The great city of Athens, Greece is made up of numerous small villages that have melded together over the years. Plaka is the most ancient, original part of the city where most of the archaeological sites are located. Just up on the hill above Plaka, under the flank of the Acropolis (“the high city”) there is the tiny village of Anafiotika, unique because of how it came to be.
In 1841, King Otto I encouraged workers to come and help transform the new capital of independent Greece into a modern metropolis and refurbish his palace. Carpenters and masons from the Cycladic island of Anafi came, along with other workers from the Cyclades. They took over the rocky terrain located just below the north slope of the Acropolis, hastily erecting houses, taking advantage of an Ottoman law that decreed that if you could put up a structure between sunset and sunrise, the property became yours.
They called it Anafiotika, (“little Anafi”) after their island. The neighbourhood was built to resemble the architecture of the Cyclades islands with stark white-washed cubic houses built of stone, flat roofs and brightly painted shutters and doors, so you get the feel of being in an island village. Bright magenta bougainvillea spills over their walls and the narrow alleyways often end in dead end terraces. Some of the houses have roof-top patios with gardens of potted plants and the occasional shade tree.
Most of the original village was destroyed in 1950 for archaeological research. Today only about 45 houses remain. They are one of the archaeological treasures of the Plaka. Unfortunately many tourists who visit here miss the experience of wending their way through the tiny lanes to enjoy the magnificent viewpoints over the red-tiled roofs of Plaka across the vast expanse of what is greater Athens.
Every time I visit Athens I make a special visit to the village on the hill. Anafiotika is a tranquil oasis isolated from the bustling, popular Plaka below. I like the feeling of being in a real village, sheltered from the cacophony of the metropolis. I squeeze through the narrow streets, some barely an arm’s width, paved with cobblestones. Lazy cats doze on the door-sills. The small, modest houses are usually shuttered, their windowsills and courtyards bright with pots of crimson geraniums and yellow marigolds. Most are still inhabited by descendants of the original immigrants from Anafi. Once, I stayed in the village with a Greek friend who owned a house there. Unfortunately, he died several years ago and now his place sits empty. Sometimes when a house is deserted it is taken over by the Archaeological Society but his appears to be intact as it was before, though no flowers bloom on the porch.
Two old Byzantine churches in Anafiotika are well worth a visit. Perched on the rocks below the Acropolis is Ayio Georgios tou Vrachou (St. George of the Rock), which defines the southeast edge of the village. It is one of the most beautiful little churches of Athens and is still in use today. Built in the 17th century, its name comes from its location at the foot of the Acropolis. There’s a garden nearby with a memorial to an Acropolis guard who wrapped himself in a Greek flag and leapt off the Acropolis when the Germans invaded Athens in 1941.
Ayio Symeon, 17th century neoclassic church, marks the western boundary of the village. It contains a copy of a famous miracle-working icon of Virgin Mary Kalamiotissa from Anafi. Both of these churches were rebuilt in the nineteenth century by the residents of Anafiotika in a typical Cycladic style.
The tiny 11th century brick church of the Metamorphosis Sotiros (Transfiguration), church of the Savior, is a four columned,cross inscribed church with an elegant high-domed stone chapel. Its rear grotto, carved right into the Acropolis, is dedicated to Aghia Paraskavi.
Despite the tourists who find their way to the Anafiotika, there are no souvenir shops or tavernas. It is quiet and isolated. If you do happen to see any of the residents, they will greet you with a smile or ‘kali mera’. I love to walk the twisted paths, eventually coming to a cobbled road that leads up to my most favorite viewpoint where I often go to sit and meditate. Anafiotika is an oasis of tranquility, nestled as it is below the steep walls of the Acropolis. From here, I enjoy the sweeping view of the city with Mount Lykavetos rising majestically in the distance. It’s quiet there so you can hear the distant sounds of the city, listen to Athens’s ‘voice’, and feel her pulse.
To get to Anafiotika follow the signs up the hillside from Dionyssiou Areopagitou Street next to the Theatre of Dionysos. Pass by Ayio Georgios church, and wend your way through the narrow laneways. From here there is a magnificent view of the city. Go along the narrow passage by the houses, and mount the whitewashed steps. A sign points to “the Acropolis”. From the top of these steps follow the wide shaded walk around the base of the Rock to reach the entrance to the Acropolis. Enjoy the view of the Agora along the way. Stop for a frappe at one of the hillside tavernas or take time to visit the Kanellopoulou Museum. Founded in 1976, this well-preserved, 19th century neo-classical mansion has over 6,000 archaeological treasures on display.
Written by W. Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com