Child-Friendly Greece: Exploring Athens and the Argo-Saronic Islands

img_2958The more trips I go on with my kids, the more I am convinced that the answer to the age old question, ‘What makes a great family holiday? ‘ is the city-beach break. In the city you can visit weird museums or accidentally check out age-inappropriate modern art; you can visit cat-cafes and eat at trendy food markets. Then on the beach you can lie around doing beach things but also reminiscing about the cool, rude artwork you saw or the time you got confused in a restaurant and accidentally ate a prawn with the head on or the time you got told off by a museum security guard because you accidentally stood on a Roman ruin. Both elements of this type of trip feed into another and in doing so improve the family holiday ecosystem which isn’t a thing but also I think possibly is a thing.

In addition to literally improving the way your family interact and co-exist, the city-beach break makes good home economics. Flying into a city and then heading to a beach is in most cases much cheaper (and more exciting) than flying direct to a resort. We visited Athens in August which was surprisingly not as hot as the surface of the sun (unlike Italy in August) and along with being a really interesting city to visit with kids, is also the gateway to visiting lots of unspoilt or remote Greek islands. It’s an easy holiday: you spend a couple of days sightseeing in Athens, eating your body weight in olives and souvlaki and bread and lamb and then you hop on the Metro to the port at Piraeus (about the same amount of time and ease as it takes you to get from Kings Cross to Clapham on the Northern Line) jump on a (pre-booked) ferry and in around two hours, you’ll be lolling around in the sea like Shirley Valentine or climbing off a boat with your snorkel on.

Having never experienced travel on a Greek ferry before, we decided to focus on islands that were the shortest journey from Athens just in case anyone was hiding a dormant predisposition to seasickness. The only ferry I’ve ever been on was a stinking, choking diesel-fumed example of the genre in Thailand where lots of middle-aged men in grey 80s-style leather jackets seemed to be doing ‘business deals’ amongst the fug, so I was apprehensive to say the least. I can confirm though that Greek ferries are basically like Easyjet on the sea – comfortable, quick and with reasonable sandwiches. We booked with Hellenic Seaways who will get you to the Argo-Saronic Islands of Aegina, Poros, Hydra and Spetses in around two hours. We chose to base ourselves in Spetses as it sounded (and is) glorious – miles of beaches, plenty of  water-sports and lots of fantastic restaurants. In short, we wouldn’t be bored and I would get a tan.

But first to Athens – literally a Wonder of the the ancient world – and with a gentle August breeze and a cloudless sky, a fascinating city to explore with kids for a couple of days. Athens has an excellent metro system and so upon arrival at the airport, get on the train to Syntagma and head to the very lovely Alice Inn; a boutique hotel meets BnB with stylish, spacious rooms. We stayed in the Humphrey Bogart room which has a bedroom and additional sleeping/living area, a kitchen and its own rooftop terrace complete with fabulous views of the Acropolis – view pictured below. The Alice Inn is located just at the top of Plaka – the oldest and most popular neighbourhood of Athens for tourists – meaning that you are in walking distance of lots of shops and restaurants which is perfect when you are travelling with kids. As the old saying goes: Kids plus Hanger doth not a fun holiday maketh.

img_2799.jpgYour first stop should be The Acropolis. You can either book your tickets online and walk straight into the site (recommended) or stand in a 2 hour queue getting sunstroke. As far as I understand, kids don’t pay (we didn’t pay for ours) and the system for getting your children into the site is nothing short of organised chaos involving directing a child either over or under a turnstile depending on their height. It makes no sense at all but you’ll meet this slightly odd approach to rules everywhere in Greece; ridiculously controlled up to the point where it’s impossible to tell what you can and can’t do and no one official can be arsed to enforce it anymore because it’s so confusing (not unlike this sentence) so you just do whatever you want. I kind of like it. Unless of course, the Ministry for Greek Tourism is reading this and bills me for two child tickets for The Acropolis. In which case, the joke is on me.

The Acropolis *googles frantically* is an ancient city located on a hill overlooking Athens. It contains the ruins of lots of important buildings from ancient Greece, these include the Parthenon and the amusingly named, Erechtheion. Incredibly these are still standing despite years of decay and fires and wars and various ‘cleansings.’ Humans have done too much damage to these ruins over the years and so are prohibited from touching or standing too close to them. If you are a cat, however, you get to lounge on whatever your want, reclining in the sun and scraping your claws across two thousand year old relics as much as you please.

To really understand The Acropolis you need to visit the Acropolis Museum which sits opposite the Acropolis itself and is laid out as it would have looked in days of …ancient yore. All the valuable artefacts that haven’t been pilfered or destroyed are in this museum. Kids will love the Activity Back Packs which direct them to important figures, sculptures and paintings, and contain stickers, jigsaws and matching games. The highlight of the museum are the huge Caryatids – female statues used in place of pillars. The five real ones are in the Acropolis Museum (the sixth is in the British Museum – I can’t be bothered to get into the Elgin Marbles but basically he nicked a lot of the site. Truthfully, until this trip I thought the Elgin Marbles was a piece of classical music, so I’m not best placed to educate here.)

