Thursday, 14 May 2009

Where Athens chills out

You don't need to get on a ferry to escape the bustle of the Greek capital. Take a short bus ride and you'll find superb local beaches.

When in Athens, do as the locals do - order a Café Frappé. To be authentic they must be made with Nescafé, and must be drunk through a straw. They don't sound that tempting, but like the verdant setting and the delicious water, Frappés are immensely refreshing.
After the dust, traffic and hubbub of Athens, you can breathe a sigh of relief when you reach Vouliagmeni. Just 10 miles south of the city - typically a 30-40 minute drive - it's the place where urban sprawl gives way to palm trees, flowers and fountains bubbling from giant amphora.

In Athens, the sea is no more than sparkle glimpsed between concrete. In Vouliagmeni it commands the eye, lolling in blue splendour in an expansive beach-rimmed bay. Three more stretches of sand lie beyond the narrow isthmus linking Vouliagmeni to its harbour. Unlike most Greek beaches, these are not pebbly or gritty; and most are groomed free of squished water bottles and plastic bags. They have made Vouliagmeni a favourite with affluent Athenians, many of whom own summer apartments here. Many more drive out on Sunday to swim or windsurf or sail - or simply to enjoy long lunches of local fish.

Strolling around the flowery streets feels like swamping about at a spa - probably because, like a spa, Vouliagmeni has few distractions. With only 6,500 residents it has no theatres, no museums, no shops selling anything other than food; and with just one small ancient ruin, discreetly hidden on the Astir beach, no tour buses. But while it lacks tourist-attracting "amenities", Vouliagmeni luxuriates in a beautiful location between the bay and the 1,000m shoulder of Mount Hymettus. And in a country noted for its dryness, it has water everywhere - not just sea but also a spectacular basin of local water.

Vouliagmeni Lake lies sunk in the remains of an immense limestone cavern, a five-minute walk from the little square in the centre of the town. Erosion or earthquakes long since destroyed the roof, leaving the walls as 50m cliffs sheltering the lake on three sides. It's fed by tepid springs welling from underground and also by the sea. This combination of salt and mineral-rich freshwater feels silky when you swim and is reportedly good for rheumatism and arthritis. Since it stays at 25°C, devoted patrons come for morning-long immersions year-round.

Closer to town, Vouliagmeni beach is less tranquil. Its big spring waves lure windsurfers from miles around, while in summer it has mere wavelets trickling up the sand. With a playground, tennis courts, a snack bar, water sport equipment, and a blue flag certification for cleanliness, it's a great place to spend the day.

Another day-out alternative is Astir beach on Apollonos Street. Its shallow, delicately turquoise water, fine sand and good facilities make it the small town's most luxurious beach. Its most unusual attraction is the ruined temple of Apollo Zoster. Myths tell that Leto, Apollo's mother, threw off her girdle when she was giving birth. It fell on this spot, and Apollo later retrieved it and fastened it about himself. "Zoster" means "girdled" in Greek.
Vouliagmeni's harbour lies beyond Astir beach, over a hill lined by pines with starburst needles and giant cones. It has no cute fishing boats or tanned seamen mending nets - just enormous yachts, sleekly resting until their wealthy owners arrive.

This harbour highlights a local characteristic. With the dramatic lake, views to the distant Saronic Gulf islands and sunsets washing Mount Hymettus every shade of mauve and pink, it manages to be picturesque yet not embalmed as a picture postcard. It doesn't have the winding streets, domed churches or remnants of Hellenic or Byzantine glory that makes much of Greece a snapper's paradise. Until 1945, Vouliagmeni was just a string of beaches. It's grown quickly, but the church, which owns much of the land, has not allowed higgledy-piggledy development.

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