Attica (Attikí), the region encompassing the capital, is not much explored by tourists – only the great romantic ruin of the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Soúnio and the beaches immediately outside Athens are at all well known. The rest, if seen at all, tends to be en route to somewhere else – the airport or the Peloponnese or to the ports of Rafína or Lávrio.
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Things to do in Attica
At first sight, the neglect is not surprising; the mountains of Imittós, Pendéli and Párnitha, which surround Athens on three sides, are progressively less successful in confining the urban sprawl, while the routes out of the city are unenticing, to say the least. Yet a day-trip or two, or a brief circuit by car, can make a pleasant and rewarding break, with much of Greece to be seen in microcosm within an hour or two of the capital.
There are rewarding archaeological sites at Eleusis and Ramnous as well as Soúnio, and beaches almost everywhere you turn, though none remote enough to avoid the Athenian hordes. Combine a couple of these with a meal at one of the scores of seaside psarotavérnas (fish restaurants), always packed out on summer weekends, and you’ve got a more than worthwhile day out.
Aktí Souníou – Cape Soúnio – the southern tip of Attica some 70km from the city centre, is one of the most imposing spots in Greece, for centuries a landmark for boats sailing between Pireás and the islands, and an equally dramatic vantage point from which to look out over the Aegean. On its tip stands the fifth-century BC Temple of Poseidon, built in the time of Pericles as part of a major sanctuary to the sea god.
Below the promontory are several coves – the most sheltered a five-minute walk east from the car park and site entrance. The main Soúnio beach, a short distance to the north, is more crowded, but has a couple of tavernas at the far end.
The Temple of Poseidon
The Temple of Poseidon owes much of its fame to Lord Byron, who visited in 1810, carved his name on the nearest pillar (an unfortunate and much-copied precedent, which means the temple is now roped off) and immortalized the place in verse:
from Don Juan
Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die:
A land of slaves shall ne’er be mine –
Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!
In summer, at least, there is little hope of silent solitude, unless you slip into the site before the tour groups arrive or after they’ve left. But the setting is still wonderful – on a clear day, the view takes in the islands of Kéa, Kýthnos and Sérifos to the southeast, Égina and the Peloponnese to the west – and the temple is as evocative a ruin as any in Greece. Doric in style, it was probably built by the architect of the Hephaisteion in the Athens Agora. That it is so admired and visited is in part due to its position, but also perhaps to its picturesque state of ruin.
The rest of the site is of more academic interest. There are remains of a fortification wall around the sanctuary; a propylaion (entrance hall) and stoa; and cuttings for two shipsheds. To the north are the foundations of a small Temple of Athena.
The east coast
Central Attica has been blighted by the new airport and its associated motorways, and though there are still villages with Byzantine churches and countryside where wine is made, there’s little incentive, when heading east, to stop anywhere before you reach the coast. This is popular with weekending Athenians and the site of many of their second homes. Almost due east of Athens lies the port of Rafína, and to the north of here are Marathon and the isolated site of ancient Ramnous, as well as some relatively uncrowded beaches. South of Rafína the coast is less attractive, with continuous development all the way down through Loútsa (aka Artemis) towards Pórto Ráfti; it is also directly beneath the airport flight path.
The port of Rafína has fast ferries and catamarans to the Cyclades, as well as to nearby Évvia. Many Athenians have summer homes overlooking the attractive, rocky coast, but the beaches are tricky to reach even with a car, so for visitors the chief attraction, ferries aside, is gastronomic. Overlooking the harbour is a line of excellent seafood restaurants, many with roof terraces and a ringside view of the comings and goings at the harbour. They’re interspersed with cafés and fishmongers. The pedestrianized square above the harbour is also a lively place, ringed with cafés and rather cheaper eating options. A lunchtime outing is an easy operation, given the frequency of the bus service. Evenings, when it’s livelier, you’ll need to get a taxi back, or stay.
The site of the battle of Marathon, the most famous and arguably most important military victory in Athenian history, is not far from the village of MARATHÓNAS, 42km from Athens. Here, in 490 BC, a force of 9000 Athenians and 1000 of their Plataian allies defeated a 25,000-strong Persian army. After the victory a runner was sent to Athens to declare the news: having run the first marathon, he delivered his message and dropped dead. Just 192 Athenians died in the battle (compared to some 6,000 Persians), and the burial mound where they were laid, the Týmfos Marathóna (Tues–Sun 8.30am–3pm; €3), can still be seen, off the main road between Rafína and Marathónas. It is a quietly impressive monument, though surrounded now by one-way roads installed for the Olympic marathon race. The Mound of the Plataians (Tues–Sun 8.30am–3pm; €3), where the eleven Plataians (including a 10-year-old boy) who died were laid to rest, is about 5km away, near the edge of the mountain; there’s also a small, modern archeological museum here.
