The chic guide to Athens
Photography: JULIAN KINGMA
"Oh, but you don't know the magic!" says the hotelier Tina Daskalantonakis when talking about Athens, her enthusiasm punctuated by a hands-in-the-air clap. She says it often - one moment about the city's new Acropolis Museum, an ultra-modern edifice of concrete and glass with a direct view of the Parthenon, and in another moment when describing the sky, which turns from pink to gold in the late afternoon ("Everywhere else in Europe becomes dark by then, but not in Athens," she says. "The light is amazing.")
A statuesque beauty with fabulous brows and a glorious mane of hair, Daskalantonakis is full of drama, a warm and engaging hostess passionate about her beloved hometown, its tradition and culture, and all that its calamitous landscape has to offer.
In Greece, the Daskalantonakis name is akin to royalty, not just because the family owns the country's largest luxury resort group, Classical Hotels and Grecotel, but also for its philanthropic efforts and eco-initiatives, among them a campaign to sustain Crete's environment by employing local farmers in organics.
Tina Daskalantonakis, a mother of two, is fiercely patriotic and
extremely hands-on, working hard to promote her country beyond its
border, whether at a convention in London, lobbying for tourism in
New York, or via her pocket guide to her home town, Tina's
Black Book: Spoil Me in Athens. At a recent awards ceremony in
Venice hosted by The Leading Hotels of the World, she accepted the
top honour for the King George Palace, a grand landmark of Athens's
Syntagma (Constitution) Square. "I heard the national anthem
playing in my head, honestly I did. I was singing it over and over.
We have put our life into that hotel; it was our Olympic moment,"
says Daskalantonakis of the legendary establishment, which attracts
big names from the French president to Manolo Blahnik to Beyoncé.
"I love to take breakfast there and chat with our guests, to inform
them of all the things they can do in this country. Unfortunately,
it can be tricky in Athens - there isn't so much as a government
website to help."
Visitors will learn three things in the company of Daskalantonakis. First, beyond the antiquities and the narrow, winding alleyways is a sleek and sophisticated side to the city. She'll tell you that Athens was once a bedraggled stopover for tourists flying out to the islands; its historic city centre, with its shuttered neighbourhoods and forlorn shopfronts, was notorious for choking traffic and chaos. But that was another time. Athens today is a polyglot world filled with spirited citizens exuberantly exploring the freedoms of a reborn metropolis.
Second, to understand the city one must eat well, not to satiate the appetite but to ignite the senses: honey-dripping melomakarona sweets, ripe persimmons, deep-sea shellfish and thick, grainy coffee make her list. "Good food equals love," Daskalantonakis says. "This is true Greek hospitality."
And third, when walking the old cobbled roads at the foot of the Acropolis, while scouring the markets for evil-eyes, ouzo and little soldier dolls dressed in foustanella kilts, it is important to stop for a minute to dream and let the spirits of the ancient gods whisper in your ear. "There is an amazing energy in Athens; I really believe it has mythical powers. You feel it everywhere," Daskalantonakis says. "I have an enormous respect for the city and I want everyone who visits to understand it too; the nice things and the not-so-nice things, the charming streets, the flowers, the noise, the special breeze in the air. You have to succumb to it all."
As she tells it, the nation's soggy economic climate hasn't dampened the spirits of its bold Athenian restaurateurs, architects and designers, either. Daskalantonakis makes a point of heralding those upcoming stars via installations and creative projects throughout the company. "It was always my goal to try and change the way people view Greek hotels, not so much by making them more modern but rather to focus on our culture's hospitality. I believe in sharing those secrets with our guests. So, yes, I do see myself as a kind of unofficial ambassador to Athens. I have a vision, a responsibility," she says. "I follow my instincts and I am very passionate about the country, its people and all that there is to discover. You know… all the magic."
Tina Daskalantonakis's guide to Athens
The Acropolis Museum
Like a spaceship for the city: the Swiss-American architect Bernard Tschumi imagined a most ambitious monument for the country's ancient artefacts. "It is a miracle for Greece," Daskalantonakis says. "The museum is unique in that you walk on glass and beneath you are the archaeological sites framed in such a magnificent way, the building itself shadowed by the Parthenon. There is great respect for the old and the new. I feel it is a place that truly awakens who we are as a people." Dionysiou Areopagitou 15, Athens, +30 210 900 0900, theacropolismuseum.gr
"Visit this traditional coffee roaster to pick out your own blend and a briki, the little saucepan used to brew it. Add one spoon of coffee and sugar to taste, then stir until it almost bubbles over. They have the best blends here - buy some for home." Leventi 7, Kolonaki, +30 210 721 0136
The Breeder gallery
"Its curators, George Vamvakidis and Stathis Panagoulis, are ingenious. They go everywhere to source art for this intimate gallery space, from Miami to Brussels and beyond, and they present some of the most contemporary installations in Athens. In particular, I am moved by Irini Miga's work - I love her very fragile way in pencil and pottery." Iasonos 45, Athens, +30 210 331 7527, thebreedersystem.com
The Royal Penthouse Suite, King George Palace
"This is the only suite in the world overlooking an ancient monument and, of course, everyone is enchanted by such a magical view. It's a feel-good hotel; it's neither intimidating nor overdone despite its classical decoration. The room is very spacious, over 200 square metres, and it has a wraparound terrace dipped in sunlight." Vasileos Georgiou A' 3 , Syntagma, +30 210 322 2210, lhw.com/kinggeorge
Elena Votsi jewellers
The streets in the upscale Kolonaki district are lined with first-class names including Votsi, the designer of the Athens 2004 Olympic Medal and a former Gucci collaborator. "Elena is a woman to admire because her jewellery is incredibly unique," Daskalantonakis says. "They are enormous pieces - one is almost required to carry the ring rather than wear it. She has a great sense of form and uses stones in a breathtaking, contemporary way. I think her collection deserves to be on display in one's living room like sculpture rather than stored in a jewel box." Xanthou 7, Kolonaki, +30 210 360 0936, elenavotsi.com
Martinos Antique & Art Gallery
"Monastiraki is one of the oldest areas in Athens; you can spend many hours here fossicking for souvenirs and antiques. They avoid the kitsch trinkets and instead sell the most amazing and authentic Greek pottery, works of art, furniture and exquisite laces and embroidery from all over the islands." Pandrosou 50, Monastiraki; Pindarou 24, Kolonaki, +30 210 360 7230, martinosart.gr
Dionysiou Areopagitou Street
"Take the famous pedestrian street which leads to the Parthenon and walk the path as the ancient Greeks did. You can explore it on your way to the museum. The area was given a facelift for the Olympics, yet it retains its old charm."
