x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Greece is the word

Four hours from Abu Dhabi Rosemary Behan visits the very modern ancient city of Athens.

The Theatre of Herodes Atticus at the Acropolis in Athens.
The Theatre of Herodes Atticus at the Acropolis in Athens.

One of the oldest cities in the world, Athens has a recorded history that dates back at least 3,000 years. The birthplace of Socrates, Pericles, Sophocles and countless other thinkers in the fields of politics, philosophy and the arts, Athens is widely seen as the cradle of democracy and the birthplace of western civilisation. It is one of the world's leading centres for archaeological research, boasting such sites as the Acropolis; the fortified town of Athens, which contains the Parthenon and the temple of Athena; the ancient Agora, the centre of religious, commercial and public life in the city; the Kerameikos, the site of the ancient cemetery; and the Temple of Zeus. There are dozens of museums, including the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, the Greek National Gallery and the Numismatic Museum, which houses a collection of thousands of coins from the ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine and ­medieval periods.

Despite its overwhelming heritage, modern-day Athens is a busy, sprawling city with an extensive, modern transport system, a ­vibrant arts scene, an outdoor cafe culture and buzzing nightlife. Major improvements were undertaken for the 2004 ­Olympic games, which resulted in a reduction in traffic and exhaust fumes. Unlike most other cities in Europe, Athens' shopping scene is still dominated by small, family-run businesses rather than large chains or malls. Traditional Greek fast food, such as souvlaki (grilled meat) and tzatziki (yoghurt with garlic and cucumber) is widely and cheaply available. The Athens Epidaurus Festival (www.greek­festival.gr) runs throughout the summer, with a wide variety of cultural events taking place all over the city.

Budget The Phidias Hotel (www.phidias.gr) is a small hotel located just 250 metres from the Acropolis and 100 metres from a metro station. The reception and dining areas are rather spartan, but rooms are clean and comfortable, with balconies overlooking quiet gardens. Doubles from Dh350 per night. Mid-range The Art Gallery Hotel (www.artgalleryhotel.gr) was once home to several artists. More stylish than the Phidias, this family-run establishment has a slightly art deco feel, with polished hardwood floors, elegant furniture and an old-fashioned cage lift. There is a Victorian-style breakfast room on the first floor. The hotel is situated in a residential area, five minutes' walk from the Acropolis and 15 minutes from Syntagma, Athens' central square. Doubles from Dh450 per night.

Luxury Ochre & Brown is a small, two-year-old design-led hotel located in Pysyrri, a once down-at-heel but now fashionably bohemian area close to the historic centre of Athens. It has just 11 rooms, all sleek but comfortable, with wet-room bathrooms, state-of-the art sound systems and earthy tones. Downstairs is an ultra-modern bar and restaurant; doubles from Dh1,400 per night (www.oandbhotel.com).

Budget Between the National Archaeological Museum and the Central Market is Athinaikon, an Athens institution frequented by lawyers, journalists and tourists and featuring wood-panelled walls and 1950s posters. Its speciality is mezedes, the Greek form of mezze or tapas, which includes sardines, anchovies, octopus, fried calamari, ­sagnaki (grilled or fried cheese), keftedes (balls of tomato, chickpeas or courgette), smoked beef and grilled peppers. Dishes from Dh14 (Themistokleous 2, Omonia, +30 210 383 8485).

Blow-out The most famous brasserie in the capital is GB Corner at the Hotel Grande Bretagne (www.grandebretagne.gr), the grand dame of Athenian hotels, which dates from 1874 and has former clientele ­including kings, prime ministers, business tycoons, artists and writers. The room has an ­elegant art deco interior from 1900 and serves everything from a Mediterranean tasting menu at lunch to beef with dark honey sauce at ­dinner. Mains from Dh100.

Olympic Airlines (www.olympicairlines.com) flies five times a week to Athens from Dubai from Dh2,290 return including taxes. Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies seven times a week from Dubai from 3,210 return including taxes. @Email:rbehan@thenational.ae