The bronze lion’s eyes follow me around my bedroom. I lean in for a closer look and I see a button – like a doorbell – right there in the lion’s mouth. Is this a trap?
I think, let’s give it a go.
For a rare moment, I experience total silence in Athens’ most swinging five-star hotel. But then, moments later, there’s a knock at the door.
I open it to find an impeccably dressed porter holding a card, and something tied up in a red ribbon. She winks as she hands them to me, then disappears down the hallway. I unwrap the ribbon to reveal a luxurious bath robe. The card congratulates me for daring to push the button. Where on Earth am I?
I am at the Gatsby Hotel, an audacious new property evoking the hedonistic spirit of 1920s America. So, what is it doing here, in the heart of Athens?
It is, I discover, right at home.
Yes, Athens is bathed in history. But it’s also a living, breathing city. Modern Athenians have not forgotten their roots, but neither do they rest on the laurels of their ancestors’ achievements.
In the shadow of the Acropolis, their shops, bars and restaurants are forging a new name for the city. Forget what you’ve heard about the Grand Tour – the Athens of today is more concerned with indie culture.
Set in an original 1930s building, previously a jeweller’s, then the headquarters for the secret police, the Gatsby retains much of the mystery its previous inhabitants left behind, updated with art deco flourishes.
Self-expression is the name of the game in modern Athens. I discover this on my first night in the city while partaking in a tour with Alternative Athens. Led by graffiti artist Nikos, I see the parts of town tour books have forever stuck their noses up at. Starting in the working-class district of Gazi, Nikos introduces me to the city’s most prized street art, which features world-famous stars such as INO and 1UP.
Next, we stop in Kerameikos to admire the modernist architecture. And, finally, we head for a drink at Kalimeres in the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Psiri. On my way back to the hotel, I detour via Noel Bar, a Burlesque-y late-night spot with a subversive Catholic art theme, where people literally dance out of the doorway. After sampling a few Our Lady cocktails, I’m dancing too.
The next morning, after some squelchy-soft avocados from Gatsby’s breakfast menu, curated by chef Panagiotis Flakas, I’m greeted by Nikos’ colleague Vassia. She yanks me up the steep slopes of the Acropolis, while regaling me with tales of the Greek pantheon and their many high jinks. The ruins of the Acropolis take on an entirely different meaning as I start to picture mighty Zeus roaming around, stitching the unborn foetus of Dionysus into his thigh.
Mythology and sightseeing are the pillars of the Greek travel experience but there is one more aspect of my trip begging to be explored: the food. Thus, I shoot for the heart of the Monastiraki neighbourhood, Athens’s urban core and an area fast becoming known for its street food.
Hasapika is the place every Athenian is talking about. I get to try oysters, Greek feta salad, crayfish ravioli, mussels in mustard sauce and a whole platter of fresh sushi, all in one sitting – washed down, of course, with a couple of swigs of the team’s favourite ouzo.
That should be enough food for a lifetime, but I’m not done. And so it’s time to go deeper into Monastiraki, to Birdman, which styles itself after a Japanese kissa bar. I warm up with sumptuous cuts of ichibo nigiri, then follow up with the Smash burger – smash by name, smashing by nature. This is casual dining elevated to Herculean standards.
Back in my room, I don my new bathrobe, put on some chilled music and run the hot water in my free-standing bath.
There, I reflect on Athens, a city that’s as glorious and gritty as Barcelona or Berlin. From secret speakeasies to street food and subversive graffiti, there’s a world beyond the blasé by-the-book tourism to discover. The Gatsby is a portal into this exciting urban underbelly – that is, if you dare to press the button.
Gatsby Athens (gatsbyathens.com) offers stays from £150 based on two people sharing a double standard room on a B&B basis.
P.S. Check out Athens’ very own Speakeasy bar. Look for the door two numbers up from the Gatsby. Ring the bell and smile to the camera. The door opens, leading you down a secret staircase behind a cafe into a basement, where you’ll discover cocktails that’ll make you wish you’d lived through the Roaring 20s.
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