Athens and Corfu: Culture and Comfort in the Sun

Athens and Corfu: Culture and Comfort in the Sun

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By Sean Sheehan

The Acropolis Museum in Athens [theacropolismuseum.gr/en] exhibiting ten times as many precious exhibits as the old museum of that name, has been open since 2009 but stepping through its doors still feels like a new experience and the best reason for returning to Athens. The highlight remains the third floor where the few Parthenon sculptures which were not transported to London by Elgin can be seen alongside plaster copies of those that the British Museum refuses to hand back. The entire frieze is displayed, allowing you to see the arrangement of sculptures as they originally appeared on the temple on the Acropolis, and when the British Museum finally does the right thing the plaster copies will be replaced by the originals.

Scaffolding and cranes continue to mar views of the Acropolis and if you want to see what an ancient Greek temple looks like without the machinery of restoration work then head south of the city for 45 miles to Cape Sounio. Here, at the tip of a promontory and perched on the headland facing out to sea, stands the majestic, gleaming white ruins of a temple dedicated to Poseidon, the ancient Greek god of the sea. It was built some 2,500 years ago, on the site of a far older temple, so it’s a bit unfair to complain about the time it takes to reach it by bus from Athens – a mere 90 minutes – but in a speed-obsessed age this makes for a long day trip. The answer is to stay at Cape Sunio Grecotel Exclusive Resort [capesounio.com], a stunning resort with soul-stirring views of the temple of Poseidon at dusk when the millennia-old building is lit up with spotlights, giving a golden hue to the white columns.

Grecotel’s Cape Sunio resort is a five-star affair and accommodation is divided between bungalows and villas of different sizes, though the dimensions of your room tend not to be a priority given that most of your time will be spent outside it. There’s a secluded beach, a seawater pool and a glass-walled indoor pool – so no excuse for not getting in the water – and a choice of restaurants that suit different moods and times of the day. All this is fairly standard for a luxury resort but what makes the place special is the design that consciously echoes the experience of being inside an ancient Greek temple: the building material is limestone with a reddish colouring that creates a sense of warmth yet feels cool to the touch. Walking around the temple of Poseidon on the headland is not dissimilar and the resort’s success in complementing the classical site is quite remarkable for a modern resort.

With Aegean Airlines [https://en.aegeanair.com] offering return flights from the UK to Corfu from £150 per person it is tempting to make one’s holiday destination the island that lays off the northwest coast of Greece. A warm Mediterranean climate — even winters are mild and daily average sunshine lasts over eight hours (12 in June and July) — is hard to beat and the old town of Corfu has enough historical sights to fill a day meandering its cobbled streets and touristy bars and restaurants. Staying in the town, though, could lose its appeal after 24 hours because it’s constantly busy with daytrippers. Having being introduced to the Grecotel brand, their Corfu Imperial resort [corfuimperial.com ] caught my interest given that it offers the same kind of escape from the crowds as their Cape Sounio resort does from the Athens metropolis.

The Corfu Imperial, like the Cape Sounio resort, is situated on a headland facing the sea though this time it’s the Ionian Sea instead of the Aegean. Another difference is that the promontory on Corfu is a private peninsula belonging to the hotel, and the range of accommodation is wider: ranging from rooms and suites in the main building to beachfront villas larger than my flat in London. The dining scene is top-notch: dinner at Aristos is a grand European fine-dining affair while the all-day Nafsika brasserie serves all those lovely meze – tzatziki, baked aubergine with feta, grilled halloumi — that are never as tasty when you seek them out in Waitrose on your return home. Traditional skioufikta pasta and linguine with locally caught fish, two outstanding features of Nafsika’s menu, enjoyed under a warm Greek sun is what coming to Corfu is all about.

While the Corfu Imperial does not have an ancient Greek temple within a stone’s throw, it does boast a carefully preserved early 20-century Corfu hamlet, Danilia, that you may recognise if a fan of the BBC’s television series The Durrells. It’s open for events organized by the hotel so a visit is not always going to be available – which means you need to spend another lazy day on a sunbed on the beach after visiting the spa for its aromatherapy treatments and face and body therapies plus some spending time in the steam room and sauna.

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