The Museum restaurant for lunch is perfectly fine, if a little pricey, but it does give your kids an opportunity to complete the jigsaws and card games in their activity packs giving you an opportunity to have an adult conversation, a Greek salad and some wine. A general word of warning re Greek House wine. We found it to be an ‘acquired’ taste; somewhere between sherry and petrol. Let’s call it Sploosh. Moonshine. With a steely resolve, you’ll soon get used to it, but ease yourself in gently. There is a reasonably priced rose, the name of which translates into the word butterflies in English, but obviously I have no idea what its Greek name is because I’m a rubbish travel blogger with poor attention to detail.

I’d also recommend some of restaurants on a street called Makrigianni also close to the museum. We visited Yard Restaurant and Greek Stories – both reasonably priced and great for lunch. Generally we found restaurants in Athens would always find us a table, even if that meant bring one from inside the restaurant and plonking it precariously on some steps or in the middle of the doorway or halfway onto the pavement. Even if they look busy, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Food-wise, our kids loved Greek food. No one can go wrong with souvlaki and fries but ask for the garlicky hell that is tzatsiki on the side to avoid public meltdowns.

After lunch, take an afternoon walk down to the flea market and shops of Monastiraki. The Roman Ruins of Agora are here too but we have a strict ‘one ruin per day’ policy when away and so instead, we let our kids run riot choosing sweets in the very-not-Greek-at-all Hans and Gretyl sweet shop.

Eating out in the evening in Athens is very lovely. The atmospheric lighting game is strong here; the Acropolis is illuminated, and in every restaurant amongst the maze of streets, fairy lights and glowing lanterns hang from tree to tree. Restaurants are often set over several levels with tables spilling out on to the streets and up white-washed cobbled steps. Our favourite was The Old Tavern, Psarras a beautiful neighbourhood restaurant, and very popular, so booking in advance is essential.

On your second day take a visit to The Temple of Zeus, the Olympic Stadium and the Natural Gardens of Athens. Children will enjoy running around the Gardens especially spotting the tortoises which seem to roam wild; nonchalantly crossing paths at -0.8 mph whilst bemused tourists (me) stand and point at them shouting ‘LOOK IT’S A BLOODY TORTOISE!’ The Gardens themselves are a little unkempt – there is a dystopian ‘petting zoo’ which is probably what a zoo would look like after everyone had left Earth and gone to live on one of the rings of Saturn. Rusting cages ‘boast’ several lame pigeons, a miserable looking turkey and one goat. There is also an algae filled turtle pond with so many turtles piled on one rock it still gives me nightmares to this very day. Other than that, it’s quite pleasant with plenty of tree-lined, shaded paths for a walk.

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And so to glorious Spetses. Prepare for photo spam. We stayed in The Olive Grove – an excellently located apartment only a five minute walk from two beaches and a ten minute walk to the Old Harbour with its fabulous sea-front restaurants. We loved Tarsanas and Kapelogiannis (I’d literally walk over spikes to eat their shrimp linguine) and for cheap eats in Spetses town, I’d recommend Cockatoo and CLOCK.

There is hardly any traffic on Spetses – only locals are allowed cars – and so people hire mopeds and quad bikes to get around, but it’s not necessary. The most exciting mode of travel on the island is horse and cart – Spetses has a fleet of horse buggies which are stationed across the island ready to whisk you home for a few euros. Not to romanticise this too much as I’m sure it’s not massively fun for the horses, but stampeding through the narrow, quiet streets at midnight in a horse and cart like a Roman Chariot – hooves pounding the streets – beats getting an uber any day.

It doesn’t take long for the pace and warmth of a Greek island to get into your bones. A slow walk to the bakery for pastries, bread and fruit in the morning. A swim in a cove with crystal clear water. A gin-rummy/UNO/Knock-out-whist/ tournament in the shade. Lunch. Some more swimming and snorkelling. Fresh seafood for dinner at the harbour. A movie at the outdoor cinema in the evening. The highlight of our trip was hiring a boat (and Captain) and sailing around the island visiting some of the more remote beaches. Our seven year old, a reluctant participator in formal swimming lessons, was soon leaping off the boat with his snorkel on. We ate souvlaki, spinach and roast potatoes at a beach-side taverna and saw octopus swimming along the sea floor. I HATE PEOPLE WHO SAY MAKING MEMORIES BUT WE DID AND NOW I HATE MYSELF.

There are plenty of day trips you can make too. A short boat ride takes you to beautiful Hydra where there is no traffic at all. Just donkeys, laden with suitcases or crates of water, traipsing up and down the whitewashed paths and steps of the hills. Leonard Cohen made Hydra his home in the 60s so a pilgrimage to his house (follow this trip advisor post for directions) is a good way of exploring the island. Dinner at  Xeri Elia Douskos  is a must if you are a fan of the man – menus have his poem, ‘Dusko’s Taverna’ printed on the back. The taverna also caters for people who like eating dinner and having a donkey walk through the restaurant.

“They are still singing down at Dusko’s/sitting under the ancient pine tree/in the deep night of fixed and falling stars/If you go to your window you can hear them.”

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In conclusion, Greece is the word.

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