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My kind of town: Athens, as seen by a British visitor June 11, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens, Testimonials.

Paul Johnston loves Athens for its frenetic energy and capacity to surprise

Why Athens? > I first came in 1976 to work as a tour guide and now spend much of each year in the city. Back then, I was a Classicist, entranced by glimpses of ancient columns between streets. Soon, I became fascinated by the modern city and its people. I grew up in Edinburgh, the Athens of the North, and fitted surprisingly easily into what was an exotic place, with palm trees, coconut vendors, and a distinctly Middle Eastern air. The city has inevitably been Westernised, but it still has the capacity to surprise.

The new Metro is world-class, as is the airport. Athens has a frenetic energy, not ideal for long stays, but great for short breaks. I love the topography of the city. Walk or take the teleferik (funicular railway) up Lykavittos Hill for stunning views of the Acropolis, the mountains that cradle the city, and the restless, shade-shifting blue of the Aegean. But the small things also stay with you, the ubiquitous periptera (kiosks) festooned with newspapers, the smell of bitter-orange blossom in spring, and the lilting melodies of street musicians.

What do you miss most when you’re away? > The weather. Apart from the inferno of high summer, Athens is comfortably warm and dry. There are often refreshing, northerly breezes. Blue skies are the norm, even in winter.

What’s the first thing you do on arrival? > Drink a large glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, nectar of the ancient gods.

Where’s the best place to stay? > The refurbished Museum Hotel (16 Bouboulinas Street; 0030 210 3805611; www.hotelmuseum.gr; from £40) is next to the National Archeological Museum, as well as round the corner from the lively Exarcheia Square.

Where would you meet friends for a drink? > There are numerous cafés and bars in Exarcheia Square, the haunt of students, anarchists and arty types. The quietest is Vox, with its own bookshop. Kolonaki Square is Exarcheia’s mirror-image, business people, diplomats, the gilded youth, and inflated prices. Not my cup of Greek coffee.

Where is your favourite place for lunch? > The old-style mageireio, where you inspect the food before ordering, is dying out. A good one is To Diethnes in Nikitara Street, off Themistokleous Street and near Omonia Square. Although the waiters wear white jackets, it’s not the kind of place that does reservations.

And for dinner? > The best-known souvlaki place is Baïraktaris in Monastiraki Square, (210 3213036), with outdoor seating year-round. An excellent old-fashioned ouzeri is To Athinaïkon (2 Themistokleous Street, near Omonia Square; 210 3838485).

Greeks pay more attention to food than drink and you don’t have to order ouzo, there’s good wine from the barrel. More up-market for mezedhes, the variety of starters that easily becomes a whole meal, is Alexandra (Alexandras Avenue and 21 Zonara Street; 210 6420874).

Where would you send a first-time visitor? > The Acropolis and the National Archeological Museum. The Kerameikos, the city’s ancient cemetery, is a contrasting place of calm (Ermou Street, near Thission metro station).

What would you tell them to avoid? > Fish restaurants on the coast, plus nightclubs, they are ludicrously expensive.

Public transport or taxi? > Both. The Metro, suburban railway lines, trams and buses are cheap and reliable: you buy tickets in advance from a kiosk and cancel them on board. Taxis are good value, just make sure the driver starts the meter when you get in.

Handbag or money belt? > Athens is pretty safe, apart from the backstreets around Omonia Square late at night. As in any city, don’t flaunt it. Pickpockets do operate, particularly in tourist hotspots like the Flea Market in Monastiraki.

What should I take home? > Five or seven-star Metaxas brandy is good, as long as you aren’t expecting Cognac-quality. You can find traditional Greek cheeses, cured meats, vine-leaves, olives, and olive oil in any supermarket, as well as at the airport. Don’t be shocked if prices are on a par with those back home. The cost of living in Greece has risen drastically.

And if i’ve only time for one shop? > Politeia Bookshop (Asklipiou 1-3 and Akadimias Streets) has discounted prices and a good selection of English books. There are also high-quality coffee-table books covering many aspects of Greece and the Greeks.

Paul Johnston has been visiting Greece for more than 30 years. His latest crime novel, The Death List, (Mira, £6.99) is out on Friday 15th June 2007.

Source and Copyright > The Telegraph, United Kingdom.

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