Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

48 hours in: Athens

With ancient wonders alongside modern sophistication, the Greek capital makes an ideal weekend break.

Why go now?

A metamorphosis has taken place since the 2004 Olympics, with a noisy, polluted sprawl transformed into a vivacious and sophisticated urban centre. The locals are convinced their city is the new Barcelona for short-breakers. Airlines and hotels have plenty of space for those wishing to visit the Greek capital — Athenians are bewildered by the hostile press that portrays their country as a basket case. No signs of civil war will greet you, nor boarded-up shops or deserted cafe terraces. Indeed, now is an excellent time to discover the city many credit with the birth of civilisation, and which flourishes still.

Touch down

Aegean Airlines (0871 200 0040; aegeanair.com) offers two full-service flights a day from Heathrow, and is soon to merge with Olympic Air (020-8283 1980; olympicair.com) — which also flies from Heathrow, as does BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com). The only no-frills airline is easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com), twice daily from Gatwick plus Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from Manchester.

Metro line 3 — also known as the blue line — links the airport with Syntagma Square in the city centre, taking about half an hour for a fare of €6. The airport bus X95 takes about an hour, costs only €3.20, and runs 24 hours a day.

Get your bearings

As you get to grips with the modern city, you simultaneously make the acquaintance of the ancient one. The core of the city encompasses the Ancient Agora and Roman Agora, lying between the two unmistakable hills of the Acropolis (literally ‘high city’) and the conical Lykavittos (which despite its daunting appearance, takes less than half-an-hour to climb).

Tourists gravitate to the souk-like lanes of the Plaka in the shadow of the Acropolis. The handout map from the Athens tourist organisation is more than adequate for independent exploration of up-and-coming neighbourhoods such as Thissio and Psiri. Pick one up from the Public Store at Karageorgi Servias 1, Syntagma (00 30 210 3246210; breathtakingathens.com), open 9am-9pm weekdays, 9am-8pm Saturdays, closed Sundays.

Check in

The unpretentious, family-run Attalos Hotel at 27 Athinas (00 30 210 321 2801; attaloshotel.com) near Monastiraki metro station has 80 no-nonsense rooms costing €94 for a double, reducing to €80-€85 in July and August. The highlight here is the rooftop bar where you can survey the cityscape.

Five-star travellers should book into the gracious but unsnobbish King George Palace Hotel in Syntagma Square (00 30 210 32 22 210; classicalhotels.com/kinggeorgepalace) where doubles from €231 include a glorious breakfast buffet.

Take a hike

The partial banishment of cars makes it both pleasurable and fascinating to cover the 3km distance on foot from Hadrian’s Arch to the marvellously intact Temple of Hephaistos, skirting the southern slopes of the Acropolis. This broad, cobbled pedestrian boulevard, known as the Unification of the Archaeological Sites, is especially enjoyable in the cool of the evening, when Greeks and foreigners share the vrathini volta (‘evening promenade’).

Lunch on the run

The Central Market is a very lively place to eat, with plenty of fast, fresh food on offer. Ipiros is one of the many excellent options.

Window shopping

The shop at the Museum of Cycladic Art stocks beautifully crafted reproductions of the Aegean's most ancient art objects, jewellery, pots, and figurines that are so stylised they are nearly abstract. The Museum is at 4 Neophytou Douka St (00 30 210 7228321; cycladic.gr) and is open 10am-5pm daily except Sunday and Tuesday.

For a more raucous shopping experience head to the meat market near Monastiraki, where butchers bustle round with shopping trolleys filled with sides of lamb, and skinned sheep's heads are displayed on marble slabs. A more practical gift for your loved ones would be a bag of tasty pistachios.

Take a view

The elegant Roof Garden restaurant of the historic Grande Bretagne Hotel offers an unparalleled night-time view of the Acropolis. The beautifully lit spectacle appears so close you feel you could reach out and touch it, and so magical that you must remind yourself that it is not a Hollywood set but buildings constructed nearly 2,500 years ago (00 30 210 333 0766; grandebretagne.gr).

An aperitif

The pedestrianised Iraklidon street — in hip and hopping Thissio — is lined with cafes and restaurants. Bohemians drawn to the idea of absinthe will make for the Apsenti Cafe at number 19 (00 30 210 342 4224; apsenticafe.gr). A leafy courtyard is the best place to dare yourself to order the 70% aquamarine poison. You could opt for a less-testing cocktail (all €8) or try a more appropriately local aperitif such as raki with honey.