ÁYIOS PANDELÍMONAS, also known as Paralía Marathónas, lies straight on past the Týmfos Marathóna. The beach isn’t the greatest – though there’s plenty of room to spread out – but a string of waterfront fish tavernas and an open-air movie theatre ensure plenty of local visitors in summer.
The best beach in the region – some would say the best in the Athens area – lies north of Marathon at SKHINIÁS, a long, pine-backed strand with shallow water, big enough to allow some chance of escaping the crowds. Buses run along the road behind the beach, where there are a number of stops. At the southern end there’s a certain amount of development and several cordoned-off pay-beach sections offering cafés, showers, loungers and watersports; perhaps the best of these is Karavi (karavi.gr), with free entry, a decent bar and restaurant, volleyball courts, and windsurf hire and lessons. The central section of Skhiniás beach, beyond the Olympic rowing and kayaking centre, is the least developed, with numerous tracks leading through the pines from the road to the sand. At the northern end there’s more low-key development, mainly in the form of cafés and scattered tavernas on the sand.
The little-visited ruins of Ramnous occupy an isolated, atmospheric site above the sea, with magnificent views across the strait to Évvia. The site was an Athenian lookout point from the earliest times, and remains can be clearly seen continuing way below the fenced site, all the way down to the rocky shore. Within the site, the principal ruin is a Doric Temple of Nemesis, goddess of divine retribution. Pausanias records that the invading Persians incurred her wrath by their presumption in bringing with them a giant marble block upon which they intended to commemorate their victory. They met their nemesis, however, at the battle of Marathon, and the Athenians used the marble to create a statue instead. There are also the remains of a smaller temple dedicated to Themis, goddess of justice, and a section of ancient road.
West to the Peloponnese
The route from the centre of Athens towards Kórinthos (Corinth) follows the ancient Ierá Odhós – the Sacred Way – as far as Elefsína, ancient Eleusis. There’s nothing sacred about it these days, though: this is as ugly a road as any in Greece, traversing an industrial wasteland. For the first 30km or so you have little sense of leaving Athens, whose western suburbs merge into Elefsína and then Mégara. Offshore lies Salamína (ancient Salamis,), these days just another suburb. The Attikí Odhós motorway from the airport meets the road from Athens just outside Elefsína.
Beyond Elefsína, the old road to Thebes and Delphi heads northwest into the hills. This route is described in Chapter Three, and is highly worthwhile, with its detours to ancient Aegosthena and the tiny resort of Pórto Yermenó. Directly west, towards the Corinth Canal and the Peloponnese, there are shingle beaches along the old coastal road at Kinéta and Áyii Theódhori. This highway, with the Yeránia mountains to the north and those of the Peloponnese across the water, follows the route where Theseus slew the bandit Skiron and threw him off the cliffs to be eaten by a giant sea turtle.
The Monastery of Dhafní, a beautiful example of Byzantine architecture, was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1999, and only reopened in 2011. Still not fully restored, it is held up by scaffolding – which offers an exceptional chance to climb right up into the dome and get up close and personal with the magnificent eleventh-century mosaics, considered among the artistic masterpieces of the Middle Ages. Ascending by rickety ladders, you pass first the Life of Christ, then the Prophets, before reching the Pandokrátor (Christ in Majesty) in the dome itself. The restored mosaics, glistening with gold, are magnificent, and the stern Christ depicted here is a classic Orthodox image. A chamber next to the church has an excellent display on the monastery’s history and restoration, along with close-up detail of the mosaics and identification of the saints and events depicted.
The Sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis was one of the most important in the ancient Greek world. For two millennia, the ritual ceremonies known as the Mysteries were performed here. Today, the extensive ruins of the sanctuary occupy a low hill on the coast right in the heart of modern Elefsína.
The best plan on arrival is to head straight for the museum, which features models of the sanctuary at various stages in its history: Eleusis is impressively large, with huge walls and gates, some of which date back to Mycenaean times, but the numerous eras of building can also be confusing, especially as signage is poor and mainly in Greek. Exploring outside, the most important structure of ancient Eleusis was the Telesterion. This windowless Hall of Initiation lay at the heart of the cult, and it was here that the priests of Demeter would exhibit the Sacred Objects and speak “the Unutterable Words”.
Top Image: Acropolis, Athens, Attica © Sven Hansche / Shutterstock