The picturesque sunset as seen from the Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounio might be the reason that most people come here, to the southernmost ancient fortress of Attica but there’s much more in the area that merits your attention. Go up to the temple early, and then carry on to Sounio National Park. The vegetation is not particularly dense, consisting mostly of low bushes, brushwood and pine trees. You’ll be able to spot the ancient shafts from which miners extracted metal ore, the washbasins where they cleaned it, and the baths they used, all of which were brought to light during archaeological excavations, and which bear witness to the riches that the earth once held in this area.
The park is also home to “Chaos,” a large crater that some believe was caused by the collapse of a cave roof – an impressive sight. Walk further to see the remains of the ancient settlement of Thoriko, the site of the oldest ancient theater in Greece, dating from the 6th century BC. On the way back to Sounio, take a swim at the beach below the archaeological site, where the Aegeon Beach Hotel is situated. (€10 for a beach umbrella and two sun loungers).
At the taverna Thodoros and Eleni, the signature dish is mussels cooked in different ways. They use prime ingredients and each dish is served in generous portions. If you have time, and if you’re in the mood for one more dip on the way back to Athens, take a left turn off the main coastal road as soon as you see the sign “Property of KAPE” and follow the dirt road to the parking lot. To access this beach you need to climb down a series of longish steps, but it’s well worth the effort. In fact, Legrena is one of the most popular beaches of Attica, but in the late afternoon, it’s a lot quieter.
Thodoros and Eleni: Legrenon Avenue, Tel. (+30) 22920.519.36
You can hear the water as soon as you start down the path. Minutes later, a paradisiacal place appears between the trees: dragonflies and swallows flit through the air above a shoulder-deep pool of cool water fed by twin waterfalls and surrounded by pink oleanders and green shrubs. This is one of Athens’ best-kept secrets, unknown even to most locals, and it’s just a half-hour drive from the city center, on the slopes of Mt Penteli.
In August, when the sea is warm and the beaches are packed with people, the Valanari Waterfall (Google Maps calls it “Waterfall Ntrafi”) provides the perfect alternative, and an exciting adventure for families.
Pack a picnic (take care not to leave any trash behind) or get back in your rented car and drive another 25 minutes to Farmamoo. Home to horses, cats and dogs, bunnies, chickens, geese and a donkey, this organic farm offers allotments for rent, where Athenian families can grow their own vegetables. They also have a playground, pony-riding facilities and an excellent taverna, serving traditional dishes made with the farm’s own fresh produce.
Farmamoo: Dionysiou, Nea Makri, Tel. (+30) 694.663.6148
The Epidaurus Saga
A trip to Epidaurus has it all: good food, beautiful trails, flowery courtyards, a world-renowned ancient theater and a swim in the sea above a sunken city. Even if you don’t get the chance to catch one of the performances in the Athens and Epidaurus Festival, which takes place every summer, a visit to the most well-preserved ancient Greek theater is an experience unlike any other.
Built around 340-330 BC, it hosted music, singing and theater performances dedicated to the god Asclepius. Two and a half thousand years passed in silence before the excavations which brought it back to life began in 1881. The open air theater is famous for its scale (12,000 seats), elegance and design, as well as for perfect sight lines to the stage and for its acoustics. Stand in the center of the orchestra, ask a friend to climb up to the top row of the seating and then exhale loudly or tear a sheet of paper: you will hear them perfectly. The theater is only one part of the Asclepeion archaeological site, which boasts the remains of the oldest-known medical center. Exploring the ruined buildings is exhilarating. If you’re in the mood for a hike, you’ll find a trail map at the entrance to the theater.
The harbor of Ancient Epidaurus is close by; a 2km trail begins here, taking you through the ancient ruins and the orange and olive groves of the Nissi peninsula. You’ll pass the Little Theater of Epidaurus and the ancient Acropolis. From the small theater, it’s an easy trek down to Kalymnios Beach, where you can swim over the “sunken city.” A section of the ancient city, now submerged, is still visible here. Make sure to wear protective footwear (there are sea urchins) and bring a mask and snorkel to explore underwater Mycenaean tombs and fortifications.
Afterwards, make your way to the restaurant Mouria for homemade food in a courtyard by the sea. For the last 60 years, this charming restaurant has been a favorite of the Epidaurus Festival’s audience and artists alike; Irene Papas, Helen Mirren, Ethan Hawke and Luciano Pavarotti have all eaten here.
The Ancient Theater of Epidaurus is about 140km from Athens. The archaeological site is open daily 8:00-20:00. • Mouria: Tel. (+30) 27530.412.18
The Natural Choice
You’ll be there before you know it. The village of Steni, only 110km from Athens on the island of Evia (accessible by bridge), is a popular day-trip destination for nature lovers. It’s particularly well known for its cool climate and for the verdant landscape that pleases the eye and fills up the lungs with cool fresh air. Walk along the narrow lanes, eat meat roasted on the spit at its celebrated tavernas (a notable favorite is Kissos), fill up your water bottles at Yiatros spring, and buy local handmade pasta, honey, and mountain herbs produced or gathered by the women of the village.
Here, on the slopes of Mt Dirfy, you’re in the heart of mushroom country. There are home-grown mushrooms and a range of mushroom products for sale at Manitaropoleio in the nearby village of Katheni. Keep an ear out for one of the musical events organized at the Mousiko Pandocheio.
If, on the other hand, you’re interested in outdoor action or adventure, you can go hiking along the signposted mountain paths on Mt Dirfy and Mt Xirovouni. If you have climbing experience, the ascent to Delfi Peak, the summit of Mt Dirfy, is a rewarding challenge. Alternatively, you can climb Karaouli Rock, go mountain biking or dirt biking on forest paths, or have a picnic on the river bank. Whatever you decide to do, don’t miss the drive along the 7km route from the village of Steni that leads up to the mountain pass of Dirfy, where you can see the Gulf of Evia on one side of the road and the Aegean Sea on the other. This is also where you’ll spot the start of the 2-3km-long dirt road that leads to the Michalis Nikolaou mountain refuge, right below the spectacular alpine summit.
Kissos: Tel. (+30) 22280.512.26 Manitaropoleio: Tel. (+30) 22280.713.00 Mousiko Pandocheio: Tel. (+30) 22280.512.02, www.mousikopandoxeio.gr Michalis Nikolaou mountain refuge: Tel. (+30) 22210.256.55