Put Athens back on your shortlist

Athens Hilton Hotel and running man glass sculpture

Greece is ready for your event, reports Michelle Chenery after a visit hosted by Marketing Greece, Aegean Airlines and the Athens & Attica Hotels Association

Greece is coming through a very painful economic period. The signs of it I saw on the streets of Athens were occasional demonstrations, but they didn’t seem to stop the local residents from going about their daily life. Shops, cafes and restaurants were busy. People were optimistic. They all claim to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Athens is ready and very willing to be put back on a list of destinations to be explored for events. Its hotels have every facility for all sizes of conferences. Its unrivalled cultural relics and visitor attractions are still there to enrich leisure and incentive programmes.

We enjoyed a hectic programme that could easily have filled a couple of weeks – but were pressed into a visit lasting only four days.

I’ll tell it how it was . . . .
Aegean Airlines flew us safely from Heathrow to Athens on an evening flight that saw us ready to hit the sack at our base, the 5-star Hilton Athens Hotel. This was a great choice, as it stands in one of the city’s most fashionable avenues and its 506 rooms and suites provide stunning views of the Acropolis or Mount Lycabettus, at 277m (908 ft) the highest point in the area. To make the most of this location, the hotel has the roof-top Galaxy Restaurant & Bar.

Event organisers have 22 meeting rooms to choose from with a total of over 6,000sqm of versatile space, able to cater for up to 1,100 delegates in the Terpsichore Ballroom. All have natural light.

Organisers also have a choice of five restaurants. The Galaxy serves classic Mediterranean cuisine with a modern flair. There is al fresco dining at the Oasis Bar & Grill, where you can indulge in a classic pasta dish or burger. The Aethrion Lounge & Bar offers stylish wooden floors, snug couches, atmospheric lighting and large TV screens. It serves light bites, aperitifs, international drinks and home-made desserts. A nice extra is its Connectivity Station for catching up on emails, free of charge, whilst sipping coffee.

Popular with local celebrities is the modern Milos Restaurant. Its open kitchen prepares Mediterranean dishes such as fried courgette and aubergine with tzatziki.

Day One – Athenian Riviera
As a group, we took breakfast in the Hilton’s Byzantino Restaurant. The buffet’s choice is endless, with an array of pastries, rolls, pancakes, a full cooked breakfast and even an Asian corner expanded on account of increasing numbers of visitors from China.

A newcomer, I was impressed by our drive to the Athenian Riviera. I hadn’t appreciated that so close to the capital’s centre there could be such a beautiful coast, with blue sea, picturesque coves and no one in sight, other than a few swimmers.

Our destination was the 72-acre private peninsula of The Grand Resort Lagonissi.
A member of The Leading Hotels of the World, this self-contained resort boasts twenty exclusive sandy coves. All rooms come with waterfront views, with direct access to the sea, and with fantastic views.

There is a wide choice of room categories. The 22sqm Sunset superior rooms are located on the ground floor of the main building, sharing a large pool with hydro massage. All the classes of rooms in this range feature video on demand and wired high speed internet, marble lined bathrooms and private balcony or terrace. Premium Club rooms are made up of 5 different classes, ranging from the Deluxe Beachfront Bungalows from 40sqm up to the 78sqm Executive Suites with gardens. The Bungalows consist of living room & bedroom in open plan style and suites either in open plan style or with separate bedroom & sitting room and spacious marble bathrooms equipped with mini TV set, separate shower cabin, steam bath, air bathtub and private wooden terrace and garden. Special features include heated floors, video-on-demand, DVD & CD players, wired and wireless high-speed internet access.

Meetings facilities at The Grand Resort Lagonissi can cater for up to 1,350 in the Cosmos Ballroom. This features a stage and retractable glass doors that allows access for vehicles - or they can be showcased outdoors on the Uranus Terrace.

Located in the Grand Hall conference centre are 10 multi-functional rooms, providing more than 2,500sqm of indoor meetings space, including pre-function, reception and registration areas, extensive outdoor spaces, a fully equipped business centre, AV equipment with technical support, wireless and wired high speed internet and indoor parking for up to 1,200 cars and outdoor parking for 700 cars. All the meeting rooms have natural daylight and sea views. Facilities in the main building can accommodate from 20 up to 380 delegates, the largest being the Aphrodite Room.

