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Travel & Holidays in later life


A side view of the Erechtheion Temple on the Acropolis Holding the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece gave a big boost to the look of Athens, which had a massive clean-up in readiness for the event. Reg Butler visited the Greek capital to see how it had changed.

A new Metro now runs the 19 miles from the international airport to
Syntagma Square. Sparkling new trams reach out on several routes to the suburbs. Bus, tram or Metro rides in the city are inexpensive.

Any guide-book on Greece gives full weight to the antiquities of Athens - the Acropolis and all the other classical sites and museums. Dusty old museums have been spruced up for the 21st century. There's enough to occupy any ruins fanatic for a month.

But there's far more to the Greek capital than the treasures of the past. Athens is a first-rate centre with a bubbling Mediterranean lifestyle.

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If you have mobility problems, access to the Acropolis is very difficult. 

In-town taxis don't wander around looking for business, but wait in taxi stands. Ask a friendly restaurant or cafe owner to phone for transport.

Easily reached by steamer or hydrofoil from Piraeus on a one-day excursion are the Saronic islands of Aegina (16 miles) Poros (30 miles), Hydra (36 miles) and Spetses (51 miles). 

Greece is part of the euro zone, but local prices still ensure excellent value.. 

For more information: Greek National Tourism Organisation, 4 Conduit Street, London W1S 2DJ. Tel: 020-7495 9300.    

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Sunday was a typical good day, starting with free entrance to the Acropolis. Afterwards I strolled past the Aeropagus rock, where St Paul preached his Sermon to the Athenians, and then downhill through the Plaka district to a crowded Sunday market around Monastiraki Square. Along the same route, in AD 54 St Paul would have passed an equally huge and bustling Roman marketplace.

 Everywhere I looked, the 21st century had its own colour and fascination. Talkative Athenians packed the open-air cafes, enjoying the sunshine. I sampled an iced coffee drink chicken, chips and a beer for less than a fiver.

The Plaka district of narrow streets clustered below the Acropolis hill is also the nightlife centre. Tavern after tavern is lively with Greek families and friends who eat, drink and sing from nine till past midnight, with a background of bouzouki music. 

Wine is cheap in these tavernas. Most of the wine is flavoured with resin, which tastes like floor polish. After the first shock, most visitors hastily learn the Greek for non-resinated wine: krasi aretsinato.

Waiters in the larger establishments have enough English to cope with meal orders. Otherwise, in smaller places, the owner-chef invites you into the kitchen to choose among the cooking-pots. There are national dishes to sample: stuffed dolmades, moussakas, octopus.

Best place for sea-food is down at the fishing harbour of Mikrolimano. It forms part of Piraeus, but well away from the docks. The setting is magnificent: a horseshoe-shaped harbour with white houses stepping up a steep hillside.

Brightly-painted fishing caiques and pleasure yachts swing lazily at anchor. Restaurants line the entire water front, with tables beside the water. You pick your fish, and pay by weight. Owing to over-fishing in Greek waters, prices are no longer cheap. But it's worth splashing out, just for the setting.

The quickest way from Athens to its port of Piraeus is by subway from Omonia Square. Piraeus is industrial and grimy, not specially recommended, but the waterfront section is lively with cheap stores, fast-food outlets and sailors' bars. Here is "Never on Sunday" territory, given world fame by Melina Mercouri. 

It's also the starting-point for an Islands Cruise. Luxury cruise-ships offer choice ranging from two-day to five-day trips. The longer voyage usually includes visits to Crete, Rhodes, Kos, Patmos, Hydra, Delos and Mykonos, while the two-day deal is limited to the last three islands only. Advance booking is essential.

The Theatre of Herod Atticus, built 160-174 AD, But it's easy to make up your own cruise. Ferries depart from Piraeus harbour every day, punctually as long-distance buses to the Cyclades, the Dodecanese and the Sporades - islands with magic-sounding names.

Almost any island can offer blissful beaches, sparkling water and tranquillity. Some have more antiquities than others. And some have pushed harder for tourism and operate more hotels and guest-houses. But all can guarantee peace and relaxation.

Best value from a Greek summer holiday comes from splitting time between sightseeing and beaches.

Along the coast from Athens, south-east along the scenic highway towards Cape Sounion, is a string of beach resorts: Old Phaleron (4 miles from central Athens), Glyfada (10 miles), Voula (13 miles), Kavouri (15 miles), Vouliagmeni (16 miles), Varkiza (20 miles) and Sounion itself (43 miles) - location of the dramatic clifftop temple of Poseidon. 

Plentiful and cheap buses link the beaches with the city centre. It's perfectly simple to do a morning's sightseeing in the capital, bus out to a beach for a swim, lunch and a lazy siesta, and then back to Athens for nightlife.

In recent years, many new hotels and holiday bungalows have been built along thi A Greek soldier in traditional uniform stands guard in the centre of Athenss stretch of coast. Beach fans can work on their suntan and watersports, with central Athens half an hour away. There's dancing and night-clubs at Glyfada and Varkiza, with a completely international clientele.

If you are lured by classical sites, coach companies offer a wide choice of day trips. The top choice is to Delphi. 

Backed by the great cliffs of Mount Parnassus, the ancient treasure-house of Greece looks down upon a green sea of terraced olive groves, stretching to the shores of the Gulf of Corinth. Beyond are the mountains of the Peloponnese: ridge after ridge of purple colour.

It's the most breathtaking view of a lifetime - as awe-inspiring to the 20th-century tourist as to the ancient Greek. It's worth the fare to Greece, just for Delphi alone!

For a contrast in holiday styles, look at 

HALKIDIKI  - the secret Greek paradise

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Lonely Planet: Athens" by David Willett and Kim Wildman - A comprehensive guide to an understanding of life in the Greek capital. 

Athens (Eyewitness Travel Guides)  - Helps you soak up the atmosphere from the Greek gods through to the 25th Olympics. 

The Rough Guide to Greece - Useful for the independent traveller, in the traditional Rough Guide style. 

"AA Essential Athens" - by Mike Gerrard - A handy pocket guide to the Top Ten sights, with star ratings.

"The Magic of Greek Bouzouki"  - An audio CD of recordings by Michalis Terzis, one of the most famous Athenian players of the bouzouki.

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