RIOT DOG Loukanikos stares into the distance from a backdrop of flames four metres high which reflect off his coat and the burnished crown that hovers above his head. The brightly coloured fantasy face of a woman, garage-door-size, and the finely drawn detail of a kestrel in stark black and white stand side by side. Look up and three enormous grinning visages laugh out across the city from beneath a rooftop. Since 2011, growing dissatisfaction with the political climate has sparked a colourful explosion in graffiti and street art across the city which would rival Berlin, London or New York.
Every picture really does tell a story on the Street Art Tour in the Greek capital with artist Achilles, who collaborates with Alternative Athens, a company specialising in showing visitors the lesser-known sights of the city. Wandering around the Psiri and Kerameikos districts, you can’t fail to notice the art, but the stories behind their creation are equally fascinating. Loukanikos the dog was regularly seen during the Eurozone riots and became known worldwide until his retirement two years ago; the recurring beautiful woman we see is one artist’s former girlfriend. He painted images of her along her route to work in a bid to win back her love (it didn’t work).
Walls, houses and even schools and churches are adorned with vivid faces, man-sized skulls, swooping birds, animals and fantasy scenes. Many of the large-scale murals have been commissioned by local businesses to cover existing spraying, interestingly bringing those who practise what is still an illegal, underground art into the public eye.
It’s a vivid introduction to a side of Athens I had no idea existed. One of the world’s oldest cities, it’s renowned for its classical architecture and history, but in many parts of central Athens current events are reflected on the architecture and have thrown the city into the spotlight for different reasons.
With direct flights from London, it’s an easy short-break destination. We are staying at the Pallas Athena, a five-star hotel that is part of Grecotel Hotels & Resorts, a family business established 40 years ago. Opened in 2014, the boutique hotel is close to the Acropolis and the old city. Each room is individually designed, with many featuring sculpture and artworks, while others, the Graffiti rooms (which are also available as family rooms – kids will love the Spiderman one), have been vividly painted by popular street artist “B”.
My top-floor suite has French doors out to a private balcony, marble tiles and luxurious faux fur rugs, as well as an oversized sculpture of a foot on a pedestal. It is cool, calm and elegant – a luxurious haven away from it all.
The food here is taken as seriously as the art, with a firm focus on Greek and Cretan locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients (many of which are supplied by the company’s organic Agreco Farm on Crete). The first night we sample tsikoudia (a type of raki from Crete), distilled from the leftovers of winemaking. We also try Cretan delicacies including wild organic artichokes, pickled onion bulbs and apaki (seasoned smoked pork). There is fresh grouper, mizithra cheese and organic vegetables – all a delicious introduction to the importance Greek people put on sharing and enjoying food.
We work up an appetite again next morning wandering through the quiet back streets of the city, winding up in the Gazi district, which surrounds Athens’ old gasworks, and which is now a museum and exhibition space.
Lunch is taken at contemporary taverna Melilotos at 19 Kalamiotou (www.melilotos.gr). Bright and busy inside, delicious traditional local dishes are given a modern twist and are good value for money.
Looking for places to go in the evening, we turn to Alternative Athens founder Tina Kyriakakis, who runs a Hip Athens tour, which is just as well as the most interesting places are well off the beaten track, many tucked away down narrow streets and alleyways. We literally stumble across Six Dogs at 6-8 Avramiotou Street, in the popular Monastiraki district. An unprepossessing front opens up into an enchanting garden terrace, complete with tree-shaded bar.
Just as surprising is Taf: The Art Foundation, which is hidden away on Normanou Street. The bar sits in a courtyard with rooms off a galleried first-floor walkway. Dating from 1870, it was once a common house for 12 families and is now a popular bar with local Athenians as well as providing exhibition space.
Also on Normanou Street and equally tricky to find is Couleur Locale. It’s well worth seeking out though, to take the tiny lift up to the rooftop terrace bar for stunning 360-degree views across the city.
No visit to Athens is complete without touching on the classical sights. The following day we head to the Acropolis with Discover Greek Culture, which offers cultural experiences; A Taste of Greece takes in the Acropolis, the Parthenon and the Acropolis Museum.
Our guide tells tales of Dionysus and how the first theatre came about; he points out ancient theatre, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which is still in use for open-air concerts today; and draws attention to the rough-hewn lumps in stone blocks that show how they were hauled into place all those centuries ago.
The Acropolis, built to impress and intimidate, stands on a rocky outcrop. Even today, peering through dilapidated doorways and clambering over stone blocks, you can’t fail to get a sense of the history of the place. And even if you are not that taken with history, it is worth the climb to the top (which isn’t particularly arduous) just for the views over Athens sprawling out below.
At the base of the hill stands the contemporary Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009. Built to house everything found on the archaeological site of the Acropolis, at more than 14,000 square metres you’re not going to get round it all. From grand statues dating from the 5th century BC to the fantastic collection of centuries-old everyday household items now displayed along a light-filled, modern, marble-floored walkway, it’s a fascinating insight into another time and place.
Modern-day Greece might be going through turbulent times again, but the vibrancy of Athens remains undiminished. Twitter: @LynnORourke1
• Flights with Aegean Airways, London-Athens, from £54 (en.aegeanair.com): easyJet, Lufthansa and British Airways are among the airlines that also fly from Scottish airports to Athens (www.easyjet.com)
• Grecotel Pallas Athena, double rooms from ¤109 (grecotelpallasathena.com)
• Street Art Tour (three hours, ¤30) Alternative Athens (www.alternative-athens.com)
• A Taste of Greece (archaeologist-led half-day tour, includes food and wine tasting, from ¤130) Discover Greek Culture (www.discovergreekculture.gr)
• Athens street artist B (www.thisismybworld.com)
For further information on visiting Greece go to www.discovergreece.com• In view of the recent Greek bank crisis, the Foreign Office is still advising visitors to “make sure you take enough euros in cash to cover the duration of your stay, emergencies, unforeseen circumstances and any unexpected delays”. (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/greece)