Athens: The City of Gods – A local’s stroll around the Athenian City Centre
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, whilst leaving MI4 headquarters on Rigilis street and heading towards the centre of Plaka, in the outskirts of the Acropolis, I’m still indecisive as to which path I should follow. The options are endless and I find myself smiling considering that on any other day the reply would be obvious – just follow the shortest path and quickly head back to the office, no time for sightseeing. But today is different. The glorious sun is shining over Athens, whilst a gentle breeze finds its way from the sea. The town is vibrant with tourists and I’ve got a good hour and a half before my appointment. The decision has been made, after all, taking long walks in the city centre is one of my favourite things to do. I take a deep breath, roll my ciggie and I can’t help but think that a coffee to go is in order.
I start walking towards Herodou Atticou street. This used to be the residential area of the royal family back in the day, hence its current name “Anaktora” (Palace). It is up to this day one of the most expensive and well-cared areas of the centre of the city of Athens. As I am crossing the surrounding streets and vertical roads that provide the lucky residents serenity and unhindered view to the National Garden, I am thinking of its recent history while observing the beautiful facades. The area is home to many embassies and some of the oldest bourgeoisie families of the country. Herodou Atticou Street is always attracting tourists and journalists as this happens to be the home of the Presidential Mansion, the residence of the Greek Prime Minister. There are groups of tourists that photograph the Evzones of the Presidential Guard on their way to the Parliament. I enjoy observing them, feeling like a tourist myself in my own city.
At this point, an important decision needs to be made. Head north towards the foothills of Lycabettus and maybe grab a coffee from one of the numerous trendy cafes and bistros of Kolonaki (one of the most high-end areas of downtown Athens)? Or cross into the National Garden and visit what is undoubtedly one of my favourite places on earth, The national garden little Café? Today it will be the latter. Mr Niko greets me with his signature smile and asks me about the current trends of the real estate market while preparing my coffee to go. He makes time to share one of his short stories on how things used to be back in the day, but we are being interrupted by a family of tourists enquiring about how to get to Syntagma square. I take the opportunity and offer to guide them through the National Garden all the way to Syntagma square on the other side of the park, right in front of the parliament.
We start walking and I explain to them that when locals want to escape the bustling city and take a deep breath of fresh air, the first thing that comes to mind is a relaxing walk around the National Garden. I continue “our tour” by explaining that this 155-acre garden was conceptualized by Queen Amalia as a scientific and botanical garden as well as a private place where the royal family could get some privacy. The impressive selection of trees and plants from all around the world, as well as the small zoo in the middle of the garden, make it the ultimate family destination. As we reach towards the exit to Syntagma Square I draw their attention to what is, in my opinion, the highlight of the National Garden; the Sundial and the Roman Mosaic floor facing Vasilisis Amalias Avenue.
Reaching the area of Syntagma, the heart of Athens, with the biggest share of financial activities, commercial traffic and tourist visitors, the friendly family asks me about hiking on Lycabettus Hill. I explain to them that this is probably the best place in town to catch the majestic Athenian sunset and I also share a little insight into Greek mythology. According to Greek Mythology, Mount Lycabettus was a rock carried by Goddess Athena, protector of the city, who had won over Poseidon in their battle for the sovereignty of Athens and was trying to fortify the city. The rock fell from her hands after she received some bad news from a raven. Legend has it, that because of this, ravens turned black as a punishment.
We say our farewells and split ways and I now continue my walk in front of the Old Royal Palace that now houses the Parliament. I take time to watch the switch of the presidential guards and quickly pay my respects to the monument of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While I am crossing Vasilisis Amalias Avenue to Syntagma square I observe the majestic building that has been sheltering the Grande Bretagne Hotel for more than a century and can’t help but think of all that it has witnessed. I pass by the fountain in the middle of the square. My plan is to take Ermou street, the emblematic meeting point of the Athenians, all the way down to Monastiraki Square and the neighbourhood of Psyrri, and from there enter the unique area of Plaka. It’s a long detour but the aesthetics, the colours and the different visuals always make it worth my while.
“I’m now a proper tourist” is what I think while entering the Commercial and Historic Triangle of Athens which in essence constitutes the heart of the city. Within the squares of Syntagma, Omonoia and Monastiraki, this is the centre of transactions and entertainment, a mix of history, grandeur, but also demanding everyday life and commercial activities. The majestic blend of the past and the present reveals itself right in front of you. Walking around one finds himself walking on a tightrope balancing between Hellenic and Byzantine times, Eastern and Western elements that effortlessly combine and create this unique ambience that cannot be found elsewhere on the globe. A melting pot for civilisations throughout history.
Towards the end of the road, I come across the church of Kapnikarea, one of the oldest Greek Orthodox churches in Athens, built around the 11th century. A little further down from Kapnikarea, Ermou street comes to an end, leaving me in the middle of the famous Monastiraki Square, the biggest marketplace of Athens. As I approach the square, I take the time to enjoy the diverse crowd. I find myself daydreaming while looking at the same archaeological monuments as if it was the very first time. The emblematic Tzistarakis Mosque and the unique Library of Hadrian are some to name a few. I spend some time wandering at the large flea market and enjoy my coffee under the sun but time is pushing. It is time to head towards the neighbourhood of Gods, Plaka.
On the shadows of the Acropolis lies Plaka, the most picturesque and oldest district of Athens, continuously inhabited from antiquity to the present day. The neighbourhood of Gods, as it is called, resembles a journey to Classical Athens with antiquities and historical buildings everywhere. Unique in every aspect, and probably its highlight, is the Cycladic neighbourhood of Anafiotika, which was built by craftsmen and workers from the island of Anafi. The tiny whitewashed houses among the rocks, the gardens with the flowers, the narrow alleys and the mazy planning is similar only to the one found in the prominent Cycladic architectural style of the homonymous islands complex. Majestic in every respect.
As I approach the Acropolis, I feel this neighbourhood does not need any recommendations. The most scenic area of the town manages to charm me every single time with its perfect combination of old and new, with its paved alleys and neoclassical buildings being interrupted by modern-day hotels and cafes.
I finally arrive for my appointment right on time and the landlord greets me and offers a freshly squeezed orange juice. We start chatting about the real estate market and the property itself and I quickly catch myself wishing to continue the walk towards the Ancient Agora, Pnyx and Philopapos Hill where according to the Greek Mythology the nine musses resided. That is the beauty of it, I think to myself and smile. The city of Gods, Athens, is a place I will never get enough of.
Written by Peter Iliadis
28 June 2021