Dining with the locals

In the moderately upmarket neighbourhood of Pagrati (less than half-an-hour's walk from Syntagma) the restaurants are populated exclusively by locals. Ep’ Avli at 14 Archimedous, just beyond the Marble Stadium, is located in a lovely old mansion with a roof terrace. The name means ‘mansion’, though without the apostrophe it means ‘humble yard’, an intentional pun. Traditional Greek dishes are served with a modern twist: the chunky fava are topped with capers, the slow-cooked lamb baked in paper is flavoured subtly with garlic and mint. The prices are gratifyingly reasonable: appetisers cost €3.50-€6, mains €8-€11, the total will be no more than €20 per person including copious jug wine. As with many Greek restaurants, a complimentary pudding to share is brought to the table, but seldom is it as heavenly as the luscious orange cake on offer here. Although the menu is only in Greek, the charming young owners speak English.

Finding a place in the Plaka — among the locals — is a challenge. The Psara Taverna is tucked away off the steps leading from the Acropolis (16 Erechtheos & Erotokritou Street; 00 30 210 321 8733; psaras-taverna.gr/en) with a courtyard for dining al fresco. Ordering is easy: just ask for a selection of meze (the aubergine croquettes are delicious).

Sunday morning:go to church

The name of the 12th-century Byzantine gem just south of the Mitropoleos Cathedral is almost longer than the church itself. Panagia Gorgoepikoos-Agios Eleftherios — the latter is the patron saint of freedom, which is particularly apt for striking Greeks at the moment — is a cruciform church built using marble rescued from earlier buildings. The exterior reliefs depict scenes from a folk bestiary: cat biting dog and bird overpowering hare. Sunday services begin at 7am and last until 10.30am. If you arrive when the liturgy is being chanted by a presiding priest accompanied by two of his colleagues, be sure to take one of the 20 seats and prepare to be intoxicated by the complex rhythms and Eastern-sounding harmonies as well as by the incense.

Out to brunch

The Benaki Museum has a stylish cafe upstairs. From its outdoor terrace adorned with flowering tropical plants and lime trees in huge terracotta pots, you can look over the National Gardens to the Acropolis. It is open from 9am on Sundays for excellent coffee and an enticing menu, including smoked salmon and goats’ cheese sandwiches. You needn't pay the museum admission charge of €6 if you tell them you are just going to the cafe, though exploring the varied collection from prehistoric tools to 19th-century traditional costumes is worthwhile.

A walk in the park

While multitudes swarm over the Acropolis, the neglected tree-covered hill opposite is covered with a maze of footpaths. Few signposts help you to find your way on the Hill of the Muses, now known as Philopappos Hill, named for the 2nd century AD Syrian prince who was a benefactor of Athens and whose imposing mausoleum crowns the summit. Much of the climb is shaded by pine trees, with a view of the Acropolis and Lykavittos Hills, and of the sea to the west, the reward. Descend past the ruins of ancient dwellings to the Hill of Pnyx where the democratic assembly convened in the 5th century BC.

Cultural afternoon

Just one year old, the breathtaking Acropolis Museum (23) retains its buzz. The striking building reveals remnants of the ancient city in situ under transparent floors. The top floor mirrors the dimensions and orientation of the Parthenon, which is clearly visible up the hill. The western side is the best preserved, with dramatic scenes of mounted Amazons attacking Greeks. Many sections are conspicuous by their absence, having been spirited away by Lord Elgin at the beginning of the 19th century. This unmissable museum is open 8am-8pm every day except Monday (00 30 210 900 0901; theacropolismuseum.gr); €5.

Take a ride

The Athens Coastal Tram links the city centre with the beach suburbs of Glyfada and Voula. For 1, travel on a hi-tech tram for an hour; tickets can easily be purchased from machines at city stops such as Syntagma. At the coast, walk to fish tavernas and beaches — though the swimming is better farther south at Varkiza and beyond — via bus 149 from Glyfada Square (your ticket remains valid for 90 minutes from the time of purchase).

The icing on the cake

Within commuting distance of Athens is the island of Aegina in the Saronic Gulf, connected by ferries that take an hour and the Flying Dolphin hydrofoil that cuts that time in half. Both depart frequently from Port Gate E8 in Piraeus. It is also possible to charter a skippered yacht from Alimos marina south of Athens to circumnavigate the island and have a go at sailing yourself; expect to pay about €800 for up to six people, for example from Friends on Board (Matsan-gos@agendaworld.gr).

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