Athens savours its Olympic legacy

Costa Rica

Four years after the Olympics, Athens is emerging as one of Europe’s most improved destinations. Whether you visit the Greek capital for a short spring city break, or simply call in en route to the islands, you will find big changes to the raucous, gridlocked Athens of not so long ago. Tourists can now amble in peace through pedestrianised streets to some of the greatest of all historical relics. I checked out the makeover, which includes new hotels, a museum for missing marbles, and a brand new public transport system making it so much easier to reach all that delicious food and crazy music.

Acropolis Museum

The fabulous finds from the Acropolis, the heart of the ancient Greek city, were crammed into a museum almost as old. This wonder of the world now has the presentation it merits. The new Acropolis Museum, a haven of space and sunlit calm, shows ten times as much, more than 4,000 objects found on the hill. Only one thing is missing. They leave symbolic gaps to mark their ambition, some day soon, to display the Elgin Marbles, currently in the British Museum, in London. This great new building certainly helps their case for the marbles’ return. They will show the half of the famous frieze they still have, with a direct view to the Parthenon, the ancient temple they came from. The magnificent spring flowers in the Agora (forum) make the wait for opening day worthwhile.

Best legacy ever?

The UK promises the best ever legacy – the facilities the British get to keep - after the London Olympics. But Athens is not doing badly either, following the 2002 games. It all starts with the train right into the centre (27 minutes - £5.30) from the fine new airport. The (advertisements-free) Athens Metro, with its long marble halls, is dignified and magnificent. Several city centre stations -- Syntagma Square is the best-- double as free museums, displaying the many relics uncovered during building. In the fight-back against the car, many streets have been reclaimed for pedestrians. Take the traffic free walk up to the Acropolis, then on your way down look in at the Herod Atticus theatre, the site of open-air ballet, opera and concerts in the summer. You do not need a car, unless it is to connect to the cable car to the top of Mt Lycavettus, for the evening view of the sun sinking over the mountains in a dusk the colour of peach.

Ride the seaside tram.

It was Athens’ big problem. Searing summer heat, and a location too far from the beach. They put that right with a crazily cheap (80p return) trip to the seaside in the new air-conditioned tram from Syntagma Square. It runs the 16 miles past shaded squares and old churches, through narrow canyons of streets, all the way to the chic new seaside resort of Glyfada, the nearest to central Athens, stretching out from the foot of Hymettus mountain to the Aegean. Saunter around the marina, wander down to the fish docks, or take in some shopping. The resort is jammed with restaurants, and the nightlife rocks. There is a rescue centre for sea turtles on the quay. For a longer daytrip, catch the metro to Piraeus, then take the early hydrofoil across to Hydra. Closed to cars, it is the closest thing to authentic Greece.

A meal in the shade.

You are hot and hungry after a hard session on the Acropolis. You walk down through the Plaka, the oldest district in Athens, hunting for somewhere to eat. Do not be seduced by a dozen look-alike tourist tavernas. How do you know O Platanos (4 Dioyenous, 00 30 210 322 0666), the place with the tables spilling out under the shade of a wide spreading plane tree, is any good? Because it is so full of Greeks, who happen to like a menu that has not changed a lot since 1932. Staples here include avocado with roasted lamb, and giouvetsi — lamb and pasta baked in a terra-cotta dish. (Treat that big inviting barrel of retsina with one-glass-per-visit caution.) Another time take up the challenge of trying to find Vlassis (8 Paster, 00 30 210 646 3060.) This restaurant does not even have a name outside, (If in doubt, take a taxi.) Regulars praise the octopus stew, pastitsio (baked mince meat, lamb liver and pasta casserole) and cabbage rolls.

Shopping for boutique hotels

Another thing the Olympics did for Athens. The call for upmarket accommodation for high-calibre guests sparked a refurbishment spree. Old hotels such as the Grande Bretagne were given back their glitz. Next came the boutique hotels, a new thing in this city. Plenty of praise for the Fresh Hotel, but even more plaudits go to the Eridanus, a five-story renovated neo-Classical house with a spiral staircase in the foyer, paintings and prints by a local artist and marble galore. Guests praise the details -- the free soft drinks from the minibar, flat screen TVs, ultra-comfortable beds, and splendid views of the nearby Acropolis (from some rooms). Here is a post- sightseeing treat. Bask in an onyx tub in a dark green marble bathroom. Or revive under a six-jet shower, with settings from Scottish drizzle to full-on hailstones. Eridanus (Pireos Street 0030 210 520 5360.)

Greenwich Village -- Athens style

A good sign of a city in revival is when they open up new neighbourhoods such as Gazi, once well off the tourist track. There is a hint of New York’s Greenwich Village around the converted old buildings. They include the former gasworks, now a busy arts centre, circled by bars, restaurants and live music venues. Sip a drink on GazArte bar-restaurant rooftop terrace and listen to world music. Take in a photography exhibition at Benaki Museum, or a display at Bios, a busy arts center. Mamacas is a lively taverna nearby (41 Persefonis). Its traditional fare includes beef grilled with tomato, parsley and onions. Varoulko (80 Pireos, 00 30 210 5228400) and Sardelles are both good for seafood. For night owls, the nearby Iera Odos is packed with clubs devoted to skyladika -- the lively Greek bouzouki-backed music.

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