Gods of Greece smiling on trip to Athens and beyond
GIVEN a childhood fascination with Greek myths, the biggest mystery for me was how I'd gone so long without visiting the home of Zeus, Apollo and Aphrodite.
Aware of Greece's reputation for glorious year-round sunshine, sparkling beaches and warm hospitality (all true, it turns out), it was the prospect of following in the footsteps of Socrates and discovering why Dionysius was such a party animal that spurred me on to champion its case for the family holiday.
I was near oblivious to the easyJet flight from Edinburgh to Athens – preceded by a great kip and hearty breakfast in the ever-reliable Premier Inn at nearby Newbridge– thanks to the page-turning alchemy of Stephen Fry, whose books Mythos and Heroes will get you right into the mood for visiting the home of ancient gods and philosophers who changed the world.
The Greek hero theme was one wonderful taxi driver Apostolis Lytras (great name!) warmed to when we jumped in his car at Athens Airport. In a search for common ground, he came up with Georgios Samaras. The long-haired striker did, to be fair, look the part of a Greek god and assumed mythical status among many Celtic fans.
We got more tips from Apostolis in a 20-minute taxi ride than days poring over guidebooks. Another very useful source, while we're on the subject, is Discover Greece, which does a grand job of marketing a highly desirable product.
Now you COULD wander at will around Athens' world-famous ancient sites such as the Acropolis, Agora and Temple of Zeus and figure out for yourself who did what to whom and why. But we found Dora, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide with Alternative Athens, which offers a range of tailor-made tours, the perfect conduit for our crash course in mythology.
As well as knowing her subject inside out, she was able to share modern-day tips on the most interesting neighbourhoods in town and, crucially, where to find tap water on the Acropolis. Highly recommended.
After an instructive and enjoyable 90 minutes or so with her, we wandered the fascinating and hugely browsable Monastiraki flea market and Plaka areas before taking a step into the present-day wonders of modern technology.
I'm not going to lie, I was anxious about Beat, Athens' top ride-hailing app. I wasn't sure what an app was until relatively recently and had my doubts about hailing cabs in foreign lands using one.
Fear not. It's genius: part transportation solution, part real-life video game. You can hail a ride, learn the name and even see the picture of your driver before he or she reaches you – AND get a very good idea what your journey will cost. What's not to like?
It introduced us to some more colourful characters. We learned about everything from the Greek economy to the struggles of a (very strong) single mother making a living driving a cab. As one who would NEVER normally choose to take a taxi anywhere, I was hooked. You can see the impending arrival of your cab and almost feel like you know the driver before you get in. It's a good example of technology's use in connecting people and serving a useful function.
And it was a Beat app ride – and driver tip-off — that took us to the top of Lycabettus Hill overlooking the city. Now for the big picture overview of a fascinating capital, that's your place.
We also used it to track down a culinary hot tip: the Nice 'n' Easy organic bistro at 60 Omirou Street, a hidden gem worth seeking out. Inspired by the lyrics of Frank Sinatra's song (find him on its wall of fame), the menu follows the golden greats theme – sink your teeth into the Marlon Brando (buffalo burger) – or how about the Sean Connery (oh yesh!), a baked trout delight with sauce to die for.
Pleasant service, great food and value for money. Pass the Temple of Zeus trying to find it and then eat like a god.
Greece, we were quickly discovering, was whatever you wanted it to be.
But whatever that might be, it should always start with a great breakfast. So we travelled a couple of hundred kilometres and three hours by bus to find one which came highly recommended. Sure, we could have lingered longer in bustling Athens but, as first-time visitors on a tight timeline and budget, we wanted a flavour of life beyond the capital.
And so to Galaxidi, a sleepy resort on the Gulf of Corinth boasting a rich maritime past which is splendidly represented in a quaint little museum well worth seeking out. Getting there by bus introduces you to hundreds of hectares of olive groves and offers a first glimpse of Delphi, home of the Oracle. It also confirms what you've heard about those sparkling seas.
Where did the new love affair with Greek cuisine really begin? It started with breakfast at the Ganimede Hotel under the tutelage of owner Chrysoula Papalexis, a charming force of nature who would soon have us elbow deep in pastry-making.
Homemade jams and cakes, traditional cheeses and pies, omelettes, hummus, fresh juices, cheeses and sausages, yoghurt, all introduced with a smile by our gracious hostess. Wow. Just wow. Her passion for food and enthusiasm in sharing it is an inspiration. Best. Breakfast. Ever.
And that led us to join one of her cooking classes, making pastry and baking a massive spinach pie alongside a Dutch family. It was one of the surprising high points of a great trip, a reconnection to the joy of cooking from scratch as a family. That spinach pie has gone on to become a firm family favourite and one of the most requested recipes from anyone who visits when we dish it up. How can someone make spinach of all things taste so good? I take my hat off to this wonderful cook.
It was no surprise that her affable husband Kostas, a baker with a passion for the sea, should be the one to get us out on those famed waters. This quiet, unassuming man came to life at the wheel of his Delphi Sails vessel, taking us on a cruise that would offer a fresh view of this stunning seaside charmer.
Again we were to find that talking to Greeks – rather than reading guidebooks – was the way to find out more about this wonderful country. Chrysoula and Kostas make a formidable team and are fantastic ambassadors for their town. And, yes, there was a chance to go for a dip too with a historic little town the backdrop rather than crammed sun-loungers and red-faced tourists. Far from the madding crowd, it was bliss.
And it was back to Greek mythology for the wild card of the trip – a spot of paragliding with Giannis Xiros whose one-man Paraglidingfun company in nearby Itea reflects his sunny personality.
What was that he was whistling as he harnessed up my 13-year-old son for his first tandem flight? Fly Me to the Moon, of course. His reference to Icarus (who notoriously came unstuck when he flew too close to the sun) broke the ice. This guy has represented his country in the sport and simply oozes confidence, a great advert for this adrenaline-fuelled pastime.
Our children Michael and Grace both took to it like, well, birds to flight, disappearing into the great blue yonder, swirling over olive groves before a smooth landing. Awesome to watch and mind-blowing to participate in.
Need to Know
- Before you fly: Long and short-term parking at NCP, 45 Eastfield Road, Edinburgh. Book at www.ncp.co.uk
- Eat and sleep the night before an early flight: Premier Inn, 5 Hallbarns Crescent, Edinburgh EH28 8TH. Phone: 0333 321 9224
- Beat Taxi app: www.facebook.com/TheBEATapp
- Alternative Athens: www.alternativeathens.com
- Nice 'n' Easy bistro: https://niceneasy.gr/en/
- Hotel Ganimede: https://ganimede.gr/
- Paraglidingfun: www.paraglidingfun.gr/en/
- Delphi Sails: www.delphisails.com
- Lonely Planet guide to Greece
Follow Hector Mackenzie on Twitter @HecMackenzie