Last updated on March 6th, 2020 at 03:01 pm
You may have heard of Anafiotika, a small area in the Greek capital. Anafiotika is often described as “a Greek island in the heart of Athens”. Surely it can’t be true? Here’s a little information about one of the most picturesque areas in Athens.
Anafiotika – A Greek island in Athens
People who visit Athens for a day or two rarely discover the pocket-sized neighbourhood of Anafiotika. Squeezed between two of Athens’ most famous landmarks, Plaka and the Acropolis, this tiny quarter is pretty unique.
People who have visited any of the Cyclades islands will immediately notice the striking similarity. The houses are perched up on the slope, among tiny churches, bougainvillea trees and a fair amount of street art.
The small settlement consists of 45 houses, most of which are under 40 sq. metres.
So why do the Anafiotika houses look like the blue and white Cycladic houses? Read on to find out!
History of Anafiotika Athens
The history of Anafiotika is as old as the history of Athens itself. In ancient times, the Delphi Oracle had prohibited people from building houses in the area under the Acropolis.
However, evidence suggests that houses existed since the 5th century BC. They were occupied by refugees, who resettled here after the Peloponnesian War.
In 1821, after the Independence War against the Ottoman Empire, Greece was liberated. Athens became the capital of the newly founded country in 1834.
Hans Christian Andersen, the famous Danish author, paints a picture of Athens in the early 1840s. He mentions a handful of slaves from Africa, who lived in small clay houses in the area. You can find out more in his book “A poet’s bazaar”.
Around that time, King Otto invited workers from the Cyclades islands to come and live in Athens. These people were well known for their construction skills, and they could help rebuild the new capital of Greece. Many of them came from a small, rocky island called Anafi, and were called “Anafiotes”.
The newcomers built their own homes at the foot of the Acropolis, which looked similar to their homeland. They worked on their new homes during the night and built the neoclassical houses during the day.
Allegedly, King Otto had given the workers building permission, though no written documents exist. In any case, it appears that the authorities did not interfere with the construction of the Anafiotika houses. Skilled workers were necessary for Athens, even if that meant that they would live in illegally constructed houses.
Moreover, an old Ottoman law was still in place at the time. According to this law, any construction built from sunset to sunrise would belong to the person who built it. No comment here!
The new settlement was built around two small 17th century churches that existed in the area. These were restored at the time, and you can still see them today. They are Agios Georgios tou Vrachou (St George of the Rock) and Agios Symeon.
Life in Anafiotika Athens
As all these people belonged to the same class, there was professional and social cohesion in the small settlement. It appears that the residents spent most of their time on their porches and yards, rather than in their homes.
Women spent time together, looking after the children and doing household chores. Men went home from work in the evenings and discussed politics while smoking their cigarettes.
Everyone living in Anafiotika knew exactly what was happening in this compact neighbourhood. This is something you can still see in Greece today, especially if you visit some of the quieter Greek islands.
Status of the Anafiotika houses
As you will have gathered, it appears that no written planning permission ever existed for the Anafiotika houses. Those small houses never officially belonged to anyone and were never exactly legal. In fact, there is very little paperwork associated with the Anafiotika houses.
In the decades that followed, residents faced the reactions of a large group of scholars and academics. As Ancient Greek ruins were slowly being discovered, archaeologists were re-evaluating contemporary buildings. As a result, the construction of the Anafiotika settlement was considered desecration of the sacred archaeological site.
In 1872 a decree was issued, describing Anafiotika as an illegal settlement, and its inhabitants as trespassers. However, given the social and financial difficulties of the times, no measures were taken, and the neighbourhood lived on.
Not much changed in the next decades. In 1922, after the population exchange, many refugees came to Athens from Asia Minor. Some of them settled next to the Anafiotika area.
Demolition of the Anafiotika houses
A decade later, in the 1930s, the American School of Classical Studies bought some of the Anafiotika houses. A few of them were demolished, in an attempt to unearth ancient ruins. This was also the case for houses that had been built over the Ancient Agora.
Others were used as temporary homes for the archaeologists who were working in excavations. A few more of the Anafiotika houses were demolished in the 1950s.
In the 1960s and 70s, the Ephorate of the Acropolis brought up the Anafiotika houses ownership issue. It was then decided to expropriate an area of around 2,500 sq. meters, in order to restore the ancient promenade and the space around the Acropolis.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of reaction. Several groups of people, including architects, civil engineers and the residents, were against the decision. One of the arguments was that the Anafiotika settlement was already over 100 years old, so it had historical value itself. Additionally, people lived in the houses, and an expropriation would mean that they would be made homeless.
Eventually, a compromise was reached, and only 7 houses that were located very close to the Acropolis were demolished in 1979. Part of the area was reconstructed, allowing the restoration of the ancient promenade around the Acropolis. You can still see ruins of these houses if you walk on the promenade.
The Anafiotika houses today
Today, Anafiotika is the closest Athenian neighbourhood to the Acropolis. A few dozens of people still live there, taking care of their small houses. Many of them are retired, and have been living there since they were born.
Living conditions have improved considerably since the 1980s. Still, the only way to come here is on foot, through the tiny, steep staircases. It’s worth mentioning that there are no street names in Anafiotika. The houses are numbered like Anafiotika 1, Anafiotika 2 etc.
The residents care a lot about their neighbourhood. You will notice that the houses are whitewashed, and there are a lot of plants everywhere. There are also many lazy cats!
Since there are no official papers, the Anafiotika houses cannot be passed on to third parties, though it has happened a few times in the past. As a result, there are many abandoned houses in the area. It’s unclear what their future will be!
How to get to Anafiotika Plaka
Our favourite route to get to Anafiotika begins from Thrasillou street. This street is close to Acropolis metro and the main entrance to the Acropolis.
Continue on to Stratonos street, until you see some steps on your left hand side, heading up. If you are in doubt, you are probably there. Quite often, there is a street musician sitting around playing the bouzouki. Climb the stairs, and you will find yourself right in the middle of a Greek island!
Walk around, and take in the details and the views. Quite often, you may come across a staircase which will look like a dead end. Try it – it might lead you somewhere new!
And if you have forgotten where you are, the street art in the area will remind you that you are right in the heart of a big city.
As you are walking around, please remember that people live here and respect their privacy. This is one of the most photographed neighbourhoods in Athens, and tourists walking around can be exhausting for the residents.
Once you’ve visited Anafiotika, you can wander down to busy Plaka to have a coffee or meal. Or you can head to bustling Monastiraki square, and head to one of the rooftop cafes.
Anafiotika in Athens
We hope that you’ve enjoyed reading a few things about Anafiotika in Athens! Have you been there? What did you think? Please leave a comment below!
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