Driving into Athens city centre from the airport under a beautifully inky sunset-coloured sky there was a shop en-route to the right whose bright pink sign caught my eye: ‘Greek is chic’. It gave me cause to think. Having never been to Athens before ‘chic’ is not quite the word I would have first thought of - not because it isn’t so, but the words that laced my brain in anticipation of this great city instead were more along the lines of ‘ancient civilization’, ‘world-revered philosophy’ and ‘Zeus – ruler of all Olympians and god of the sky’. Athens for me was indeed something of a myth.
I’m pleased to report that over the next few days the more traditional clichés were overridden, and in good company with my first impressions of the city, the savvy design theme lived on. From an uncharacteristic rainy morning spent at the relatively new Acropolis museum – a light and airy space that breathes life into this sometimes seemingly intangible era (Dionysiou Areopagitou, admission €5), it became quite apparent that modern can sometimes be as impressive as the ancient. And with one of the world’s most iconic historical sights on top of the hill next to us it was a fantastic contrast. Had it not been raining, coffee on the rooftop bar here would have rounded off the exhibition perfectly – the views that it commands of past and present combined are first rate.
Later on, after indulging in some of the best homecooked restaurant food the city can muster at a restaurant owned by a one time Greek pop princess (the address remains too top secret to mention – quite the modern legend) we were taken out by our very own Zeus for a midnight tour under the stars and along the coast to witness Athens by night. As we cruised along the motorway more modern iconic works of architecture popped out from both sides – the Karaiskaki stadium built to host the 2004 Athens Olympics and the Peace and friendship stadium that flanks the sea were just two of them. Our friend ‘Zeus’ often goes to these stadiums to watch the big matches, but before he goes he’ll meet friends for lunch along the dazzling Adriatic - quite the height of sophistication for visitors used to seeing pubs at home brimming with larger-filled footie fans. One of the restaurants that he regularly frequents is Taverna Paraga - which translates to mean ‘poor man’s house’. And it is interestingly styled as such. Random collections of utensils hang down from the ceiling and décor is of a fifties poster style that elicits an ambience of old-school Greek glamour. Other quirky additions such as brightly coloured crockery and a shoe-come-plant pot nailed to the wall behind us make this place all the more captivating. After this, the food could only be commented on as an aside – delicious, moreish meaty fare that left our bellies risen like well leavened bread. This restaurant is just one of three that seem to be owned by the same people – further scattered along this length of Mikrolimano. You could easily find somewhere different to eat here every night of the week once you’ve had your fill of blue horizons at the nearby Yacht Club, but for more fun-infused drinking dens, make your way to the bar-flooded district of Gasi (whose looming redbrick old gaswork chimneys are reminiscent of our own here in London’s Battersea). This is where the Athenian’s come to party – and it’s a young, fun European crowd. But even if the Euro vibe really isn’t your thing, you won’t be lost for company – the area is also home to Athens’ very own version of the Intrepid Fox. Further into town, make the most of a post-work aperitivo or coffee along the sophisticated shopping streets of Kolonaki. Al Buon Cafe is a particular Missoni styled hot spot worthy of some serious people watching.
The YES hotel where we had the luxury of staying for one of our brief city-sweep nights is another addition to Athens city’s chic ensemble. On the corner of Filellinon Street, a mere hop from Syntagma Square, its wooden font façade provides an interesting contrast to the more standardised buildings that nestle alongside it. But this is the key distinction of this place. For a member of the world’s best Design Hotels it is anything but generic. With a foyer that is decorated in bits of wood – otherwise casualties of the building’s extensive renovation project, the completed interior is the work of Brazilian designers Fernando and Humberto Campana, who also draw inspiration from their iconic Favela Chair (1993). The tree-like structures of the interior encourage your eyes up to the other interesting items of furniture that fall into your vision as you enter. Telephones cling to the walls, olive chairs and recycled dual-use ‘thronets’ are just some of the things that appeal to the savvy tourist and business traveller alike.
Downstairs, underneath the bright and airy bar and restaurant, there used to be a nightclub, but this has more recently been transformed into a space that houses modern art, and the hotel’s New Sense mini spa. The cacti, painted on a huge bright blue backdrop provides yet more juxtaposition of styles – a strange sharpness in an area of total relaxation. And next to the wooden business centre is a video-wall where you can watch ‘Monument for X’ by Glasgow born Douglas Gordon – otherwise dubbed the never-ending kiss’ – a work placed here by hotel owner, Dakis Jannou. Much of the rest of the art in the hotel comes from his own collection – and the rooms are no less design focused. Mischievous Greek karagiozis puppets – some like spacemen, feature along with the ancient blue glass evil eye. Enormous, wonderfully comfortable beds rest in between this interesting design. I stayed in one of the ones that uses retro travel postcards as its theme – an idea that goes after my own heart as someone who adores the romance of such gestures of yesteryear.
Golden bathrooms that incorporate interestingly designed bonze sinks, inescapable floor-length mirrors and miniature Clarins products, along with peaceful wooden decked balconies that look onto the city below means there are as many good reasons to stay within your bedroom as there are to leave it and explore the city. We did just the right amount of both.
It can’t be denied that Athens is a little quieter than usual but the warmth of the people remains in this somewhat uncertain time. And with our own tie-ins to London’s upcoming Olympics it makes for a truly interesting escape to appreciate where it all began (check out the accompanying exhibition: ‘The Modern Olympic Games 1894-2012’ on at the Zappeion in the National Gardens, admission free). From the past to the future, this city has held a strong and interesting position in shaping the world as we know it, and will no doubt continue to do so. So while Grecian philosophy still reigns, and in harmony with the hotel’s old-school collage of postcards, you should be wishing you were here.
As first published on www.thebespokeblackbook.com