It’s September and the tourist season is almost over. Only a handful of travellers trickle off the ferry at the port of Mykonos. Hundreds of bronzed backpackers and party people with sun-bleached hair surge up the gangplank for the return journey to Athens. They are taking the blue skies and sunshine with them.
The hills loom beyond the port, dark and forbidding against a heavy, grey sky. They are strewn with huge boulders, thrown down, according to legend, by the gods, in a battle long, long ago. Low stone houses glow, white against the cliffs, their blue shutters closed against the cold. Weeks, or perhaps even days ago, they would have sparkled in the sunlight, their doors and windows open to the breeze.
You might be tempted to race through Piraeus, bound for the docks and the fast ferry that will carry you off to an Aegean island paradise, but it’s well worth stopping, even for a day.
Take a trip up to Kastella. This steep hill has been inhabited since the 26th century BC, when it was known as Munichia. At the time Piraeus was a rocky island called Halipedon, or salt field, because of the boggy, often submerged, salt field which connected it to the mainland. In 511 BC Hippias fortified the hill and four years later it became an outpost of Athens. During the boom times in the early 2oth century, the hill was developed as a prime residential area and its elegant neo-classical mansions were built. Today Kastella is one of the most prosperous and attractive neighbourhoods of the city, with a panoramic view over Athens and the Saronic Gulf.
Take a look at the ports. By the 5th century BC, silt had obliterated the salt field, Piraeus was now part of Athens and, with its three deep water harbours, it was highly desirable. In 493 BC, Themistocles began to fortify Piraeus and in 483 BC, the Athenian fleet moved in to build the ships which snatched victory from the Persians at the Battle of Salamis three years later. Next Themistocles constructed the port, created the ship sheds (neosoikoi), and started work on his famous walls. By 471 BC, Piraeus was a great military and commercial harbour, serving the mighty Athenian fleet as a permanent base. Although the Themistoclean Walls and neosoikoi were largely destroyed by the Spartans in 404 BC, some remains can still be seen, along with the Skeotheke (an ancient storehouse for shipping gear) and the Eetionia, a mole in the entrance to the harbour.
Explore the ruins of the ancient city in the basement of the cathedral of Agia Triada and the ancient Theater of Zea next to the Archaeological Museum. Step inside the Archeological Museum, to see the four bronze statues which were unearthed at a construction site near the Tinaneios Gardens and the hand which was discovered by workmen laying pipes.
Take a stroll around the Piraeus town, through streets laid out by the architect Hippodemus on his famous “Hippodamian” grid plan in the 4th century BC. Browse in the shops along the central avenues of Piraeus, Iroon Polytechneiou and Grigoriou Labraki. Marvel at the grand 19th century Neo-Classical public buildings.
Stop for a break in one of the tavernas or seafood restaurants along the waterfront at Mikrolimano or Piraiki. Sample a local beverage, a Mythos, a Restsina or a Mastiha perhaps (more of Mastiha in my next post)
Take in a movie at Village Park, the largest cinema complex in Greece. Browse in the shops, dine and drink in the restaurants and cafes.
Drop into Allou Fun Park, the latest and largest amusement theme park in Athens, for rides and attractions, restaurants and pastry shops.
If you’re passing through in late February, you might catch the Ecocinema International Film Festival, which starts with the Three Kings’ Way Festival, a riot of costumes and entertainment. In summer, you could catch a concert (Greek dancers, folk music and bands) at the open air Veakeio Theater in Kastella, or any time of the year see a variety show at the Menandreio Theater, or as Delfinario
Finally, check out the giant 21st century vessels as you sail out of Piraeus, the largest seaport in Greece, one of the largest in the Mediterranean and one of the top ten container ports in Europe. It’s impressive!
Most visitors to Greece will know Sounion best as the site of one of the most famous archeological finds in the world, the temple of Poseidon. It is also, however, home to some of the country’s most luxurious and expensive holiday homes.
