Papadiamantis in Athens – Tracing the footsteps of the “saint of letters”

As long as I live and breathe and be sensible, I will not stop praising my Christ, lovingly describing nature and painting with affection the genuine Greek customs.

Alexandros Papadiamantis.

Alexandros Papadiamantis / Αλέξανδρος Παπαδιαμάντης (Skiathos, March 4, 1851 – Skiathos, January 3, 1911) is one of the most important Greek writers, also known as “the saint of Greek letters”. He wrote mainly short stories and his work occupies a prominent place in modern Greek literature. Papadiamantis was born on the island of Skiathos, which would figure prominently in his work. His father was a priest, and his family was poor. He moved to Athens as a young man to complete high school at the Varvakeios School and enrolled in the University of Athens, but never completed his studies due to financial difficulties.

He supported himself by writing everything from journalism and short stories to several serialized narratives. From a certain point onwards, his works became very popular, and newspapers and magazines offered him substantial fees. However, he did not care about money and spent it carelessly. He took no care of his clothing and appearance and was known to be a recluse, whose only true cares were writing and chanting at church. Therefore, he was usually referred to as “kosmokalogeros” (which means “a monk in the world”). 

During his stay in Athens, he lived in the poor neighbourhood of Psyri (Ψυρρή) and his daily life was spent in this area as well as in the neighbouring Monastiraki (Μοναστηράκι). As a result, his heroes and stories were influenced not only by the island of Skiathos, but also by these two areas of Athens. So let’s take a walking tour in the centre of Athens and try to trace the places where this great writer lived and wrote.

Church of Agioi Anargyroi
Church of Agioi Anargyroi
Churchyard of Agioi Anargyroi

We start our tour from the historic church of Agioi Anargyroi (Άγιοι Ανάργυροι) in the centre of Psyri. Papadiamantis, having difficulty paying the rent of his house and after an unfortunate incident, took refuge here in the early 1880s, where the monk Nifon, who came from Skiathos and was his childhood friend, worked. Nifon offered him hospitality in the same cabin in the churchyard where he slept. The small room is called Cell of Papadiamantis (Κελί του Παπαδιαμάντη) because it reminds of the monastic cells. In this room, Papadiamantis spent a long period of his Athenian life, wrote some of his most important works (such as his most famous work The Murderess / Η Φόνισσα) and at the same time participated as a cantor in the church services. The room was renovated in 2021 and is now open to the public and also features various portraits of the writer and a podcast with one of his stories (admission to the room is free).

Corridor leading to Papadiamantis’ cell
Papadiamantis’ cell (ground floor)
Papadiamantis’ cell (ground floor)
Papadiamantis’ cell (attic)

In this humble room, which was preserved thanks to the efforts of the late priest Panagiotis Bekiaris, the visitor is impressed by the simplicity of the place. A small room and a straw mat in the attic were the refuge of this great writer, who lived as a monk in the centre of one of the poorest areas of the city at that time. His heroes are the people he saw around him every day – people poor, tortured, vulnerable, failed and marginal. In his Athenian works, as many of his scholars have pointed out, nature and its beauty are absent, for the very simple reason that his Athens, that is, of Psyri and its surroundings, has no trace of nature.

Church of Agios Athanasios and Aristophanous Street

From the church of Agioi Anargyroi, following Katsikogianni Street for a few metres, we reach Aristophanous Street (Οδός Αριστοφάνους), where he spent twelve years of his stay in Psyri. He lived in a poor room in an inner courtyard near the church of Agios Athanasios (Άγιος Αθανάσιος), which was probably located at number 18 of the street (on Google Maps there is a house that has been marked as “Papadiamantis’ House” at number 24, but according to the owner of the house which we met during our research, this is a wrong entry). This place was a paddock with rooms with rotten walls and often without windows, while the occupants were poor, bachelors and marginalized. He left this room and moved to the room at Agioi Anargyroi churchyard when, after heavy rain, the roof collapsed and his life was threatened.

Kachrimanis’ building

From Aristophanous Street we turn to Sarri Street and follow it until its junction with Agion Anargyron Street. There was the famous grocery store and tavern of Kachrimanis (Καχριμάνης) from Tripolis. Papadiamantis used to come to this grocery store for twenty-five years to eat alone or with friends. The owner respected him and always made sure he had good food and wine, while the writer paid him whenever he had money. He liked to drink but he made sure to hide his habit by sitting at the back of the room, away from the eyes of passers-by. Also, not usually having money to buy paper, he took paper bags from the grocery store which he cut into rectangular shapes and wrote on them many of his stories. Greek literature owes much to this grocery store owner who supported the author during his stay in Athens.

