Victoria Hislop’s bestsellers, including The Sunrise, The Island and One August Night, have given readers incredible insight into Greece, and even led to the author being granted honorary Greek citizenship. Here, Victoria reveals her favourite haunts in Athens and the best places for a day trip out of the city.
Each year I spend a few months in Athens. I have an apartment in Kato Patissia, an area that makes my friends furrow their brows – think East London before gentrification – but it’s just a half-hour stroll from the city centre.
The streets are all named after islands (Patmos, Nissyros and so on) and are dense with fine examples of Neo-Classical, Art Deco and Bauhaus architecture. Many have fallen into disrepair but I think that only adds to their charm.
Love affair: Victoria Hislop, who has been granted honorary Greek citizenship, shares her favourite places in Athens. Pictured is the Athenian neighbourhood of Plaka beneath the Acropolis
Wandering in my neighbourhood always inspires me in some way to invent characters and stories. My balcony overlooks a leafy square where my neighbours, who have lived there for their whole lives, sit on benches side by side with new arrivals, many of them recent immigrants. A loaf of bread costs a euro and an eight-pack of loo rolls costs the same. It’s cheap but authentic.
At the end of my street is Patission Avenue, one of the main arteries leading to the heart of the city, so all around it there are great places to go. And cafes, naturally, are at the heart of life in Athens.
I have worked in Greece a lot and would never criticise the work ethic, but even so it always amazes me how full the cafes are, morning, noon and night. ‘Can we meet for coffee?’ is the standard Greek invitation to meet up, so with all that caffeine in the system it’s no wonder the city never sleeps.
The streets in Kato Patissia, where Victoria owns an apartment, are all named after islands such as Patmos, pictured
Five minutes from my flat, Fokionos Negri is a hugely popular tree-lined pedestrian street with dozens of cafes and tavernas.
Cafe Select is perfect for people-watching, and if you have had enough coffee they make a delicious fresh juice from whatever fruits are in season.
Martines serves the best and most traditional food. As you walk in, laid out at the counter are rows of mayirefta (‘cooked dishes’). There are casseroles, roast meats and dishes made from every kind of pulse. After choosing, it quickly arrives at your table with warm fluffy bread, salad and sliced potatoes crisply fried in olive oil. Dinner for two (with a generous carafe of house wine) is rarely more than €20. I have been there a thousand times.
Above is a view of the Kolonaki district, the smartest shopping area of the city, against the backdrop of Mount Lycabettus
Above is the ‘glamorous’ restaurant Athenee, formerly Zonars, which originally opened in 1939
Describing Athenee, pictured, Victoria says: ‘Behind its gleaming windows, actors, politicians and ladies with freshly coiffed hair are served by immaculately uniformed waiters. It always feels like a treat to go there’
‘There are a thousand places to go in Athens,’ Victoria says of the city’s bars and cafes. Above is a taverna in the capital
Around the corner, on Patission Avenue, is Au Revoir, the oldest bar in Athens. It is the size of the average living room and open until 2am – a perfect place to go for late-night whisky.
Close to the centre of Athens is another favourite cafe, in the airy space above the spectacular Ianos book store on Stadiou. I can happily take a laptop and while away a few hours writing, fuelled by coffees and a delicious lunch.
Another meeting point and hub for Athenians is in Kolonaki, the Chelsea of Athens and the smartest shopping area of the city. Da Capo is always teeming with customers drinking coffee, but it’s definitely worth waiting until a table comes free just to feel you are absolutely at the core of Greek city life.
Perhaps the most glamorous is Athenee, formerly Zonars. It opened in 1939, and behind its gleaming windows, actors, politicians and ladies with freshly coiffed hair are served by immaculately uniformed waiters. It always feels like a treat to go there.
Although coffee is the fuel of life here, so are wine and cocktails. There are a thousand places to go in Athens but I always gravitate towards the same pair.
Seven Jokers is cosy and friendly, and characterised by a life-size model of a girl on a trapeze who swings from the ceiling. I have no idea what time it shuts, but I’ve often been there in the early hours and they’ve shown no sign of closing the doors.
