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February is Carnival month in Athens January 30, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens.

For most visitors, a day or two in Athens is enough. They sightsee their way through the crowds and oppressive heat before sailing south to the islands to recuperate. But the Greek capital offers more than a cliched circuit of temples and eponymous salads.

Arrive in mid-February and you’ll be treated to Carnival, Greek-style, or Apokreas, as it’s officially known here, complete with costumes, jugglers and maypole dancers.

The event kicks off rather quietly on January 28, three weeks before the beginning of Orthodox Lent, and quickly gains momentum, culminating in a four-day festival from February 16 to 19. To take part, one needs little more than a healthy appetite and a costume.

As a point of trivia, it was the Greeks who invented Carnival. While North Americans are more familiar with revellers dancing the samba in Rio and collecting Mardi Gras beads in New Orleans, it was the annual processions, costumes and feasts organized by the ancient Greeks to honour Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, that was the inspiration for celebrations around the world. These days, however, the Athenian festivities have little to do with mythical gods.

The mood is frenetic and somewhat surreal: It’s the only time of year when bonking passersby on the head with squeaking plastic clubs is not only acceptable, it’s de rigueur. In the narrow, winding alleys of the Plaka district, gregarious locals throw confetti until it’s ankle-deep, and everywhere you turn, Athenians are eating, drinking and making merry.

Get your festive garb at Monastiraki Flea Market. Anything goes during Apokreas, Spiderman suits and Zorro capes included, so there’s no need to agonize over an elaborate outfit. Settle on a cheap, col-ourful mask and take to the streets, dodging the maypole dancers, stilt-walkers and professional tango pairs grooving their way through the city.

When the party atmosphere proves too much, you can always opt for a rare moment of solitude at the Acropolis. It’s low season, after all: The weather is comfortable and cool, the tourists are scant and the temples, for once, are unusually serene.

Where to sleep >
At St. George Lycabettus Hotel, high atop Hill Lycabettus. The hotel is surrounded by the posh boutiques of the Kolonaki district. The staff is surly, but the views of the Acropolis from the rooftop terrace more than compensate. From $260/night. 2 Kleomenous Street, tel 210 7290711-19; http://www.sglycabettus.gr

Where to eat >
At Spondi. The Michelin-starred restaurant serves rich French cuisine prepared with a Greek twist, to wit: roast pork with Myzithra cheese and a fig-and-yogurt sauce. While this may seem like a quirky combo for dinner, the pairing is so decadent, it’s worth the caloric splurge. 5 Pyrronos Street, Pangrati, tel 210 7520658; http://www.spondi.gr

Where to shop >
Monastiraki Flea Market
Trawl for antique jewellery, cool vintage duds and ornate Carnival masks at this daily bazaar. Sunday mornings are especially lively, arrive before 11 a.m. to beat the hordes.
Avissynias Square, Monastiraki (open daily 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.)

Where to drink >
At Diorofo Cafe. Traditional Greek coffee is thick, strong and best sipped in a charming, neoclassical cafe surrounded by chatty locals. Asthmatics, on the other hand, might want to sip theirs at the local Starbucks; few places in town offer a no-puffing policy. 77 Aiolou Street and Evripidou Street.

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