Greece: Hooked on the classics

Forget the news: Athens is as safe – and glorious – as ever


It's lung-bashing stuff scaling the upper slope of Mount Lycabettus, the limestone thatdominates the Athenian skyline, about 900 feet above sea level.

In fact it demands so much of our reserves that we draw on every last drop of enthusiasm and stamina to make it to the top.

Not so much because this has been such an arduous schlep - what weighs us down, literally, is the fact that our stomachs are still heaving from a picnic lunch enjoyed among the scented pine trees that speckle the lower reaches of the hillside.

Perhaps we should have taken the car because it is possible to drive up most of the way.

Still, the sky is a peerless, picture-postcard blue, throwing into dazzling aspect the brilliant white of the 19th-century Chapel of St George, which crowns Lycabettus's summit.

Getting there

Fly: Ryanair flies from London. Fares £250 return,
Stay: Grecotel Pallas Athena rooms start from €110.

And the view, well, if you ever want to understand the architectural layout of Greece's capital city, well, quite frankly there is no better place.

From this stupendous vantage point, you can take in the key sites of classical Athens, ranging from the brooding Doric columns of the Parthenon crowning the Acropolis, to the Temple of Zeus and Panathenaic Stadium, which was reconstructed from the remains of an ancient Greek stadium.

Yet, fanning around such ancient monuments is the urban sprawl that is modern-day Athens and which ripples, seemingly without construct, towards the sea.

But then trying to crowbar this multi-faceted and fascinating city into any one category is absolutely impossible, since it is a place where the ancient and modern entwine and inform in timeless accord.

Athens, for some, may seem discordant with constant news about their fiscal problems.

Barely had I mentioned our destination for a long weekend to friends and colleagues than the opinions began to fly. What about the riots? The currency crisis? Is it even safe?

However, when it comes to assessing the Greek capital, there is one unifying factor and that's public opinion.

So perhaps it's time to set the record straight. There were no riots, the Euro was as sound as the pound and we felt perfectly safe.

Indeed, Athens is a glorious destination - from its riveting classical antiquities, scattered like beads from a broken necklace around the city centre, to the charming tavernas and stalls, the legendary hospitality and deserved reputation for welcoming children.

Add a twist of bright sunshine, and you have all the ingredients for a memorable trip - without a wayward drachma in sight.

We had decided upon Athens, since our 16-year-old son, Aaron, is studying classical civilisation for A-level. Well, we thought, why not conflate pushy parenting with a bit of winter sunshine?

Having put Aaron in charge of our sightseeing agenda, he led us to places we may not have considered. Yes, there were the obvious "cruise-ship" must-dos, such as the Agora - the West End of the ancient world - and the Acropolis Museum.

But then he took us to the Metro station at Syntagama Square that was once home to those riots and now a bustlingly busy, colourful thoroughfare crowned on one side by the Greek Parliament.

Outside the Parliament building you can catch a colourful piece of pageantry watching the changing of the guards, who perform complex footwork in pleated kilts and pom-pom decorated shoes. Very postmodern.

The station is crammed with displays of artefacts, which were unearthed during the construction of the Metro - including aqueducts, city walls, pots and cisterns.

We also call into the Benaki museum, which is the oldest museum in Greece and houses a stunning array of pieces spanning Greece's long and fascinating history.

Our city-centre hotel, the Grecotel Pallas Athena in Kostios Square, was the perfect base for our break as it was within walking distance of all the main archeological sites and the Jewish museum and the city's remaining synagogue.

Not that there is much of a community today - around 2,000 Jews are scattered in no particular configuration around the city.

Indeed, when we attend the Friday night service, there are only 19 men who come in to pray (most of whom seemed to be passing through the place on business).

Outside I ask the head of security (a former member of El Al's ground staff in Athens) if there have been any incidents. He tells me things are fine.

"They don't bother us and we don't bother them," he says. He sounds like Tevye when he talks about the Russians and Cossacks in Fiddler on the Roof.

Chabad offer Friday night dinner, and they also have a restaurant, but the weekend we are there, the rabbi is away.

Instead, food is sent to our hotel where it is graciously warmed through by obliging kitchen staff.

We came away hopeful that others will come and visit this magical, misunderstood place.

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