homeric athens, doh!

Hilly Athens is a great 'walking holiday' that combines culture, food and a workout to neutralise those deep-fried doughnuts
Hilly Athens is a great 'walking holiday' that combines culture, food and a workout to neutralise those deep-fried doughnuts

Winter weekend breaks for food lovers

Hot doughnuts, cakes and chocolate snacks

I’ve just spent three weeks in Athens (November, 2009) and it’s a great winter destination for anyone looking to escape the worst of the weather that higher latitudes have to endure.

The climate was quite similar to an Irish, Welsh, Northern English or Scottish summer – a little erratic between clouds and unexpected chilly spells, but, hold on a minute, way-hay here’s the sun and, and, could it be? Yes! It’s hot. You can strip off the cagool, sou’wester or anorak and bask in pleasantly hot sunshine for most of the day.

The sun rose at about 7.30am and set at about 5.30pm and there were only three days out of three weeks that were what you’d call wintry if you’re from our neck of the woods.

There are entire libraries given over to the number of eminent historic sites that could and should be visited in Athens and the islands but given that so much has been written about them by more conscientious students than me, I’ll confine myself to the bits that I found useful and entertaining.

Firstly, you don’t actually need to speak Greek to get on with people there. It could be helpful in breaking the ice if you want to learn Kalimera (Good Morning), Kalispera (Good Evening) Efaristu (Thank you) Signomi (Excuse me) and Parakalo (please).

But because of satellite television and the wonderful Greek pragmatism of sub-titling English-language programmes rather than dubbing them, many Greek people are familiar with enough English phrases to help you accomplish what you need.

Secondly, it’s a capitol city that has an excellent public transport system between an underground railway, buses and trams. Taxis are relatively cheap if you’re uncertain of where you are in relation to a bus route or Metro station, or even if you’re simply nervous about walking about unfamiliar cities late at night.

Thirdly, OK, I’ll stop with the numbering thing. A city of such international allure is teeming with great restaurants, galleries, cinemas, bars, pubs and clubs that you could find yourself in a dilemma as to whether you want to spend your budget by day or at night.

It’s hilly, so once you’ve got your bearings via the Metro – which currently costs €3 for a one-day ticket, or €10 for a weekly ticket, both almost throughout the network – you could make it a daily walking holiday. Being shallow, easily-bored and requiring multiple stimuli over any given week, I found it entertaining to change the themes of my walking holiday regularly.

One day I might go in search of ‘crafty’ bargains: it’s a cake-makers’, dress-makers’, soft-furnisher’s dream destination. There are ingredients available to decorate wedding, Christening, Christmas or any ‘event’ cake you’d care to create. Some of the silver buttons, pills and lozenges I found were shop-mates with traditionally made jellies that we call Turkish Delight.

Whatever Athenians call it or wherever those jellies originated, they are divine. They are delicately flavoured with pomegranate juice, rose petals, limes, cherries, sour cherries, morello cherries and a host of so many other local specialties that you could spend your entire activity holiday finding new flavours and then walking off the sugar rush in the quest for the next one. They have jams in many of these exotically delicate flavours too.

Then there is the Athenian version of a chocolate shop. This is not to be confused with the sweet shop above. This is a fully-fledged sanctum for chocolate worshippers. I scored half a kilo for €13 and I got a mystery box of chocs that turned out to have individually wrapped bars that were something a little like stepping into an episode of Sliders.

It was chocolate. But the sweets were much bigger than ours. They looked more like bars. They also tasted something like our bars but they had quirkily mixed up the familiar with the OMG! One of the chocolate creations was a like Nestlés Bounty Bar meets a Jaffa Cake, only it was of handmade chocolate and the cocoa count was higher. The orange tang only hit you after you’d swallowed it and you’d been concentrating on the slightly scary ‘what’s that texture?’ question of the coconut part. (I swear I’m an adult. I vote and everything.)

There are a great number of these shops around but Kopans in Ipocratiou Street is where I bought mine. The street is reasonably central and has other lovely shops such as a second-hand book store of rare finds such as thrillers in English, 1970s Greek kid’s comics and other esoteric genres that could be a source of cheap but treasured gifts as souvenirs. There’s an internet café, a couple of interiors accessories shops with a 'modern country' style of vintage shapes in furniture and fabrics on the same street so it could be a focal point for a walk from your hotel or apartment.

Then there are nuts. These are venerable nut jobs in that they are shops and street stalls given over entirely to nuts: walnuts, peanuts, chestnuts, almonds, pistachios. If you’re thinking of decamping from Northern latitudes to a more clement climate for winter you could have a whole season of cake or icecream making with raw ingredients that are in giddying abundance.

However, you’re more of a cake-eater than maker then this is also the city for you. Hot, fresh, deep-fried doughnuts dripping in syrup and topped with a dollop of cream or icecream. Yes, you’d have to walk to the top of the Parthenon to atone for that one. There remains a tiny note of warning, though. You may have to be canny and a bit of a snoop to get a proper dollop of cream as some Athenian cafés use that aerosol can of cream stuff. Shouldn’t be allowed.

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