Time travels in Plaka


My way of selling the Plaka walk to the seven-year-old “I‘d-rather-stay-home” Odysseas, was by presenting it as time travel –which was no big lie. 

Walking Plaka’s alleys, you come across the Ancient Roman Agora, a Turkish Medrese school, Byzantine churches, red-roof early 1900’s neoclassic houses, the city’s first University and what is commonly accepted as Athens’ oldest house. Plaka is one of the city’s most beautiful neighborhoods and a top place to explore with kids.

We rode the time-capsule (Athens’ metro) and got off at Monastiraki, where a Nemo balloon rose all the way to the station’s ceiling, as if to take a closer look at an art  installation titled “Time in my Hands”. How very appropriate for all those embarking on time travel!

Outside the station is a good place to buy fresh fruit and snacks from the street vendors before turning right and walking up, past Hadrian’s Library and towards the Roman Agora. It was not the back-to-the-Roman-era button that we wanted to push though. Instead, we rewound to the years of the Ottoman rule and looked through the bars of the gate surrounding Fethiye Mosque, a beautiful stone and brick building consecutively used as a temple, prison, army bakery and storage area for the Agora’s ancient finds. 

Just around the corner, stands another unique sample of Ottoman architecture: the big wooden door of the Medrese school. The door is about the only thing that remains of the original building. A time travel facade!

So we turned our attention across the Medrese and several centuries back, to a very special monument of ancient mechanics: The Tower of the Winds. This octagonal marble tower served as a solar clock with a back-up hydraulic mechanism. On its top stood a wind vane, right below which personifications of six different types of winds are sculpted into the marble. The one who carries fruits in his arms was the one we liked best, and we nibbled our pears and bananas in his company.

We then took a small detour to 2004 to have a mini sprint in the couloirs that were built during the Athens’ Olympics in Lysiou street, before heading uphill, towards the building that served the city as its first University and is now a museum. 

In remembrance of the canon shots that celebrated the University’s inauguration in 1837, were the nuts that bombarded us falling off the tree in its yard. Odysseas and Filippos used the nuts as artillery to aim at the door buzzer but the museum was closed on the day of our visit.

We had to look carefully to find the next stop on our journey, hidden behind a tall white wall. The church monastery of Panagios Tafos (Holly Grave) is a mystic inner courtyard of tranquility. Below its cells and well are said to be tunnels that lead to other underground spots around the Acropolis.  
But when we visited, a christening was in process and we did not find someone available to ask. The boys chased pretty girls in pink around the citrus trees and we flew off before their parents had enough time to tell us off.

The final stop in our journey went with a story that has a special appeal to kids. It’s the story of the Benizelos family home, Athens’ oldest house -built in the 16th century. Approach its main entrance on Adrianou street and you will see nothing but a blue door and a tall wall that served protect family life in rough times. Walk around the wall to its back side, and you will see the recently restored mansion in full glory. 

And the story that makes this house special is that the girl who inhabited it, died a saint. Rigoula Benizelou married at 16, became a widow at 19, raised her three children on her own, built schools and monasteries to help and protect 200 girls from the Turks who dominated Athens at that time and died a saint –Saint Filothei. 

My two little anything-but-saints called for yogurt ice-cream at one of the shops along Kidathineon street and laughed with the ancient Greek style dresses for kids, tsarouxi shoes and other equally entertaining souvenirs made in kitschland.   

Odysseas vetoed a visit to the hands-on Children’s Museum nearby, but I would definitely recommend it as a pleasant and meaningful stop when visiting Plaka with kids.

Walking towards Syntagma metro station, we crossed Tom’s Irish Republic of Plaka. The latest graffiti on Tom’s wall reads: “I don’t need Google. The wife knows everything ok” and “Turn your phone off. I hear you. Obama hears you. CIA hears you”.

We silently crammed into a train full of people heading home for lunch and a gentleman from Pakistan kindly offered us his seat. Odysseas and Filippos squeezed in and collapsed, tired from our time travels.
And then, they put their arms around each other and cuddled. I smiled and wondered if it was just the lack of space or that warmer inner feeling shared by fellow travelers.

Time in my Hands!


Voting in the Ancient Agora: All in favor!

We explore the Temple of Hephaistos, pose as two of Athens’ Ten Heroes, walk the alleys and stoas of the Ancient Agora and discover a secret river in downtown Athens.

