Athens: Eat Stay Play

With Athens basking in the late embers of an Indian summer, I set about staking out some tasty bites, cheeky libation spots, lesser-trafficked sights and unbeatable buys. Monastiraki Square always hooks me in like a tractor-beam. There’s an equal parts evocative-and-infectious spirit about the place, particularly after sunset, as the floodlights surrounding the Acropolis bathe the landmark in a golden glow. The area throngs with al-fresco eateries, leafy streets and the warm hue of the antique street lamps.

Roving vendors with food carts also do a brisk trade, touting cheap street eats like koulouri, tiropita and freshly sliced coconut, at all hours. For many Athenians, their bog-standard breakfast is coffee, a cigarette and koulouri, which is a ring of crisp, sweet white bread, covered in sesame seeds. By mid-morning, they may follow that up with a tiropita, a savoury cheese pie. Neither snack draws a mention in the accolades showered on the Mediterranean diet, even though you’ll find these super cheap eats are central to daily life.

But they’ll fortify you as a pick-me-up, as you navigate the sights and the crowds. Heading up Athinas Street, towards Ommonia Square, the scars of deep recession are brutally reflected in the derelict and defaced aesthetic of many venerable old buildings. Encountering the mangling of marble-clad buildings, consumed in a stew of enraged graffiti is particularly jarring.

But it’s worth withstanding the eyesores to reach Varvakios Agora, the Central Market, a grand old wrought-iron classic, where you’ll see old fashioned butchers in knife-swinging action. It’s like a mass slaughter house of theatrical proportions. Hundreds of hanging carcasses, illuminated by garlands of swinging light bulbs, add to the spectacle.
Rove the fish market and the fresh produce section, where many of the ebullient vendors look like Con the Fruiterer.

Many stalls in the market have been run by the same family for over a century. I just love it for the frenzy of colour and activity. Also in the district, Krisnos (87 Aiolou St) offers a very sweet treat – loukoumades, freshly fried doughnuts with a honey and cinnamon topping. They’ve been creating these decadent delights since 1923.
Hunting for something to take back home? Monastiraki flea market is an essential experience, a heady and sprawling hive of merchandise, scattered across side streets and narrow lanes.

There’s plenty of tourist tat, but it’s also a great place to buy superbly crafted hand-made leather sandals, pottery and that signature bargain souvenir – Greek olive oil soap, usually crowned with a stylised clay fridge magnet. The further west you venture from Monastiraki Square, the more eccentric and eclectic the bric-a-brac becomes. Narrow passageways groan with tiny stores selling little treasures from gramophones and copper kitchenware to old coins and vintage fashion. Vinyl stores have morphed in popularity as have the spoil of antiques stalls.

In fact, you’ll often turn a corner and think the entire contents of a 19th century household have just been emptied out onto the street. As you rummage through this rolling bazaar, you may want to bear in mind that anything over a 100 years old can’t legally be taken out of Greece, without a special permit. Psirri offers a striking insight into urban regeneration—a working class neighbourhood that’s evolved into a buzzing nightlife epicentre, housed in repurposed factories and workshops. Within this maze of enticing venues, my favourites include Oineas, specialising in modern Greek fare. Plump for the grilled octopus.

Psirri is also home to possibly the most fabled handmade leather sandal store in Athens. Pantelis Melissinos now heads up the business, the son of Stavros Melissinos. Stavros was also known as the Poet Sandalmaker, who entered business in 1954, crafting high quality leather sandals. His roll-call of former customers included the Beatles. You’ll find the store at 2, Aghias Theklas St. In the heart of the city, Ermou is the pedestrianised shopping street, flanked by department stores and a multitude of big label outlets.

Take a breather from the retail bustle, to sample some divine snacks. Matsouka – Le Chocolat brims with tasty delights, including pistachios grown on Aegina, award-winning olive oils. At the foot of the Acropolis, Plaka is the oldest, continuously inhabited neighbourhood of Athens. While the area is now largely considered a tourist trap by locals, one restaurant that constantly scores highly with Athenians’ is Psarras.

A beacon of authentic Greek cuisine since 1898, the setting is dreamily romantic with wooden tables scattered across mulberry-shaded whitewashed steps leading up to the Acropolis. Brigitte Bardot dined here.Also in Plaka, experience Vrettos, a historic bar that has specialised in producing ouzo for 107 years. It shelves are adorned with liqueurs in a rainbow of colours, in addition to more than 170 wine labels. There’s over 30 flavours of ouzo on the menu. As much as ouzo is an acquired taste, try the cherry and lemon versions.

Syntagma Square, home to the Greek Parliament and those fabulous Evzone ceremonial guards, has been a familiar sight on our TV screens in recent years. It remains the epicentre for staging public protests. Overlooking proceedings is the hospitality queen of Athens, the Grande Bretagne Hotel, a glorious property which was originally built as a towering aristocratic mansion in 1874 and converted into a luxury hotel for the 1896 Olympics. This gracefully colonnaded, neo-classical property was designed to reinforce the Greek national identity after the demise of the Ottoman Turks.
Entering the main entrance, the Beaux-Arts marble lobby took my breath away, with its neo-Baroque furniture, sumptuous splashes of gilding, Persian rugs and potted palm trees. My equally exquisite suite was loaded with every conceivable creature comfort and a marble bathroom that would make Pericles blush, loaded with Gilchrist & Soames toiletries.

Daily deliveries of freshly cut flowers and fruit add to the pampering, as does the round-the-clock butler service. As it was, when I staying at the hotel, a sense of panic swept through the hearts of many guests, with news of a four day rolling strike by air traffic controllers, threatening to ground all aircraft. The hotel’s concierge team could not have been more helpful in reassuring people with the latest information and assertively making back-up plans.
Right at the 11th hour, the strike was called off – just as my concierge had predicted!

From the balcony of my room, I enjoyed an eagle’s view of the Parliament and the ceremonial guards artfully performing their drills. Just beyond the mosaic-tiled lobby on the ground floor, the Winter Garden serves caviar, salads, light snacks and afternoon tea in a glorious marble atrium with potted-palms. How utterly divine. For old-school sophistication, make a date with Alexander’s Bar, which looks like a vintage Hollywood film set, where the muscular wooden bar is backed by a stupendously-sized 18th-century tapestry.

Cognacs, malt whiskies and classic cocktails are the order of the day. Try the signature cocktail, Mandarin Napoleon Select, a lively blend of Dubonnet Rouge, Grand Marnier, gin and essential oil of Sicilian tangerines.
Dreamy panoramas are a high-point of the hotel, with the rooftop pool deck, edged with potted cypress trees and sun-loungers serving up a stunning vista of conical-shaped Mt. Lycabettus.

But the grandest view of all rightly beckons from the award-winning GB Roof Garden Restaurant & Bar, delivering sublime and unblemished views of the Acropolis. There’s even a designated spot to stand on for that moneyshot Instagram snap. Furnished with wicker chairs and brightly coloured cushions, I enjoyed an uplifting breakfast, drizzling honey onto my Greek yoghurt as the rising sun dappled the Acropolis with a golden glow. For lunch and dinner, enjoy celebrated Mediterranean fare, whether you’re staying in-house or not. www.grandebretagne.gr

By Mike Yardley.

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