There are a dozen different restaurants on the peninsula, each strategically located so that wherever you are there is always somewhere close for a meal. F&b outlets range from Cretan cuisine at Galazia Akti to international cuisine at Aphrodite in the main building, Middle Eastern cuisine at Mezza, and even Polynesian and Sushi at Kohylia. Golf carts with drivers are always available to make it easy to move around the resort.

Our next stop was Lake Vouliagmeni. This was another complete surprise - a thermal lake, just metres from one of the main coastal roads, that takes you a million miles from anywhere. Its waters are between 21 to 29 degC throughout the year and are rich in salts and minerals said to have healing properties. In recent years garra rufa, the so called ‘spa fish’, have been found in the waters. They are the little creatures that nibble on dead skin cells. Along with other species, they help to keep the water free of microbes and other harmful organic compounds. The water itself undergoes continuous natural renewal, welling up from 50 to 100m below. The lake area can be reserved for exclusive use for events and has a bar and restaurant on site.

From there, still on Day One, we drove to the Astir Palace Resort comprising two hotels with a third on its way. There is the Arion, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa and The Westin Athens, whilst the third property, W Athens, is scheduled to open in 2016.

The 162-room Westin Athens has an Olympic-size pool, tennis and volleyball courts, a fitness centre and enough event space to be able to host up to 600 people. The largest facility is the Cosmos Hall, with natural daylight. There are a further four meeting rooms, two boardrooms and, outside, a spacious partially covered exhibition or meeting area with sea views. The hotel’s four restaurants offer everything from light snacks to the best modern Greek cuisine.

The Arion has 123 rooms and suites, 58 bungalows, a fitness room, water sports, tennis courts, basketball, a mini-soccer court and, close by, there is a golf course.

Meeting facilities include the Alexandra Ballroom, able to host up to 250 guests for a reception, as well as a further eight meeting rooms and three boardrooms to seat from 12 to 150 delegates, all with natural daylight, high speed Wi-Fi and state-of-the-art equipment. Six restaurants provide a choice of Japanese flavours at the hip restaurant of Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, Italian cuisine at the new Il Tramonto, or the very relaxed Greek atmosphere at Taverna 37.

We sat down to lunch at the Arion, sampling traditional Greek cuisine, encompassing salads, vine leaves, tzatziki, chickpeas, spiced chicken, meats and, eventually, traditional desserts such as baklava. None of us was able to eat all that had been offered, so, to a certain extent, we felt we had let the chefs down as we boarded our minibus for the short ride back to Athens city centre. There we were given an insight into what is in store for the future Athens.

‘Re-think Athens’, we learnt, is a project set to transform the centre in 2016. The Onassis Foundation organised and funded a European Architectural Competition to help create a new city centre, based on Panepistimiou Street. The winning proposal from Dutch architectural practice OKRA aims to create a vibrant, green accessible heart for the city, reducing the traffic and reprogramming the use of public spaces, whilst linking the major museums, increasing public transport and at the same time rejuvenating some of the more undesirable parts of the city.

That evening we all dined as a group at the Galaxy in the Hilton Athens, but only after taking in the views over the city and the Acropolis from the terrace that runs the length of the roof whilst sipping on signature cocktails. Greek salads, sushi, steak, fish - all with a Mediterranean twist - brought a first memorable day to a close.

Day Two – antique and modern wonders
After breakfast the next morning we were able to visit the Zappeion Conference and Exhibition Center even though it was being used to host a meeting of the EU Presidency and strict security was in force. We had to show our IDs before inspecting the facilities.

Built in the mid 1880s, the Zappeion was the first building in the world constructed to serve the needs of the Olympic Games. Its architecture is neo-classical, with a Corinthian portico and a circular atrium. A total of 4,000sqm is available for events, in spaces that follow the circular shape of the building. The central atrium can host conferences, concerts and parties for up to 1,500 people or up to 350 for a banquet. Next item on our full itinerary was the National Museum of Contemporary Art, so new it was not yet open to the public. We had the privilege of seeing its open plan gallery, accessible directly from a metro station. There will be a mobile conference space that can be erected in any area, whilst in the roof there will be a venue giving uninterrupted views of the entire city. In one direction we could see the mountains, out to the sea in another, as well as the Acropolis, Filopappou Hill and Lofos Likavitou Hill.

