When in Athens, Get Out of Town!

Sounion Temple protected against pirates
Temple to Poseidon on hilltop overlook

Athens, Greece, is filled with graffiti everywhere, except, thank heaven, on the ancient Greek monuments that make the city famous. In addition, trash is usually overflowing, a sign of a struggling city budget. Gardens tend to grow wild; you see few manicured lawns. I believe this all results from the fact that Greece is very dry. Very few plants grow naturally. So, when a plant grows, the Greeks hesitate to cut it in any way.

I recommend you get out of the city. One-half hour from the center city and things begin to turn completely different. As you drive along the western coastal highway from Athens, you come across one beach after another, most filled with locals. During the month of August, most locals take their vacation time. The streets are not crowded even at rush hour because Athens is mostly cleared out while tourists take over.

It wasn’t until I looked at the offerings of a tour company in Athens that I learned of what is called the “Athens Riviera.” Don’t miss this coast. If you can, plan to stay in one of the many hotels or resorts along the coast, preferably near a beach. The Aegean Sea is a deep blue color with sprinklings of turquoise and aquamarine. The sun sparkles off the sea. The weather is nearly always perfect, with little rain. The prices are much lower than other European destinations. The water stays a constant 15 degrees cooler than the air, a bit chilly, but there are many swimmers. Also popular are windsurfing and boating, from small sailboats to mid-size yachts. It’s truly a paradise. It deserves the name Athens Riviera.

Beaches outside Athens are hidden gems
Athens Riviera beaches are spectacular

At the tip of the peninsula on which Athens is located, past the beautiful beaches, you arrive at a must-see destination, about one and three-quarters hours from the city. Called Cape Sounion (“Soon-yo”), the main attraction here is the remnants of a Greek temple to Poseidon, Greek God of the Sea, built on the highest ground around, visible from a great distance. It was built contemporaneously with the Acropolis in much the same style. Its Doric columns have 16 indentations whereas Doric columns of the time normally had 20. The Greeks knew that these indentations would catch moisture, and it would eventually eat away at the rock, so they made the indentations bigger to give the moisture more time to evaporate. Such engineering genius is but one of the marvels of this monumental building atop a mountain.

When it was built 440 years B.C., the surrounding waters were full of pirates and enemies bent on destroying Athens. Residents there needed to protect the city-state of Athens. A temple to the sea god obviously helped with this endeavor, but to play it safe, the temple was surrounded by three fortress walls. The fourth side was protected by the steep cliff to the sea. A now-extinct port for stocking the needs of the residents who once lived here was in a cove on the back side of the peninsula, shielded from attack.

Another temple to the Goddess Athena was also here but did not survive. Pieces of its foundation remain evident. Besides the ruins, nothing else is here but a coffee and souvenir shop. A small fee is charged to enter the ruins.

I would not recommend driving almost four hours round-trip to see the temple if that were the only thing to see, but getting to see the surrounding deep blue ocean that surrounds this area, the rugged volcanic coastline and the magnificent beaches in route, makes this trip worthwhile and then some. If you feel underwhelmed by Athens, taking this trip will give you a sense of why people love Athens.