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Greece hopes for tourism rebound amid crisis
Many tourists see Athens as a launching pad for visiting the beaches and cute whitewashed buildings of the Greek islands. And the Aegean archipelago can be a great escape, especially during the nation's current economic crisis.

The Ancient Agora in the Monastiraki district is a good pick for visitors interested in Athens' famed archaeological sites. Travelers who put Athens on their itinerary could be rewarded with bargains on everything from restaurants and hotels to souvenirs, if they are willing to step into the heart of the recession [Credit: Petros Giannakouris/AP]
But those willing to put Athens on their itinerary could be rewarded with bargains on everything from restaurants and hotels to souvenirs, if they are willing to step into the heart of the recession.

For some, the risk of strikes and protests against Greece's tough austerity measures isn't worth it, especially since many have turned violent.

For others, the risk is small in one of the world's oldest cities, which offers ancient landmarks such as the Acropolis with its 2,500-year-old marble temples.

German tourist Dorothea Lueddeckens didn't worry about the risk of upheaval. "Probably it's more dangerous to be on a German autobahn. Protests don't suddenly come out of thin air," she said. The 44-year-old professor said she, her husband and three children also chose Greece to help a struggling country, knowing it relies heavily on tourism — which provides more than 15 percent of annual economic output.

The Greek government is reaching out to visitors, reducing sales tax on all tourism-related spending, while scrapping landing, takeoff and stopover fees at regional airports through 2011. Analysts and industry officials expect a rise in tourist revenues, after last year's 8 percent drop.

A recent British survey also found good restaurant prices at the popular resort island of Corfu. It compared the price of a three-course evening meal for two in Greece and 13 other countries, including a bottle of house wine.

The price on the northwestern island came in at 37.74 pounds ($62.50), fourth from the bottom of the list and far cheaper than cities such as Miami; Sorrento, Italy; Brittany, France; and Brighton, England.

But in Athens, tourists have to know where to look.

"Prices have dropped, and there are good offers available for hotels and restaurants," said travel agent Panayiotis Georgakarakos. "If you book in advance, you can find deals."

But he also said hoteliers are feeling the pinch. "The cost of living here has increased, it has not fallen," Georgakarakos said. "Hotel owners, too, have to make a living. As it is, we are much cheaper than Rome or London."

Hotel rooms in some downtrodden parts of central Athens cost as little as $50 (34 euros) a night, but nearby streets can provide unsettling encounters with drug addicts, dealers and prostitutes.

The inner city has recently seen rising crime, including the area near the National Archaeological Museum, a popular tourist stop that showcases Greece's glorious past — and also next to the capital's main illegal drugs market. But the picturesque areas of Plaka, Monastiraki and Thissio around the Acropolis remain pretty and generally safe, partly due to improvements made for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

'Do you see anyone around?'

Miriam Trader, 56, traveling with a group of tourists from Baltimore, Md., was impressed by that area of the capital.

"The food's delicious, from the nice restaurants to the more offbeat ones. We have felt very safe," she said. As for shopping, Trader said: "They're trying to move their merchandise and are offering good prices."

Unrest in destinations such as Egypt and Tunisia is expected to increase tourism to Greece this year. But shopkeepers in Plaka, Athens' top tourist haunt, told The Associated Press they haven't seen that yet.

"We are offering discounts of up to 15 percent. The thing is that people aren't spending," said souvenir shop owner Evangelos Baltzoglou. "Do you see anyone around?"

Tourists walk by the marble temple of Athena Nike in Athens on April 18, 2011 [Credit: Petros Giannakouris/AP]
In Athens, prices vary wildly, with coffee ranging from about a euro ($1.43) for a takeaway to five euros ($7.15) at a cafe. The Acropolis Museum restaurant has reasonably priced meals and snacks, and stays open until late in the evening, offering a closer view of the ancient citadel than any hotel rooftop.

Humbler tavernas with traditional Greek food can be found throughout the center of Athens. Ones with live music tend to charge more.

Smaller shops sell souvlaki pitta — cubes of grilled meat served with tomato, garlicky tzatziki sauce, onion and potato chips, all tightly wrapped in a grilled pancake.

