Few visitors realize the geographic blessings of a European capital where a short drive from the center can have you ascending a mountainside or swimming in the sea.
Ideal for a winter swim, this is one of the jewels of the Athens Riviera – the stretch of coastline that begins at Flisvos Marina, about a half-hour’s drive from the city center, and extends all the way to Cape Sounio.
“I have been coming to the lake every day for about 40 years,” says Nikos, a fit-looking, grey-haired man, before stripping down to his swimming suit and diving in. It’s already November, but that doesn’t seem to bother him – nor any of the other swimmers who are enjoying the deep blue-green waters, mirroring the sheer cliffs and pine trees surrounding the lake. Here, the water temperature ranges between 22 and 29˚C all year round.
With its therapeutic properties, Vouliagmeni Lake – a Natura 2000-protected site – is a revelation. Nestled in an idyllic setting surrounded by dramatic cliffs, the lake is fed by underwater natural springs that flow through a subterranean system of tunnels and caverns. It also communicates with the sea, meaning that its waters are continually refreshed and slightly salty.
For decades the lake has mainly attracted older swimmers and individuals with rheumatic, musculoskeletal or other ailments, but in recent years that has begun to change. “The younger generation prefers a healthier way of life and is attracted to what is offered by nature. We now have visitors of all ages, both locals and tourists,” notes Marianthi Vavoulaki, head of PR. Indeed, during our visit we see a diverse crowd from yoga practitioners to visitors just enjoying the autumn sunshine or exploring the lakebed with the aid of masks and snorkels.
Even if you end up here without a swimsuit, try ditching your shoes, rolling up your trousers and wading into the shallows. The lake’s “fish spa” is one of its most popular features. Stand still and let the small, black Garra rufa fish nibble your feet, giving you a massage and a natural exfoliation treatment.
An artificial lake of great ecological importance, a rare forest of stone pine, a popular sandy beach and a host of impressive archaeological sites make this area ideal for a nearby excursion.
Marathon has long been known for the Greeks’ victorious battle against the Persians in 490 BC. Thus, an ideal starting point for one’s tour of the area is the mound of the Athenians, a 10m-high tumulus erected after the battle. This hill and the adjacent bronze statue of the Greek commander Miltiades mark the spot of a large funeral pyre where 192 dead Athenian warriors were ceremonially cremated and interred.
About 5k from the tumulus, one finds the Marathon Museum, near which lies the smaller burial mound of the Plataeans. On the right, as you approach, a modern exhibition building preserves the archaeological site of the prehistoric, Early Helladic cemetery at Tsepi (2.5k from the museum).
Visitors can continue to follow the historical thread at the Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods; a Roman-era installation erected ca. AD 160 by the well-known sophist, philanthropist and native of Marathon, Herodes Atticus. It can be found near the seafront church of Aghia Kyriaki, in the Brexiza area. Also worth seeing are the marble ruins of Herodes Atticus’ unique nymphaeum (water display), at the start of the Oinoi Gorge near Marathon village, flanked by a three-storied medieval watchtower (12th c.) and a Frankish chapel (Holy Apostles, 13th c.).
Nature walkers will appreciate a well-signposted trail network that also begins here, with one of the paths following an ancient road, and another leading through the gorge to the foot of the Marathon Dam. The lake formed by this impressive marble structure, built in 1926-29, was Athens’ main source of water for decades; today, the area is ideal for walks.
After enjoying the view, head downhill to Schinias National Park (a Natura 2000 site), covering an area of 1,400 hectares beside the sea. Stroll through the pine forest and along the beach – or admire the wetlands, thick with reeds and other vegetation, from the elevated observatory at Megalo Elos. Afterwards you can either head north to the picturesque archaeological site of Rhamnous, or south to Nea Makri where the pedestrian promenade, a favorite among locals, is lined with cafés and ouzeries.
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