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Varvakios Agora: The Legendary Food Market in Athens

Don’t expect sanitized clusters of “food boutiques” when you enter the
Varvakios Central Market. Opened in 1886 and recently renovated, it remains a
mecca for gastronomes, locals and tourists, both for its good prices and as a
riveting spectacle. Few of them know its history, and the role played by caviar
in its construction.

But it’s not for the queasy. So anyone with phobias about dangling carcasses,
innards and calves’ heads may prefer to inspect the open-air fruit and veg stalls
opposite. Or simply explore the fish section. Here the bounty of the sea, from
the tiniest whitebait to the largest swordfish, is laid out on dozens of marble
counters covered in chopped ice, a fascinating display of variety and sparkling
freshness. The hungry can go straight to the traditional taverna in its depths or
the fish restaurant near the entrance.

Before 1886, traders sold their goods where they had since time immemorial,
from shacks around the Roman Agora and Hadrian’s Library below the
Acropolis. As the city grew, something more organized was needed. A location
was found, in the vicinity of the City Hall, but the drachmas to build it came
from an unlikely source: a foundation set up by a seafarer who didn’t even live
to see his country liberated but who made a fortune under Catherine the
Great.

His name was Ioannis Leontides, nicknamed Varvakis, the Hawk, because of his
piercing, all-knowing eyes. You might know him as the hero of the 2012 movie
And God Loved Caviar, the swashbuckling favorite of the Russian queen, played
by Catherine Deneuve. From the islet of Psara in the northeast Aegean, he
(Sebastian Koch in the film) and countless compatriots fled to Russia in the 18 th
century to escape Ottoman oppression. Already a skilled shipbuilder and
seafarer though still in his 20s, he offered his services and his ship to the
Russian navy in the Caspian Sea, where he sank several Turkish warships.

After the war (1768-74), Catherine rewarded Varvakis with 10,000 roubles and
the right to fish commercially in the Caspian without paying any taxes. He used
the money well and made a fortune catching sturgeon and producing caviar.
But he didn’t spend it on a luxurious lifestyle. Instead, illiterate himself, he was
acutely sensitive to the need for education, and built schools for his workers in
Russia. He also never forgot his Greek roots and joined the Friendly Society, a
network of Greeks in the Ottoman Empire and Europe who were laying the
seeds for Revolution. Although he died (in Greece) just four years after the

Declaration of Independence in 1821, he had faith that Greece would be one
day free and left his money for the building of public schools.
The Varvakios Foundation eventually opened a school for boys on Athinas
Street in 1860, which became one of the country’s finest. But when the need
for a central market became pressing, the foundation, which still exists, offered
the money to build it. Construction started in 1878, but it was not completed
until 1886, interrupted by an earthquake in 1880. The architecture reflects the
technology of the times, with its huge glass roof – like that of the Grand Palais
in Paris. During World War II, it played different roles: as a soup kitchen in
1942, when Athenians were starving during the Nazi Occupation, and as a
hospital in 1944 when the Allies bombed Piraeus.

Ever since it acts as a focal point of Athenian life, patronized by thousands of
people every day. Surrounded by shops selling any kind of food your heart
desires from cheese to herbs and spices, nuts, coffee, sweets, eggs and even
caviar, it’s no wonder that its other name is “The Stomach of Athens.”

-Diana Farr Lewis

Directed by Mihalis Dimitriou

Mihalis Dimitriou holds a dual US and Greek nationality. He has received a master’s degree with a specialization in acting and directing, and Magister Artium in theatrical studies from the Open University of Cyprus where he graduated with honors in 2019. He received a B.A. in film studies from the University of Greenwich, also with honors, as well as a Certificate in Film & Television Studies from New York College, Athens Campus.

He is involved in the development and production of films, documentaries, TV series, commercials, and music videos. In 2019, he wrote, directed, and co-produced with the Greek Film Centre (GFC) the short film “Cloud” which won the first audience award at the Micro μ Festival (IMμF), was presented at the 42nd Short Film Festival, the 25th International Short Film Festival in Drama in September 2019, the “Athens International Film Festival”, and won the Cinematic Achievement from Thess International Short Film Festival.

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