Athens Walks: Exploring the Garden Town of Filothei-Psychiko

This leafy, upscale residential district just north of the Athens center is great for walks and runs along quiet, tree-lined streets.


I have run, walked and cycled through the Athens district of Filothei-Psychiko hundreds of times as a visitor, as well as a resident. I’ve taken every turn in this labyrinthine suburb which has managed to largely preserve the original layout given to it by city planners in the early 20th century, who designed it in the mold of an English garden town.

I’ve taken every deviation along seemingly identical streets which radiate out from its numerous squares; some prove to be shortcuts, others long detours. But all preserve a sense of direct contact with nature in this leafy and pleasant residential suburb.

This time I selected a classic route – the one followed by the Filothei-Psychiko Road Running Race – which in its 42nd year is “an amazing opportunity to discover three of the area’s squares and the park, the starting and end point of the race,” as the relevant website states.

Normally the race route measures 5 km and those participating in the 10 km race run the circuit twice, while I covered approximately 6.1 km due to the various shorter or longer detours I took to take pictures, and due to one false start as I had forgotten my mask at home.

It was a cloudy Thursday morning, with the traffic on Kifissias Avenue busier than one might expect given the lockdown measures, yet the residential streets were much emptier than on weekends and holidays when residents of all ages put on their sports gear and enjoy the greatest gift that living in this area offers: direct access to nature.

Officially the total green space in the districts of Paleo and Neo Psychiko, and Filothei is 56.02 hectares (in reality, it is 56.7 as Mayor Dimitris Galanis, born and bred in the area, informs me).

Of this expanse, 36.04 hectares are parkland, 6.82 are taken up by public squares and there are 2.33 hectares of playgrounds. Meanwhile, the total length of tree-lined roads comes to 220.5 km!

Of course, walking or running around this area comes with its own set of safety rules. If you opt for walking along the road, particular care is needed, especially if wearing noise-canceling headphones, as you need to beware of any drivers approaching at high speed (despite the speed bumps, this is a persistent bad habit).

The pavements, which often appear to have been chiefly designed to separate the houses from the vehicles on the road and not to be walked along, are mostly very narrow and many spots have been cracked by the roots of the aged trees. In fact, the trees are the stars in this area and are treated almost as sacred (they are not cut down unless seriously infected and endangering other trees), while the unbreakable rule is to keep your gaze straight ahead to avoid banging your head on a low hanging branch that has escaped the pruning shears.

A sum of more than 8 million euros is spent every year on the maintenance of the area’s greenery, a process that generates 4,000 tons of organic matter.

The “garden town” with 75 listed buildings

You will enjoy the greater part of this route in absolute silence, with the exception of the passing roar of an accelerating car, the barking of a dog or – more often – the piercing sound of leaf blowers used by gardeners.

These leaf blowers would have been beyond the imagination of the shepherds who once lived here, not to mention the foxes and the other wild animals that once populated the area; yet today they are an indispensable element of life and, frequently, the reason for many early wake-ups.

Recently it appears that the quarantine has brought residents closer to their gardens and intensified their various gardening projects.

When walking around Psychiko, you are monitored by more security cameras than people. It is also worth noting that of late more cement-style, fortress houses have been built, surrounded by enormous gates and fences.

This defies the classic definition of a garden town, which aimed for a more harmonious connection between public and private spaces; but this is obviously dictated by the desire for security and privacy.

In fact, this is a sign of the transition of Greek society from a time when people would “sleep with their balcony doors open” to the present day, when they lock themselves up while still losing sleep.

It is certain that architecture lovers will have much to observe and admire here. Officially there are 75 listed buildings in the area, and the municipality has charted five different walking routes to take them in that are available on its website.

In reality, the number of architecturally interesting buildings is far greater – and exceptionally varied. From neoclassical or eclectic mansions to two-story houses with Byzantine influences; from minimalist (post) modern villas made of cement and glass to stone-built houses straight out of a fairy tale, on many occasions you will think “oh, what a beautiful house” (or perhaps “how ugly,” depending on your taste).

Personally, I am enchanted by the older residences in the area, the ones that show clear signs of the passage of time, an indication that their owners or inheritors did not have the financial means to modernize them. Yet they all still feature well-tended gardens, showcasing a genuine, urban gardening that is synonymous with Psychiko.

Look out for

Parks

In Filothei the largest parks are Poulaki and Drosopoulou; in Psychiko it is Psychiko Park, which also boasts tennis courts, and the neighboring Ethnikis Antistasis Park. You will find various outdoor exercise machines, pavilions, benches for taking a break equipped with refreshments from a nearby kiosk, and open spaces ideal for group yoga.

Municipal Library

13 Stratigou Kallari 

The former residence of the novelist Kosmas Politis and built in the mid-1930s, this two-story building features a tile roof, Byzantine elements and a characteristic triple-arched colonnaded balcony on the upper floor.

Psychiko Outdoor Sculpture Gallery

Zongolopoulou Square

This was created in 2010 in honor of the sculptor George Zongolopoulos, who lived and had his workshop in the area. Featuring 13 of his artworks, it is the only public outdoor sculpture gallery in Greece dedicated to the works of a single artist. 

Psychiko Palia Agora (Old Market)

Renovated yet hidden behind metal hoarding, its fortunes have been put on hold for the last 30 years as there is a long-running dispute between the municipality, and the Kekrops consortium to which it belongs. The intention for this building, dating from the 1920s and designed by Sotiris Magiasis, is to have it reopen as a market for foodstuffs and other everyday goods.

Pavlos and Frederica Palace

14 Diamantidou Street

The “abandoned jewel of Psychiko,” where Queen Sofia of Spain and the deposed King Constantine were born has belonged to the businessman Polys Haji-Ioannou for many years.

Podoniftis

The only portion of this creek that has not been covered is the stretch that crosses Filothei, and it remains one of the most remarkable natural attractions of the city center.

Pikioni Playground

This Filothei landmark first opened in 1961 and ceased operations in 2019, as it fell short of European safety standards. These days the Central Council of Modern Monuments is working on its redevelopment as a safe children’s playground.

The Church of Aghia Filothei

2 Voreiou Ipirou street

This is a gorgeous church which features the tomb of Revoula Benizelou, a nun known for her great philanthropic acts in the 16th century under Ottoman rule. She also gave Psychiko its name when she constructed a well in the area, a source of great relief and assistance (psychiko) for the few residents and farmers who lived here at the time.


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