In the first half of the 20th century, few people vacationed around Sounion. Visitors came to see the Temple of Poseidon, but the countryside, with its rugged scrub-covered cliffs, pines and olives, even its secluded beaches, appeared to hold little appeal. Then, after the 1950s, as hotels and villas spread along the coast from Athens and people came to spend their holidays on its sunny beaches, things began to change. Sounion, too, was soon colonised as a summer haven.
Construction flourished the 1960s and 1970s. Large, modern villas and condominiums appeared, some of them with a reputed price tag of in excess of twenty million euros.
Development continues around Sounion. Let us hope that good sense prevails and that high rise towers never surround and overshadow the Temple of Poseidon.
To the ancient Greeks, Sounion was a holy place. It was their last glimpse of land as they sailed away from Athens and their first sight of home as they returned. It was the place where the legendary King Aegus had ended his life. It was the province of the omnipotent god Poseidon, who held the sea and its moods in his sway.
It was fitting then, that a temple to the mighty god of the sea should be set here and that it should be a place of worship and prayer for this nation of seafarers.
The temple of Poseidon which stands in ruins at Sounion today was built between 444 and 440 BC, but beneath it lie fragments of another which dates back a further 300 years. The historian Herodotus, in 600 BC, described how the leaders of Athens set sail in sacred boats to take part in festivals at Sounion’s temple four times a year.
Many historians and archaeologists have described the temple of Poseidon as it would have been all those centuries ago, but it is easy for anyone looking up at its tall colonnades, silhouetted against the sky, to feel the power, the spirit and the beauty of the place and to imagine it in its glory days.
The poet George Gordon Lord Byron visited Sounion and is believed to have carved his name on a fallen fragment. He later wrote in his poem Isles of Greece.
Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep
I visited Sounion at sunset and watched the light flare and fade on its ancient stones as I listened to the murmur of the waves. Unforgettable!
Sounion has a long history. It begins back in the mists of time, with the legend of Aegus, the King of Athens, his son Theseus and the monstrous half-man, half-bull, they called the Minotaur.
The Minotaur lived in a labyrinth beneath the palace of Minos, the King of Crete. Every year, the Athenians were forced to surrender seven young men and seven young women to Minos as tribute. As soon as they arrived in Crete these youths were sent into the labyrinth where they were devoured by the bloodthirsty Minotaur.
Convinced that he could slay the monster and free the Athenians from their dreadful obligations to Minos, Theseus volunteered to be part of the tribute. He set off on this dangerous mission, under a black sail, but he before he left, he promised his father that if he survived the contest, he would replace it with a white one for his return journey.
Theseus did indeed kill the Minotaur, but he forgot to hoist the white sail. Seeing the black sail and believing that his son was dead, Aegus threw himself from the cliff at Sounion.
Since that day the sea washes the shores of Greece has been known as the Aegean, in memory of Aegus, the King of Athens.
The Greek Riviera ends, or perhaps one should say culminates or even reaches a mighty crescendo, at Cape Sounion. Sixty nine kilometres south east of Athens, this promontory forms the southernmost point of the Attica peninsula.
It is one of the world’s most awe-inspiring places. Not only is the landscape spectacular, with sheer rocky cliffs towering above the sea on three sides, but against it stand the ruins of the ancient temple of Poseidon – formidable still, even if it is fallen, fragmented and scattered across the rocky ground.
Cape Sounion forms the first and last sight of land for those sailing into or out of Athens. And what an unforgettable sight it is!
The road which runs along the coast from Athens to Sounion is punctuated with lovely seaside towns, each with its own special character.
Beyond Vouliagmeni, there’s Varkiza. Its folds of sheltered coves are tucked out of sight below the road, so ease up as you approach or you’ll miss it. Unless of course, the lines of parked cars tempt you to stop and check out exactly what they’ve stopped for!
As in Vouliagmeni, Varkiza beaches are both “free” and “private” so you can either pay 6 to 8 euros and languish in a deck chair, or lounge for zilch on the sand. Either way, you still swim in the same clear blue waters and enjoy the same sweeping views out across the Aegean Sea.
