Ancient temples, classical monuments and endless sea and sky await the traveler to Greece. By Sandra Eagle, Nov/Dec 2007
For most countries, winning an Olympic bid incites patriotic fervour and pride, latent construction headaches, unwelcome foreign scrutiny, traffic gridlock – and after the party’s over, a crushing debt-load for the host country. It’s almost like winning second prize.
If there is such a thing as a silver lining to every cloud, then Athens came out of the Olympic storm like a shiny new dime. “The whole core of Athens has changed because of the Olympics,” says Katerina Haralabidi, deputy director of the Greek National Tourist Organization, based in Toronto. “There are more public squares and green space.” From the new Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport, to new roadways, a longer subway system and less traffic, the infrastructure from the games has added value to the city – a legacy that both Athenians and visitors can cheer about. For groups looking for ancient architecture, culture, history – never mind the blue sea and sky – Athens and the Greek Islands are golden.
MYSTERY AND ALLURE
“I think Greece, with its ancient history and culture, has always held a mystery and allure for people,” says Rob Thorsteinson, co-founder of Cascadia Motivation, based in Red Deer, Alta., and Toronto. “When companies offer Greece as a destination, it really is a big draw. We have a heating-and-air-conditioning client that’s offering a Greek cruise as an incentive this year, and it’s really picked up their sales. The more exotic the destination, the better.”
Athens is a modern city built around ancient artifacts that dot the landscape. Driving the main thoroughfare to the centre of the city is an ancient history course come to life. The Temple of Olympian Zeus is on your right, and about a minute further, Hadrian’s Arch. Take a left and you’re on Dionysiou Aeropaghitou Street, offering a fantastic view of the rock of the Acropolis and the Parthenon. At this point, you are at the edge of the largest pedestrian zone in Europe, leading to the major archaeological site of Athens. Walking the paved narrow streets of the Plaka, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Athens, is a delight, with bustling cafes, boutiques and Byzantine churches juxtaposed with ancient monuments and relics. Glimpses of the Acropolis peek through the labyrinth of tiny alleyways, and the scent of flowers spilling from apartment window boxes mingles with the sound of footsteps on the cobblestones.
It is the rock of the Acropolis, with its majestic ruins of the Propylaea, the Parthenon, the Temple of the Athena Nike and The Erechtheion that truly takes your breath away. To see the classical architecture against a cloudless blue sky is to appreciate the beauty and symmetry of the ancient Greeks.
Despite renovation work currently underway to replace internal structural support to the ancient columns, the Acropolis is simply an unforgettable experience. It’s best to hire a local guide to take full advantage of a tour of the ancient site. Also not to be missed is Lycabettus Hill, located at the centre of Athens. The spectacular view from the summit takes in the Acropolis, most of the city and beyond, to the sea. At the base of the Acropolis, groups can watch artists perform under the stars at the Odeion of Herodes Atticus, a 5,000-seat open theatre built in 161 A.D. In a city full of monuments, it only makes sense that a premier meeting space is also a historical mansion. The Zappeion Conference and Exhibition Centre offers conference and meeting space, surrounded by sculpture, fountains and the meandering footpaths winding about the national gardens. A central atrium can be used for receptions for up to 1,500 guests or seating for 350. Over 17 meeting rooms/halls are available with either conference or theatre-style seating.
SEA AND SKY
For Thorsteinson, Greece offers different types of incentive travel. “There’s two different ways that corporations go to Greece. They can go into Athens and stay for a few days for sightseeing and have their meeting content and then venture out to the Cycladian Islands, or the group can stay in the city. Athens provides a tremendous variety of activities for five-day programmes.” But once in Athens, the siren song of the islands is hard to escape or ignore.
Since antiquity, Greece has been the meeting point of cultures from both East and West. With 16,000 km of coastline and more than 4,000 islands, there is much to explore. A number of cruise lines operate in the Mediterranean, ranging from the established lines, sailboats and luxury yachts for 10 passengers, up to the SeaDream luxury yachts that can accommodate up to 55 couples. “We do a lot of cruises that can start in Greece and disembark in Istanbul, Venice or Rome. They are usually seven to 12 days in length, and we visit three to five Greek islands. Cruising is popular because you can see a myriad of islands,” says Thorsteinson. “For large programmes, it’s really the only way to go.” The most popular islands are Santorini, Crete, Mykonos, Corfu and Rhodes. Another reason for the popularity of a cruise option, says Thorsteinson, is that “once you’re out of Athens, it can be quite challenging to find hotels on the islands that can accommodate large groups. Typically, those hotels tend to be in the 120-room range, and when we have a group of 700, that can be a problem.”
PORT OF PIRAEUS
For day trips, the port of Piraeus, about a 40-minute cab ride from Athens, is where the gleaming hulls of sleek yachts bob in the busy harbour. The SP Yachting Company, or GEM Yachts M.C.P.Y., charter day trips to the nearby islands of Aegina, Poros or Hydra. Complete with a crew of four (captain, engineer, chef and steward), up to 10 people can relax fore and aft, to soak up the sun, sea and salt-laced air, or lounge in the well-appointed cabin. You can even hang with the captain, if you want. Typical day charters start at $6,600, not including the cost of food, drinks, fuel or tax. The charming island of Aegina, the first capital of Greece, is about an hour away by yacht.
For Haralabidi, a trip to Greece is more of a feeling. “Athens is a fascinating city. There are so many things to see, when you stroll the winding avenues, from dusk to dawn, you are never going to get bored. You feel like you belong.”
OUT AND ABOUT
The city proper and the local infrastructure weren’t the only benefactors of Olympics largesse. Major hotels took the initiative to gut to the outer walls, spending over $700-million to rebuild or renovate for international visitors.
Grand Bretagne: A member of the Starwood Hotels & Resorts Luxury collection, this grand dame of the city centre had a $70-million complete interior makeover. Located on Syntagma Square, adjacent to the Parliament buildings, the hotel has 321 rooms and suites, and offers the ultimate in opulence and terrific views of the city. The Grand Ballroom holds up to 548 for receptions or 240 for banquets. The Golden Room can be divided into four separate meeting spaces.
St. George Lycabettus Boutique Hotel: This boutique hotel is a member of the Great Hotels of the World, with 154 rooms and suites. Features include the Sensia Spa and the Grand Balcon restaurant – overlooking the Acropolis – which is available for private events.
Archeon Gefsis: Guests can discover the tastes of ancient Greek cuisine in this tranquil oasis in the Metaxourgeio area of Athens. The restaurant only offers foods that were available in ancient times. The charming outdoor courtyard or private rooms can be rented for private functions.