Trikoupis founded a new combination army-police to stamp out the Koutsavakides under the control of the tough Inspector Dimitrios Baoraktaris. His method was simple. He humiliated the Koutsavakides by arresting them and cutting off the toes of their pointed boots as well as the unused sleeve of their coats, shaved their mustaches and force them to break their guns, before sending them home embarrassed. It worked and the Koutsavakides faded away and Psiri became safe for everyone.

Unfortunately Baoraktaris did not stop there. He also ended the romantic custom of suitors serenading from the streets to their beloved in the windows and balcony above, by sending his police to break the guitars over their heads before arresting them and throwing them in jail for the evening.

Psiri was also known as the haven for the revolutionaries during the war of Independence as well as for a very odd sport that kept the lower classes entertained in the days before football. They would have ‘stone wars’ or what we as kids called ‘rock fights’. At a prearranged time men from Psiri would meet the men from Thission, Metaxourgio or Petralona and insult each other until the rocks began flying. There were cheering spectators and those injured became neighborhood heroes. This went on until the end of the 19th century.

Psiri was also the home of the ‘Maid of Athens’ of Lord Byron fame who has been immortalized in his poem:

Oh maid of Athens, ere I part
Give oh give me back my heart

The subject of this poem who became something of a star was Theresa Makris, one of three sisters who lived next door to the boarding house where Byron stayed when he visited Athens in 1809. Though Byron never had a relationship with her (she was only twelve and he preferred the company of young boys) the mere mention of her in the poem inspired a sort of cult and nineteenth century tourists would visit the house and hope to witness the beauty that had inspired the great romantic poet. The house where Byron stayed was on the corner of Agios Theklas and Papanikolis street. Its just up the street where Stavros Melissinos the famous poet-sandal-maker of Athens has his shop.

During the 20th century Psiri was an area of tavernas and a place where you would find the rembetica musicians who sang their songs of love, exile, pain, poverty, heroin and hashish, the same songs you will hear in Psiri today.