Our meeting point was on Persefonis Street, on the corner with Thessalonikis Street, under Poulopoulou Bridge. Let’s say 3 Persefonis Street, if your GPS insists on a specific address.
This is the starting point of a wide asphalt strip the color of red clay that denotes the bicycle lane connecting the city’s southern suburbs with the city center. The truth is we decided to walk along the bicycle lane – one could even say we usurped it. But we made sure to give right of way to its intended users: at every bell ring, we stepped aside.
This walk revealed that pedestrians, joggers, cyclists, skaters and electric scooter riders, as well as parents with their prams, are all desperately in need of routes like this, where they can move around in relative safety. During our walk, we crossed paths with all of them.
We took Thessalonikis Street, which runs parallel to the train tracks, listening to the sound of the trains moving along the rails. As we crossed the bridge over Kallirois it felt as if we were flying over a river of cars, the only point on our journey that we witnessed signs of early morning Athens traffic.
In this fairly graceless setting, mostly grey and filled with urban development discrepancies, our attention was caught by a light blue apartment block, a cheerful – although rather discordant – note among the monster apartment blocks. Arbitrariness meets spontaneity.
Of course, this is not the most photogenic route, yet it presents interesting interchanges of settings. It is still adequately signposted, safe due to the reduced traffic levels and for the most part, follows a straight line. Heart rates do not really increase at any point.
Without even realizing it we had reached Kallithea, traversing a well-tended new park with a playground and an outdoor gym. Our timing was perfect, as several people were toning their muscles, some on the elliptical trainer while others waited for their grandchildren to get off the slides.
Panaghi Tsaldari and Sivitanidou streets: from here, the route continues alongside the right bank of the Ilissos River. The riverbed today resembles a cement sink, though its banks are lined with vegetation, bushes as well as tall trees. This entire section, which runs by the river until the bicycle lane is interrupted near the Lampiri Conservatory, boasts adequate natural shade that is ideal for sunny winter days, much like this one.
In the Moshato district the setting is more industrial, with warehouses, workshops and numerous trucks loading and unloading at the same time. You need a good eye to find the beauty on this walk. But it is there. In the red poinsettias – now in season – blooming in verandas, in the snouts of dogs out on walks with their owners – we met a cute French bulldog, two gorgeous cocker spaniels and a grey schnauzer.
We felt indefatigable and active at the same time.
Crossing the pedestrian bridge over the Ilissos River near Lamprou Katsoni Street, we have already arrived at the final stretch. We turn left on Asklipiou Street, and then right. It is one of the roads vertical to Thiseos (officially Eleftheriou Venizelou) Avenue.
This intersection, Asklipiou and Thiseos, is the only part of the route where attention is needed as there is no pedestrian crossing save a traffic island; the only part of which that allowed for a pedestrian crossing was sealed off when we were there. Pedestrians managed to cross the road with relative ease one block further down.
We located the clay red-colored route and began walking the final stretch, entering a neighborhood steeped in nostalgia. The refugee houses in Tzitzifies feature small yards that barely squeeze in two lemon trees, two traditional coffee shop wicker chairs and a table, laundry weighing down the lines, plant pots made of large tin cans planted with geraniums, and a broken bicycle. We saw jasmine plants in bloom in the shadiest spots; mulberry trees and pines creating shade for the cats and cars that have not moved for days.
Lamprou Katsoni Street is the dividing line that separates this old neighborhood vibe from the more contemporary aesthetic of the most cultured public space in Athens – the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. We entered the running track from Filippou Street and sat down to admire the courage of those using it – some had actually overtaken us just after Moschato.
We crossed the finish line. We had already walked seven kilometers.
The Ilissos ecosystem: a total of 35 bird species
What would someone observe if they stood on one of the Ilissos pedestrian bridges and looked through a pair of binoculars?
There is remarkable bird life in the area if someone were partial to urban birdwatching. “In its majority, the river shares a similar ecosystem with that of Attica, with common blackbirds, great tits, sparrows, goldfinches and greenfinches. Its permanent resident, and perhaps the most beautiful species in the Ilissos, is the scops owl,” says Lefteris Stavrakas, who works with the Hellenic Ornithological Society.
Were there more water in the river, there would be more birds passing through or living in the trees along it. During the winter months, the cement river basin is also visited by Temminck’s stints and white wagtails.The spotted flycatcher comes in the spring and leaves in the autumn, and robins and wrens come down from the branches in the winter.
If you’re in luck and look up to the sky during the winter, or even better during the migration period, you will see various flycatchers, leaf warblers, blackcaps – all the small greyish colored birds that live in the trees and amateurs cannot even tell them apart.
If you would like to learn how distinguish them, Stavrakas’ book The Birds of Attica (in Greek, published by Wild Greece Editions) is a comprehensive guide on all the species and locations in Athens, Attica and beyond, and describes their geographical range.
In contrast to the Ilissos and, in particular, the section of Kallithea that has been researched, where just 35 species have been recorded, a little further down the lane at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, within just a few years of its operations, more than 82 species have been spotted here.
“The park is now considered a hotspot for the birds of the area. By visiting the www.ebird.org website or using the application, visitors can gain information about and record the number and species of birds they spot at a specific location. The website is updated regularly by thousands of members, and this is how we know that recently, somebody spotted herons,” Stavrakas explains.
Since this spot is not overcrowded and there is plenty of food, it is a welcoming place for birds. It’s not even strange to see turtle doves and even birds of prey in the park, resting on the tree branches at dusk.
This article was first published in Greek on kathimerini.gr