The Ancient Agora is a beautiful historic open space for a quiet stroll away from the noise and crowds of downtown Athens. Ancient ruins spread among bushes and trees make for an exciting antiquities treasure hunt, when you know what it is you are looking for. 

This is the place where ancient Athenians would come to shop for goods. It was also home to the city’s 500 representatives and the venue where all Athenians would gather to decide and vote on city matters. The Agora is the geospatial definition of the term “cradle of democracy”.

Not many of the original buildings remain today but, with a photocopy of an excellent map from Marisa De Castro’s Seven Walks Through Athens book in our hands, we embarked on a most rewarding treasure hunt.

A visit to the Ancient Agora and the Temple of Hephaistos is a kid-friendly alternative to climbing the rock of the Acropolis.

The Tholos

The first X mark on our map denoted the Tholos, the only circular building in the Agora. 

This was where 50 representatives from Athens’ original 10 tribes would eat, sleep, stay and guard the city’s meters & weighs. Entering through the Agora’s main entrance, we made a right turn at the ancient auditorium (of which three tall statues of creatures with reptile tails is what remains today) and then a left turn. 

The circular basis layer of the Tholos made it easy for us to recognize the spot where it once stood. We walked its perimeter and then up the stairs to the temple of Hephaistos.

The temple of Hephaistos …and many others

The temple of Hephaistos is in almost perfect shape and its small size makes it easy to explore with kids. We counted 13 pillars on each of its sides and 6 pillars in its front and back. We thought we might try making a replica with toothpicks and play dough at home.

The adventures of Theseus that are depicted on some of its marble friezes made not only this temple, but also the wider area known as Thision. The temple however housed statues of Hephaistos, god of fire and Athina, goddess of wisdom. These two gods were patrons of the potters and blacksmiths whose workshops abounded in the surrounding area. 

The fact that the temple was originally built to honor Hephaistos did not discourage Christians from using it as a church. You can find the sign of the cross on one of the temple’s entrances.

Two hungry heroes
 Athens’ 10 Heroes

Walking down the temple’s cliff, we ran into the monument of the 10 Eponymous Heroes of Ancient Athens, one from each tribe. 

None of these brass and wood statues remain today. So we chose to pose as heroes in their place.  

This was also the place where important announcements –for example, new laws to be voted on by the people of Athens- would be posted. 

My own two heroes feeling hungry, we sat on a bench across from the monument and had our little feta and green olives pizza picnic. 

Walking back towards the main alley, we had the chance to measure our height against a series of columns broken off at different points of length. 

We then passed by a spot signaled as Speakers Step and I assumed that this is where Athenians would support their arguments before public voting. 

Odysseas felt like speaking in favor of a “no-rules” home, building up to a controversy that we had just before embarking on our little Sunday expedition.

The Stoa of Attalos

Inside the Stoa of Attalos, restored in the 1950’s so that it would resemble its original state, we walked through a series of marble statues and imagined what it must have been like to go shopping in such a beautiful and airy space. This is what the Stoa was built for originally. 

We were also impressed by a very tall piece of machinery that looked like it’s used to clean the taller parts of the Stoa. 

On the upper-floor, we found models of the agora when all of its buildings were still standing, statues of humans and gods and enjoyed the view of the Agora from above.

The museum on the ground floor houses a series of intriguing artifacts, including ceramic kitchenware, a shoes replica that looks too contemporary to be ancient, pieces of ostaka, pottery sherds that were used as voting tokens and a huge brass shield that must have taken several soldiers to carry.

A secret river and two mysteries to be solved

On our next visit to the Agora, we will try to decipher the use of the giant donut-looking rocks and of a marble base adorned with sculpted figures of children at play, both in the area around the temple of Hephaistos

Before riding the subway back home, we visited the part of the ancient ruins that lies beneath a glass floor at Monastiraki metro station and listened to the peaceful sound of Eridanos, the small river that still continues to flow underneath the center of Athens. Another little secret waiting to be discovered.

Practical Stuff

You will find water fountains in the entrance and at the Stoa of Attalos. The Stoa also has bathrooms.

A stroller will get you to most parts of the Agora, but you will need to carry the little ones in your arms to climb the Temple of Hephaistos.

A strip of restaurants and cafes lends itself for brunch, lunch or dinner right outside the Agora –if you do not mind the passing crowds. Kuzina (Kitchen) and Kouti (Box) are two good options.