IS THE ECONOMIC DOWNTURN ANCIENT HISTORY FOR ATHENS?
Dire economic problems and unrest among its citizens have kept tourists away from the Greek capital over recent years, But the Athenians are keen to stress that is all history as they make Olympian efforts to ensure visitors return to enjoy the city’s attractions both ancient and modern
Millions of travellers have seen the 5000 year old Temple of The Acropolis in Athens, and although numbers have dropped off the city is still on the must-do list for cultural enhusiasts.And now Athens is hoping to lure tourists with its other atarctions too
The mayor of Athens told a group of travel professionals at a recent convention that the city is investing 120 Euros in upgrading and improving facilities to strengthen the business economy and bring back the tourists. Already this year tourist numbers are up significantly and signs are that the trend will continue as travellers rediscover the city and its gastronomy, night life, shopping and coastal activities.
Everyone is familiar with the classical sites in Athens, but keen to see a side to the city most tourists miss, I had booked a tour with a local guide as part of the city’s This is my Athens programme, where local volunteers take a visitor on an exclusive one-on –one walking tours. My guide did not turn out to be the enthusiastic student I imagined, but a consultant gynaecologist at a leading Athens hospital who has been taking tourists around since Athens hosted the Olympics in 2004. He gave an honest and incisive view point of someone who lives and works in the city as we strolled through the streets stopping at hidden monasteries and churches.
Designer shops, fashionable cafés and bars in smart squares like the elegant Kolonaki demonstrate that people are spending money here, although the city’s extensive graffiti shows that others are expressing their concerns, albeit in a colourful and artistic way. But the writing is not on the wall for Athens, as openings such as The Gastronomy Museum and the Maria Callas Museum (in 2015) and a new generation of fashion designers, chefs and artisans are attracting a younger crowd to the Greek capital
For Feta or Worse
Feta cheese, taramasalta and moussakas are the dishes that spring to mind when we think of Greek food, but there is a new wave of gastronomy especially in the capital which has seen a number of modern cafes and restaurants which bring a new twist to Athenian cuisine.
One of the nicest ways to see what is on offer is by one of the local food tours which take visitors on an eye-opening and mouth-watering adventure.
‘Greeks eat a lot of pies’ said Maria as we make a stop at a fragrant bakery in Psiri, the Soho of Athens, a bohemian part of town which is home to traditional coffee shops and simple stores like this one which sell Bougaza, Loukoumades and other syrupy sweet pies which the Greeks love as well as savoury pastries stuffed with spinach and cheese
Pie shops like this were once seen as an insult to women, as wives are judged by their pie-making abilities and a husband visiting a pie shop was tantamount to adultery
Restaurants breaking the mould of Greek cuisine include the ultra-modern Tzitzikas Kai Mermigas just off Syntagma Square with its white walls and displays of retro olive oil cans and bottles On the menu is an unusual chicken in pastry as well as baby goat and mussels in ouzo sauce . Fellow diners range from parliament workers to big groups of friends. Athenians claim the ubiquitous Ouzo is just for tourists, so instead try Tsipouro (it’s very similar) or one of the local beers
Also reinventing Greek classics is the buzzy Melilotos in the Athenian downtown shopping district on Kalamiotou Street. The menu changes daily and is all locally sourced. Popular with lunch-time comfort food seekers, you will find hearty sausages with white beans, homemade Greek pasta and some lovely vegetarian options
The sacred rock is home to the Acropolis and Parthenon, frequented by millions of tourists every year.
The new Acropolis museum, opened in 2009, is a light-filled, dramatic modern home for some of Ancient Greek’s most famous exhibits even if some of them are mere replicas of pieces which are in The British Museum in London. Debate continues as to whether the Parthenon or Elgin Marbles should be returned to Athens
Athens is home to a number of other museums, including the Benaki Museum, which houses about 40,000 artworks giving a broad visual record of the Greek world and the Museum of Cycladic Art
Syntagma Square, dominated by the Parliament Building, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently as this is where protests take place, but now is a good time to take a quiet stroll and see the Changing of the Guard. The Guards march their distinctive march on the hour every hour 24 hours a day in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier dressed in their costume of pleated skirt and pom poms.
Monastiraki square is the heart of cultural Athens and with its cobbled streets criss-crossing off and its small antique and music shops makes for an interesting walk. In the background you will see the Acropolis rock and the Plaka, the oldest neighbourhood in Athens with a labyrinthine network of streets and alleys
City by the Sea. Just 10km from the centre of Athens is Piraeus, the city’s main port, the biggest in Greece and one of the most important in the entire Mediterranean. From here you can get to all of the Aegean islands making Athens the perfect ‘City by the sea’
Take a mini-cruise to or just a leisurely sail around the coast on a catamaran stopping for coffee or lunch at the new Flisvos marina. Head to Hydra, an old favourite with the jet set, tiny Poros and Aegina with its temple and churches which are among the favourite stops in the Saronic Gulf A day-trip to Aegina and nearby Agistri provides the perfect island escape. Neoclassical architecture, exotic crystal beaches and some of the most interesting archaeological sites in the area make this a well spent hour's trip from the port of Piraeus.
While you are in Aegina, be sure to try their world-renowned pistachio nuts, a local product with a protected designation-of-origin classification and a main ingredient for numerous recipes and products, such as jams, sweets, pasteli and liqueurs.
For further information; www.athensattica.com