Following Monty Part 2 – Mount Hymettus Hiking and Raiment of the Soul, Acropolis Museum

Continuing on with my inspiration from Monty Don’s visit to Athens during his fantastic TV Series, Monty Don’s Adriatic Gardens, this afternoon I am going to visit Mount Hymettus, another place that he travelled to during his programme. I’ve booked a sunset hike on Mount Hymettus with an exciting tour operator called Nomad’s Path. They are a small independent tour operator based in Athens and you can read more about the tours that they offer here:

Because this trip doesn’t start until this afternoon, I have another visit that I want to squeeze in this morning. My lovely host Maria at Polyxenia in Nafplio had impressed upon me that I absolutely must go and visit this temporary exhibition at the Acropolis Museum. Raimant of the Soul is a collaboration between two artists – photographer Vangelis Kyris and embroiderer Anatoli Georgiev. I read that this exhibition wouldn’t exist without approval from the National Historical Museum and other guardians of various collections. They gave permission for a collection of 19th century national costumes to be used for this project. I can’t imagine the precautions that must have been put in place whilst handling these precious items. Some of the costumes had previously been owned and worn by notable characters from Greek history and others are just beautifully elaborate in their own right.

The concept of Raiments of the Soul was to dress contemporary Athenians in these beautifully elaborate costumes from the 19th century. Photographer Vangelis Kyris captures the images in a very unique style that resembles the work of Italian painter Caravaggio, the figure as a beacon of light coming out from the dark. These stunning images were then printed onto cotton canvas in very high resolution (gosh can you imagine the amount of printer ink used!). That in itself would create a dramatic piece of artwork, but the pieces are further embellished with the absolutely exquisite embroidery by Anatoli Georgiev. The word exquisite is an understatement – or an underword!

So eager was Maria for me to see this exhibition that I knew it would be one of note. However, I wasn’t really prepared for how utterly incredible, and beautiful, and emotionally moving it would be. As I entered the exhibition space my mouth fell open in awe. Most of the pieces are huge and there are 70+ of these framed works of art. The exhibition space is divided into sections that you gradually make your way around. The lighting is low, with spotlights on each remarkable piece, making it feel like a much more intimate and immersive experience. It also slows you down and makes you stop and look in more detail which is absolutely the point of it. The embroidery truly is the work of a master.

There are examples of national costumes from many of the islands such as Nisyros, Astipalea, Tilos, Skyros, Psara. There are several costumes from Crete with their regional variations. Viewing each work of art flashes up memories of my visits to these islands and then I pull myself back to subject matter, inspecting every last detail.

I must have been in here for well over an hour. Reluctantly, I make my way to the exit of the exhibition but take another look at the exhibition description and this part moves me to tears.

“Young bodies dressed in old garments, clothed with costumes of tradition in which the body was immersed within them. This is the actual meaning of the Greek word used for getting dressed “ενδυομαι”, sink within and have invested them with new meaning ……………………… the psyche of the people, garments and folds”.

What an experience that was. I can’t speak highly enough of this exhibition and if it is ever on show again, I highly recommend a visit.

A slow amble back towards the hotel brings me to the Metropolitan Church. Sitting in its shadow is the small church of the Virgin Mary Gorgoepikoos and Saint Eleutherius which is one of my favourites. Although I’m an atheist bordering on agnostic (as you do the older you get), I’m strangely drawn to churches and this one in particular has a lot of charm. It is empty so I take a moment to sit and reflect on the day so far and on my trp as a whole. Tomorrow I return home.

After a spot of lunch at Gypsy Jungle I head back to the hotel. I have arranged to be picked up by my guide Michalis for our hike on Mount Hymettus. He has sent me a description of the car which makes it easy to spot outside the hotel.

The conversation is flowing from the get-go and I know pretty soon that this is going to be a great trip. Michalis tells me that he is from Delphi and he got his love of adventure from the surrounding Mount Parnassus. He has a particular interest in Ski Touring which is where you put a special grip on your skis to trek across the country and which are later removed to ski downwards.

We head out of Athens through the busy mid-afternoon traffic. I catch a fleeting glimpse of the sculpture known as The Runner but whose official title is Dromeas. Thousands of pieces of jagged glass are stacked on top of each other to create this effective image of the running man and it took around 6 years to create. It isn’t the best photo taken through the window of a speeding car in rush hour traffic!

Michalis tells me a bit about Mount Hymettus. It is only a short distance from the city and is sometimes known to locals at ‘Trellos’ meaning crazy. This name is a derivation of the French description of the mount going back to Ottoman times of ‘Tres long’. It was recognised as far back as the early 1920’s that Mount Hymettus was an asset to the city and one that needed to be protected. A group of concerned citizens in the form of the Philodassiki Society had urged the government to protect the area and to allow them to re-forest the slopes. Soon after, World War II broke out and the occupation fell upon the country. Mount Hymettus was stripped of its assets and any trees that it had. After the war, the local people scavenged the slopes for firewood just to survive, leaving the slopes barren and ravaged.