This new building is being constructed on the site of the original Fix brewery and incorporates the old structure, virtually a building within a building. The old wall pillars can be seen and touched, nothing is quite straight, adding a nice historic flavour to the flat straight lines of the new museum. A special feature of the museum will be water running where an ancient river used to flow.

It was then time to inspect another key Athens hotel, the Athenaeum InterContinental, Athens. Its lobby boasts one of the owner’s many works of art - a life-sized blue man sculpture. With 543 rooms and 60 suites it is one of the largest hotel properties in Athens. The classic rooms have marble bathrooms, spacious working and lounge areas, wood furnishings and contemporary Greek art. Executive rooms offer access to the Club Lounge with views over the Acropolis.

As many as 28 meeting rooms total 3,8825sqm of events space. The largest is the pillar-free Athenaeum Ballroom, able to cater for up to 1,500 for a reception style and 1,300 for a banquet.

The hotel also manages the Ethniki Conference Centre, where the main Conference Hall can cater for up to 600 at a reception and the Exhibition Hall can host 700. The Ethniki rooftop is able to host up to 2,000 delegates for a reception.

We were entertained to lunch in Cafezoe, one of the hotel’s three restaurants, where we enjoyed a buffet service that specialised in fresh local produce, ranging from salads, pasta, meat and fish to traditional Greek dishes.

A quick trip to the Panthenaic Stadium after lunch had me working off some of the calories that I had consumed. I was just able to make it once around the track and then up to the top tier of the seating.

The stadium has existed for over 2.500 years and was refurbished for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Today the stadium still plays host to the finish of the authentic Marathon-Athens course. During the 2004 Olympics the stadium hosted the archery as well as the finish of the marathon.

It had already been a very full and fascinating day, but there was more to come. In the evening we were given a truly absorbing guided tour around the new Acropolis Museum. Opened in 2009, the 4,000-exhibit Museum has a total area of 25,000sqm with exhibition space of over 14,000sqm. At the entrance we were able to look through glass panels in the floor and down to the excavation of an ancient neighbourhood below the new building. Eventually visitors will be able to wander down there, as walkways are now under construction.

We listened in awe to some of the history of the Acropolis, to stories of its destruction by invaders and its rebuilding and re-use by following nations over the centuries. We were able to witness work on the conservation of some of the statues from the parapet of the Temple of Athena Nike, with years of dirt being lasered away before our very eyes to reveal the stone as it was when it was originally sculptured.

And our Second Day was still not at an end. We moved on to the Onassis Cultural Centre, a new facility hosting events across the whole spectrum of theatre, dance, music, the visual arts and the written word. The aim is to make all of these events affordable for everyone, with low-priced tickets even for the best seats in the house. Ample space and leg room has been a priority and the best acoustic materials have been used along with sweeping ship-inspired tiered balconies, reminiscent of the Onassis shipping connection.

The main amphitheatre can seat up to 880, the upper stage 220 and the lecture and exhibition space on the 5th floor can seat up to 60. There is also a 700sqm exhibition hall located on the Centre's underground floor.

In contrast, the roof of the 6-storey Onassis Cultural Centre is dedicated to The Hytra Restaurant, where the clientele benefits from its 360-degree views. There is no doubt that views of Athens are a speciality of the Greek tourism sector.

Michelin-starred Chef Nikos Karathanos and Chryssanthos Karamolegkos treated us to traditional Greek cuisine. We chose their crustacean menu and enjoyed cuttlefish-ink-infused macaroons, ink-infused truffles and a plate of beetroot as I have never had it before. However, my favourite of the many dishes was a bubble of beetroot. I was lucky enough to manoeuvre it onto a fork and intact into my mouth, where I experienced a real taste explosion as the bubble burst, coating the inside of my mouth with so much flavour.

We also had essence of mushroom soup, an entire plate of mushroom creations, which was then followed by partially boiled, breaded and deep fried egg. Another novelty was an egg that wasn't really an egg but a creation of feta cheese and tomato. My killer dessert consisted of the most chocolatey bar I have ever eaten, accompanied with caramel ice cream and a caramel and chocolate crunch slice topped with gold leaf. Needless to say, every course of that meal was matched with an appropriate Greek wine. And so ended Day Two!

