This weekend, we begin a series of features on Greece. With a difference. There’ll be islands, sure, mention of azure seas, traditional tavernas and the odd broken plate…but, hopefully, a lot more on the Greece you might not know. Larry skips off to Skiathos and boat-hops to Evea. Nick goes upmarket on the Greek Riviera – yes, they have one too – and Angelina embraces all-inclusive at Ikos. But we begin, fittingly, in Athens, where Katie Monk dives straight into its ‘alternative’ scene…
Athens is a city of artists. From the galleries and museums full of collectibles old and new, to the buildings awash with graffiti and murals. As a first-timer here, I’m struck by how much art is woven into the city’s fabric.
Our hotel – the five-star Grecotel Pallas Athena – opened in 2014, and it already has a loyal following. Located right in the heart of town, it makes the perfect launch pad for a cultural weekend. The sleek, light-filled lobby is dotted with sculptures, installations and taxidermy, and you can even stay in a “Graffiti Suite”, decorated by a local street artist. Our suite had golden trees and swirling clouds all over the walls, as well as a satin sofa, two bathrooms and a big round bed. Other themes available are Skyfall, Spiderman, Wild West, Octopussy and Batman.
After a good night’s sleep and an exquisite breakfast of fresh fruits and cheeses, specially blended herbal teas and possibly some of the best yoghurt I’ve ever tasted – all from Grecotel’s organic farm in Crete – we hit the streets. Alternative Athens organises a number of different tours, but we opt for the street art tour, to explore a relatively little known side to Athens. The graffiti scene kicked off here in the 1990s, but really gathered momentum after the city hosted the Olympic games in 2004. Much of Athens has become a communal canvas ever since, with artists painting over each other in an ongoing dialogue. Around 2,000 people currently emblazon the urban landscape.
Our guide – a prominent street artist called Achilles – takes us around the colourful neighbourhood of Metaxourgio, talking us through the graffiti as we go. “Artists here are a mix of graffitists, taggers, muralists and anarchists,” he says. “Sometimes we ask permission before we paint, sometimes not. Sometimes we even get paid for our work.” He points out a local school yard with a huge mural. “They liked my style, so they commissioned me. It was fun.” As we walk around, we regularly spot his calling card – half a lady’s face – sprayed on doors, shutters, crumbling brickwork. It’s a memorable motif.
That same afternoon, we check out a different side to the city – the up-and-coming areas of Monastiraki, Psiri, Gazi, and then Syntagma. Athens has recently seen a number of new wine bars spring up. It’s a growing trend, and they make perfect stop-offs for a glass of something while out exploring – though many of the cooler joints only open at night. From the rooftop of Couleur Locale – one of the more popular hangouts – the sight of the Parthenon is breathtaking. On ground level, we stop in at Drunk Sinatra, Heteroclito, Taf and Abariza Cafe. In each, hip young Athenians are out enjoying the weekend, and I want to linger longer. I make a mental note to come back and give these drinking dens more of my time.
Back at the hotel, one of the Graffiti Suite artists joins us for a drink. Known simply as b. he’s gone on to international acclaim – his brightly coloured artwork can now be seen as far afield as Rio and New York. “I got into graffiti in 1996,” he tells me. “Before I studied architecture. Now I exhibit and sell my work all over the world. But I still sometimes hit the streets.” He brings with him a set of small canvases and some paints, and teaches us the basics of street art. “The trick is you have to come up with a really distinctive character,” he says. It’s easier said than done, even in this creative environment, with a large glass of mastika under my belt. I think I’ll leave tagging to the pros.
Later, we sample the hotel’s aphrodisiac menu – a must-try for weekending couples. Men are served dishes such as ginger-sautéed prawns – said to stimulate the thyroid and circulation – and women seafood and chilli, which apparently makes the heart race and face flush. This being Greece, I don’t think we need much help in that department, but the food is still incredible, and it just keeps coming, as does the wine.
The next day – a trifle worse for wear – we burn off some calories tackling the Parthenon and brand-new Acropolis museum, whose floor-to-ceiling windows look out towards the famous hill. It’s a comprehensive education in Athenian history, and by the end of the day, I feel I’ve absorbed much of the city’s 3,400 years into my pores.
A drive out to Cape Sounion blows away any cobwebs. The coastal road is not only stunning, it also winds up at the temple of Poseidon – an atmospheric ruin, built in 444-440 BC to honour the god of the sea. We stand on the cliff-top, gazing out across the Aegean. A single shaft of light bursts through the rain clouds and hits a lone fishing boat bobbing in the water. It’s probably the exact same view the ancient Greeks took in, thousands of years earlier. And from here, it’s easy to imagine worshipping beauty and art and the ocean.
Doubles at the Grecotel Pallas Athena start from €109. For more details, including photos of their extraordinary rooms, visit www.grecotelpallasathena.com.
Return flights from London to Athens from £54 with Aegean Airways. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.aegeanair.com.
Alternative Athens (www.alternative-athens.com) and Discover Greek Culture (www.discovergreekculture.com) can organise a similar street art tour, or a tour on any subject, such as art, design, shopping or food, for your trip.
For more information about Greece, including what to see and do there and planning your trip, visit www.discovergreece.com.
Our Greek season continues tomorrow as we saddle up and head out through the hills to Porto Heli and the Greek Riviera…