Showing posts with label Athens guide. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Athens guide. Show all posts

Monday, April 22, 2019

Athens Grande Bretagne ~ The Butler Can Do It. . .

We declined the doorman's offer to carry our bags the short distance from the taxi into the palatial lobby. Our two bags were small - we were in Athens for a long weekend. We could manage.

Lobby - The Grande Bretagne (GB) - Athens

But when the young receptionist, who looked like a Greek Goddess reincarnate upgraded us to a junior suite and said, "Your butler will take your bags and show you to your room," who were we to refuse?

The Butler, with our bags in tow, led us to our 7th floor junior suite on the 'Butler Floor' of the undeniably posh Athens Grande Bretagne Hotel.

Less than 10 minutes into our stay we knew why this property is part of the Luxury Hotel Collection and consistently rated by travelers as one of the top hotels in Athens.

This stay was going to be memorable.

Let the Butler Do It

'The Butler' was one of several staff members assigned the responsibility of responding to the wants and needs of those of us staying on the designated butler floors. He seemed a bit bellman and concierge rolled into one.  Anything we needed 24/7, just call his number, he said as he handed us his business card.  He'd shown us about our spacious room, opening curtains, explained the wi-fi and the room-card operated electricity (common throughout Europe).  Did we need reservations? Recommendations? Help with anything. . .just call.

Problem was that when one lives their lives without a butler, it is difficult to think of something we needed 'buttled' as we referred to his services from then on.

Our suite at The GB in Athens

"Why doesn't our house look like this," asked The Scout with a big sigh as we inspected our Athenian digs. 

"Well, for starters our interior walls molded while we were gone this winter and now we have the ant problem on top of it," responded his sidekick, The Scribe, who was thinking, 'I could live in a hotel like this.'  

Suffice to say, the room itself -- had we never stepped outside its door -- would have been a treat of a getaway. 

Welcome: Liquor and chocolates by French  pastry chef Arnaud Larher 
The attention to detail was amazing. Take that down comforter on the bed in the photo below:  When made up by housekeeping the top is folded about 45 cm towards the foot of the bed then rolled back over itself to 5 cm from the edge of the fold. This, I learned from the in-room hotel magazine, lets the guest snuggle into the bed using the minimum amount of effort. My kind of bed! Housekeepers  use a 10 point checklist when inspecting the made beds.

A linen rug, slippers and chocolate at night

If Only the Walls Could Talk

The hotel stairway a metaphor of its layers of  history
The layers of history at this hotel are almost dizzying. And that was a stronger enticement for us than the luxurious accommodations. 

Ambiance is unbeatable in the GB Winter Garden

As we dined in the Winter Garden, off the lobby, we wondered how it looked in 1842 when it was built as the 90-room 'Stadtpalais' (majestic residence) of Antonis Dimitrio. His home was constructed across from the Palace of King Otto barely more than a decade after Greece achieved its independence from the Ottomans.

18th Century tapestry in Alexander's Bar at the GB

Or as we sat at the bar in Alexander's Bar, in the shadow of the hotel's treasured 18th Century tapestry of Alexander the Great entering Gaugamela, we pondered the massive effort undertaken  by Savvas Kentros, who purchased the home for 80,000 drachmas and converted it to a hotel.

Who's walked here before us?

We wished the walls could talk about the decade of the 1940's when first the hotel was evacuated in October of 1940 to be used as governmental headquarters of the King, the Armed General Staff and the Allied Forces.

Or April 1941 when the invading Germans took it for the headquarters of their Wehrmacht.

Greek flags in the morning sun from the rooftop restaurant
Then, with the liberation of Greece in 1944, it became the seat of the new interim government and British forces.

By the late 1950's the hotel was back to being a hotel, renovations and ownership changes marked the subsequent decades. Its most recent $100 million renovation in 2003 created the property as it today. 

Traveler's Tip

We often sing the praises of hotel and airline loyalty programs. We are long-time members of the Marriott Hotel's loyalty program, which has become BonVoy the loyalty program of the merged Marriott and Starwood Hotel chains. The upgraded room was part of the loyalty program benefits and an example of the benefits that can be had from such programs.  The room we booked was in the 250 euro ($280US) per night range; the junior suite on the Butler Floor we were upgraded to was about 350 euro ($393US) a night.  

We used accumulated loyalty points -- 60,000 a night for 180,000 total - to pay for the room. Our out-of-pocket cost was 4 euro a night for the room tax levied in Greece on hotel stays.

Acropolis from the Grand Bretagne

If you find yourself in Greece - even if you don't stay at the hotel - we'd recommend a drink or a meal at either the Grande Bretagne or its sister Luxury Collection Hotel, the King George, next door. Both are across the street from Syntagma Square.