The Philodassiki Society again, put their efforts into trying to convince the government to protect the mountain and to help plant new forests and this was done with limited success. Several years later the country was under a dictatorship that had the ambition to build a large university campus on the site of what was going to be forested land. 64 hectares of land were appropriated for this construction.

When a new government came to power, they too had ambitions for the land on Mount Hymettus such as selling parcels of it off for real estate to house the city’s burgeoning population. Although the Philodassiki Society were able to help protect some of this land, it couldn’t prevent the construction of a large highway through the forest though in some respects this eased the problem of congestion in the city.

Today we can see the determined efforts of the Philodasski Society and 446 hectares of land have been declared an Aesthetic Forest. It now provides a place for recreation for the city’s residents and not to mention, providing the city with oxygen as well as stabilising the slopes and helping to prevent flooding. The Philodassiki Botanical Gardens was established and native trees and plants are reared in a nursery here. The site is now included into the Natura 2000 environmental protection program.

We park on a road at the edge of the forest and Michalis hands me a set of walking poles. Thankfully I’m not a novice to the old sticks having done a short course in Nordic walking some time ago. I do forewarn Michalis that I’m an old granny and to be gentle with me. He laughs and tells me that it will all be done at my own pace.

We take a path that leads upwards through the shaded canopy of the forest. Fuscia pink anemones and dark purple muscari cover the woodland floor. It is spring and life is just beginning to burst forth from the ground. We also spot a trail of caterpillars, blind from birth, making their way in a tandem fashion across the footpath. I know what else likes to make an appearance in spring and that is snakes coming out of hibernation seeking the warmth of the sun to wake them from their slumber. Michalis tells me that in a few weeks’ time, they will begin to awake but that there is only one venomous snake to really be cautious of and that’s the viper. They are rarely seen and yes – apparently they are more scared of us than we are of them!

After a short while we reach a refreshment area called Kalopoula. There are picnic benches under the shade of the trees and a small cafe owned and run by the municipality. All proceeds go back to local projects. As we continue to climb, we reach a small pool filled with terrapins and goldfish. The source of the water is from one of the many springs that course through the limestone rock.

Onward and upward we continue until we come to a small stone hut made from a protruding rocks and a collection of flat stones stacked to created a wall. I pop my head inside where I see a sign that Google roughly translates to “Hello. This cabin was probably built in 1966 and been inhabited from time to time. We try to keep it alive by any means we can. We hope to make an apeal for hikers for the long suffering Hymettus. Hymettus SOS 5/10/2020.

Michalis tells me that a number of years ago there was an old lady that lived on Mount Hymettus. She lived in a run down shack and lived on what could be foraged on the hills and also donated to by kind people and the church. How, who and why I ask? Michalis knows as much as has been said colloquially about the woman rather than the detail of what I think could be a rather interesting story.

Further along the path we walk and sitting in the midst of the forest is the ancient Chapel of Assumption also known as Trypia Church meaning with holes. It is said to have been built where a shallow cave had been carved from by the force of the water spewing from an aquaduct higher up. This water was said to have miraculous healing powers and hence the perfect location for this magical little shrine. It’s vaulted ceiling and walls are covered in offerings from the faithful of which there are several volunteers who keep the church pristine and well cared for.

The sun has now begun to drop in the sky so we need to get a wriggle on if we are to make the viewing point by sunset. We walk through part of the botanical gardens where small almond trees are in full bloom. Also in the nursery are native varieties of Pinus trees, perfect for the creation of Pinus honey. (An old joke. You had to be there!).

Michalis has one more thing to show me. The Church of Agios Markos or Fragamonastiro is the only remaining Byzantine basilica on the site. There were four with the oldest believed to have dated back to 4th or 5th century. During the Venetian occupation the chapel was converted to a Catholic church in the name of St Mark but was abandoned soon after. Fragomonastiro was a disparaging name given to it by the monks from a neighbouring monastery and it roughly translates as Franciscan Monastery. A monastery it is not, however it is a pretty impressive site and rare evidence of the occupation by Francesco Morosini and his troops – albeit briefly.

We make it to the Taxiarches Hill Viewpoint just as the sun begins to set. Over the hazy smog of the city, the view is over the Argo Saronic Gulf to the Peloponnese. The islands appear to be floating in a bowl of sunset coloured jelly and custard.

This has been a really enjoyable hike – well actually more of a vigourous walk to most people. Because this was a somewhat trunkated visit to Mount Hymettus I didn’t get chance to visit the Kaisariani Monastery which was almost in touching distance of where we walked today. With walking poles in both hands and walking mainly at pace, there was only limited opportunity to take a few snaps on my phone so apologies for the quality.

Michalis has been perfect company and I’m truly thankful for him showing me this little bit of Athens that I haven’t seen before. Thanks also to Monty for the inspiration! This is definitely on my list to visit again. Next time!

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  1. That sounds a very interesting day, wish I’d gone on that hike , next time I will . Thanks for sharing your day yet again xx

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