Day Three – central Athens contrasts
Day Three began with a visit to the Acropolis archaeological site. We enjoyed a guided tour with very amusing yet informative anecdotes.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an ancient theatre located on the southwest slope, is still used to this day to stage music and theatrical nights during the summer months. There have been performances there by Plàcido Domingo, José Carreras, Montserrat Caballé, the Bolshoi Ballet and Jean Michel Jarre. The Acropolis is not only a focal point of Athens but of world culture. It houses the Parthenon, the Propylea, the Erechtheum and the Temple of Athena Nike – four classical masterpieces of which any one would add prestige to any city. Walking through the Agora, the forum that was the birthplace of democracy, we were given a brief lesson on the history of politics, the voting system and the judicial system of the early Greeks.

Our next call was again in great contrast. The old Plaka neighbourhood boasts row upon row of shops, displaying hand-made leather goods and Greek delicacies, including feta cheese, baklava and an abundance of olive oils.

It was then time to visit some of the city’s most renowned international hotels. We had lunch in the Tudor Hall of The King George, a Luxury Collection Hotel. Dating from 1930 the hotel has entertained many a famous guest. It has 63 rooms and 39 suites with, naturally, views of the city and the Acropolis. There is also a Penthouse Suite with private pool.
The King George has three distinctive meeting rooms and a Ballroom that can host up to 300 guests for a banquet.

Immediately alongside is its sister property, the 320-room Hotel Grande Bretagne, also a Luxury Collection Hotel. Working together, the two properties can host larger events in style. All rooms feature signature Luxury Collection beds, marble bathrooms, high speed internet access, cable tv and a refreshment centre.
There are a total of 14 meeting rooms, the Grand Ballroom accommodating 360 for a dinner dance and up to 600 theatre style.

The evening of Day Three saw us at dinner in the Electra Palace Hotel in the heart of the Plaka district. This hotel was recently fully renovated. It has 102 standard rooms, 33 of which have views of the Acropolis, 9 junior suites, 10 full suites and a Presidential Suite. There are seven meeting rooms, the Ballroom able to cater for up to 300 theatre style.

Dinner was served on the Electra Roof Garden and once again we marvelled at views unique to Athens as we started with goats cheese rolls, Greek salads, grilled vegetables with Talagani Messina cheese and mint, before going on to Mousaka, veal steak, grouper fillets and honey-glazed lamb shank, finishing with crême brûlée and cheesecake with sour cherry.

Day Four – another inspection squeezed in
At the start of Day Four we were introduced to the founders of the Athens Video Art Festival 2014. They were engaged in choosing the artists for this year’s show but took time out to tell us all about it. The festival celebrates digital culture through an annual gathering in order to encourage all aspects of digital creation by investing in the local as well as the international artist communities.

Even on our way to the airport for the flight home we squeezed in a visit to the Sofitel Athens. Opened in 2001, it was Greece’s first airport hotel and is located only a short walk from the arrival terminal at Eleftherios Venizelos airport. The 9-storey building boasts 345 rooms, including 94 Superior Guestrooms, 188 Luxury Guestrooms, 50 Luxury Room Club Sofitel, 12 Prestigious suites and a Presidential Suite. They are all spacious, soundproofed and equipped with wooden shutters for a total blackout. They offer work spaces, hi-speed data ports, Wi-Fi, marble bathrooms and amenities by Hermes and Lanvin. Interactive television provides flight information through the remote control. The hotel has two restaurants and there are 11 fully equipped meeting rooms with a real plug-and-play facility. Events for up to 600 delegates can be accommodated.

Flying back to Heathrow, courtesy of Aegean Airlines, was the first opportunity to think about all the contrasting wonders we had seen and to assemble a mental picture of what Athens has to offer. Athens is definitely a city ripe for the event organiser’s shortlist.

To view more images from the trip please visit our Athens facebook album

For further information
Aegean Airlines (www.aegeanair.com) is offering direct flights to Athens from London Heathrow, Manchester and Birmingham until October, from €136.55 per person return including taxes.

Rooms at Hilton Athens (www.hiltonathens.gr) start from €119 per room/per night on a B&B basis.

For more information on accommodation in Athens please visit the website of the Athens & Attica Hotels Association (www.all-athens-hotels.com)

For more information on Athens please visit www.discovergreece.com