independent

Monday 21 April 2014

My Greek odyssey

Laura Noonan enjoys a welcoming -- and very affordable -- stay in recession-hit Athens

We're in the middle of Athens' famed National Gardens. The sky is brilliantly blue, the grass luxuriantly green. A light breeze wafts through the trees, sprinkling some water from a nearby stone fountain and cooling the 32 degree heat beaming down from the midday sun.

Old stone statues dotted around the greenery complete the scene, reminding us that we are not in a park just anywhere in the world.

We are in Athens, the home of Plato, Socrates and so many of history's greatest figures.

The scene is postcard-perfect except for one thing -- we're on our own. There isn't another tourist in sight.

This is Athens four years into a bruising recession, the capital city of a country on the brink, which not only faces being turfed out of the euro, but entire social breakdown, depending on who you listen to. You could hardly blame tourists for staying away.

As we wandered around the gardens and the heavily-guarded government buildings nearby, we waited for the changing of the guard.

The audience of me and my two friends was pathetically small for a process played out with so much pomp and ceremony.

But we soon discovered our initial impressions of this apparent tourism wipeout were misguided.

Newsflash -- visitor numbers to the city are down, but the place is far from deserted. Newsflash two -- Athens is an amazing place to take a holiday, now more than ever.

The National Gardens, one of the first sights we visited, was the only place where we had the eerie sensation of being the only non-Greeks in this crisis-riddled city.

Later that day, we headed for the shops and restaurants, wandering through narrow pedestrianised streets where modern buildings give way to tiny squares with old churches to create a glorious mishmash of old and new, the local and the international.

Starbucks, The Body Shop and Marks & Spencer share street space with enterprising Greeks who've set up stalls to sell trinkets to tourists. Cafés offer every kind of food imaginable, to be eaten on outdoor seats so tourists never have to miss the views Athens has to offer.

And what views. Sitting from its glorious perch atop a hill over the city, the Acropolis is visible from almost all of the city. This ancient citadel that UNESCO calls the "greatest architectural and artistic complex bequeathed by Greek Antiquity to the world" never fails to impress.

There are other ruins too, like the Temple of Zeus, if the thrill of looking up all the time makes you dizzy.

In the shops and cafés, we saw tourists aplenty, with Russians, Chinese, Japanese, Americans and Canadians leading the way. Admittedly not as many showed up at the Acropolis, which was a blessing when we ventured up. Where once you had to fight off crowds to get your perfect photo and stand in long queues for toilets, we were able to explore in comfort.

The Greeks we met were touchingly grateful and helpful to the tourists who have come. Strangers on the street offered us tips about buses while staff in hotels and restaurants provided some of the best service I've ever experienced.

Even our hotel had a sign on its door saying thanks to tourists who had come at this difficult time and asking them to send their friends.

Solidarity with the Greeks -- and heaven knows we have a fair bit in common with them -- is a fine reason to venture to Athens but there are so many other great reasons to go.

Apart from the brilliant shops (don't miss the US-style designer outlet), friendly people, great food and historic sights, there's the coast, with its stunning beaches, and islands galore a mere hop away.

We settled into the coastal resort of Vouligameni, a short hop from the city, where we had a public beach a few hundred metres from our hotel, complete with stunning restaurants set right on the sea.

A few miles down the coast, we found another tourist beach -- for €4 entry we had our pick of sun loungers and gazebos, the use of loos, showers and changing rooms, onsite cafés and bars, tennis courts and a glorious sandy beach. It was also a haven for kids, with massive inflatable balls and slides in the water, and kayaks and paddling boats for rent.

Nearby, we stumbled on Lake Vouligameni, a thermal lake nestled beneath a sheer rock face. For €8, we availed of their sun loungers and waiter-service and also got to go for a swim in the thermal lake, where we were surprised and somewhat alarmed to find tiny fish nibbling our skin. One friend likened it to "shark attack" but locals insisted it was good for us and should be considered a "treat".

A few miles in the other direction (and a €5 taxi ride), the shopping area of Glyfada is a built-up coastal suburb with an unattractive beach but a regular modern tram to Athens city, which we used frequently.

Towards the end of our week, we left the city behind and made for the islands. Setting off at 6.45am, we packed in a quick breakfast on Hydra, followed by a shopping trip in Poros and a swimming trip to a deserted island near Aegina.

Each island was unique, but the deserted one was by far the standout -- think aquamarine water that glistens like the Caribbean Sea and a laid-back vibe that feels just like the tiny islands of Fiji.

The boat that brought us around was modern and well maintained, as were all the facilities that we came across in Athens. The city is not crumbling, its pavements are smooth (save the occasional crack from earthquakes), its services are in good working order, and it has an unusually high standard when it comes to public and restaurant toilets.

The place doesn't have a depressing feel to it either, at least not for a tourist. The eurozone crisis is rarely mentioned, save for one waiter who asks where we're from and says sadly: "Ah, Ireland, you have problems too."

You see fewer beggars and homeless people on the streets of Athens than back home in Dublin, though one family -- a father and three children huddled near Omonia Square, did make us do a double take, a tragic remember of the mess we're in the middle of.

On the upside, hotel prices are super cheap -- we got a four-star for three people at €680 all-in.

You can expect to pay €10 for a main course in Athens city, but more in tourist areas. Local alcohol is cheaper but big brand is about the same, water is priced at about 50c a bottle and provided everywhere.

By the end of the week, I'd almost forgotten that we were at the very edge of the eurozone, a position that becomes more precarious for Athens with every passing day and pronouncement from the German government.

Then suddenly, armed police surrounded the hotel across the road. There were policemen at the door, lurking around corners, in marked cars and unmarked cars.

A metal detector went up inside, and everyone going in or out was being screened. It was like the whole place was under siege. My curiosity got the better of me so I asked a hotel worker what was going on.

I was expecting him to say some A-list celebrity or rock star had arrived in town but I was wrong. The guest under protection was Jean Claude Juncker, the head of the eurozone's group of finance ministers. He had just landed in Athens for talks about its cutbacks, and was staying under armed guard in a nearby beach hotel.

"It might seem strange," a hotel worker tells me, "but this is Greece in 2012".

Need to know

Getting there

Aer Lingus has direct flights from Dublin to Athens in the summer season (until tomorrow). Off season, the easiest option is to take EasyJet from London Gatwick.

Staying there

For the ultimate beach experience, the Divani Appollon Palace & Spa (+30 210 8911100; divanis.com/apollon) in Vouligameni has its own private beach, three pools including an indoor one and prices from €190 a night.

The Sea View (+30 210 8947681; hotelseaview.eu) in Glyfada, one of the livelier spots on the Athens Riviera, has rooms from €58 (through Expedia) and an outdoor pool. The beach in Glyfada leaves a lot to be desired, but the suburb does have a frequent tram service to central Athens.

Near bustling Syntagma Square (+30 210 5238303; apollonhotel- athens.com) and a short walk from the Acropolis, the three-star Apollo Hotel offers a low-cost base for anyone who wants the real Athens experience. Rooms for two are about €40 a night, including buffet breakfast plus WiFi.

Don't miss

- Having the Acropolis, left, all to yourself, the most important ancient site in the western world.

- Sunbathing in the warm, fish-nibbling waters of Lake Vouligameni.

- Taking a day trip island-hopping by boat.

- Savouring the friendliness of post-crash Greece.

- Going bargain-hunting in the trendy boutiques of Athens before a delicious lunch in a traditional taverna.

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