Y Zoula - Mezedes, Rembetiko and Anarchy

Young and bustling Exarchia – or Anarchia – as some like to call it, isn't exactly among the top-10 recommendations in your regular travel guide. Indeed, Exarchia is a traditional hotspot for riots and left-wing protest walks. The African prostitutes along Themistokleou Rd. and the junkies in Solomou Rd. don't add up to the standard cliché postcard snapshot of ancient Athens either. Still, when you stroll across green Exarchia square and catch the smell of Souvlaki and burnt waste, the ever-persistent noise of the motorbikes, the laid-back cafés, rock pubs and Mezedopolias, you'll get an idea of real Athens, beyond Akropolis, bad Gyros and kitschy souvenirs. But not only is Exarchia the best place to party on a Saturday, it also boasts some of the most authentic, down-to-earth and best places to explore the wonders of real Greek mezes.
Among the fine Mezedopolias in that special part of town, it's hard to pick a favourite. But when it comes to coolness and pure authenticity, nothing can beat Y Zoula near the top end of Koletti Road. And seriously, there's nothing that can go wrong with an owner, who goes by the name of Nektarios Mystikos ("yes, that's my real name"). Nektarios' concept is plain and simple: good, high quality mezes sold at a price the many students in Exarchia (the university is just around the corner ...) and the young families in the neighborhood can afford. And Ouzo, lots of Ouzo. Nektarios is proud to showcase a whole cupboard full of the finest brands from all over Greece. Honestly, if you're looking for a place to sample some REALLY good Ouzo, come to Y Zoula. Nektarios is a pro when it comes to Ouzo, he can tell you a story about every brand, how it is produced, which island it is from etc. Y Zoula doesn't call itself a "Rakadiko", a "Raki Pub" for nothing. Being an avid fan of Rembetiko, he'll also be able to tell you a story about the "Greek blues", too.

Ouzo aside, the real highlight of Y Zoula is its pure and simple cuisine. There's just a small grill and a stove behind the bar, but that's enough for Nektarios to come up with some of the tastiest mezes between here and Amorgos. The top picks would be the incredibly tasty fried cheese (basically a piece of top quality Kefalotiri in a Saganaki, served with spices, a slice of lemon and high quality olive oil) and the spicy fried garlic sausage. Nektarios gets the sausages from an Albanian butcher who lives in his house. The fresh and fluffy Keftedes in a spicy tomato sugo are just as great. There's also a small selection of cold mezes. Under any circumstances try to sample the homemade Dolmades, which most probably are the best you'll get in Athens, and the Kefalotiri cheese, which comes in big chunks fresh from the loaf. To put it short: don't expect fancy cuisine, sophisticated seafood or a big wine list to choose from. Y Zoula is all about simplicity and the sheer quality of the basic product. And about Ouzo. Good Ouzo. Did I mention that before?

Y Zoula opens in the afternoon, but it's definitely a place you should go to in the evening. The crowd is rather young, mostly students, and the atmosphere is informal and cheerful with Rembetiko or Greek Rock Music playing on the stereo. You'll easily make new friends around here when the tables are full with the small plates and the Ouzo is flowing.
The prices are absurdly low, considering the quality and the atmosphere you get. Most mezedes are between 2,50 € and 5 € and come with a basket of bread. The Ouzo's just as cheap and comes in small  or big bottles (depending on your plans for the night), served with water (and ice if you like).


Traveling to Tbilisi with Julius von Klaproth - 1808

Tbilisi is a gem of a city. Situated at a spectacular gorge at the muddy yellow-brownish river Jvaria, its old town looks like an 19th-century eastern European town, which was preserved in a time capsule for 200 years. When you stroll through the quiet, narrow alleyways and green squares between Rustaveli square and Meidan square you can't help but notice that homogeneity of the beautiful architecture. In fact the wooden houses with their fancy balconies and crumbling, yet colourful facades are all witnesses to the epoch, when modern Tbilisi was born: A time capsule which takes you straight to the year 1801.

Of course Tbilisi is far older than 1801, the city's roots can be traced back to the 4th century. Nevertheless the city you perceive today is mainly a child of the 19th-century. Being situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and being a main stop at the ancient silk road, Tbilisi went through a lot of rough times. Being caught in a constant power struggle between the neighboring empires, the Persians, the Ottomans, the Russians, etc. the power relations in the area were literally changing with each passing decade. In the wake of its last conquest at the hands of Persian Emperor Aga Mohammed Khan in 1795 Tbilisi was completely burnt down to the ground, 22.000 of its inhabitants were taken into slavery. This fatal event marked the end of old Tbilisi. 

The birth of new Tbilisi came four years later, when Russian troops led by General Lasarus occupied the still traumatized city for the Russian crown. In 1801 Tbilisi became a part of the ever-growing Russian empire and the city was built anew from scratch in the style of the then modern French architecture with a unique Eastern European touch. The result of this building program is what you can still see today.
One of the most vivid sources from these early days of modern Tbilisi is the travel account of German official Julius von Klaproth. Von Klaproth, who was working for the Russian crown in St. Petersburg undertook a journey through the Caucasus in the years 1807/1808, only thirteen years after the annihilation of Tbilisi at the hands of the Persians. Here are some of his impressions from these days.

"Die Stadt ist sehr schlecht angelegt und gleicht, seit der letzten Zerstörung durch Agha Mohammed Chan im September 1795, halb einem Schutthaufen, und nur zwey Drittheile der Häuser sind wieder aufgebaut. Die Straßen sind so enge, daß in den breitesten nur etwa eine Arba bequem fahren kann, dahingegen in den Quer- und Nebenstraßen kaum Platz für einen Reiter ist, und sich bey kothigem Wetter oft zwei Fußgänger nicht ausweichen können. Die Häuser sind schlecht nach Georgischer Art aus gemischten Ziegel- und Feldsteinen erbaut, die mit Koth oder Thon zusammengefügt sind, und kaum funfzehn Jahre dem Zerfallen widerstehen. Die Stadt hat nur drey Thore, nämlich das Sophische, Muchranische, und auf der Südseite das Badethor oder das Sandschaische. Auf der andern Seite des Kur liegt eine neuerlich angelegte Vorstadt Awlabari, in der Syrer und Kurden wohnen. Man zählte sonst in Tiflis funfzehn Griechische Kirchen, in welchen der Gottesdienst in Alt-Georgischer Sprache gehalten wird, zwanzig Armenische und zwei Katholische, von denen die ältere Chareba heißt und dem heiligen Joseph gewidmet ist; jetzt aber den Einsturz droht, denn sie ist bey einem heftigen Erdbeben an verschiedenen Stellen geborsten. Die andere neue wurde erst vor einigen Jahren durch kaiserliche Unterstützung gebaut, und ist noch nicht ganz vollendet, obgleich schon Gottesdienst darin gehalten wird. Dicht daneben ist das neue Wohnhaus der Kapuziner-Missionaire, die jetzt drey Patres hier haben. Außer den Kirchen sind noch jetzt in Tiflis Mezdsheds, von welchen die eine für die Alitischen Perser, und die andere für die Sunnitischen Tataren bestimmt ist, die letzte wurde aber von Agha Mohammed zerstört, doch ist ihr schöner Minarett oder Thurm stehen geblieben. Sie wurde von Isaac Pascha, dem Türkischen Befehlshaber, 1710 erbaut."