Ecotourism in Athens?
Yes, and much of it too if we're talking about greater Athens and its surroundings. Beyond the Acropolis, quick visitors consider Athens an ugly city and a concrete jungle, at best a stopover to other places in Greece. But there is so much more to Greater Athens that the passing visitor doesn't know about. To begin with, it's surrounded by hills and mountains that harbor wildlife, fauna and flora the likes of you've never seen. Keeping in mind that the symbol for Athens is the wise old owl, Athene Noctua, there are 120 species of birds flying around the city and 140 species of wild flowers recorded in the city itself. A visit to Lycabettus Hill, the Hymettus mountain range and Philoppapou Hill, all within city limits, will take you to a world of nature and hiking as if you're suddenly in another dimension, millennia away from the hustle and bustle. Other lesser known green treasures within the city are Tourkovounia, Stretfi Hill, Areos Pagos park and even the once royal gardens behind Syntagma square, smack in the centre of the city.
Step just outside Athens to discover the rest of the Attica prefecture and you'll be faced with more nature that you could have imagined. Beckoning Mount Parnitha is only a 30 kilometers from Athens, with fir trees, red deer and the 11th century monastery of Kliston, which makes it almost a thousand years old if you stop to think about it. You will surely come across many of the 1,000 plant species, 132 bird species, 45 mammal species and 30 reptile and amphibian species, from the Short-toed Eagle to the Mediterranean Mole. Central Parnitha was proclaimed a national park and its forest falls under the Natura 2000 network. The National Park tour guides and the Greek Mountaineering Club of Acharnes will help you discover the area. There's also a cable car (the eco-friendly option) from the foothills of Mount Parnitha that takes you to the Park's core peripheral road, open only to bicycles.
On the tamer east side there's Makrichorafo which is the starting point of various footpaths and forest roads, ideal for hilers. The west side is wilder, taking you to the Filis Spring in Agia Parakskevi, before having to continue by a 4x4 (which is against our eco principle).
For great excursions on foot, you can descend Mount Parnitha from the Bafi regufe through the Koromilia spring and Sfakiza, down to the suburb of Thrakomakedones on Athens' outer limits, a three hour walk overall. The classic two-hour route is from the Bafi refuge to the Chounis Ravine and then to Thrakomakedones. Another walk is from Filis to Pan's Pass, passing by Tamilthi, Bondia stream and Petralona.
Sounio National Park
In contrast to Athens' verdant northern suburbs, Sounio or Sounion at the tip of the Attica peninsula, stands seemingly bare with its archaeological ruins, against the backdrop of shimmering sea. But don't be deceived, there are hundreds of plant species growing here, including some that exclusively grow in the area such as special orchids and two thistle (knapweed) species, in addition to a nearby forest. Land tortoises, wrasse (fish), rare birds of prey, sea birds and migrating songbirds can be spotted.
Geologically the area boasts 256 types of mineral ores and has been known for mining since antiquity. You can discover this richness at the park's metallurgical museum, where the stones have fantastic shapes and colors. There are shafts and mines dating from the time of Aristotle and Themistocles, when Greek triremes were made to battle the Persians. Ironically, this is an example of land degradation in ancient times. The area is now a national park with a famous archaeological site protected under the Natura 2000 network.
There's a narrow asphalt road crossing most of the park past Lavrio, Agios Konstantinos, Agrileza and Agii Anargiri Sounio, ending at the temple of Poseidon. Check out the Agios Konstantinos pine forest, the Chaos gulch just one kolometer from Agios Konstantinos, the mines and mine facilities at Agia Triada and an enormous well at Pigadi.
Chaos gulch is a unique geographical phenomenon, a large round gulch that's 70 meters deep with a perimeter of 500 meters. While there's a fence around the gulch for safety, there's an entrance where you can follow a footphat to the bottom of the gulch.
Some two kilometers north of Agios Konstatinos on the eastern slope near the rocky peak of Mikro Rimbari, the cave of Kitsos is worth a visit. There are also rocky outcrops north of the temple of Poseidon called Mavro Lithari and Vasilopoula which attract birds of prey during spring and fall.
Snorkeling is recommended at the Legrena Bay area to explore the rocky sea bed and its rich marine life, between fish and birds. Keep your swimsuit with you as there are many nice spots to swim in. Just remember to leave them in better shape than when you found them.
Known in English literature as Brauron, this is the ideal place to combine an archaeological visit with a nature-filled one. Thanks to the ancient buildings, Vravrona became a protected one and remains a small specimen of the last untouched Mediterranean landscapes in the region. It is a sacred site with a modest wetland, one of the last in southeast Attica. The site is about 38 kilometers away from Athens with interesting vegetation (e.g. underwater Posidonia beds) and small animal species (e.g. stripe-necked terrapin). In addition to the wetlands, the diverse landscape boasts vineyards, pistachio trees, olive orchards, pine thickets, shrubs and rocky shores. It also falls under the Natura 2000 Network.
After visiting the archaeological site and museum at Vravrona, stroll through the prehistoric acropolis above the temple of Artemis for a great panoramic view of the Erasinos valley and the greater area. You can also take an hour-long hike from the museum and to the heart of the wetlands (but not between December and July as the soil is muddy). Cross the stream by walking on the stepping stones until you reach the concrete bridge near the sea.
Another one-hour walk will also take you from the Vravrona Museum to the Mavros Vrachos or Black Rock. This is a low mountain beside the Erasinos River estauray which offers a view of the wetlands and the southern Euboean Gulf. Amazing wildflowers paint the landscape in spring.
Mount Hymettus (Imittos)
It's name comes down to us from pre-Hellenic times, Mount Hymettus or Imittos is only one hour's walk away from Downtown Athens. In fact, Athenians used to cut its trees for wood up until the 1950s, when the Friends of the Forests organization changed this. Spared for the most part from catastrophic (usually man-induced) fires, the mountain is a garden ofpine trees, wild olive trees and cypresses, peppered with cedars, plane trees and eucalyptus trees. Numerous herbs, such as different types of thyme, dot the landscape along with many wild flowers (three are endemic to the region). While this is a protected area where building, quarrying and woodcutting are forbidden, the 1980s saw many giant media antennas rise atop the mountain.
Thousands of years ago, there used to be bears and hyenas on the mountain. Today, there are still some foxes, skunks, weasels, porcupines and rabbits. There are also more than 100 species of birds making it a true haven for birdwatching. The area was declared a wildlife refuge in 1976 and hunting is fortunately forbidden.
Volunteers have mapped the hiking trails of Hymettus giving Athenians an opportunity to seek solace in nature only minutes away from the city. Rock climbing and mountain are also common activities on the mountain.