Sunday, May 13, 2018

(Ancient) History In The Making: 4 Unforgettable Days in Athens, Greece



Last year it was announced that the ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) were going to hold their annual Destination Expo for 2018 in Athens, Greece; I was skeptical.  I travel to Greece somewhat frequently (ever since I was a kid), and it was one thing as a kid I never noticed much aside from wanting to horse around and play with my cousins, it was another thing to be an adult and hearing what the Greeks said about the Americans under their breath.  But, that was then.  I registered for the Destination Expo (DE) with an open mind and signed up for several excursions during my stay.

So April finally made it's way around, and I left the US on April 2nd, and after an overnight in Los Angeles, and another overnight on a gorgeous KLM Boeing 747, I arrived in a very sunny Athens, Greece on the afternoon of April 4, and like always happened in the past, was picked up by my cousins and taken to my mom's village in Central Greece, in the mountains between Trikala and Kalambaka (home to the Monasteries of Meteora).  I spent 8 incredible days reconnecting and  hanging out with my family.  Then it was time to get down to Athens for the DE.

Photo Credit Athens Hilton
Having left Trikala in the morning, and after 5 different tolls (seriously, what is up with the toll roads?), we finally made it to the Hilton Athens by 2PM, and the bellman grabbed my suitcases and inside I went after a semi-tearful goodbye to my cousin.  What can I say, I'm a softie with this side of the family.  They've always been there for us.

Check-in was interesting.  I went to the front desk, gave my passport over, they looked me up, and told me they couldn't check me in, since I had a reservation on the Executive Floor.  So, I was directed to the elevators, and up to the 11th Floor I went to finally check in.  They had me in a 1 King Executive Room with an Acropolis View (at the ASTA DE Group Rate) room, and lemme tell ya, the room did NOT disappoint.  Seriously, how many people can say they fall asleep overlooking the Acropolis and Parthenon every night?  Suffice it to say, that first night was pretty amazing.

Day 1 of the DE was Saturday, April 12.  After breakfast and registration, where I was handed my credentials, along with DE program and AWESOME lanyard from Aegean Airlines, I was set up for a half-day Flavors of Athens: Fun Food Walking Tour put on by Athens Insiders, an Athens based tour operator that creates bespoke experiences not just in Athens, but around Greece as well.


So off we went, onto the motor coach that dropped us off just past Syntagma Square in the literal heart of Athens.  Our first stop was this cool little bakery that I had unknowingly visited the day before for some of the best tiropita (cheese pie) in the city.  Our tour guide came out with a box of mini tiropites and explained the history of the bakery, why she chose this one, and all about tiropites.


After a short walk a few blocks down, our next stop was a kafenion (coffee shop) that specializes in Bougatsa, a custard filled pastry popular in the northern part of Greece and the island of Crete.  Along with the flaky pastry, we were given demi-tasse cups of potent Greek Coffee, an offshoot of Turkish Coffee, although in my opinion, slightly more potent.  After drinking the majority of the coffee, I flipped my cup over and let the leftover grounds cool for a little bit before I tried my hand at fortune telling by reading the patterns of the grounds in the cup.  Not the expert older members of my family are in tasseography, I laughed it off with the rest of the group.

Back on the uneven streets of Athens, our lovely guide took us around to several different shops to see their wares.  First up was a fruit and nut shop that had some of the freshest fruits I have smelled in a long while.  After that we passed by an Olive shop that had buckets of freshly brined olives and gallons of olive oil for sale.  We stopped for a second here and the shop owner and guide explained the different types of olives and where they came from, and got to try a few.  I was impressed as this little shop was one of the few places outside Sparta that had Spartan olives, a slightly drier more bitter olive (but oh so tasty, I eat them by the handful back home!).

After that little stop, we made our way to the Varvakios Market where there are huge halls full of purveyors of the freshest meat, seafood, and produce in Greece.  Make no mistake, this place is huge.  But you better wear shoes, as it gets slippery in places (especially around the seafood stalls!).  Freshly slaughtered pigs, lambs, chickens and ducks were hung in stalls, huge King Prawns and Octopus were put on ice...and people, there were tons of people everywhere, just going about their daily business and buying food for their household.  I seriously liked the place, and can't wait to go back and hang out in one of the ouzeries for a shot of ouzo and some choice cuts of charcuterie.

Speaking of charcuterie, our next stop was at the oldest meat market in Athens, the Miran Pastourma shop, operating from the same location since it opened in 1922.  Our group was welcomed with open arms and led to the back where a table was set up for us with shots of Tsipouro, and trays of various cuts of meat, cheese, olives, and rye husks.  To be honest, I think this was one of the best meals ever, and something I'm quite used to as my own family eats like this for lunch more often than not.  The next time I come to Athens, I'm bringing my family here first before our trek to the village!

The 4 hour tour went by far too fast, and almost too soon, it was time to head back to the hotel.  Climbing aboard the motorcoach and relaxing with more tiropites on the way back to the Hilton was a great way to unwind before the rest of the night's festivities.  With the last tiropita packed away I made my way up to my room to freshen up and get ready.

The Hilton was gracious enough to host a poolside party that night, complete with copious amounts of food (when Greeks cook, they cook to feed entire armies), rivers of wine and ouzo, and a fantastic atmosphere where us Travel Agents partied hard.  Well, most of us, anyways, lol.  Struck up several good conversations that lasted well into the night.  Afterwards, I made my way up to the world renowned Galaxy Bar to check out the view from there and have a drink.  Not feeling tired, I hopped a cab and went to the Infinite Fox Heavy Metal Bar in the city and hung out there, soaking in some great hard rock and classic metal until the wee hours of the morning.



