GREECE has filled more pages in the press lately than there are gods on Mount Olympus. You will have read about the country's dire economic situation, its inefficient bureaucracy, maybe even its fraudulent passport service, but you probably haven’t heard about its hidden villages, mythical mountain resorts aIt is a country embodied by its rich and extensive history, yet simultaneously enveloped by myth and legend.
One of the most interesting of these fables is the Seven Sages. These were a group of semi-legendary men, including Cleobulus of Lindos, Chilon of Sparta and Perianda of Corinth.
These were the wisest of Greece’s archaic age, men thought to be the founders of philosophy and the law-givers of ancient Greece. Their words permeate through the landscape and remain an influential part of the country's spirit. Yet in this birthplace of philosophy, which aims to solve both practical and theoretical problems, would the words of these seven, ancient Greek philosophers still provide a guide in light of catastrophe?
Chilon of Sparta: "You should not desire the impossible."
Visiting my family in Athens this past Christmas was a bit of an eye-opener; having watched the YouTube videos and read the stories in the Metro, I was half expecting the city to be in pieces when I arrived. But to be completely honest, you couldn't tell either was happening – and by that I mean neither Christmas nor the recession.
A coffee is a steep six euros in the local patisserie and you can't get a seat anywhere else, people not only seem very well off, but chillingly nonchalant.
Shops still close at 2pm, when the owner goes and gets his souvlaki and joins the other locals, sipping on their expensive coffees and chain smoking Marlboro Lights. In fact, no one seems to do any real work and yet the majority of Athenians drive expensive cars (albeit like maniacs) and spend the day restaurant hopping and market shopping.
In the capital, the typical way that Greeks spend Christmas is by getting out of Athens altogether. And, of course, recession or no recession, this year was not going to be any different.
Pelion is the most common escape route, or more particularly, the town of Portaria, which, in the winter months especially, is one of the most beautiful, traditional villages in central Greece. It is situated 13km from the city of Volos, and at an altitude of 650m, right on the top of Mount Pelion.
In Greek mythology, Mount Pelion (named after the mythical king Peleus, father of Achilles – the guy with the ankle) was the homeland of Chiron the Centaur, tutor of many ancient Greek heroes, such as Jason, Achilles, Theseus and Heracles, as well as the modern sage, Aristotle.
Periander of Corinth: "Be farsighted with everything."
It was upon Mount Pelion, near Chiron's cave, that Thetis and Peleus were married. The uninvited goddess Eris took revenge by arriving with a golden apple, inscripted with the words, 'To the Fairest', which then (to cut a long story short) sparked off a dispute that would eventually result in the Trojan War.
We took a trip to the mountain just before the Christmas rush – a few days later and there would be no rooms available in the hotels, no seats in any of the restaurants and no plates left to smash (I joke).
It is quite a drive from the centre of Athens, but the trip is filled with some of Greece's most beautiful views, and for thrill-seekers, the winding drive up the mountain is an adrenaline rush to say the least. The Greeks are neurotic drivers on flat ground – allowing one to drive you up a cliff-edge borders on suicide, especially if, like me, that man is your already-agitated-from-the-journey father.
Pittacus of Mytilene: "You should know which opportunities to choose."
However, when we reached Makrinitsa, the aptly named ‘balcony of Pelion’, all sibling disputes and parental annoyances were thrown out the window. Hey, it was Christmas, right?
Stunning natural beauty, winding cobble-stoned paths and hundred-year-old churches make up the village and tranquility is abundant. Olives and oranges can be plucked and eaten straight from the branch and fresh water bottled right from the mountainside. Everything is in its most simple and natural state. In fact, life does not appear to have changed here at all in the last few hundred years, or perhaps even since Chiron called it his home.
Yet despite its traditional and unchanged natural beauty, the village offers visitors a decidedly modern experience. We stayed in the Karamarlis Boutique Hotel, a seventeeth century Pelion-style tower house with stone-paved courtyards leading off from rooms with views of Pagasitikos Gulf.
Rooms are decorated with priceless works of art and authentic pieces of the owner's personal collection and offer LCD TVs, heating and air conditioning, Laura Ashley fabrics, mosaic floors, lights specially chosen from an Italian gallery and most surprisingly, free Wi-Fi (!).
In the evenings we ate at the little restaurant near the square, a living-room style, family-run eatery that was strongly reccommended by the locals. Tables are all situated very close to each other to encourage the kind of social interaction that only the Greeks can operate whilst eating. The food is surely some of the best I have ever eaten in my life. The menu changes daily as all ingredients are taken straight from the garden outside (even the lamb, I might add) and includes traditional Greek favourites such as Moussaka, Giant Beans and Kleftiko.
Cleobulus of Lindos: "Moderation is the best thing."
On returning to Athens, my sister and I took a tour of the local hotels. We first visited Semiramis in Kifissia, around 30 minutes north from the centre of Athens. In a city famed for its ancient past, the Semiramis is a hotel of the future. It is the creation of designer, Karim Rashid, well-known for his fluid, soft style that mingles rounded forms with bright, lively colours. Just a few of the up-to-the-minute facilities include an original, high speed internet access throughout the hotel, an art gallery exhibition in public areas, a gym with private physical trainers and a wellness centre offering hamam, facial and body treatment.
Even our room carried Rashid's distinctive signature with light pinks and greens, oranges and subtle yellows reproduced on the walls, floors, and furnishings and a frosted-glass bathroom with a walk-in shower. Internet TVs complete with cordless keyboards come as standard, as well as a CD/DVD free library and an electronically operated doormat, which allows guests to change the message as they see fit.
After a comfortable sleep and an impeccable buffet breakfast, which consisted of creamed scrambled eggs, fresh breads and tasty feta, we took a walk through Kifissia, one of the Athens' hippest areas, filled with boutiques, restaurants and cafés. It's Athens' answer to Rodeo Drive. Yet one of the best things about staying in the outskirts is that there are virtually no tourists. It is also an exceptionally clean area – whether the two are related is up to you to decide.
Solon of Athens: "Keep everything with moderation."
"Know thyself." – Thales of Miletus
Ours followed one of three integrated retro themes: a twist on the vintage postcards of Athens spanning through the '50s to the '80s and decoupaged on walls in striking groups. Expect sleek, jagged mirrors and bespoke modern furniture, created from recycled materials by local art students.
The morning after our stay, the local Syntagma Square was filled with a Christmas market, where bakers sold special Greek cookies known as kourabiedes and melomacarona. From here you can visit the Greek guards, unmissable due to the gigantic pom poms of their shoes, traditionally worn to scare off enemies.
No trip to the capital would be complete without a trip to the Acropolis, located within close proximity to the New Hotel and easily viewed from the facing rooms. The newly-built Acropolis Museum is also well worth a visit, originally built to convince Britain to give back the symbols of ancient Greek glory, the 2,500-year-old sculptures of the Parthenon that were pried off the temple by Lord Elgin two centuries ago.
This brings us to the final quote from the seventh sage, a politician and legislator in the 6th century BC.
Bias of Priene: "Most men are bad."
easyJet flies from Manchester to Athens International. www.easyjet.com
To book your visit to Karamarlis in Portaria, visit http://www.archontikakaramarlis.gr/
For more information or to book a trip at the New Hotel or the Semiramis Hotel, please see the Yes! Hotels http://www.yeshotels.gr/intro.html
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