It's festival time in the Greek capital, so seize the moment and sample the glories of the city's ancient past – as well as its thoroughly modern side, says Cathy Packe
Saturday 17 May 2008
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WHY GO NOW?
Late May and June is a good time to visit the Greek capital: temperatures are already as hot as the average English summer, but without any hint of the blistering heat that will follow in July and August. The Athens Epidaurus Festival ( www.greekfestival.gr) begins in late May and runs throughout the summer, with a variety of cultural events taking place in venues around the city.
Aegean Airlines (www.aegeanair.com), which is based in Greece, has just begun a twice-daily service from Stansted to Athens. No-frills flights are operated by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) from Luton and Gatwick. British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) and Olympic Airlines (0870 2000 500; www.olympicairlines.com), the Greek national carrier, both fly several times a day between Heathrow and Athens.
The airport is about 17 miles south-east of the city. Metro line 3 ( www.ametro.gr) runs from the airport to the city every half-hour. The journey into the centre takes about 40 minutes, and there are connections to the other two lines at Syntagma (1) and
Monastiraki (2) stations. The fare is €6 (£5); validate your ticket in the yellow machine before going down the escalator. The bus takes a bit longer, but at €3.20 (£2.70) is a cheaper option. Pick up any bus numbered X92-X97 outside the arrivals hall. Buses ( www.oasa.gr) leave for Syntagma Square (1), with various stops on the way, several times an hour. A taxi to the city centre costs around €25 (£21).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The city centre is dominated by two hills, the Acropolis, which was the centre of ancient Athens, and Lycabettos to the north-east. The heart of the modern city is Syntagma (or Constitution) Square (1), a popular meeting place for Athenians. The main tourist office (3) is nearby, at 26 Amalias Avenue (00 30 210 3310392; www.visitgreece.gr), and it opens 9am-7pm Monday-Friday, 10am-6pm at weekends. Bear in mind that extracting information from its staff is not always easy.
Transport around Athens is now vastly better than it once was, with three metro lines running through the city, and out to the port of Piraeus. There is a variety of fare options, including a 24-hour ticket that allows travel on the buses, metro and tram and costs €3 (£2.50).
The Hilton (4), at 46 Vassilissis Sofias Avenue (00 30 210 7281 000; www.hilton.com), is one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. Facilities include a fitness centre with gym, indoor and outdoor pools, sauna and steam room, and there is a bar on the top floor with spectacular views.
If boutique is more your style, book into Ochre & Brown (5) – or O&B as it has become known – at 7 Leokoriou Street in Psirri (00 30 210 3312950; www.ochreandbrown.com). It opened two years ago, and is handily placed for the metro and the main sights. Double rooms start at €190 (£158) in high season, including breakfast.
On a more modest scale, the Phidias Hotel (6) (00 30 210 345 9511; www.phidias.gr) is in an excellent location at 39 Apostolou Pavlou Street , the pedestrian thoroughfare that encircles the Acropolis. Rooms from €60 (£50), or €64 (£53) with breakfast.
TAKE A RIDE
It is possible to climb Lycabettus, at 910ft the highest hill in Athens, but in intense heat this might be a challenge few would relish. A more acceptable route to the top is on the funicular railway, which runs 9am-3am every day from Dora d'Istria (7). Return tickets, at €5.50 (£4.60) each, are the only option, although the path back down to the city is easy enough to negotiate.
TAKE A VIEW
Before you head downhill, take a good look at the city below you and see the relative locations of its main landmarks. There are excellent views down to the Parthenon (8), perched atop the Acropolis, and across to the coast, a few miles away.
TAKE A HIKE
Start your walk in Syntagma Square (1), a pleasant open space with fountains, cafés and plenty of trees to provide shade. On the east side of the square is the Parliament building (9), which served originally as the Greek royal family's summer residence. The changing-of-the-guard ceremony, which takes place here every hour, is like something out of comic opera; the guards, dressed in white woollen leggings, navy tunics and red hats, look as if they might topple forwards as they take exaggerated strides towards each other.
The National Gardens (10), alongside the Parliament, were once a private space for the use of the royal family. Now they open to the public from sunrise to sunset, providing a refuge from the bustle of the city. The gardens are well cared for, with neat paths, orange trees and plenty of flowers, but enough of the area is left in a natural state so visitors can feel that they are in the countryside. Wander through the gardens, past the 19th-century Zappeion Hall (11), which is now an exhibition centre, before leaving the gardens on the north side. The pale yellow building in front of you is the Presidential Palace (12); on the opposite corner of the street, the pink building is the official home of the Prime Minister.
