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Travel

My Great Greek Adventure: Tips & Tricks for Υour Trip to Greece: Piraeus, Athens’ Gateway to the Sea

Since ancient times, the port of Piraeus has connected the city of Athens via sea to the rest of the known world. The famous port has seen the world change over millennia and allowed Greeks to interact and participate in it as a major player in trade, military exploits, and international travel. 

Piraeus port is located within the larger area of the Piraeus municipality is in close proximity to the Acropolis and the center of Athens, situated only ten kilometers away. It was a prime location for the development of a major port, as the landscape had already formed a natural limestone peninsula. The port has been in use for more than two thousand years, aiding the Ancient Greeks in all aspects of their endeavors, politically, militarily, and socially. 

The peninsula that laid the foundation for Piraeus port has several harbors and marinas situated around its borders. In ancient Greece, the largest harbor to the west was called Kantharos, along with the smaller eastern side bays called Zea and Munichia.

Themistocles, the father of the Athenian fleet, began the fortification of Piraeus. The port’s development continued under the leadership of Pericles, the Athenian leader responsible for the funding and creation of many precious and incredible edifices, like the Parthenon. He was a democratic and introspective leader, as he placed high importance on protecting and promoting the arts and encouraged citizens to participate in their democracy. A fortifiable and safe port for the thriving city was a logical addition to the list of improvements and cultural monuments. 

Many may not know that during this Golden Age, the port of Piraeus was connected to the city of Athens by a road with large walls protecting it on either side.  The same wall wrapped around the city and provided all who needed use of the port, a safe entrance or retreat.

Piraeus port will remain a symbol of triumph, as it was within site of the Battle of Salamis. That was the second time the Persians attempted to conquer Greece, and as history repeats, so the Persians were defeated again. Themistocles, the commander of the Greek forces, lured the Persian fleet into the waterways that separate Piraeus from the island of Salamina or Salamis, a narrow corridor where the large Persian ships could not maneuver and became powerless against the swift and more maneuverable Greek vessels. It is recorded that 300 Persian ships fell into the sea that day, and it is recognized as the first known naval battle in recorded history.

However, these walls would later fall to a not so distant enemy. As the conflict between Athens and Sparta escalated, the Spartans eventually invaded Piraeus and demolished those fortifications. The port would be built up and destroyed again many times over the centuries, due to wars, occupations, and lack of resources.

After the War of Independence of 1821 and the liberation of the Hellenes and the creation of the modern Greek state, the port began to thrive again.  From the 1950’s onward the port would continue to modernize and it was built up to enhance Greece’s ability to operate and receive commercial, cruise, and container ships.

Today, Piraeus and its port are densely populated and full of reminders of its ancient past. As one of the oldest parts of Athens, a walk through Piraeus will be highlighted with artifacts or ruins, including classical architecture.

The largest and most western port that in ancient times was called Kantharos is now the section developed for large ship docks. This is where the ferry boats come and go from the hundreds of Greek islands, and is now simply called the Port of Piraeus.  As Greece seeks to become more successful in international trade, the Port of Piraeus is expected to undergo more upgrades and renovations.

On the east side of the peninsula that makes up Piraeus there are the two smaller marinas or bays.  The larger and more southern of these two is still called by its ancient name Zea, but also Pasalimani. It is an almost perfect circle with an opening to the sea that is only a few meters wide. Within this circular bay marina is a gathering place for sailboats and small yachts and ships. To walk the whole length of the marina is equivalent to about one kilometer but feels shorter due to the cozy closeness of everything. Across from the marina and lining the street, you will find a vast array of bars, restaurants, and shops. 

MUSEUMS TELL THE STORY OF GREECE AND THE SEA

At one entrance into the circular marina of Pasalimani-Zea you will find the Hellenic Maritime Museum. The museum was finally established in 1949 by active Piraeus citizens, after many years lost to failed attempts and lack of resources. It was created to preserve the over 2500 artifacts in the municipality’s possession obtained either through excavations and discoveries during building activity or through other collections. It became a home to celebrate the culture that defined Greece and aided in its advancements and its role as a major civilization.

As a peninsula with hundreds of islands, Greece and Greeks are forever intertwined with and influenced by the sea. The goal of the museum is to continue to preserve the history of this relationship to the sea from ancient times up until today, and to aid in research and advancements. The museum also has a library that remains open to the public during its regular operating hours, and allows visitors access to over 17,000 written works. 

Directly across from the museum at the other side of the narrow entrance to the circular marina of Pasalimani-Zea, you will find an architectural ode to another chapter of our Greek history. It is a metal arcade made of cylindrical pieces, honoring those who were victims to the Pontian Genocide. If you are interested in learning more about the history of Piraeus, less than a block away from the marina is the Archeological Museum of Piraeus located on Trikoupi Street. The institution holds artifacts such as bronze and marble statues that immortalize the history of the area and its evolution. 

The final and smallest bay sits at the beginning of the peninsula and in ancient times held the name Munichia, but is now called Mikrolimano. It too is almost a perfect circle like Pasalimani-Zea, and has an entrance only a few meters wide at one end.  Mikrolimano is dense with fishing boats and other small vessels as are the other marinas on the Piraeus peninsula. What makes Mikrolimano special however, are the restaurants and cafes built right up to the waters edge. You can dine next to the picturesque fishing boats and have a view unobstructed by cars and roadways. Here, you truly get a sense of the old Athens before commercialism and modern architecture began to appear. These small bay marinas and fishing communities thrived and developed their own sense of culture within themselves. It is clear that this is a tight knit community with bonds that go back generations.  Between the two smaller bay marinas of Pasalimani-Zea and Mikrolimano is a rather tall hill with houses built closely next to one another, almost becoming one. Friends have told me that these properties are rarely on the market and they tend to stay strictly within the families that have lived there for generations. The area is called Kastella, and upon its hill you will find an open-air theater called Veakio, the Church of the Profitis Ilias, and stunning views towards the center of Athens with the Parthenon atop the Acropolis and Lycabettus Mountain just beside it.

There is more to Piraeus beyond its marinas, bays, and large ship ports. Venture down towards the very tip of the peninsula and next to the Hellenic Naval Academy and you will find the Conon Walls. These are the remains of the walls restored after the Peloponnesian War in 394 BC by the Athenian general Conon.

Next to these ancient ruins at the farthest point of the peninsula, you will see the church of Agios Nikolaos. Situated on the other side of the protective fence, the church is built onto the rocks of the coastal waters. It is a beautiful sight further enhanced by the large cross monument standing tall beside the church. There is an esplanade built around much of the coastal areas of the peninsula of Piraeus, making it an excellent place for a stroll or a run with views all the way to southern Athens neighborhoods like Glyfada and Mount Hymettus behind them. There are also small scattered beaches and beach bars along the Piraeus coast, along with sports facilities for tennis, basketball, and Olympic swimming. 

LINCHPIN OF GREEK HISTORY

Piraeus was the sight of the first naval battle and victory in recorded human history. It has been inhabited and developed for thousands of years.  The evolution and influence of Piraeus and all its ports and marinas is important to Greek history and culture, not just in Athens but throughout Greece, the gateway to one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known. 

Without the access and capabilities allowed to Greeks through use of the peninsula that Piraeus was formed on, our history might have been written differently. Democracy was able to flourish, injustice became no match to the proud stance for freedom, and globalization and connection became possible among friends and allies across vast distances. 

Piraeus still ranks as one of the busiest ports in Europe and the world, but it is more than the port where you catch your ferry to the islands. Piraeus and its coastal waters celebrate our history, while continuing to enrich our future. 

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