As the summer holiday season approaches, many people visiting Greece will be passing through Athens for a few days on their way to the Islands. Many travel articles have picked up on the fact that the New Acropolis Museum represents a completely new experience which could be the highlight of such a trip.
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Not so long ago, Greece was stuck firmly in the past. My first visit, age 10, was to a country of basic beds and jaw-dropping monuments.
For a glimpse of the latter, you could happily forgive the former. Now accommodation has fast-forwarded a century or so, with some hotels rivalling the ruins as attractions. On the island of Santorini, it’s a close-run contest.
We arrived in the evening, after a 45-minute flight from sweltering Athens, to a pristine white hotel perched precariously on the edge of Imerovigli village.
A freak fog had left us with no view of the volcanic isle’s fabled sunset, just of dense, swirling cloud. So we retreated to our whitewashed room, sleek and compact as an iPod, burrowed into the side of the spectacular crater formed by a centuries-old eruption.
This is how Santorini’s inhabitants have lived for generations, their homes balanced along the spine of the island’s west coast like a jumble of blue and white Lego bricks.
Our hotel, Santorini Grace, apes the tradition but with every luxury and technological advance you could hope for. And it’s in pole position for sunset spotting. Being marooned here – even in the fog – is bliss.
The next morning, with the mist burned clean away, we saw the full honeymoon appeal of the place from the heated bath on our terrace.
The hotel tumbles down to a tiny private chapel then on to the crashing sea where a rocky isthmus attaches to the craggy islet of Skaros. Beyond is the caldera, an eternal expanse of cobalt ocean, dotted with distant cruise ships.
Stunning Santorini provides the perfect mini-break from frantic Athens.
There are certainly bits to avoid: much of the other side of the island is a seamy rave scene built around grubby windswept beaches overflowing with package tourists.
And you don’t want to be in the wrong place when the cruise ships disgorge a thousand rich Russians to clog up the narrow streets.
But hire a Smart car, as we did, and you can nip between modern restaurant and crumbling mountain-top civilisation, black sand beach and picture postcard village and still make it back in time to see the sun drop into the sea from your hot-tub.
Or take a moonlit walk along the clifftop footpath that links the tiny towns, stopping for grilled fish or cold beer, and you’ll wonder if anywhere on earth is as romantic.
Athens, where we returned after several dreamy days, wakes up the senses in a different way. The streets around our hotel were high with the charnel stench of the nearby meat market.
A strip-lit doorway on the corner revealed a row of prostitutes and broken glass underfoot all helped give the area a palpable air of menace.
We were staying in the hip Omonia district, where sleek gay couples and party people congregate at the fashionable Fresh Hotel, a modern design haven that mixes industrial functionalism with bursts of neon Perspex.
It is also a good point from which to explore the city. There are underground stations yards away, and a few minutes walk delivered us into the thronging heart of the beast, Monastiraki with its hustle of kebab restaurants and tat-peddling street vendors.
Though we wandered through the flea market, inhaled the extraordinary fragrance of long baked-in olive oil and bought hand-made sandals from the local cobbler, we were really in Athens for a preview of the long-awaited New Acropolis Museum, which opens its doors to the public next month.
Inside is a surprise feature, a glass floor that reveals the excavated foundations of an earlier Athens.
This functions as a reminder that the city’s heritage is literally beneath your feet. In building a new home for the country’s ancient artefacts, another layer of Greek civilisation has been revealed.
Details such as this make the museum, designed by Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, more art gallery than museum.
Its attempt to make sense of Greece’s fractured past, specifically, finds from the nearby slopes of the Acropolis, sends visitors not on a chronological journey but an inspirational one, finding object after object of breathtaking beauty by sculpture masters such as Phidias and Alkamenos.
The simplicity of the building, constructed from majestic sweeps of concrete, marble and glass, never detracts from the exquisite pieces, carefully chosen from different periods of Greek classical history.
For Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, curator and creator of the museum, this elegant showcase is the culmination of a lifetime’s work.
But the purpose and the politics of the new museum is to be found upstairs in the glass atrium that looks directly out towards the Acropolis.
Here, I discover the professor’s pet project: a life-size recreation of the Parthenon frieze built to exhibit the lovingly restored Marbles which remain in Greece.
The missing statues, those residing in London, have been cast in bright white plaster, as though to emphasise their absence.
It is nothing less than a three-dimensional challenge to our ownership of the Elgin Marbles, chipped from the Parthenon 200 years ago and shipped back to Britain for safe-keeping.
They have been housed in their own gallery in the British Museum since 1817.
The chances of Britain yielding her precious hoard remain slim. But standing in this custom built gallery, looking out at the temple of the Greek goddess Athena, I am overwhelmed by the urge to see the Marbles reunited.
• New Acropolis Museum, 2-4 Makriyianni Street, Athens, will be open from 8am to 8pm except Mondays, price €1 until 31 December 2009.
For the first three days after the official opening on 20 June, admission will be by eticket only, available on the museum website (www.newacropolismuseum.gr) one week before the opening (www.parthenonuk.com).
WAY TO GO
Olympic Airlines from Heathrow to Athens from £40 return. Aegean Airlines flies five times a day between Athens and Santorini from £56 each way.
Santorini Grace, Santorini 84700; www.santorinigrace.com; rooms from £221 to £1,233 per night, including champagne breakfast and airport transfers. Fresh Hotel, Sofokleous 26 & Klisthenous, Omonia; www.freshhotel.gr; rooms from £132 per night including breakfast.