Sometimes the best-kept secrets are hidden in plain sight. Mount Ymittos forms the natural eastern boundary of Athens. Here, the dense city grid suddenly gives way to a tree-covered slope dotted with monasteries. This is the ‘Aesthetic Forest of Kesariani,’ a protected nature reserve that is only a 15- to 20-minute cab ride from downtown Athens.
As a long-time resident of Athens, I was unaware of this gem for years. But then two things happened: I got a dog (Brigitte), and moved to the nearby suburb of Pangrati. Brigitte and I went exploring and happily discovered this forest and its many paths.
With Brigitte lying disconsolately on the passenger seat (she is rather car-phobic), we drive past Kesariani cemetery and underneath the Ymittos ring road, before heading into the forest. As only dogs and small children can, Brigitte turns from miserable to joyful within seconds. Footpaths ascend to the left and right of the road; we choose the one on the right. The walk is shady and cool, even in the early summer heat, thanks to the forest of mainly pine and cypress trees. While dense, the tree trunks are quite thin; this is actually a young forest, the product of reforestation efforts by the Philodassiki Enosi Athinon (‘Friends of the Forest of Athens’), who replanted the slopes after they were almost completely denuded during World War II.
After about 10-15 minutes uphill, the path brings us to an olive grove, which belongs to the 12th century Byzantine Monastery of Kesariani. Brigitte is prohibited from entering the restored site, now run by the Archaeological Service. But she has little interest in it anyway, and is content to be left in the shade of a tree while I look around. The €2 entrance fee is well worth it, even if only for a brief visit (the monastery is open daily throughout the year, except for Mondays, with the last entry at 2:30 pm). The flower-filled complex is relatively compact, with all of the things one expects to see in a Byzantine monastery (age-old frescoes, monks’ cells, kitchens and a refectory) as well as some rarer sights—namely the old domed bathhouse. With its hot and cold chambers, it must have been quite the luxury ticket in the middle ages.
Kesariani is one of the few remaining medieval sites in Athens. Curiously, one senses that life here was not necessarily always one of privation. With ample water from the nearby spring, the monks cultivated the land, becoming particularly renowned for their honey. The monastery was also noted for its library that included ancient Greek texts. These drew luminaries from Europe who came to copy them, which was just as well; many of the manuscripts ended up as musket wadding during Greece’s war of independence.
The Botanical Walk and Beyond
From the monastery, a rested Brigitte and I head towards the nearby Taxiarchis Hill, where we wander through the ruins of an old Christian basilica and studiously pretend not to notice the couples canoodling under the trees, more interested in each other than the wonderful view afforded here of the Athenian basin (it’s particularly impressive at sunset).
Signs lead us to the Botanical Walk that begins on the verges of the monastery’s grounds. Brigitte revels in the soft, level terrain, and I try unsuccessfully to memorise the Latin names of the various plant species identified by wooden labels painted by schoolchildren. We soon come to the Chapel of the Ascension, a cave-like structure lined with icons (a stone-paved path also connects it with the monastery). A local spring flows through here and feeds a pond. Brigitte laps at it and clearly considers jumping in, but the presence of gold and silver carp seems to put her off the idea.
After just under a half-hour (we take it slow to savour our surroundings) the Botanical Walk brings us to another ravine. Just down the hill is Kalopoula, where an attractive refreshment stand nestles under the trees offering coffee, cold beer and even a few cooked dishes. But we keep moving along the path’s uphill fork—another beautiful section that 20 minutes later leads to a road running across the mountain.
Our ultimate goal is Asteriou Monastery, although I am hoping to avoid walking on the main road. Luckily, just where the dirt track meets the asphalt, a group of volunteer firefighters points me in the direction of a narrow path off to the right. It more or less leads us right where we want to go.
Unlike Kesariani, Asteriou Monastery is a functioning monastery. This means that one can visit in the afternoons as well as the mornings, although it is expected that one does so as a pilgrim, rather than a tourist. There is no entry fee, but it is a good gesture to provide a small donation when you light a candle in the chapel.
The Road Back via an Ottoman Tower
Underneath the road next to Asteriou Monastery, to the left as you face Athens, there is a small path. After about 10 minutes, it brings us to our final cultural stop—an Ottoman defensive tower. At least that’s what it looks like; there are no plaques, or indeed any visitor infrastructure at all. (A later Google search confirms its Ottoman origins, and tells me that the tower once had a third storey, now destroyed.) In the interior, a rickety-looking ladder leads up to the first floor, but climbing it looks like a recipe for winding up on the local news.
For me, this lack of tourism development is part of the charm of this route. Despite its proximity to the city, you feel off grid and in discovery mode (as opposed to on a signposted cattle-march, with the exit via the gift-shop). Keeping the city as a very visible landmark, it is difficult to get lost here—but easy to feel like it.
From the tower with the mountain behind us, a small path branches off to the left. Not wanting to retrace our steps, I suggest to Brigitte that we take it. She shrugs, enjoying every minute on the mountain. It proves to be a good instinct (ok, I also used Google Maps' satellite view), because we end up back at Kalopoula. Refreshed with a cold beer, bowl of water and snacks, we continue downhill along the Kalopoula ravine on a well-travelled path that leads us back to the car. Despite Brigitte's best efforts, I get her back into the car and within 10 minutes we are home.
Athens Strollers, a local community of hiking enthusiasts, arrange guided hikes for all seasons in English. From the wetlands of Schinias to the caves and quarries of Mount Pendeli, a spring walk through the pistachio groves of Aegina or an autumn trek in Mount Parnitha’s woods, walks are usually held every other weekend, either on Saturday or Sunday, ending with lunch in a taverna. Most walks are only a short drive from Athens and a car pool is often available.