Sitting in the back of a taxi kindly arranged by New Hotel, we realise en route from the airport that we know absolutely nothing about Athens. With blue skies above and beautiful ruins and terracotta rooftops below, as we wind our way into the city we dredge our minds for stereotypes… The Olympics! Some amazing gods and goddesses! All that Greek mythology and its togas. (‘How will the bed sheets measure up?’ wonders Mr Smith.) Plate smashing, meze, feta, kalamata, calamari, kebabs... Oh and a guy called Dimitrius that Mr Smith went to school with. That’s it: how embarrassing. Lastminute, unplanned and unprepared – yes, this is how we travel.
As our cabbie explains the difference between the Parthenon and the Acropolis (one is the famous ancient temple, the other is the name for the citadel of monuments on this Athenian rocky outcrop), we twig that this is not going to be any old last-minute Mediterranean break. This is going to be an edifying escape. Our driver proves himself to be the best informed too. Not only for his knowledge of local hotspots (he leads us to a great local taverna for lunch) but for his ability to drive us swiftly to the New Hotel. Since many drivers can’t place these lodgings on the map, a top tip is to travel with a map, or arrange an airport pick-up.
The name of the property, and not its location, is what promotes New Hotel’s obscurity. Situated near Syntagma Square, it’s within walking distance of the main sights: Plaka, the ancient historical centre (tick!), the Acropolis (hooray, tick!) and Kolonaki’s upmarket cafés and boutique (tick, tick, and thank you). Its invisibility to taxis is also nothing to do with it not being noticeable. The striking hotel entrance is marked with gigantic gold pendant lampshades, which are luminous against the stark white exterior walls. When I say ‘stark’, that’s not to be confused with ‘Starck’. Philippe, king of the oversized lampshade technique, hasn’t touched this Greek haven which opened as New Hotel for the first time in 2011. Formerly the Olympic Palace Hotel, it is the work of award-winning Brazilian duo, the Campana Brothers.
Humberto and Fernando Campana are celebrated in the design world for their witty recycling – be it soft toys, planks of timber or leather scraps. Working with 20 architecture undergraduates they transformed every wall and floor by hand. Each element has been craftily reconfigured using salvaged elements: from the lifts to the reception desk to the chairs, side lamps and breakfast bar. The impact is immediate. As a porter efficiently snaffles our bags away, we do the same to the complimentary chocolate cakes and pastry tasters. First impressions are that it’s all delicious.
Progressing down a corridor which is covered in Ugandan bark cloth, a wallpaper made from the Moraceae tree, we reach our bamboo-floored room. All very Campana, but not particularly Greek – so we think. But the Brazilian brothers possess more insight into local culture than us. Their design focuses on three traditional Greek themes. They pay homage to Karagiozis, a mischievous folklore shadow puppet, and so golden fairytale characters adorn the walls. The ‘evil eye’ – the charm used to ward off evil – is represented with handmade glass eyes that don’t just cover a wall opposite the bed, they can be illuminated. Elsewhere we come across a collage of historic postcards allowing a glimpse at old Athens. The whole place, in fact, reeks of local history.
Aside from our room’s quirky aesthetics it is designed to make the most of compact space. Details such as Kiehl’s amenities and great bedding do not go amiss. Perhaps even better than the design, is the food. We spend more time in the restaurant than our room, dining there both nights and of course both breakfasts. There are various pillars of a menu worth testing and I can confirm that the breads are homemade and ridiculously moreish, the steaks perfect, and a creation called the New Martini, which welcomes us on our first visit to the bar, is one of the best I’ve ever sipped.
As a result of being unprepared for this trip, we unwittingly find our stay coincides with a shutdown of the Greek capital, due to an annual political strike. On the plus side, it’s November and we have the Acropolis, archeological museum and a few other tourist spots to ourselves – although they close at 3pm. As it’s raining, we also have ample time to enjoy the hotel’s fascinating art. As it happens, owner Dakis Joannou is one of the world’s most powerful figures in the contemporary art world and the corridors and communal spaces are dotted with pieces from his vast collection. Works by Jack Pierson, Douglas Gordon, Laurie Anderson and Jenny Holzer, are fun to be in the company of, while the retro phonebooth tagged 'Dirty Phone Call' in the basement is something that has to be experienced…
On the Sunday, we abandon our rumpled togas for the great Greek outdoors. We set out to see the famous changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but we take a wrong turn (accidentally on purpose) and instead of ogling the Evzones’ pom-pom slippers, we come across a brass band playing classic military anthems. Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’ and Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ have never sounded better. Sometimes being unprepared opens up life’s stage to more wonder and surprises than a rigid schedule ever would. Our spontaneous short weekend has brought comedy, tragedy, blessings and curses, and if we’ve learned a thousand new things there is one that stands out: daily life in Athens is theatre in itself.