Know Athens, Know Thyself
“Most people connect meditation to Eastern cultures, but meditation was commonly practised by ancient Greeks,” says the gently spoken Poliana on this brisk but sunny Athenian morning, as we stroll the majestic paved promenade of Dionysiou Areopagitou, at the bottom of the Acropolis. “It lay at the core of that highest Greek quest: to ‘know thyself’.”
We’ve only just met but I can already feel Poliana’s calm and grounded energy influencing my own mood (with her long silver leaf earrings, flowing frock and spill of curls, she conjures a classic Athenian). We pass ancient monuments like Odeon of Herodes Atticus, street performers and gorgeous art deco buildings, while Poliana tells me about her years studying the ancient healing philosophies of indigenous tribes in exotic locales like Mexico. Our mission this morning, she says, will be to tap back into the roots of the earliest wisdom of the Greeks and forge a deeper connection with Athens (and ourselves) while we’re at it.
“Listen to the sounds of the city around us,” she instructs now. “Breathe in the air, feel the texture of the streets beneath your shoes. Slow down the rhythm of your daily life. Meditation is about being able to perceive what’s going on around you.”
Getting Mindful on the Hill of Muses
We turn off Dionysiou Areopagitou and ascend Philopappou—or the Hill of the Muses, as it’s also known. It was here on this scenic forested peak that the Athenian Assembly met at the Pnyx from as early as the 5th century BC to hear some of the most brilliant orations of Athenian democracy. These days, modern Athenians gather at this swoony spot to watch the moon rise over Lycabettus Hill, while the sun takes its bow opposite.
Poliana leads us down a discreet unsignposted trail near Pnyx, where she points out a hive of snug caves with barred entrances, nested among the olive and pine trees.
“Every cave up here is an opening to an ancient underground temple,” she reveals. “Athenians used to conduct their most important rituals beneath the earth because it was considered to be the womb of nature and where the greatest concentration of energy lay.”
We come out at a small empty clearing with a natural limestone plateau. From it, the Parthenon looms large directly across from us, scored with ant-like crowds. I hope I can remember how to get up here. It’s a magnificent location with the serenity of an insider secret.
“You can really feel the eternal energy,” agrees Poliana. “My friends and I come here to do meditations all the time.”
If it worked for Socrates…
Shortly afterwards, I’m sitting cross-legged on a mat opposite Poliana, eyes closed, obeying her soothing voice as she guides me through a half hour meditation exercise. The air around us is spiked by the wild camomile that thrives on Philopappou and the scent of Poliana’s Greek spiritual incense (a blend of tree resin and local herbs that dates back some 3,000 years). I tune into the birdsong around me; the children in a nearby school yard; the bong of church bells; the skitter of bouzouki from a taverna down in Plaka.
Then, rising up through this typically Athenian playlist, the primordial beat from Poliana’s large drum and the eerie whale-like keening she skilfully coaxes from its delicate skin. It’s a deeply relaxing encounter. I feel like I’ve fallen outside of time and relish this rare window to push pause on the usual white noise of my inner monologue and daily routine. My mind feels freer; my spirit unburdened. I’m in good company, it seems.
“Plato in his symposiums writes about Socrates sitting still in the same position for many hours, meditating and contemplating life, before making his prayers to the sun,” shares Poliana later. “From this we have a very clear image that the ancient philosophers were meditating here in Athens and recognising the elements of nature as sacred.”
The Art of Giving Back
“Before we receive, we must give. That is the basis of all ancient cultures,” states Poliana as we embark on the final part of the morning’s mindful manoeuvres.
In a clay bowl, she has prepared a mixture of Greek seeds, symbolising abundance. With them, we recreate an ancient Greek offering to the goddess Athena of the kind that once took place on these very slopes, in clear sight of the Parthenon.
“Athena was the goddess of pure wisdom and clarity of mind and the Parthenon was a sacred space that represented that purity,” she explains, while I scatter a handful of seeds at the base of a tree of my choosing. It’s one vital step of the ritual. Contemplating that for which I’m most grateful for this morning is another. “Ancient Athenians would start the day here with prayers and offerings like this, asking the gods to bless their homes, their families, their crops.”
And now onto Earthly Appetites…
Speaking of things that sprout from the earth, with our minds purified, it’s time to sate our stomachs. Down the Hill of Muses we go, to thread our way through the streets of cool Koukaki. We chat about our meditation experience and Poliana identifies some local hotspots. I enjoy the contrast of leaving our sanctified bubble to move among locals going about their daily groove, on pavements lined with bright orange trees and small neighbourhood businesses. We arrive at a cheery vegan café kitted out with colourful hanging origami and a pair of chair hammocks, where I make short work of an utterly delicious slice of pea and rosemary pie, chased down with a dragon fruit and almond milk smoothie (while I’m not adverse to meat, tearing into a plate of souvlaki right now would somehow strike completely the wrong note).
For the rest of the day, I will feel a lightness of being, accompanied by a keener awareness of my physical surroundings.
“This tour is about connecting with yourself, as much as connecting with Athens,” Poliana says, as we bid each other goodbye, outside the café.
What’s the verdict?
Tours may be many things, but rarely relaxing. This one is. Poliana’s tranquil, friendly vibe makes for a thoroughly lovely way to spend a morning in Athens and you’ll gain a deeper connection with the city than on a regular “walk and listen” tour. While learning about ancient Athens and taking in historic sites, you’re also doing something good for yourself.
- Duration: 2.5 hours. Also available in sign language.
- Cost: €49 (up to 8 people per session). Includes all materials for the meditation and ritual but vegan meal is extra.
- Time: Between April and November at 8.30am.