By Don and Linda Freedman

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We got the airport bus #78 right around the corner from our hotel on Mitropoleos at Venizelos. The bus was jammed full but the riders moved around to give us breathing room. 40 minutes later we were at the airport and on our way to the Olympic Air departure gate for our 50 minute flight to Athens.

It's a pleasure to have only carry-on bags. Off the plane, cross the street, up the escalator to the Metro entrance. The moving walkway deposited us at the terminal. Since we already had our tickets we just had to punch them, check the board for the track number and proceeded down to the waiting train #3 into the city center.

Athens, the capital of Greece, is a complex, alluring city. Mythology and modernity coexist. From the vast array of archealogical sites to the impressive museums and libraries you can get an appreciation of the influence ancient Greece has had on civilization. At the same time the ancient cobblestone streets serve up the hottest fashion and food trends, new designer hotels, and stimulating nightlife. The transportation is excellent and it is easy to visit nearby points of interest. Start planning your trip and give yourself time to explore Athens and its environs.

Forty minutes later we were at the Metro station Evangelismos, one before Syntagma. We had chosen to split our stay between two hotels of the Yes Hotels Group. The Periscope at 22 Haritos, in the Kolonaki district, was our first stop.

Kolonaki is nestled in the foothills of Lycabettus HIll, with its 360 degree views of the city, including the Acropolis, all the way to the sea. What I'm getting at is that the route to Periscope is UP, but only four blocks. It was really quite manageable. Slow and easy - a little window shopping, poking around a few food shops looking for interesting places to eat and before we knew it, we were there.

As soon as we hit Haritos we were in familiar territory and when we got to the Periscope we realized that this was the site of a tacky 2 star hotel (Athenian Inn) we had stayed at in 1997. Oh my, what a difference. The bright, cheerful staff made our schlep worthwhile. They and the neat, clean, contemporary design exuded youth and energy. After 50 years of marriage, we were in the right place.

A king bed, comfy bedding and television mounted on the wall opposite the bed met my criteria for horizontal comfort. When in this position I could look up at the unique ceiling with its graphic depiction of a partial map of the city. Complimentary WI-FI made Linda a happy camper. Two small desks gave both of us work space. It was fun controlling the light coming into the room with electric blinds.

The bright white tile bathroom with a good size stall shower and the array of amenities, including robes and slippers was welcome.

House cured salmon, fresh cheeses and yogurt, crusty grain breads, fresh fruit, choice of eggs, cold cuts, cereals, excellent cappuccino, a splendid way to start each day, in the comfort of the smartly designed restaurant.

Kolonaki is the chic upscale neighborhood in the city center. Life revolves around Kolonaki Square. Eat, drink and be merry day and night. Trendy shops for the home and body abound. For the culturally inclined, there are many outstanding museums and galleries.

Along the wide Avenue Vassilis Sofias, at the foot of Kolonaki, are four outstanding museums, two public (the War and the Byzantine), two private (Benaki and Goulandris of Cycladic Art) and many foreign embassies.

The Byzantine Museum is spectacular in design and content. The collection of Byzantine and post Byzantine art and culture from the 3rd to 20th century A.D. is beautifully preserved and presented. We were lucky and thrilled that we got to see a temporary exhibition of the works of Theodoras Papagiannis. The figures were done from life size to table top figurines - amazing.

The Benaki Museum organisation considers its mission "to present, through its collections, Greek art and material culture in a geographical and evolutionary context, from prehistory to the present. Unique examples of ceramics, sculpture and jewellery are included in its Geometric, Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine collections. The transition from the ancient periods to the Byzantine world is illustrated in the collection of textiles, oil-lamps, clay figurines and bone carvings from Alexandria and in a rare group of Coptic works of art. Byzantine and post-Byzantine icons, ecclesiastical embroidery and metalwork reveal the impact of Christianity on the art of the times. Costumes, jewellery, embroidery, ceramics, wood-carvings, paintings and metalwork complete the presentation of Greek art in the four post-Byzantine centuries. By virtue of its collections, the Benaki Museum cannot be classified only as a museum of decorative arts, an art museum or a historical museum; it is rather, the museum of Greek civilization, in all its pertinent manifestations." This is accomplished in a splendid environment.

The Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art displays a collection of over 3,000 artifacts of Cycladic, Ancient Greek and Cypriot Art from the 4th millennium BC to the 6th C. AD. The collection is contained on 4 floors; cycladic art is on the 1st, ancient Greek art, a history of images on the 2nd, ancient cypriot art on the 3rd and on the 4th, scenes from daily life in antiquity.

