Athens has the reputation of being a concrete jungle. Do you think this is deserved?
Well, there are undoubtedly a lot of undistinguished postwar apartment buildings in Athens, but the city still has tremendous character. I enjoy strolling around Kolonaki, the most desirable central residential district, and sipping an ouzo in Kolonaki Square, watching the Athenian world go by. From Syntagma Square, the center of government, one can stroll into the Plaka, with its narrow streets and small, family-run tavernas, and gaze up at the Acropolis. Even the most prosaic bits of Athens are redeemed by a glimpse of the Parthenon.
So from where can you enjoy the best view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon?
There are fine views from the roof terraces of my recommended hotels in Syntagma Square, but my favorite lookout is the top of Lycabettus, a 900-foot limestone hill right in the middle of the city. From there, one can gaze at a panorama that stretches all the way to Piraeus, the port of Athens, and the Mediterranean. A funicular railway runs from a terminus in Kolonaki, but there is also a footpath for those in search of exercise.
So what is your favorite time of year to travel to Greece?
Without question, my favorite months are May and June. Greece is often rainy in the winter, when a bitter wind howls down the Mediterranean from the Straits of Gibraltar. Summer can be infernally hot, particularly in Athens, where the heat helps to generate a layer of urban smog. There are plenty of summer days on which you won’t glimpse the Parthenon from Lycabettus. And the Aegean is affected by the meltemi, a dry north wind that, chiefly in August, can blow unrelentingly for days. But by late May, the sea has warmed to a pleasant temperature for swimming, and the vegetation is still an intense green.
Do you enjoy Greek food? People don’t think about the country’s cuisine in the way they do about those of France and Italy.
True. Greece has no aristocratic culinary tradition and its food is relatively simple. Greece was occupied by the Ottoman Empire for more than 350 years, and this is still reflected in the cuisine, with many of the famous ‘Greek’ dishes really being Turkish or Persian in origin. But there are many good restaurants in Athens these days. Alatsi is a favorite of mine, where they serve superb Cretan food. The basic ingredients–olive oil, yogurt, herbs, fish, fruits and vegetables–are just as good as those to be found in Italy. Sometimes I think they are even better, as the Greek sun is hotter and the flavors can be more intense as a result. And the Greeks make excellent wines nowadays. The red wines from Crete have been famous since Classical times, but the whites from the island of Santorini have now gained an international reputation.
Most American visitors want to visit the Classical sites. Aside from those in Athens, which are your favorites?
Several of the most famous Greek Classical sites are daytrips from Athens. Delphi, for example, is a two-hour drive to the northwest. This means that they quickly become crowded, especially with passengers from cruise ships docked in Piraeus. Classical Greece is best seen out-of-season, and it pays to rise early and to be at the entrance to an archaeological site when it opens. Delphi is very pretty and atmospheric, but by midday it is often overrun. The same is true of Mycenae in the Peloponnese, which, again, is less than a three-hour drive from Athens. But the so-called Tomb of Agamemnon is so extraordinary you should make the effort to rise with the sun and be there at 8 a.m. (Of course it helps if you are staying in the pretty coastal town of Nauplion, where I recommend two hotels, which is just 13 miles away.) My favorite site in the Peloponnese is probably the great theater of Epidaurus, where the annual summer festival of Greek drama is held. It was built in the 4th century B.C. to accommodate 13,000 spectators and is perfectly symmetrical. The ruins of ancient Olympia are in the west of the Peloponnese and are predictably a magnet for visitors. If you want to be adventurous and to escape the crowds, you should head for Bassae, in the central Peloponnese, where the Temple of Apollo Epicurius is relatively remote and astonishingly well-preserved.
Despite all its treasures and a wonderful climate, Greece once had relatively few hotels and resorts of an international standard. Is this still the case?
There are two new world-class resorts in the Peloponnese that I recommend, but in general the country still has few properties of a Hideaway Report standard. Among the islands, only Santorini, Crete and Mykonos possess distinguished hotels. Some smaller, pretty islands such as Simi or Hydra have charming boutique properties, but they are relatively unsophisticated. So, the best way to see the Aegean is still from aboard a private yacht. The greatest privilege is being able to visit secluded bays inaccessible from the shore, where the water can be so clear you can count the pebbles on the seabed 50 feet below.
What kind of vessel is ideal?
Personally, I enjoy sailing, and a crewed yacht of 60 feet or more has sufficient space to be comfortable. But a majority of my readers would prefer the greater convenience of a motor-yacht. the Hideaway Report partner, All Yachts Worldwide, offers a particularly fine selection of charter vessels. Of course, if you are feeling a little extravagant, you can always charter the Christina O, originally the private yacht of Aristotle Onassis, on which he entertained luminaries such as Sir Winston Churchill, Maria Callas and Rudolf Nureyev. It accommodates up to 30 guests in sumptuous style. However, the price tag of $55,000 a day can be a little intimidating!