"Right now in Greece there is a boom in multi-brand boutiques. Free Shop is one of the most popular for its intellectual mix of clothing from the likes of Maison Martin Margiela and Comme des Garçons. Its owners also run the Balenciaga boutique in Athens." Voukourestiou 50, Kolonaki, +30 210 364 1308, freeshoplive.com
This 40-year-old store is crammed with traditional folk art but is best known for its handcrafted evil-eye (mati) glassware and charms. "We hang matia everywhere - we have them behind the door and in front of the door, all for luck and to ward off evil spirits. The Mati shop has the most beautiful, decorative versions in Athens." Voukourestiou 20, Athens, +30 210 362 6238
Tudor Hall restaurant, King George Palace
"For the grandest view in Athens and the purest food under the stars produced by our family at the Agreco farm in Rethymnon, Crete." Vasileos Georgiou A' 3, Syntagma, +30 210 322 2210, classicalhotels.com
"This has to be one of Athens's hippest bars, with great music and a wonderful cocktail menu. You can hit the crowded dance floor or lounge in the candlelit courtyard garden filled with hanging lanterns." Evripidou 65, Psirri, +30 210 331 0907, soulstereo.gr
The Academy of Athens
"Marble and more marble; the central building flanked by statues of Apollo and Athena is one of the most amazing neoclassical landmarks in Athens. It's a magnificent cultural centre for research relating back to the days of Plato. I like to take walks around the academy when I need an escape from the madness." Panepistimiou 28, Athens, +30 210 336 4700, academyofathens.gr
"Fanourakis is renowned for making the most exquisite designs based on the fine gold jewellery of ancient Crete. These pieces have become modern classics using old-fashioned-cut diamonds, the prettiest corals and precious stones." Patriarchou Ioakeim 23, Kolonaki, +30 210 721 1762, fanourakis.gr
"Michelin-starred Lefteris Lazarou's restaurant is very special to the city. I recommend the olives from Thassos and the shellfish risotto - everything on the menu is unforgettable." Peiraios 80, Athens, +30 210 522 8400, varoulko.gr
"Here you'll find all the best mastic-based products from the island of Chios - from chewing gum and toothpaste to shampoos, moisturisers and cosmetics. A great spot to shop for gourmand souvenirs." Cnr Panepistimiou and Kriezotou sts, Syntagma, +30 210 363 2750, mastihashop.gr
Classical 2, Fashion House Hotel
This riotously colourful hotel-cum-gallery offers a thoroughly modern glimpse into Athenian life. "The idea was for guests to be able to experience our culture through its fashion, and in the heart of the city. We invited a host of Greek designers to decorate a floor in their own style as a way for us to promote and embrace the country's unique talents." Peiraios 2, Omonoia Square, +30 210 523 5230, 2fashionhousehotel.com
"On the streets, you see komboloi (worry beads) in the hands of almost every Greek, all generations, men and women alike. It is almost as though the beads become a kind of companion, friend, teacher and healer, all in one. This store has some of the most upmarket komboloi made from amber, coral, turquoise and other semiprecious stones." Koumpari 6, Kolonaki, +30 210 700 0090, kombologadiko.gr
Brettos bar and distillery
The oldest distillery in Athens, in one of the most historical parts of the city, Brettos has become a landmark bar thanks to its striking back-lit walls lined with colourful liqueurs. "Every time I enter Brettos, butterflies fly into my heart. So many memories!" Kydathinaion 41, Plaka, +30 210 323 2110, brettosplaka.com
Byzantine & Christian Museum
"Having recently undergone an amazing renovation, the museum is all the more spectacular with its extensive collection of mosaics, icons, sculptures and jewels dating back to the 4th century." Vasilissis Sofias 22, Athens.
THE FINE PRINT
Qatar Airways offers the fastest travel time from Melbourne to Athens, operating two flights daily via Doha. Return fares from $2165 economy and $10,235 business including surcharges and taxes. The airline plans to start flights from Sydney later this year. 1300 340 600.
Greece and Mediterranean Travel Centre offers an extensive program of specialised holidays to Greece, from cruises and island hopping to coach tours and visits to archaeological sites. 1300 661 666, (02) 9313 4633, www.greecemedtravel.com