Again we lucked out with a fabulous temporary exhibit by the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, entitled "nude". Seven lithe figures (models were dancers) are gracefully posed on the floor. They are made of a mixture of wax and earth pigments in various earth colors. Simply stunning.

We met Joanna through TheTravelzine travel discussion group many years ago. Over the years she has guided us to many treasures of her beloved country. She is now married to Takis and has a beautiful son, Konstantinos. We met for dinner at Tzitzikas Kai Mermigas, Mitropoleos 12, and spent several hours reminiscing and getting caught up on our lives, the Greek way, over platters of mezes and beer. Our friends have that positive spirit but it is being seriously challenged.
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The House of Parliament and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier overlooks Syntagma Square. Grand hotels, government offices, banks, travel agencies, airline office, kiosks, cafes, restaurants, and lots of room to roam, makes this the square that never sleeps. Demonstrations, large and small, all begin here.

Next to Parliament is the 40 acres National Garden, a perfect place to relax after visiting the museums or wandering the streets. Amongst the world wide collection of plants, bushes, trees and flowers you will find a zoo, duck pond, botanical museum, children's library and playground and a small cafe.

Between the garden and the Olympic stadium is the Zappelon, a small park that is home to the handsome Zappeion Megaron, an important congress and exhibition hall. The white marble Panathenaikon Stadium was built between 1869 and 1870 for first Olympic Games held in modern times in 1896. Entering this stadium is a powerful moment; so many firsts happened in this country.

We met Assa on a flight from London to Athens many years ago. She had been visiting her son Yannis who was at university in Sussex. Her husband Kostas was waiting for her at the Athens airport. We have been friends ever since.

This evening was special, we had dinner with Assa and Yannis. This was our first meeting with Yannis which was a treat. Yannis lives and works here in Athens where he is the Senior Sales Manager for the Club Hotel Casino Loutraki, Unfortunately Kostas could not join us as he had to stay in Dephi to look after the family business, the Greka Gift Shop (the best place to buy souvenirs of your visit to that magnificent archeological site).

They chose the restaurant Kafeneio on Loukianou just around the corner from the Hotel Periscope. We sat on the pretty sidewalk patio under the trees and enjoyed the best meal of our trip. We started with mezes; a salad of zuchini, artichoke, mushrooms, celery, parsley and dill; stuffed grape leaves; spinach and chickpeas; fried zuchini with cheese. We had lots to talk about so we leisurely lingered over the appetizers and a delicious rose wine. Time to relax and banter with the owner before sharing generous servings of lamb fricasse and roast suckling pig and potatoes.

We walked our friends to their car, shared farewells and our hopes that it would not take too long for the country to get back on its feet.
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Fortunately the walk from Kolonaki to the New Hotel at Filellinon, 16 is down hill. We rolled to Syntagma, passed the Parliament, crossed over at the Metro stop to Othonos which leads to Filellinon on the left. The hotel is two blocks from Syntagma Square. Less than half an hour, strolling.

The 1950s Olympic Hotel has been magically transformed by Brazilian brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana into an intriguing 79 room inspirational extravaganza.

The eager-to-please staff greeted us as we came through the doors and guided us to reception. It took a while to absorb the impact of the wooden implements, furniture parts, door frames, baseboards etc. that were massed at random on the walls. Once we cleared that hurdle we saw that the pillars in the lobby and adjacent dining room are transformed into trees shaped by polished wooden slats. Wow, what awaits us in our superior room?

We were immediately struck by the long peach wall with exquisite gold metallic cut outs depicting figures and shapes of the Karagiozis Shadow Theatre (shadow puppet and fictional character of Greek and Turkish folklore) inspired by the "Karagiozis Wedding" above a light wood desk and shelf. The floors are done in gleaming light wood. A dash of color was provided by a bright red leather chair. The quilted backing on the king bed was grey nestled against a white wall. A gold stacked base anchored a copper sink.

All the amenities we enjoyed at Periscope were abundant here. There is an attractive business center in the lower level along with a workout and spa complex.

Breakfast is taken in the cool dining room, wooden trees and all. It's buffet style but with excellent service. The pleasant staff serves breads, juices, coffee and eggs to order. The ample buffet featured that thick yogurt, smoked salmon, meats, cheeses, fresh veggies and fruits, cereals and sweets. New Hotel is more than a pretty face.