That's it for this week.  We are back at our Stone House on the Hill in the midst of springtime projects. We are keeping busy and that is good because we can't leave Greece.  No joke. And not our idea.  But that's a topic to tell you about next week. Hope to see you back then and bring a friend or two as well.

Safe travels to you and yours. 

Linking with:


Monday, April 15, 2019

Athens ~ Merchants Markets and Mezes

'The traveler sees what he sees,
the tourist sees what he has come to see.'
             -- G.K. Chesterton

Waiting to cross a street near Syntagma (Constitution) Square in the heart of Athens, a person focused on his mobile phone while balanced on a lime green scooter came whizzing down the sidewalk behind us. A car in front of us speeded up, ran a red light and could have taken out a few pedestrians had we not been slow to react to the 'walk' signal. To our side the 'hop-on, hop-off' buses vied with a parade of taxis for a spot to stop near the famous square.

On this Saturday afternoon the streets were crowded and the sidewalks were crammed with shoppers - we could tell they were shoppers by the name-brand logos printed on the bags they carried. Chatter and laughter wafted from tables at open-air cafes.

Cafe and taverna tables are filled in Athens these days

A decade after the economic crisis sucker punched this country, you can feel the vibe, the life, perhaps even the soul of this popular central area returning.  This part of downtown is night-and-day different from even a few years ago when shops were shuttered, businesses closed and the streets in once-busy commercial areas empty.

Time and time again during a long-weekend here earlier this month, we were touched by this upbeat rhythm in the neighborhoods we explored. We avoided the 'tourist' sites this trip and set out to see the 'every day'. To be sure, there is a lot to Athens and economic recovery isn't going to be achieved uniformly or immediately but we could tell the areas of the city we visited are on a definite upswing.

Syntagma (Constitution) Square - Athens
Staying in a hotel at Syntagma Square we remarked on the quietude of the place that less than a decade ago gained notoriety -- much like Cairo's Tahrir Square during their Arab Spring -- when Athenians protested and rioted here as the economy tanked and European Union economic sanctions kicked into gear.

Friends who witnessed first-hand such riots from the same hotel in which we stayed say they'll never return to Athens. It is a shame, that attitude - because that was so then, this is so now.

Ermou Street - Merchants

We headed west from Syntagma Square on Ermou Street, one of our favorite routes in this sprawling metropolis. The 1.5 kilometer road, named for Hermes, the god of commerce, leads  to  Kerameikos, (ceramicus) the old potters' quarters archeological site.

The street, ranked among the top five most expensive shopping streets in Europe and among the top 10 world-wide, begins as a pedestrian zone at Syntagma Square, a feature that makes for excellent 'window shopping'.

Shop until you drop on Ermou Street in Athens

Stretching for several blocks are stores selling shoes, jewelry, specialty items and brand-name children's, women's and men's clothing. Street vendors set up shop in front of the stores offering everything from eats to books. You really could shop until you drop and never leave this street.

Street Vendors are up and open long before stores on Ermou
We love to walk it before the stores have opened when the sidewalk vendors are just setting up shop and again late in the evening when the buskers set up to entertain late into the night.

Night - bucker's delight on Ermou St. Athens

And then several blocks later there sits in the middle of Ermou Street an ancient church. Once you pass this small square, it isn't long before the pedestrian zone ends and you are back on rather narrow sidewalks. This Byzantine Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea is believed to have been built about 1050 on the site of an ancient temple to Athena or Demeter.

Church of Panghia Kapnikarea - Ermou Street, Athens.

The Markets - Ancient and New

We love markets - those public gathering places where farmers and producers gather to sell what they have grown, raised or created. When it comes to such places, you can't beat Athens for having a selection of both ancient and present-day venues. All are walking distance from Syntagma Square:

Tower of the Wind - Roman Agora - Athens
Ancient Agora - once the hangout for the likes of Plato and Socrates, this historic site is a popular stop for tourists.  So large and encompassing are these old grounds between Monastiraki and the Acropolis, that Lonely Planet guidebook's self-guided tour advises it will take two hours to complete.

Just a short distance away are the ruins of the Roman Agora, a commercial center dating back to the first century BC. Julius Caesar started the project and Caesar Augustus finished it.  Perhaps the most famous of its remaining structures is its Tower of the Winds, a handsome eight-sided marble structure that once served as a water clock, sundial and weathervane.

Strawberries are in season in Athens

Our focus this outing was on modern-day markets so we bypassed the ancient. We began with a stroll through Monastraki Square, named for the 'little monastery' that sits to the side of its square.  While the square still has a fruit vendor or two and boasts a weekend 'antique' market, the rest of its small shops could better be described as a tourist-shop arcade. You want a souvenir? You'll find it on the narrow street flanked by shops offering everything from key chains and post cards to mass produced art work, 'traditional' leather sandals, and women's wear. If you want Army camouflage gear, you'll find it at a shop here.