Monastiraki Square and Tzistarakis Mosque in the background

From here we follow Agion Anargyron Street and turn right on Taki Street (Οδός Τάκη). According to some sources, Papadiamantis also lived in a house on this street. From Taki Street, we end up at Ermou Street and from there at Monastiraki Square (Πλατεία Μοναστηρακίου). In the cafes of the square, Papadiamantis spent many hours of the day observing the daily life and the people of the area, the workers, the craftsmen, the women, but also the prisoners who were taken to the prison that was nearby at that time. In one of his stories he refers to a white-clad woman who saw one night on the steps of the Tzistarakis Mosque (Τζαμί Τζισταράκη) in the square and thought that “here ghosts are still coming out”.

Church of Agios Elissaios

From the square, we follow Areos Street to reach the church of Agios Elissaios (Άγιος Ελισσαίος). In this small, unpretentious church, Papadiamantis met the Holy Father Nikolaos Planas in 1887 and participated as a cantor in the vigils that were held here for the first time in Athens. He was the right cantor and the left cantor was his cousin – the writer, academic, journalist, playwright and translator – Alexandros Moraitidis. Zacharias Papantoniou, Pavlos Nirvanas, and other important writers of the time hurried to hear them sing in this small church in a unique and all-encompassing atmosphere.

Varvakeios Agora

We return to the square and from there we follow Athinas Street to the building of Varvakeios Agora (Βαρβάκειος Αγορά), that houses the central market of Athens. In the area of ​​the market, there was the Varvakeios School until 1944 (the market and the school were donations from the national benefactor, Ioannis Varvakis). At this school, the young Papadiamantis enrolled in 1873 in the fourth grade of high school, and a year later enrolled in the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Athens, where he was a fellow student with Georgios Vizyinos. He did not complete his studies, as we have mentioned above, which cost his father, who was waiting for him to become a teacher on the island and help his four sisters.

Bust of Vlasis Gavriilidis

Leaving Athinas Street, we follow Evripidou Street and reach Klafthmonos Square (Πλατεία Κλαυθμώνος). In the centre of the square is the Bust of Vlasis Gavriilidis (Προτομή Βλάση Γαβριηλίδη), the journalist and publisher who is considered the “father” of journalism in modern Greece. From the moment he enrolled at university, Papadiamantis started publishing and translating, but his earnings were meager. His position improved when he met Gavriilidis, who had founded the famous Acropolis newspaper (the first offices of the newspaper were in the square) and invited him to write his stories for the newspaper. Although his salary from his work on the Acropolis was excessive for the time, because his financial situation was forever his weak point, he was always at the end of the month poor and distressed. Gavrilidis, in addition to giving him the opportunity to publish his writings, also stood by him as a father, encouraged him, and always helped him at every difficult moment.

Dexameni Square

For the last stop of our tour, we move 1.5 km northeast to the neighbourhood of Kolonaki and Dexameni Square (Πλατεία Δεξαμενής). In 1906, an old friend, Giannis Vlachogiannis, took Papadiamantis from his room in Psyri, seeing that his health had deteriorated, and hosted him in his room in Lycabettus near Dexameni. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were two cafes at Dexmaneni. The cheapest cafe was that of Barbayiannis, who sold coffee for a penny, and the second was named Terpsi, which was the meeting place for writers and poets. The humble Papadiamantis used to sit outside the Barbayiannis cafe, in the back, next to the small window of the fireplace. He took his coffee from the window and asked for a fire to light his cigarette. This was the location of his only (and therefore famous) photograph, taken by Pavlos Nirvanas, another writer who frequented the square. 

Relief portrait of Papadiamantis

At Dexameni Square we also see on a side wall the Relief Portrait of Alexandros Papadiamantis, almost forgotten nowadays and with a bougainvillea threatening to cover it. The relief dates back to 1923 when the Municipal Council of Athens approved the cost of the project with the amount of 5,000 drachmas and the portrait was made by the sculptor Thomas Thomopoulos, whose works could be seen in many central parts of Athens. The author is portrayed at old age and his gaze is tired and thoughtful. 

The photo of Papadiamantis at Dexameni and his autobiography

Papadiamantis’ life was becoming more difficult day by day, while at the same time his health was deteriorating. Some of his friends organise an event at the Parnassos Philological Association in 1908 for his literary twenty-five years and managed to raise a sum of money to help him get out of the financial impasse. Indeed, he managed to pay his debts and buy new clothes for the first time and prepared to return to Skiathos. At the end of March 1908, he left for his island. Gathering the history of the island and the old chronicles, he composed his last stories more mature and complete. Papadiamantis passed away in January 1911. His funeral was held in the presence of the mourning people of the island. With the news of his death, the mourning became Pan-Hellenic. Today, the cart of Alexandros Papadiamantis is kept in the church of Gennisis Theotokou on the island, while his grave is kept in the cemetery of Skiathos.

The monument and the house of Papadiamantis at Skiathos Island