[I wrote this for my Nat Geo Traveller article on Athens Neighbourhoods, but in the end only three of the four sections were published.]
When the plans for the new capital were drawn in the 1830s, speculation about the position of the palace was rife and plots of land changed hands on hearsay and gossip. Once confirmed, Greek magnates built (and rebuilt) their mansions on Vasilissis Sofias, a grandiose avenue, emanating from Syntagma and forming the Kolonaki border. In a short stroll up the left side of the Royal palace to metro Evangelismos and you can experience the majesty of Neoclassical Greek architecture as well as rare examples of Eclecticism.
Kolonaki means ‘Little Column’ after a weathered pillar that can be seen in its main square. This is where animals – twins – were sacrificed to the gods in time of pestilence, a practice some believe continued in the later Christian years. Still the realm of goatherds and their flock in 1900, its proximity to the royal palace made it the aspiration neighbourhood for the upper middle class, writers, artists, journalists and entrepreneurs.
Further uphill stands Dexameni (‘The Reservoir’) built by Herod Atticus to hold water for this perpetually thirsty town. Its cafes and restaurants set under poplars and plane trees used to be the weathervane of taste, fashion and political mood. Overhearing conversations was akin to a reading one’s Twitter feed today: this was Athens public opinion straight from the mouth of the major social influencers. The streets exude the calmness of wealth. Even in crisis-stricken Athens, there are hardly any To Let signs. Everyone still aspires to live in Kolonaki.
The neighbourhood includes Lycabettus, that steep limestone hill of 900ft that’s earned a mount designation in English. Reached via a funicular railway, it’s Athens’ native Eiffel Tower: a bird’s eye view of the city the way to the Saronic Gulf and beyond. On top you’ll find a précis of the modern town: the renowned Orizontes restaurant offering fine dining for the well heeled; a modest cafe advertising burgers and cheap snacks; the cosy church of St George built by a Cretan monk in 1834, the year Athens became the capital of the modern Greek state; and Sotiris, a perennial denizen of Lycabettus, selling worry-beads and water bottles to the tourists from under the shade of a wild olive, bent obligingly as if to accommodate his stall.
Somehow in the glory of this 360-degree view of Athens, all the nagging everyday aggravations of modern Athens disappear: the traffic, the pollution, the dust, the heat. The city here sparkles with a remarkable brilliance, shining like silver during the day, twinkling like diamonds at night.