Finding friendships is the essence of our travel. Standing on a corner we were discussing the best route to take and were absorbed in our map when we heard a voice ask if he could be of help. We looked up to see a young man and his passenger on a scooter greeting us with big smiles. The driver was Aimon, a ballet dancer. His passenger was his mother, Ersi, a retired lawyer. By the time we parted company we knew quite a bit about each other and knew that one day we'd meet again.

The long pedestrian way, Ermou Street, has always been the popular priced fashion center of the city. Starting at Syntagma it is a magnet for shoppers and idle strollers.

After having a piece of the best pie in Athens (leek for both of us) at Ariston at Voulas #10, we joined Ermou en route to the Beth Shalom Synagogue at #5 Melidoni Street and the Holocaust Memorial at the end of the pedestrian crossing, where Melidoni meets Ermou.

The memorial overlooks the ancient cemetery of Keramikos. Six broken marble blocks depicting the Star of David rest in an aromatic herb garden, a symbol of healing and rememberance. Each block points in the direction of where Jewish Communities had existed, their names engraved in the marble.

Beth Shalom is Athen's main synagogue. The building was started in the 1930s but never completed until 1975. The austere exterior is of white pentelic marble. Simple yet striking.

As we arrived, the city police guards (it is sad that this protection is necessary) told us that the caretaker had left. Luckily he had not yet mounted his scooter and was kind enough to delay his lunch and took us inside. Large stained glass windows brighten the side wooden paneling. Wooden pews fill the center. The womens gallery is upstairs along the sides and across the back.
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About half way along the length of Ermou is the Monastiraki district. You'll know when you're there by the noise, blaring music (both recorded and live) and screeching vendors blast your senses. This busy market place is packed with a huge variety of products from second hand records and books to musical instruments, clothing, shoes, old and new furniture, home furnishings and of course lots and lots of souvenirs. Monastiraki is a favorite destination for locals and tourists; enjoy the show but watch your valuables.

We found our way to #30 Praxitelous, home to the restaurant Doris, a neighborhood gem. A counter top case at the front bar displayed a few of the day's offerings and the main event was a few steps away at the side of the kitchen. Moussaka, sardines, roast potatoes, and mixed veggies along with dense crusty bread and beer was a perfect lunch. Worth finding your way here.

The Acropolis Museum, 15 Dionysiou Aeropagitou, (across from the Acropolis) opened in 2009 to exhibit significant finds from the Sacred Rock and its foothills. The architecture was dictated by three major requirements: maintain visual contact with the monuents of the Acropolis, exhibit the Parthenon sculptures in their entirety and adapt the building to the archaelogical excavation that extends across its foundations.

The visual link between the sculptures and the Acropolis is achieved through the large glass outer walls of the Parthenon Gallery. The views of the Acropolis, the surrounding hills and the city are outstanding.

The glass walkways leading to the entrance provide a marvelous view of the site's archaelogical excavation. Tall, majestic columns support the 3 levels of display. Large glass windows and walls allow the light to highlight the powerful presentation. A stark modern home for a historical ancient collection; it doesn't get better than that.

The wide Panepistimiou Avenue is home to the National Library, the National and Kapodistrian University, and the Academy of Athens, which form the "neoclassical trilogy" a beautiful stretch of 19th century buildings.

Nearby and worth a visit is the restaurant Ideal at #46. This charming old-school (since 1922) establishment offers traditional dishes in a comfortable environment. The avgolemono (egg lemon) soup, ripe tomato and cucumber salad, baby lamb fricasse served with tiny zuchini and pureed potatoes were as good as it gets. The service was very good; a fine value by all standards.

The Jewish Museum of Greece, #39 Nikis, is modest in size but impactful. It was founded in 1977 to collect, preserve, research and exhibit the material evidence of 2300 years of Jewish life in Greece.

We were warmly received at reception on the lst floor. The 2nd floor presents the cycle of Jewish holidays. Also on the 2nd floor was a remembrance of the "helper heroes" (Greeks who helped Jews survive) and the survivors. This is powerful stuff. The 3rd floor shows historic documents that prove the presence of Jews in Greece from late antiquity until the 19th century and their contribution to the protection of the nation. The 4th has educational films. On the 5th, learn of the holocaust. The 6th displays traditional costumes and the 7th describes everyday life. The hours: Monday to Friday - 9:00 to 14:30, Sundays - 10:00 to 14:00, do not miss it.

We were delighted with our decision to celebrate our 50 years of marriage in Greece. We wandered freely and never felt threatened. We ate and slept well at reasonable prices. We felt the kindness and good nature of the people. Best of all, we renewed old dear friendships and made some new ones.

Back to Toronto and a walk along Danforth Ave. (Greek town).
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