Com­edy and tragedy in Athens

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - STEPHEN BAY­LEY

My first visit to Athens as a stu­dent gave me a set of im­pres­sions that the present cri­sis has only val­i­dated. The man des­ig­nated to meet us at the air­port did not turn up. I will never for­get his name. It was Nic Kat­soudis. So we got in a taxi any­way. It crashed twice on the way to our apart­ment in the Vou­liag­meni re­sort south of the city. Once in­side, the plumb­ing was Per­i­clean in age if not in grandeur.

That was when lo­cal colonels and not Ger­man bankers were the devil. Since then I have been back of­ten, en route to my sis­ter-in-law’s house on lovely, ne­glected Skope­los — an is­land not so much un­spoilt as unim­proved in the first place.

Athens is where you change planes, get on a bus or find a boat.

At the end of last year, we stayed at the Grande Bre­tagne, the stately old lady on Syn­tagma Square. Here, long ago, I learnt in the Greek way that a gen­er­ous tip to the concierge could buy dis­pro­por­tion­ate ac­cess to use­ful fa­cil­i­ties.

This time, our des­ig­nated room stank of clean­ing fluid from a re­cent at­tempt to freshen the cur­tains. We re­fused it and went to din­ner to let the ho­tel sort it out.

On our re­turn we were given the pres­i­den­tial suite, which in­cluded a dining room for 12 and more bath­rooms than could rea­son­ably be used over a two- night stay. In its mix­ture of hos­pi­tal­ity and reck­less­ness, this ges­ture seemed typ­i­cal.

Athens can be grim. But am­bi­tious lo­cals talk now about a “new’’ Athens emerg­ing from the smog of ages and the rub­ble of a col­lapsed econ­omy. The Stavros Niar­chos Cen­tre, with the Na­tional Li­brary and Opera, is due for com­ple­tion next year. There is a self­con­scious hip­ness, too. Be­yond the Plaka and Mona­s­ti­raki, wine bars and amus­ing shops are break­ing out in the Ker­ameikos dis­trict and the squares of Agia Irini (the old flower mar­ket) and Karytsi. Hip­sters do what hip­sters do on Ipi­tou Street. Here we looked for a

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