Antique/flea Market Saturday at Monastiraki Square
You'd need hours to rummage through the display tables that sprout on Saturday mornings  in the plaza. There are bona fide antique stores that front the plaza and operate daily but the weekend brings a hodge-podge of sellers who display piles of old used 'stuff' on folding tables. Somewhere within them, there's likely an antique but we didn't have the desire or patience to try looking.

Meat and fish and veggies at the Dimotiki Market

We left Monastiraki and strolled several blocks on Athinas Street to Athens' enormous Central Municipal Market that also goes by the names of Dimotiki (public market) and Varvakeios (a long ago hero) Market.

Now this was real Athens - not a tourist item in sight and no arts and crafts. It was serious food for serious shoppers.  We did spend a lot of time strolling the aisles - which is best done in closed-toed shoes as they are wet and somewhat slippery on the meat and fish side of the street.

Mezes and other culinary delights

One of three market cafes - Dimotiki Market Athens
We suspected the food was excellent at the three small cafes that operate within the market but we were saving ourselves for dinner with friends, long-time Athenians. And were we ever glad we did as they introduced us to a café tucked up in the Plaka area near the Roman Agora - a café that got its start back in the 1930's and is still incredibly popular today. It served authentic Greek 'village' food -- and Taverna Platanos is one we'd recommend if you find yourself wanting a bit of good 'home-cooked' flavor and presentation.

Good Greek food served at this historic taverna
Now before I sign off, I need to circle back to that mention of the lime green scooter that I told you about in the opening paragraph. Electric Lime Scooters debuted in the city in January.  Using an app uploaded to your phone you can unlock a scooter, use it and leave it on the street at the end of your ride. The cost is 1 euro plus .15 cents  for every minute.  They can travel at a rate of 25 km an hour - yikes!  We still prefer walking but keep it in mind if you find yourself in Athens.

Electric Lim Scooters have come to Athens
There's a lot more to discover about Athens and one day we'll head back for another adventure.  Hope that if your travels take you there you'll allow yourselves a few days to experience as much of the city as you can cram into your schedule. As Matt Barrett, who writes an online travel guide to Greece, has said,

'The true wonders of Athens may not be in the dead past, but in the very alive present.'

Hope to see you back here next week when we'll indulge in a bit of the luxurious side of travel in Greece.  Until then, thanks so much for the time you've spent with us and safe travels to you and yours ~

Linking this week with:
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday

Monday, April 8, 2019

Athens Overload ~ Finding the Astounding Beyond the Acropolis (Part 1)

'Really, after the Acropolis what is there to see in Athens?' we've been asked back in the States.

I chuckled over that question last weekend when I heard myself saying whining to The Scout, "My feet hurt and my head is full - I need a break - I can't absorb anything else for a few hours." We'd not gone anywhere near the Acropolis and yet. . .

I was on Athens Overload.

Now I'll admit the Acropolis, the towering icon of this city and considered the most important ancient site in the Western world, is pretty darn magnificent.  Gazing at it from afar never grows old. We do it from rooftop bars, street-level restaurants and every chance we get when we're in Athens.

Acropolis at night - Athens
Gazing at it is one thing. Visiting the Acropolis, which dates back to Neolithic times (4000 to 3000 BC), can be almost too much to wrap your head around even for the most devoted history buffs. A climb up the pathway to view its centerpiece, the Parthenon, can leave you breathless - both literally and figuratively. 

Entry to the Acropolis Museum has viewpoints to the ancient world below it
The Acropolis Museum at its base is so layered with history that it really requires more than one visit to absorb it all.

This trip we were in search of answers to the question asked by friends in the States - just what else does this city have to offer. With at least 10 neighborhoods calling out to be explored we picked one closest to our hotel and set off. This is some of what we saw during our long-weekend in the big city. It didn't take us long to conclude. . .

There is so much more to Athens than the Acropolis!

Syntagma Square Athens

A plus side to being ex pats in Greece is that Athens is four hours from our home in the Peloponnese. It has become a favorite getaway. Each time we are there, we declare that we must return soon as there is simply so much to see and do!

Kolonaki district between Syntagma Square and Lykavittos Hill

Kolonaki District: Museums and More Museums. . .

On this trip, we found ourselves drawn to the Kolonaki District which sits between Syntagma (Constitution) Square and Lykavittos Hill. Because our hotel was located at Syntagma Square, we had only to cross the street to enter this chic, upscale district that has global designer brand stores, cafes and bars that could rival London's High Street or Paris's Champs-Elysees. It is also laced with other treasurers as we soon found out.

Palace of Ilion/Numismatic Museum of Athens
Feeling much like we were setting out on a 'treasure hunt', our first 'discovery' was within a few blocks of our hotel. We came upon what appeared to be a mansion sitting amid a picturesque garden. It was a mansion in a garden and is now home to the Numismatic Museum of Athens and showcases  one of the largest collections of ancient coins in the world.

