Missing out on ATHENS is a GREEK TRAGEDY believes TIM MAGEE who checks out two new hotels in the capital …
If the question is, name a European capital with more cultural currency than Paris, with a fascination for barbecue yet the best vegetarian cuisine in Europe, with wine that has come into its own over the last five or six years, a generous sprinkling of city beaches, a sharp new restaurant scene with a cocktail buzz to match and all of this in an authentic, dramatic city set in the world’s oldest open-air museum that looks like a sun-kissed hand-painted operatic stage backdrop and makes ancient Rome appear like new money? It’s a long question but the answer is short. The answer is Athens. Just not enough people are asking that question yet.
The anecdotal vibe over recent years is that Greece, and Athens in particular, was in crisis. It was – it is – but not to downplay the vicious slap-down that the downturn inflicted on Athenians, this town has endured crises much worse for much longer. Crisis-itis is almost the Greek default setting – they wear it so well.
It is like we don’t know it’s there. Most of us who fly to Athens, as we do with Malaga, Alicante, Faro or Palma, bypass that original shining city on the hill on the way to somewhere else. Somewhere less. We use Athens as a hub, a layover on the way to be institutionalised with like-minded strangers in local-free zones for a week or a fortnight on bottle-necked islands, when it should be the destination. Missing out on Athens is a Greek tragedy.
It has all the hard and soft charm of Rome but with Greek beaches and island weather. The area around the centre, Attiki, has some of the country’s most look-at-me monuments, including my favourite, the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion. The Apollo Coast, aka Athenian Riviera, is peppered with palm trees and dressed with beaches and if that isn’t enough then Lake Vouliagmeni’s 24?C therapeutic waters will warm the heart of the pickiest traveller.
Greeks go on holidays in Greece. Boutique hotels open every month, with polished resorts and grand dames towering over them all, the King and Queen of which are the newly-wedded royal couple of the Grande Bretagne and her younger groom the King George sitting on their own Acropolis on Syntagma Square.
The icing on these wedding cake hotels are the dramatic rooftop pools with a crow’s nest view of the Parthenon and the city that surrounds it. I stayed in both. This newly married couple are so close they brought my unpacked luggage from one to the other while I was moving rooms. The rooftop bar in the Grande Bretagne is an old hand with cocktails and the restaurant in the George is a beauty with a fish soup as good as anything I’ve had in the south of France.
When you do walk out of either of their five-star polished doors, keep walking till you can’t. There is too much to take in for one trip so get your neighbourhood watch on and mix up the days with equal portions of something ancient and something new. Pinball around the lanes of Plaka and then head to Agora before retreating to the pool for some sun and then diving into the party scene in Gazi.
Check out the first and only all-marble Olympic stadium, the perfect Panathenaic Stadium. I never understood why Athens hosted the 2004 Olympics instead of the previous one – the Grecian 2000 would’ve been so catchy – then recover in Tailor Made, the chemistry shop slash café in Monastiraki so good that hipsters would trade their tattoos or piercings for its cocktails and coffees.
Head through Plaka to the flea market at Avissynias Square, then, arms full of loot, take the metro down to the harbour and the swish fishmasters at the starred Varoulko on the marina. All the while tripping over ruins, it isn’t hard to imagine how easily empires can fall these days. You don’t even need armies. A numpty on the throne will trump the barbarians at the gate any day.
After some Athens shopping, have lunch in Ergon – the Mitropoleos outpost is the best one of a chain of Greek delis, but don’t let chain spook you, think Fallon & Byrne married with Barrafina. Give over a morning to one of this planet’s mightiest museums, the new Acropolis Museum, and then digest what you’ve just seen over the taramasalata and Santorini whites in little Mani Mani. Those swish white mineral whites from Santorini or the smooth magic reds from central Greece, married to the olives and their oil are nectar of the gods. Those gods used to live around here, and you wouldn’t blame them.
Save the Acropolis for your last day. You need to take in the city and experience the oracle and the handsome history course that is a morning at the Acropolis Museum – cogging your homework before tackling the real deal. Climb up through the crazy cute Anafiotika, which is essentially a small 19th-century village in Cyclades island style, with little stone houses and blue rooftops that are trippy when you look past them through the bougainvillea up to the original White House.
Wind your way up to the Acropolis through one-person wide streets that belong in Naxos or Paxos with these great little homemade signs simply pointing all the way up – Acropolis, with an arrow – to keep you out of their gardens and help you emerge, wide-eyed, at the top.
A city should be judged by its people. Athenians are tough, busy and thoughtful and slightly mad, obsessed with socialising, all knitted together with philoxenia, that sweet Greek term for acts of hospitality. Although we share being the furthermost outpost on either side of Europe I don’t think we have been great neighbours. It’s like we’ve been passing through a neighbour’s house to get to play in their garden without even saying hello or checking in with them. They aren’t unlike us and Athens is moving very quickly to become what will be one of the world’s greatest destinations again. They need us less now than a few years ago but there’s still time to at least get familiar with what makes Athens the most resilient and electrifying city in Europe.
Tim Magee @Manandasuitcase
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this don’t miss our next issue, out Thursday June 1.
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