Athens - The B&B concept is something we're so familiar with we barely give it a second thought; it's ingrained in our national consciousness. What's more, in recent years the humble B&B has upped its game and now many are more like mini boutique hotels. So whether it's a cosy stone farmhouse in the Cotswolds, a clapboard cottage on a vineyard in New Zealand or a grand French château, we are used to B&Bs being a viable accommodation option when we're planning our holidays. Not so in Greece …
Luxury villas, self-catering flats, boutique hotels, yes, but the B&B as we know it hasn't really developed here. With a stopover in Athens looming, I had scoured the internet and found a handful of supposed B&Bs - but the rooms in student-style flats with shared bathrooms seemed more like an attempt to generate extra cash than a career choice. I was about to give up and book a hotel when I came across St Thomas B&B on the outer fringes of the city - run by a woman from ... Newcastle.
Janet Wilkinson's is the only real, or at least recognisable, B&B in Athens. And it's all because of the Olympics. In the run up to the 2004 Games, the Greek government asked people to open their homes to guests. Janet did - and enjoyed it so much that she decided to carry on. Her lovely villa is set back from the road and surrounded by trees in Peania, on the outskirts of the capital. Still largely agricultural, with swathes of olive trees, it's handily located between the airport and the city.
There are four B&B en-suite rooms: Wisteria, Lavender, Olive and the Garden Suite. Lavender and Olive on the top floor have balconies overlooking the lush garden and swimming pool. The Garden Suite in the basement is perfect for families, with two rooms and its own direct access to the garden. We were in Wisteria, ostensibly on the ground floor but up a flight of stairs from the front garden. A large airy room in soft creams and mauves, with a wrought-iron bedstead and candles flickering in the fireplace when we arrived, it was cosy and welcoming - as were the little miniatures of ouzo: the perfect nightcap.
Breakfast is served by the pool, beneath gnarled olive trees. The spread included scrambled eggs, freshly baked bread and homemade marmalade and plum jam, strawberries, Greek yoghurt and honey - and cornflakes. A tree in the garden produced the fruit for the freshly squeezed orange juice.
Janet first came to Athens in 1976 looking for an adventure, got a job in the Greek capital, met Aris, fell in love and never went home. They raised their two children in the villa. It's a bit like staying with your mum. Janet loves meeting people and stays in touch with many of her guests. She says: “I've never travelled the world, but the world comes to me!”
She is a naturally hospitable and helpful host. How many other B&B owners would pick you up at the airport? “I couldn't have people arriving in a strange country and taking a taxi. They might get ripped off!” The meet-and-greet service comes as standard.
There are vineyards and olive-oil makers to visit nearby, but the centre of Athens is just a short hop on the sleek and shiny Metro, a five-minute drive through the olive groves. Janet didn't just drop us off, of course - she took us in, bought the tickets for us, pointed us in the direction of the right platform and told us to call when we wanted picking up.
Half an hour later we were mooching around the winding streets of touristy Plaka, stocking up on olive-oil soaps and lunching at a neighbourhood taverna. We were so relaxed, in fact, that we didn't stroll toward the Acropolis until 4pm - only to find that it closes at 3pm at the weekend. The stunning new state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum (00 30 210 900 0900; theacropolismuseum.gr; €5) almost made up for it, the Parthenon framed by its huge picture windows.
THE PIT STOP
Eat at Miltons (00 30 210 32 49 129; eatatmiltons.gr), at 91 Adrianou, is a stylish part-open-air restaurant in Plaka with a menu by Michelin-starred chef Alain Parodi, who has taken a traditional Greek and Mediterranean menu and lightened and modernised it. The decor style is contemporary beach house. Try the risotto with squid ink or saffron and calamari (€16) or sweet pepper with marinated anchovies and sardines stuffed with spinach and feta (€12).
St Thomas B&B, 21 St Thomas, Peania, Athens, Greece (00 30 210 602 9367; stay-in-athens.com). Double rooms start at €80, including breakfast. - The Independent on Sunday