Sunday turned out to be just as amazing as Saturday was.  The first event was a guided tour of the Acropolis Museum.  This museum is absolutely breathtaking and fascinating.  Our guide took us throughout the entire museum, and, since she is an archaeologist as well, explaining the excavation progress of the ruins that are directly underneath the museum.  There is a glass floor pedestrians walk on that goes right over the excavation into the museum that is absolutely breathtaking.



After the museum, it was a short walk down to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the official kick off for the 2018 ASTA Destination Expo. Speakers included US Ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt; Greek Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura, amongst others representing ASTA, FedHATTA, and the City of Athens, with both the US and Hellenic National Anthems being played by the Hellenic Navy Band and Greek Soprano Anastasia Zanni.  It was a great way to kickoff such a prestigious event.  I even had the pleasure of meeting Minister Kountoura on my way out of the Odeon (I hope someone can find the pic of me and her!).

We were bussed to Syntagma Square afterwards and sheparded into one of three hotels for lunch.  I was hoping for the Grande Bretagne, as I have a fondness for the history of it, but I ended up at the NJV Athens Plaza, which in itself is an amazing property as I was about to find out.  We started with drinks and hors d'oeveurs in the Explorer's Bar before lunch in the Parliament Restaurant.  And what a  lunch it was!  Most hotels offer guests some sort of rubber chicken entree, but here we were munching away on an amazingly luxurious lunch that included sole and veal.

After that amazing repast it was back to the hotel for the trade show, allowing me the chance to meet with a few suppliers that I didn't have appointments with the next day, making to note to stop by Emirates and Aegean Airlines no matter what.

Seemingly finished with the trade show, I went up and changed into my suit and tie for the amazing reception held at the Zappeion, smack in the middle of the National Gardens of Athens.  Pulling up (along with our police escorts) we were treated to the full red carpet treatment and band playing outside, welcoming us in to 4 different  anterooms lined with vendors and purveyors of some of Greece's most amazing wines, beers, coffees (of which I had a few), and other amazing finds.  Once all of the buses arrived, we were led into the Peristilio, smack in the center of the Zappeion, with its open air roof, made for an amazing centerpiece for tonight's festivities.  Aside from yet another AMAZING display of some of the best food Athens has to offer, there were several great performances that night by bands,
dancing troupes, and again with Anastasia Zanni and her golden voice.
A fabulous night all around.




Monday rolled around and after breakfast I ended up back at the trade show, stopping at several vendors that I missed the day before. After that were the B2B one on one appointments that were set up with various suppliers beforehand to learn more about products and services as they would apply to our specific clients.  Lasting 10 minutes each, I had one from the start at 1:00PM all the way to 4:30PM, however, I did skip a few for a break in between.  This is where I met a good majority of some amazing folks who are at the forefront of turning Greece around and you can tell by how fine tuned they were into coming up with bespoke offerings and services.  I left the appointments with a handful of suppliers I'm going to heavily use with my particular clients.

That evening's festivities were held at the Marina of Alimos, for the opening night of the Yachting Festival.  So many cool boats available for private hire, even a pirate ship!  Opening remarks by several dignitaries representing Alimos, Athens, Attica, and fedHATTA, to the amazing repast by the same folks that catered the Zappeion dinner (believe it or not, coming from me, the Octopus was amazing!), to the fantastic Captains and yacht owners, it was yet another amazing night that blew my mind away.  After a fantastic evening on the yachts several of us agents got the midnight munchies and went to the neighboring Ventrini Roast House for some grub.  Ever have a Gyro with Black Angus Tri-Tip?  Sweet Jesus, it was a religious experience for my taste buds.  And let's not get into the Spanakopita, it was unbelievable.  Definitely a carnivore's paradise, one that I will be returning to as often as I can.

The next morning my body decided I needed to sleep in.  I missed my excursion to Delphi, but that was ok with me, as I had to get my belongings together and switch rooms (my mistake, I booked the hotel for one day less than I was supposed to, thank you Hilton Hhonors for coming through with a last minute redemption!).  Not an Acropolis View room, anymore, it had a great view of the city to the East, which was still pretty epic.  Took the day to relax and unwind before the last excursion for my trip, the Athens by Night: Food Tour and Wine tasting, hosted by those wonderful folks at Greeking.me.

First stop was Ergon, a Greek Deli a block away from Syntagma Square.  They had us in a private dining room upstairs where we got to sample more Tsipouro, different cheeses and olives, and miniature rye rusks.  A heck of a way to get started.  From there it was to a real tourist heavy spot in Plaka which was packed with our group and other tourists.  The food was decent, much like what you'd find at some of the stateside Greek Festivals, and the entertainment was great too.  After that great dinner, we hiked to the Chocolat Royal, a cozy little bar and restaurant in the Thisio area with an AMAZING view towards the Acropolis.  We were giving a selection of 5 wines to taste from different areas of Greece.  Some were too dry for my taste, but there was this dessert wine, a honey wine, called Oinomelo.  It was so sweet, so tasty, I should've bought a case or 3.  The evening came to an end far too soon, and it was back on the bus for my last night at the Athens Hilton.

My biggest take away from this amazing trip was not just what the suppliers and vendors and everyone else had to offer, but the difference I've noticed in the Greeks than from when I've visited in years past.  We the Greeks invented Filoxenia, the art of treating foreigners with a sense of hospitality like they were family, which, on this great planet we inhabit, we are.



* All photos the author's except where noted.







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