Turn right on to Vassilissis Sofias and explore some of the city's excellent museums. Among the most interesting is the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic and Ancient Greek Art (13), at 4 Neophytou Douka Street (00 30 210 72 28 321; www.cycladic-m.gr), open 10am-4pm Monday and Wednesday-Friday, 10am-3pm Saturday; admission €5 (£4), €2.50 (£2) on Saturdays.
As you leave the museum, head uphill into Kolonaki Square (14), the heart of one of the city's smart residential districts, which is full of cafés, restaurants and chic shops, before returning to Syntagma Square.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Mnisikleous Street (15) is one of those that rises up the slope of the Acropolis, but is slightly away from the crowds that flock into the main streets of the Plaka district. Bag a table at Sissifos, at number 31 (00 30 210 324 6043; www.sissifos.gr), for a delicious choice of typical Greek specialities.
The National Archaeological Museum (16), at 44 Patission Street (00 30 210 821 7717), is one of the great treasures of Athens. Its contents are devoted to Greek civilisation, and include the treasure from the royal graves at Mycenae. Considering the age of many of the pieces – in some cases, 30 centuries old – the detail still visible on the gold jewellery and carved ivory figures is astonishing. Open 8.30am-3pm Tuesday-Sunday, 1.30-7.30pm Mondays, admission €7 (£6).
If you like conventional shops, the pedestrianised Ermou Street is the place to head for. More entertaining is the flea market (17), a daily event that takes place along Ifestou Street and is an ideal hunting ground for leather goods, scarves and knick-knacks of all kinds. Most of the crowds cluster close to Monastiraki Square (2), but there is space to browse if you head away from the main street and into the quieter alleys.
Locals are scornful of the touristic Plaka, preferring to head for the Psirri district a little to the north. Go too early – and anything before 10pm constitutes early – and you will find most drinkers are still finishing off their afternoon coffee. There is plenty of choice, according to your taste: the Music Café (18) is popular, and the House of the Rising Sun (19) is a good spot for music fans.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
There is no need to move district; just walk along the street when you want something to eat. Elihrison (20), at 6 Agios Anargiron (00 30 210 321 5156; www.psirri.gr/elihrison) has a good choice of typical Greek starters, plenty of tasty meat dishes, as well as a list of Greek wines.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Athens' main cathedral is in Mitropolis Square (21), a typical Orthodox church with silver-surrounded icons on the pillars. More atmospheric is the tiny church next door to it, the Little Mitropolis, dedicated to St Eleftherios. It opens 10am-4pm daily except Friday, but services are only held once a year, on 15 December, the day dedicated to the saint. If you want to attend a service, there are two, both long by our standards, at the cathedral on Sundays.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Athenians like to head out to the coast and have lunch overlooking the water. Go south on metro line 1 as far as Neo Faliro, and enjoy the fresh seafood at Jimmy and the Fish, overlooking the harbour at 46 Akti Koumoundourou (00 30 210 412 4417; www.jimmyandthefish.gr).
A WALK IN THE PARK
Join the crowds strolling along Dionissiou Areopagitou, with its views of the Parthenon (8), but turn off to the left on to Filopapou Hill. Here, the sound of traffic is drowned out by birdsong, and it is a lovely place for a walk. The 9th-century basilica of St Dimitrios (22) and the ancient Dora Stratou theatre (23) are the main landmarks, but the uninterrupted view of the coast is the highlight.
WRITE A POSTCARD
The Panathenaic Stadium (24) was built for the first modern Olympics, held in the city in 1896, but was modelled on the stadium built for the original games in the fourth century BC, with 50 rows and seating for 60,000 spectators. These days it is the finishing point for the Athens marathon. It is interesting to look from here across to the Acropolis and imagine what the city must have looked like in ancient times.
ICING ON THE CAKE
No matter how often you have seen the Parthenon (8), it never fails to impress. Admission is €12 (£10; free on Sundays), but this ticket will also get you into the other main archaeological sites, including the Olympeion (24), the Theatre of Dionysos (25), the Agora (26), and the Roman Forum (27). The Parthenon is open 8am-5pm daily.
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