The garden is now home to a café - worth a stop even without the museum
While coins weren't the draw initially, the mansion itself prompted us to shell out 3 euros each to get inside what had been the home of German businessman Heinrich Schliemann, the man credited with discovering Troy in 1868. (Actually, he discovered Hisarlik, the place believed to be Troy.)

The man's fascination with Troy was reflected in the 1881 mansion's décor as well as its name,  Iliou Melathron, (Palace of Ilion), Ilion was the ancient city believed to be the site of the Trojan War.

Numismatic Museum - Athens

You need one trip through the place to look at the architecture and décor. Then another to concentrate on the coin collections, which turned out to be amazingly intricate pieces of metal artwork, so old it boggled the mind. Some were in circulation back in Troy, others during the time of Alexander the Great and Ptolemy, and others from the Peloponnesian War . . .and that is just to name a few. The ambiance and the displays kept us there longer than we could have imagined.

There's a café in the garden with tables scattered about what was once the Mansion's back yard. You need not go to the Museum to enjoy a cup of coffee sitting in 'the garden of the Muses'.

Benaki Museum - Athens

It was about the second hour of our visit and while on the third or fourth floor of the Benaki Museum ( the following day that my head filled to capacity and my feet cried out for rest. The Benaki Museum, reputed to be Greece's finest private museum and housed in a stately old building three blocks from Snytagma Square, offered us a chance to see hundreds of excavated relics, take a walk through the country's war history, and see up close textiles and lifestyles of centuries past.  We skipped the visiting exhibition not for lack of interest, but lack of energy.We had underestimated the size of the collections and the vast amount of information they carried.

Life-sized display Benaki Museum

Tickets at the time of our visit were: 9 euro; 7 for us who are 65 and older. The visiting exhibition had an additional charge.  There is an upstairs café with balcony where one can rest and renew.

Entry to Museum of Cycladic Art - Athens
Just a couple blocks further we came upon The Museum of Cycladic Art, ( another private museum housed in such a beautiful building that we were tempted. . .but wisely decided a museum a day was all we could appreciate.

There are nearly 100 museums in Athens ranging from its famous National Archeological Museum to others that showcase, for example, religion, criminology, folk art, marine, and telecommunications. You wouldn't be disappointed in either of the two we visited and we do recommend them. If they don't appeal, try a couple of the others, but do take advantage of at least a few of those the city has to offer.

Worshipping Dionysos

Cathedral Basilica of St. Dionysos
Now you all probably recognize Dionysos as the God of Wine. But did you know about Dionysius, a judge on the Areopagus (Supreme Court) in Athens in the First Century. He was converted to Christianity by the Apostle St. Paul. He ultimately became a priest, a bishop and philosopher of Christianity.  It was the church dedicated to him that we found ourselves as we wandered the streets of Kolonaki.

Floor Mosaic - Church Entryway

We'd set out to walk the neighborhood with no destination in mind, no timetable, no guidebooks. We did carry a map as it is easy to get turned around in Athens. We simply happened upon the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Dionysius, which turned out to be a gem of a find.

Cathedral Basilica of Saint Dionysius - Athens

Greek churches and the members of the congregations we've encountered are welcoming to visitors who are dressed appropriately and who take photos discreetly (and who don't take photos when services are underway!). We pretty much had the church to ourselves so we explored the icons, the art and soaked up the ambiance. And learned a bit of church history as well!

Working up a Thirst

We'd worked up a thirst as we explored the dozens of blocks that make up the Kolonaki district.  Cafes and coffee shops line the streets. So many, that we often wonder aloud how they all can stay in business. And so many that it is difficult to choose just one to experience. We've picked several 'favorites' in central Athens and I wouldn't begin to try and recommend just one.

Café Arcade at City Link - Athens

I can tell you that one of our favorite places for sipping coffee or wine is the covered arcade -- home to a half dozen cafes --at City Link just a block from Syntagma Square. City Link -- a retail and entertainment center -- was the end result of a massive renovation project that turned the old Military Pension Fund Building into one of the more popular areas of downtown Athens. The arcade sits next to the, The Pallas Theatre, built in the early 1930's and now a part of City Link.  Doesn't matter what time of day we visit, the vibe is one of life and vitality. People watching doesn't get any better.

Sidewalk cafes line the streets

I don't want to have you suffering from the same Athens Overload that I did so I am going to save the tale and photos of our market and shopping expedition for next week and make this a two-part report.  We thank you for the time you've spent with us and always appreciate your comments. We are curious . . .have you spent time in Athens and if so, what districts are your favorites and why?

A big welcome to our new followers and also for those who've signed up to receive the posts as emails.

Safe travels to you and yours ~

Linking this week with:
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday


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