More than meets the eye

The Acropolis Museum, which opened nearly two years ago, received more than 1.3 million visitors in 2010. But don't miss the more compact Benaki and Cycladic Art museums, which cover a broader scope of Greek culture.

The center of Athens is small and easily covered on foot. Bus and subway services are reliable and relatively cheap, but often overcrowded.

Visitors should know that pedestrians rank at the bottom of the pecking order on the capital's streets and pavements, whose boundaries tend to blur in the eyes of car drivers, motorcyclists and even cyclists. Crosswalks are best avoided, but even at traffic lights don't count on motorists stopping for a red light.

The center of Athens contains more parks than first meet the eye, most in a state of quasi-benevolent neglect.

Several forested hills rise above apartment blocks that edge out the few neoclassical houses left outside Plaka. Governments have failed to protect architectural heritage from development fueled by high real estate prices.

There are archaeological sites galore, on hilltops, poking out under the foundations of modern buildings. They even include a subterranean stretch of ancient city walls in the basement of an office block off central Klafthmonos Square.

The Ancient Agora, whose rambling ruins are visible from outside, through a clutter of cafe and restaurant tables in the Monastiraki district, is a good pick, with the generally overlooked Kerameikos cemetery, a 10-minute stroll away.

Monastiraki is full of junk shops with varying prices and quality. Tourists should know that anything more than 40 years old is considered an antique and accordingly priced.

Athinas Street, off Monastiraki, has fascinating hardware and kitchenware shops, while Evripidou Street, near the neoclassical main meat and fish market, is famous for its spice and food emporia.

Tourists seeking the grittier edge of Athens can walk — during daylight hours — through the (legal) red-light district of Fylis Street, a 20-minute amble from the National Archaeological Museum.

The booming sex industry has saved rows of old houses dating from the early 20th century that otherwise would have been torn down. On Wednesdays, a busy open-air fruit and vegetable market emerges between the brothels.

From open-air cinema to hiking excursions

Such architectural survivals also can be seen in the Metaxourgeio district near Monastiraki and in the more salubrious settings of Ano Petralona, a quiet area on the western slopes of the Hill of Philopappos where one can get a decent meal at a good price. Don't miss Troon Street.

The central Kolonaki and Exarcheia areas are studded with elegant 1930s apartment blocks, built in a more genteel version of the International Style with marbled entrances, ornate ironwork and porthole windows. An influx of refugees from the disastrous Greek-Turkish war of 1919-22 led to special housing projects. Some survive in Kesariani, next to the Athens InterContinental Hotel and opposite the old Panathinaikos football ground.

At night, try an open-air cinema, where you can smoke, eat and drink during the screening. Smoking is technically illegal in any indoor cafes, bars or restaurants. But few people respect the 8-month-old law, which authorities have proved incapable of enforcing.

Some wags propose marketing Greece in these tough times to smoking tourists.

On the city's fringes, splendid ancient sites such as the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio and the Sanctuary of Demeter at Elefsina are both easily reached by bus.

Despite destructive forest fires, the mountains that ring Athens make for good hiking excursions, particularly Parnitha and, a half-hour bus ride from the center, Imittos (get off at the terminus of the 224 Kaisariani line).

Another great escape: the Saronic islands — Salamina (ancient Salamis), Aegina, Poros and Hydra, between five and 90 minutes from the mainland. Several companies offer day cruises. The capital's port of Piraeus provides regular ferry service to most of the Aegean Sea islands and Crete.

Any visit to Greece could be disrupted by strikes, which have increased since last year's austerity package was imposed to secure a 110 billion-euro ($160 billion) bailout from the country's European partners and the International Monetary Fund.

But alternatives usually exist. Even during a ferry strike, many islands can be reached by costlier plane services.

Demonstrations often turn violent, with exchanges of tear gas and petrol bombs between riot police and protesters, but they are not that hard to avoid and outsiders are rarely targeted.

Author: Nicholas Paphitis| Source: Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved [April 21, 2011]

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