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Chatting with Dimitris: Greece opens up & hiking around Athens

Greece just announced that it's opening its borders to international travelers on May 14th, so I figured it was a good time to check in with my friend and hiking colleague Dimitris Papageorgiou. Listen to the short interview in the "podcast" tab above or you can subscribe via iTunes or Spotify from my Buzzsprout page.

Dimitris has been under strict lockdown in Athens since November but has tried to get out for hikes when possible. The city has a few green spaces and is surrounded on all sides by mountains and hills, plus of course there are fun places to walk in the city center. The Acropolis (literally: "high city") rises above the urban sprawl below:

[photos are my own unless specified otherwise]

When I interviewed Dimitris last week he was actually on the island of Chios doing research on their trail system (nice work if you can get it!), so he spoke to me from his hotel room. Chios is known for its production of mastic, a resin that was widely used in the ancient world as a natural chewing gum, and the ancient Greeks "believed it good for brightening teeth and tightening gums, strengthening blood, drying up coughs and colds, aiding digestion, and healing wounds." (see this fascinating article for more on mastic)

The Covid lockdown in Greece was extremely strict despite the numbers being much lower than in the rest of Europe. The total population of Greece is about 10 million (vs. Italy's 60 million), 40% of whom live in the Athens area, so it's surprising to hear that the same lockdown was imposed nationwide; so someone living on a semi-deserted island had the same curfew (9 p.m.) and limitations as someone living in the densely populated capital. Understandably, people are frustrated!

At its strictest, the measures allowed people to only exercise near their homes and they weren't allowed to drive anywhere, so city residents had limited access to green spaces. The only area where you can "hike" is in the hills surrounding the Acroplis: Philopappos Hill is quite green and has paths connecting it to other sites, like the Pnyx, which held popular assemblies as far back as 507 BC where city leaders first discussed the concept of Democracy. See more detail about the "seven hills of Athens" here.

The Acropolis from Philopappos Hill

There's also a huge park called the "Pedion tou Areos" (Field of Ares, like the Champ de Mars in Paris) near the Archeological Museum, and the National Garden is in the city center. And if you just want a fun city walk, head to the historic Plaka district and cut over to Monastiraki, where you find the ruins of the old Roman Agora (Forum). And in non-Covid times of course you can go up to the Acropolis and tour the Ancient Greek Agora.

The red-tiled roofs of the Plaka district
The Parthenon (left) with its commanding view down over the city
Looking down over the ancient theater, and out to the Mediterranean Sea in the distance
The Ancient Agora was the heart of the old city, and it's quite extensive!

One of the amazing things about Athens is how recently it has grown into a city. All of Greece was under the control of the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) for about 400 years, so Athens had long faded from the world stage. The population in 1830 was only 4,000 people! Forty years later it had gone up to 44,000 and by 1921 it had 473,000. That same year, Greece took in an additional 300,000 people from the newly-formed nation of Turkey in a forced "population exchange" that expulsed non-Turks "back to their homelands" even though many of these "Greeks" had been in Anatolia for centuries (read more about this radical plan here). By the 1970s, the area around the city was developed and the metro area grew to over 2 million. Photos from the 19th century show a barren plain surrounding the pocked ruins of the Acropolis, which had basically fallen into ruin (at one point the Parthenon was used to store gunpowder for the Ottoman army and it suffered a devastating explosion in 1687! Read all about that here.).

Photo from "Athens 1839-1900: A Photographic Record"
Colorized photo from ArchaeologyArt's Instagram page (go follow him for more cool stuff!)

For size comparison with Rome and Florence (see previous blog posts on Florence and blog or podcast on Rome), the Athens City Limits are actually quite small and mainly cover the historical old town: ~39 km2 or 15 sq mi (Florence is more than twice as big at 100 km/40 sq mi and Rome is a massive 1,200 sq km/500 sq mi). However, the city has sprawled out in all directions so when one talks about Athens it usually includes the whole "metro area," which is ~3,000 km2 (just over 1,000 sq mi). Most of the city spreads out in the plain of Attica that's bounded on 3 sides by mountains, and on the south by the sea, so there are plenty of fun things to do in nature within an easy drive of the city. Here are a few of the places where Dimitris and his sister Nefeli (both are hiking guides) like to go hiking when they're not guiding tours:

1) Mount Parnitha lies only 30 km (19 mi) to the north of Athens and is the highest on the Attica peninsula (elev. 1,413 m or 4,636 ft). It's a national park and has dense forests that provide a protected habitat for native wildlife, herbs and plants, plus a vast network of trails. It was inhabited since Mycenaean times and you can still see the remains of several fortresses that helped defend the city. A few are still in good condition, like the Phyle fortress, and others include the Panakton fortress, Eleutherae, Dekeleia, and the fort of Limiko. You can read more about them here. And of course, there are churches and monasteries! See more about them here. A short taxi ride can take you to the base of the mountain, then you catch a cable car up to higher elevations. [photos provided by Dimitris]

2) Hymettus Mountain (pronounced "imi-TOS") lies to the southeast of the city. In antiquity there was a temple to Zeus on the summit, though sadly not much remains today. There is also an old marble quarry and you can still find pieces of fallen columns scattered around as well as an ancient quarryman's hut whose roof is still intact! The highest point is 1,026 m (3,366 ft) and you'll find some forested areas as well as rocky limestone outcroppings. Enjoy great views out over the entire metropolitain area from the top. [photos from Dimitris]

3) Penteli Mountain lies to the northeast of the city and reaches an elevation of 1,100 m (3,600 ft). It's also heavily forested and has quarries that produced the high-quality marble used to build the Parthenon. And amazingly, archaeologists have even found the bones of prehistoric animals (mastodons, rhinoceros, antelope, giraffe, giant turtles, and hyenas) in the nearby hills! You can read more about these amazing finds here.

Athens often gets a bad rap and people think there's not much to see beyond the Acropolis, but they're quite mistaken! It's a lively city with a vibrant cafe' and bar scene, a fascinating history, and amazing museums (my personal favorites: the National Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Cycladic Art).

The stunning gold "Mask of Agamemnon" at the Archaeological Museum is a highlight
Votive statuette gazing up at the sky, est. 2,500 BCE (Cycladic Museum)

I can't wait to get back to Greece, and will definitely try to get into the mountains to do some hiking this time.

If you enjoyed your virtual tour, leave a comment below (you have to sign in with your email, top right, so I know who you are!), or drop a few drachma in the tip jar to help support my iced-coffee habit (see the "tip your guide" button in top menu). Also, don't forget to check out my short interview with Dimitris over at the podcast! (using the tab above, or at my Buzzsprout page). Thanks for coming along and τα λέμε σύντομα! See you soon!

Here are some pics of Dimitris and I, working hard (or hardly working) ;-)

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