The Greek capital’s Christmas and New Year celebrations may be humble but the welcome is as warm as ever
Athens and Christmas holidays.
The ancient Greek capital is not the first European city that pops to mind when thinking about where to ring in the festive season.
Vienna, Paris, London, Rome and New York, sure. They’re easily the top Christmastime contenders for those of us who choose to get away for the holidays.
Athens, meanwhile, has long remained a far from obvious choice for travellers and there’s good reason for it, actually.
For Greeks, the biggest festive holiday of the year has always been Easter, while Christmas celebrations run a clear second place.
It’s true that over the years, cities and towns around Greece, like Thessaloniki, have been ramping up the Christmas cheer, decking out the streets and squares with the requisite tree, manger and sparkly lights, setting up small ice-skating rinks and hosting events mostly for kids through January 6, the day when the Epiphany is celebrated in Greece, marking the conclusion of Yuletide cheer.
In the northern town of Drama, the Christmas fairytale land known as Oniroupoli (dream city, literally) draws thousands of families, with starry-eyed kids leading the charge.
Meanwhile, the Christmas tree is a fairly new arrival in Greece, making its first appearance during the reign of King Otto of Bavaria in the 1830s though it didn’t become widely popular until the 1940s.
In this seafaring nation, model wood or paper boats were traditionally decorated, lit and put on display in island homes with the bow pointing to the interior, as families awaited the safe return of loved ones from oft-stormy waters. This tradition is actually a fairly recent introduction to Greece’s mainland.
So, it’s no coincidence that the City of Athens only really started putting on the Christmas ritz some 15 years ago, with the introduction of a Christmas tree to the city’s central Syntagma Square.
Athenians still chuckle at the efforts of a former mayor to erect Europe’s largest tree, which was actually just a string of lights on a metal base, and not actually anything that really resembled a proper Christmas tree.
In 2004, the year Athens excitedly hosted the Olympics, then-mayor Dora Bakoyannis placed a rather large, impressive Christmas tree on Syntagma Square and illuminated it amid much fanfare and international media attention.
Since then, New Year’s Eve plays host to free outdoor concert, featuring various Greek artists perform before an enthusiastic audience, along with dazzling fireworks that spectacularly light up the Acropolis.
Over the past five years of lean austerity, Christmas and New Year celebrations in Athens have been pared down to a more moderately-sized tree, starry street lighting and a series of concerts and children’s activities. Among the highlights is the talented City of Athens Big Band and Philharmonic performing rousing festive tunes as they roam pedestrianised streets to the delight of shoppers and office workers.
With Athens thrust firmly into the spotlight in the past two to three years and earning a reputation for a city that combines ancient sites with a cool, contemporary vibe and the endearing hospitality of its inhabitants, this year the city ranked 24th among Europe’s 25 most popular travel destinations for Christmas, according to Trivago. This is incredible news for the city, whose tourism industry is working tirelessly to draw visitors year-round.
Athens was found to be among the most affordable Christmas destinations with hotel rates averaging a very reasonable 74 euros per night at this time of year, whereas in London and Paris, the rate hovering around 177 and 140 euros respectively.
Last night we took a walk around the streets of Athens to see how the city centre had been dressed up this year then headed to a new wine bar to hear a little jazz and get into a New Year mood.
On Syntagma, a troupe of street performers was leaping about beneath the Christmas tree, while skateboarders and parkour devotees rolled and bounced across their corner of the square. At the lower end of the square, youngsters skated on an ice rink as multi-hued lights splashed across the facades of the iconic Hotel Grande Bretagne and its sister property King George.
On designer boutique-lined Voukourestiou Street, we took a quick peek in at Zonar’s, a historic café that was recently restored to its former post-war, velveteen glory, then walked through City Link arcade, whose cafes and bars were teeming with people enjoying a festive drink and natter.
Perhaps indicative of the resilience of the Greeks and their resolve to get on with their lives, restaurants, clubs and tavernas around Athens are reporting almost full-capacity bookings for New Year’s Eve.
Walking through the gritty neighbourhood of Psirri, a student magnet which has seen a revival of late and was buzzing with young people, we spotted a string of new bars, restaurants and cafes, as well as some old favourites still holding the fort.
Psirri has also seen a clutch of stylish new rooms and apartments open their doors of late, proving the ideal base for young travellers who want to experience the city from within and have all the major ancient attractions but also Athens’ breathless nightlife within walking distance.
We stopped in at the newly-opened wine bar-restaurant Zampanò, named after the lead character in Federico Fellini’s moving, Oscar-winning La Strada played by Anthony Quinn.
Joined at the hip with funky hostel City Circus, where – in one space – guests were being photographed in circus costume, Zampanò was overflowing with Athenians sipping on fine Greek-produced merlot, listening to super-talented Greek jazz band P.P 69 perform and looking to 2016 with a fresh new outlook and sense of optimism. It’s always a thrill to discover a fresh new jazz outfit in this city.
At the end of the night, we passed through Monastiraki Square – so much quieter than in the madness of summer – and gazed up at the Acropolis, whose monuments were bathed in a golden light. Fellow Athenians stopped, too, snapping a shot with their smartphones at a sight that never ceases to inspire. An ancient engineering marvel that just never gets boring.
At the entrance to the flea market, a group of Africans were singing and dancing to BYO music as a small audience looked on.
We strolled back along main pedestrian drag Ermou, where shopkeepers had shut for night and were hoping for last-minute purchases ahead of New Year’s Day, when Greeks traditionally exchange gifts.
It was 1am and Syntagma Square had almost completely emptied of people, bar for a few couples and friends also heading home. Someone spotted movement across at the Parliament building, whose courtyard teems with people during the day between April and October, particularly during the hourly Changing of the Guard.
A group of three girls noticed that the proud, young presidential guards of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Evzones – in their woolen navy winter attire – had raised their weapons.
The guards had commenced the familiar ceremony marking the end of their shift, and the girls quickly crossed over to watch from up close, and were quickly joined by a couple of other groups of friends. This, too, is a “tourist” must-see that consistently puts a smile to the face of many an Athenian.
While Athens may seem like a hard sell for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the enduring, endearing spirit of the people who live in this city – which can be very romantic – and humbleness of celebrations are reason enough for travellers to consider paying a visit over the festive season.