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Greek lightning

Let’s face it: the Greeks have been drawing some pretty short straws over the past year or so. Relationships with Britain have been strained following the opening of the new Acropolis Museum – and its still-empty gallery intended for the yet-to-be-returned Elgin Marbles. A devastating fire last autumn in the south of the country singed many of the capital’s outlying suburbs. And this spring, the country’s financial woes launched a domino effect across world markets, with rioting in Athens that threatened to seriously tarnish the country’s tourism industry and drive many local businesses out of business.

To this seemingly gloomy forecast of things to come, the Greeks would probably say “Όλα θα πάνε καλά”– Everything is going to be fine, so stop worrying. After spending a few days in Athens this summer, I would readily agree. After all, this wonderful, wondrous country has had 5,000 years of experience in dealing with ups and downs. Few other countries have been dealt such disparate hands of fate over the years, from the vaunted grandeur of classical, democratic Greece, to the downward cultural spiral during centuries of oppressive Ottoman rule, to the overwhelming enthusiasm (and public works projects) that overtook the country around the 2004 Summer Olympics to the much-publicised dilapidated morals of a number of modern Greek statesmen-in-charge.

But the coming months are set to be some of the best ever to visit Greece, and nowhere better than in its capital, the ultimate classical-meets-modern cosmopolis. For one, nothing will ever stop the Athenians from heading out on the town to indulge in a good amount of hedonism (‘hedone’ is the Greek word for pleasure; they effectively invented the concept). Furthermore, following a spate of bookings cancellations after the debt concerns this spring, prices in Athens have become more competitive, opening up some real bargains for those who dare to look. Local restaurants, for example, are pulling together to come up with more affordable ways for visitors to dine, and several dozen Athenian eateries now offer full menus for under €30. And a number of establishments are pulling ahead by offering something different: Athens’ quirky YES Hotels, for example, or Friends on Board, a great little company that allows participants to navigate bareboat sailing yachts off the Athenian coast under the expert supervision of a skipper.

I spent my time in Athens along with a group of Hellenophiles who had come to learn how Greece was faring in its recovery. High above the city at the Parthenon and the other buildings of the Acropolis, you’d never know there was an economically struggling civilization below: with sprawling sea, lush hillocks, and beige and chalk homes in the vista, it is one of the most inspiring panoramas you’ll ever take in. I cooled off after my hike up to the Acropolis in its brand new downtown museum. Here, our guide enthusiastically pointed out pieces of art which history itself has disembodied: the goddess Iris, for example, whose zaftig figure lies in London but whose handsome pate is on view in Athens. Lord Elgin referred to this as “preservation”, but many Greeks reserve rather more succinct expletives to describe Elgin’s monumental removal of sculptures and friezes from Ottoman-era Greece.

The city’s historic centre – once impossibly crammed with cars – has become virtually unrecognisable since vehicles were banished several years ago. The most recent upgrade to the visitor’s experience is the installation of the Archaeological Promenade, a tree-lined, traffic-free walkway that skirts the foot of the Acropolis, linking all the city’s major archaeological sites, including the new museum. The triangle has made the city centre infinitely more walkable, while also reducing Athens’ notorious traffic congestion and exhaust fumes – the much vilified “nafos” that hung over the city for decades.

But seeing Athens solely as a collection of historically-evocative stones and all-too-quaint souvlaki restaurants would mean missing out on how the Athenians themselves have experienced their city for centuries. A short walk from the Herodion theatre, built by Herodius for his wife, I took in a dinner of popcorn and Pepsi at the Thisseon open-air cinema just off the promenade. With the Acropolis illuminated in amber and golden light just off in the distance and the cool Mediterranean air blowing in your face, there isn’t a better place in the world to go to the movies.

Greece has always been a country of contradictions, and as a whole, the country fuses traditional and modern better than anywhere in Europe. So there tend to be two types of travellers to the country: history buffs who buy a Blue Guide and head for the temples and beach bums who squeeze on some Piz Buin and make for the blue flag beaches of Mikonos and Santorini. But what if Athens could give visitors both?

Enter stage left The Saronic Isles. These stubby strips of land offer a glimpse into the idle life of the Greece Islands – about an hour’s boat ride from Athens. Of course, Greek life is not about rushing things – it’s about taking as much time as you can to do what you want (just ask the locals: ‘procrastinate’ may be a Latin term but it’s one that’s been swiftly assimilated by Greek society). Instead of the super-fast hydrofoil, exploring the Saronics is best done by taking the slow boat.

Our guide to the high seas was George Matsangos, the founder of Friends on Board and a dead ringer for Tom Conti’s Costas character in the film Shirley Valentine. With an impossibly perfect tan and a dashing pair of aviators, Capitan George gingerly guided his 46-foot yacht out of Athens’s Piraeus harbour – an otherwise chaotic world of looming ferries, titanic freighters and toothpaste-white cruise ships.

We spent several hours tacking, raising the jib and dangling our legs off the side of the boat as we made our way to Aegina, a small island best known for its pistachio orchards, fresh seafood and idyllic fishing villages. George moored us in one of them, Perdika, a sheltered harbour on the southwestern coast. We weren’t the only ones there, of course: in recent years, a number of particularly sybaritic Athenians have caught on and relocated permanently to these islands, making the daily commute to their mainland jobs by boat. With little to do but gaze out at the small white fishing boats bobbing in the water, we lunched outside in the shade, lingering on a fresh feta salad and fried squid at a family-run place whose menu looks like it hasn’t been changed in about thirty years. Why ruin a good thing?

After we pulled back into Piraeus late that night, there seemed only one way to wind down from the rough seas: doing shots of mastiha and dancing on tables at the waterside Akrotiri Lounge, one of the city’s reigning nightclubs (I hailed a taxi there as the Greeks do, by shouting out my destination to a passing car). While it is one of the largest nightclubs in the civilized world, it was also possibly the world’s most crowded that night. But I got to experience Athens at its best: drinking, dancing, sweating, laughing, and letting loose – getting just far enough away from the cares of the world to enjoy one more night forgetting about them.

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For more information on Greece, contact the Greek National Tourism Organisation UK & Ireland (, +44 20 7495 9300).

Aegean Airlines offers flights from Dublin to Athens (via Heathrow) from only £171 one way (or from London Heathrow from £81), including all taxes and charges. For further information and bookings please visit or call 0871 200 00.

Smack in the city centre, the King George Palace (; +30 210 32 22 210) melds classic design with the flair and irreverence of a boutique hotel – its 78 rooms and suites are a favourite of David Copperfield and Madonna. Next door, the Grande Bretagne (; +30 210 333 0812) has equally plush rooms and an excellent rooftop restaurant to boot.

On Athens’ southern coast in the hip district of Vouliagmeni towards the port, The Classical Vouliagmeni Suites (; +30 210 89 64 901) has an outdoor pool and a rooftop jazucci and enough romance for a lifetime of honeymoons. A few minutes away is the Westin Athens Astir Palace Beach Resort (; +30 210 890 2000), a properly five-star resort with possibly the most comfortable beds in the city and a Michelin-starred gem of a restaurant, Galazia Hytra.

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