A similarly friendly place but with slightly softer music is Kolokotronis 7, which serves great wine as well as cocktails from a top mixologist (the owner used to teach maths, which may be why he mixes in such precise and perfect quantities).
According to Victoria, every visit to Athens should include the Parthenon and the extraordinary Acropolis Museum (pictured)
According to Victoria, a monument that is easy to miss, but which records a moment of huge significance in Greek history, is at Athens Polytechnic (pictured). She says: ‘On November 17, 1973, in order to break up a student demonstration, an army tank drove into the gates, crushing an unknown number of victims. The crushed gates are preserved as a memorial to the students and to an event that ultimately brought down a dictatorship’
Head to the Museum of Cycladic Art (pictured) to see figurines that were carved thousands of years ago
Although it sounds as if I spend my time in Athens eating and drinking, when I am there it is to research and write. While it goes without saying that every visit should include the Parthenon and the extraordinary Acropolis Museum, in the past few years my focus has been on the more modern era, and I have discovered many inspiring and totally enthralling places that are part of Greece’s dark past.
Close to the centre of Athens is the esoteric but extraordinary Makronisos Political Exile Museum, which not only tells how Leftists and communists were imprisoned and tortured during various periods between the 1940s and 70s but also focuses on how many survived through their art.
It houses a remarkable collection of pictures on paper, pebbles and shells alongside sculptures and embroidery. The creativity of the detainees is inspiring and beautiful too, and a testament to human courage and will to survive.
And a monument that is easy to miss, but which records a moment of huge significance in Greek history, is at Athens Polytechnic. On November 17, 1973, in order to break up a student demonstration, an army tank drove into the gates, crushing an unknown number of victims. The crushed gates are preserved as a memorial to the students and to an event that ultimately brought down a dictatorship.
Above is the National Garden, which is located right in the centre of the city. ‘It is an oasis – there is no other word to describe it,’ writes Victoria
Victoria says of the National Garden: ‘It’s amazing how the temperature seems to drop several degrees as you stroll along its pathways under pine trees. And of course there is a cafe (pictured)’
There is plenty of beauty in Athens too, of course. To see its purest form, I go to the Museum of Cycladic Art. The simple and distinctive marble figurines, carved 5,000 years ago, inspired many 20th Century artists such as Picasso and Modigliani.
In summer the streets of Athens almost seem to melt beneath your feet, but right in the centre of the city is the National Garden, and it’s amazing how the temperature seems to drop several degrees as you stroll along its pathways under pine trees. And of course there is a cafe. It is an oasis – there is no other word to describe it.
On the hottest days of summer the temperatures can compel me to leave Athens, but happily there are plenty of places to go for the day. It always surprises me that once you escape the sometimes suffocating Athens traffic jams you find yourself on a network of fast, empty motorways and you can get into deepest countryside within an hour.
Other-worldly: Victoria’s favourite day trip is to the city of Nafplio (pictured). ‘It is, quite simply, beautiful,’ she says
Victoria says that Nafplio is ‘situated on the sea with a spectacular fortress, pretty Venetian buildings and a magnificent square packed with cafes and ice cream shops’
My favourite day trip is to Nafplio. It is, quite simply, beautiful.
Situated on the sea with a spectacular fortress, pretty Venetian buildings and a magnificent square packed with cafes and ice cream shops, it is another world.
Another favourite day out is to Delphi. It is the most spectacular archaeological site in Greece, and also a very spiritual place. Its location in the mountains and something about the purity of the air makes it easy to understand why, in its ancient past, people flocked there to find guidance from the gods.
Up in the gods: Victoria recommends visiting Delphi, which she says is ‘the most spectacular archaeological site in Greece’. Pictured is Delphi’s Temple of Apollo
According to Victoria, time has stood still in the picturesque fishing village of Galaxidi (pictured above)
My tip is not to eat there (the actual town of Delphi is disappointing) but to drive a little further on to Galaxidi, a picturesque fishing village.
Time has stood still there, and you can see the fishermen lay out their nets along the harbour’s edge, selling their catch to the row of tavernas close by.
In Greece, there is something for everyone. From the noise and chaos of Athens to the calm water of Galaxidi – and, of course, absolutely everything in between.