GREEK GIFTS

SIMON GAGE INDULGES HIS INNER TOURIST AND FALLS IN LOVE WITH ATHENS, THE PARTHENON AND THE ACROPOLIS

World heritage sites. Who needs them?

I don’t know about you, but I tend to avoid the big tourist draws. Not because I’m a traveller and not a tourist: I embrace my touristness, I’m on my holidays not “travelling”. And not because the tourists don’t know what the cool spots are… because they do. But the Eiffel Tower? Seriously? Nice from a distance, especially when sparkling. And the Sagrada Familia? It used to be cool when it was just eight fingers but now they’ve ruined it with that middle bit? Nah, you’re alright.

And that’s what I thought would happen in Athens with that Parthenon Acropolis thing on the hill. Do I really need to go and see that? Not really. Well, that’s what I was thinking before I actually saw it from the roof of the beautiful little Modernist hotel, tucked away in a residential area called Kolanaki just fifteen minutes from the centre of town. But when you actually see it, towering over what turns out to be a very big town, it’s like you’re drawn to it.

So, we leave our rooftop cocktails, and start the pilgrimage down past the Pradas and the Guccis, then past the H&Ms and M&Ss (yes! M&S!) and into Plaka, the really cute tourist (nothing wrong with that!) centre with its winding lanes of souvenir shops and tavernas spilling out onto the street with pushy men trying to lure you in… and you should go in: these restaurants may be aimed squarely at tourists like me but the wine tends to be good and cheap, the food tends to be authentic and the prices perfectly acceptable. We tried several – in Plaka and up towards the Acropolis in Anafiotika - and found them to be lovely and the luring men to be fun and kind and helpful. Maybe we bring it out in people.

“Do I really need to go and see that? Not really. Well, that’s what I was thinking before I actually saw it”

And seeing as Anafiotika is “almost there” in terms of the Parthenon Acropolis thing – the Parthenon is the temple, the Acropolis the sacred hill it’s on, we discover – we might as well go up and have a look, at least from the outside. It’s not like we want to spend money on it. And so we wend our way up, past the cats so raggedy they look like they’ve been down the pub, up to the view across the city to the sea from the rock opposite, where people take the afternoon sun and the views, up to the very gates of the Parthenon itself… and by gates I mean ticket office.

And seeing as we’re actually here, is 20 Euros too much to ask? We may never come again and it’s late afternoon so not too hot and thanks to the pandemic, not too busy… And so in we go. And oh ,those World Heritage Site people sure know what they’re doing.

Built a full half a millennium before Jesus and taking just 11 years to throw up, the Parthenon is a real wonder to behold, especially in the sun of the golden hour when it looks like it was designed by the gods themselves, which was probably the idea. It sucks the orange from the light, it towers, it chucks out amazing shadows… 

And it’s not the only thing up there. Tons of ruins there are, all in pretty good nick. So, to cut a long story short, a sort of obsession begins. We take in the sleek modern Acropolis Museum a short walk from the Parthenon and with some of the best views of it, we find ourselves looking up every street just to see if we can catch a glimpse of our new friend and drinking at rooftop bars just to have it right there in sight…

But that’s not to say modern-day Athens is just a museum, an add-on to the Acropolis. Far from it. The area around Athinaidos has all the charm you’d expect of an ancient European town with slightly dilapidated grand buildings, cafes and restaurants that now own the streets and squares, including Rooster, the main LGBTQ+ destination – although you’ll find pretty much everyone down there! – where you can eat and drink and find out about clubs like Soldad2 under the trees and umbrellas.

And there’s plenty of more contemporary culture – The Modernist Hotel is just across from the National Gallery while the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, a huge development housing everything from the National Library to a great rooftop bar (they do like a rooftop bar!), is just a short Uber away. 

Athens, eh? Just when you think you’ve had it up to here with beauty…

Stay at: The Modernist, modernisthotels.com

Drink at: Rooster, roostercafe.gr

Party at: Sodade2, facebook.com/Sodade2

Shop at: Monastiraki, an area with flea markets and little boutiques