Having a not so riotous experience in Athens

We find peace and calm in a glass of Ouzo in the Greek capital

By Angela Epstein, December 29, 2011
The view of the Acropolis from Lykavittos hill - Athens' highest point

The view of the Acropolis from Lykavittos hill - Athens' highest point

So here's the conundrum: a chance arises to grab a much needed mini-break but my husband and I have conflicting wish lists. My perfect tick-box break has to include stunning architecture, an abundance of history, perhaps a dash of Jewish culture, the rattle and hum of a vibrant city. He wants a sun lounger with back support, decent weather and a sea view.

Mmm. Rather sounds like a recipe for plate smashing. And in fact it is. Not, thankfully, in the verge-of-divorce sense but rather because it's a chance to set the compass to Greece. Or more specifically Athens.

Yes, that Athens. The one riven by riots, crippling strikes and capital of a country teetering on the brink of economic meltdown.

But to dismiss Greece's capital city is to miss one glorious trick. Athens serves up an opportunity to have a break that can satisfy everyone's taste. Not only because the city, once the ancient cradle of art, culture, politics and sport, remains relentlessly fascinating. But because a short drive from the buzz of the centre will take you to the beauty and tranquillity of what has become known as the Athenian Riviera.

This may sound like the poor relation of its French or Italian cousins. But it soon become clear that this stretch of coastline on the Saronic gulf had a lot to offer in terms of sandy beaches, waterfront eateries and at certain points along the strip, lots of shopping opportunities. And yet the Athenian Riviera is only a 25 minute car ride away from the hub of the city.

We opted to stay in the Vougliamani area of the Riviera, which is lighter on shops but heavy on charm. What's more the Greeks, it seems, remain enduringly cheery (and grateful) to tourists, and as we checked into our comfortable digs - The Classic Vougliamani Suites Hotel - the smiley staff couldn't do enough for us. In fact with temperatures often pleasant - and sometimes warm - through the winter it was tempting to say "stuff the Acropolis, pour another Ouzo", and just sit back on our balcony and enjoy the view.

But no. This was a trip to suit two diverse agendas. So each morning, after a long, restful breakfast and a little post-digestive lolling around, we'd set off to see what the city had to offer.

Though public transport is reasonable, we elected to hire a car. The traffic didn't appear to be anywhere near as bad as its formidable reputation, though one cynic pointed out to us that fewer Greeks can afford to run their cars these days.

Getting there

Stay: The Classic Vougliameni Suites Double guestroom costs £70 per night including American buffet breakfast. The Junior Suite costs £165 per night including American buffet breakfast. www.classical hotels.com
Fly: EasyJet flies from Manchester and Gatwick to Athens. Fares start around £30.25 for a one way fare. www.easyjet.com
Getting around: Avanti car hire offer four days from £220 for a Hyundai Metrix four door saloon, including all taxes and insurance Tel: +30 210 9233919

The obvious places for any visitor to the centre of Athens include the Acropolis and many ancient sites that speckle the city . And indeed with those Doric columns brooding over the skyline, it's hard to miss the city's signature image.

However our mission included tracking down signs of our own cultural heritage and, after a little perseverance, we discovered the city's Jewish Museum.

This is home to more than 8,000 original artefacts, testifying to more than 23 centuries of Jewish presence in Greece. And it's full of surprises about our troubled and challenged heritage. It was astonishing, for example, to discover that whilst most of Greek Jewry was annihilated during the Holocaust, the 275 Jews of the island of Zakynthos survived the Shoah. It seems that when island's mayor, was presented with the German order to hand over a list of Jews, he returned a list of just two names: his own and that of Zakynthos's Bishop . The island's population hid every member of the Jewish community. Indeed when the island was almost levelled by an earthquake in 1953, the first relief came from Israel with a message that read "The Jews of Zakynthos have never forgotten their Mayor, their beloved Bishop and what they did for us."

After such an intense, absorbing experience, we left the museum to stroll through the Plaka, the city's network of charming, pedestrianised streets (even if they do bristle with souvenir shops).

But there's another aspect to Athens besides plastic figurines of the goddess Athena. The city, despite its impoverished bank balance, is a foodie's feast: Everywhere you turn, there's somewhere different to eat - from traditional tavernas to edgy gourmet restaurants which combine Greek cuisine with an edgy modern twist.

Athens and its many visitors clearly enjoyed grazing at Thalasses - where there's an abundance of pasta and rice dishes. Over at 2. 2mazi, the chef, a proud owner of a Michelin star, serves Cretan cuisine with a modern twist.

And for the view alone, check out the rooftop Tudor Hall restaurant at the King George Hotel where an illuminated Acropolis dominates the view of the night sky. (Madonna stayed in the hotel's penthouse suite, complete with rooftop swimming pool). And for the very, authentic Greek cuisine, look no further than Estiatorio Milos.

Admittedly Greece is not a kosher paradise, but a new kosher restaurant is now open at Psyri, quite close to the Jewish Museum. However one of our favourite foodie stop-overs was the Kayak Boutique a specialist ice cream maker and chocolatier. The strongest will power is match for such temptation. Particularly caramelised chesnuts dipped in dangerously dark chocolate. Little wonder after a hard day's stressing and fressing it was such a pleasure to return to the tranquillity of our lodgings.

Many people may well be concerned that a trip to Athens is a recipe for trouble but we didn`t see any evidence of rioting and never once felt threatened.

What we found was a magical city and glorious coastline that can satisfy the needs of even the choosiest holiday maker.

My spouse and I may have very different ideas about holidays. But in Athens, we both agreed it was a place we want to return to again and again.

Last updated: 11:26am, December 29 2011