Varkiza is the area’s premier windsurfing spot. Not only does it offer a stunning natural setting for the sport, with fabulous views both out to sea and back to shore, it also boasts the best facilities. Favourable breezes go, of course, without saying!
Like Glyfada, Vouliagmeni or anywhere along this coast, the seaside experience is complemented and enhanced by the culinary experience. The perfect Varkiza day finishes in one of the local taverna, overlooking the Aegean, savouring the local seafood and sipping on an ice-cold Mythos.
East of Glyfada but still in the shadow of Mount Hymettus, lies Vouliagméni.
With their golden sands and turquoise waters, the beaches of Vouliagmeni rank among the most beautiful in the Mediterranean. Many, including the famous Astir, (home of the late Jackie Kennedy’s favourite resort) are private. Although this sounds exclusive it really means that, for about 8 euros, anyone can colonise a deck chair and avail themselves of the facilities and services. For nothing at all, though, you can swim at a public beach (equally beautiful) lie on your towel, do without facilities and services, mingle with the locals and still have a great day out.
Just a five minute stroll from the town square, is Vouliagmeni Lake. Formed by mineral springs which bubbled up from underground to fill an ancient limestone cave, the lake is famous for its soothing, healing waters. It’s heaven, they say, for sufferers of arthritis and rheumatism and it also takes the sting out of an overdose of sun!
Vougliameni also boasts a Marina full of classy yachts and a collection of glam hotels and resorts. There are great cafes, restaurants, tavernas and clubs in Vouliagmeni. The nightlife, especially in summer has a buzz all of its own.
One of Vougliameni’s loveliest spots, however is its picturesque harbour with its view out over the distant islands of the Saronic Gulf.
Sheltered by Mount Hymettus on one side and bordered by the Saronic Gulf on the other, Glyfada is one of Athens’ most beautiful, lively and desirable suburbs. Whether you’re shopaholic, a café aficionado, a party person, a greenie, a beach bunny or a soul in search of the simple seaside life, you’ll find your niche in Glyfada.
For shoppers, Glyfada is paradise, with a line-up of local icons like Kokkoris (for eyewear addicts) Ensayar (for brand afficianados) and Zer Teo (for exquisite jewellery) as well global giants like Zara and Mango.
Elegant cafes, restaurants and bars abound in Glyfada. All along the waterfront are brilliant open-air nightclubs which rock the place on summer evenings.
With a state of the art “green” tramway which features a carpet of grass between the tracks and a central pedestrian zone, Glyfada shopping, dining and clubbing is an easy feat.
The very best of Glyfada, however, is down on the beach during sunshine hours. There are miles of golden sand, a stretch of blue water, views of an off-shore island, fishing boats chugging in and out and fishermen selling their catch fresh from the sea.
What makes Glyfada so special, so attractive, so stimulating and so comfortable is its perfect balance of 21st century glam and timeless simplicity.
From the Port of Piraeus, 7 kilometres south of Athens, to the ancient ruins of Sounion, 70 kilometres further on, lies one of the loveliest stretches of coastline in the world. It’s the province of magnates, oligarchs, tycoons and celebrities as well as sun-lovers and fun-lovers. They call it the Greek Riviera.
While Piraeus doesn’t have the golden sands and beach culture which attract schools of sun-lovers, it does draw its share of magnates, tycoons, celebrities and fun-lovers.
Shipping Magnate Aristotle Onassis installed his fleet in Piraeus after the Military Junta of 1967. Oligarchs park their super yachts here. Easycruise, the maritime branch of Easyjet, sails in and out of Piraeus.
The hilltop neighbourhood of Kastella is one of the most desirable in the Aegean, the kind where the rich and celebrated hang out in gorgeous mansions with million dollar views.
Fun-lovers frequent the tavernas, restaurants and night clubs of Microlimano. They come to play in Allou Fun Park.
So, start at Piraeus and then follow the coastline along the Greek Riviera.