A Greek Island Below the Acropolis

The story of a unique district and its people

  It’s the 1840’s and the Bavarian monarch ruling over Greece sends for the best builders in the country to construct a palace for the new king in the new capital city. The builders arrive from a tiny island in the Cyclades called Anafi. But the authorities don’t provide shelter for them, so they have to build their houses on their own, the way that they know in the Aegean: climbed upon a high point on a rocky hill, securing protection from the elements and a strategic vista. This hill was the Acropolis rock at a location called Plaka. This upper side of Plaka (nowadays the Athens’ old town) became known as Anafiotika (Anafi quarter).

  Soon, more people from the Cyclades islands came to town for work, in high demand for their skills in building, carpentry, stone-masonry and marble-craftsmanship. A settlement in Anafiotika is even called Tiniaka (from Tinos island), whose marble works for 19th century neoclassical grand mansions are obvious to any visitor in Athens today. Still, few know of the humble homes where these people resided– as years went by, the local authorities demolished a large part of the islanders’ homes for archaeological excavations. So, what we see today is the remaining quarter of about 45 houses, fortunately preserved, hidden inside the maze of Plaka’s streets.


  Just walk straight up along Plaka’s Thrasyllou street, opposite the “Acropolis” metro stop until you reach the little chapel of St George of the Rock, marking the entrance to Anafiotika. The Aegean architecture is the first surprise. The tiny cubic-like whitewashed houses along the very narrow winding alleys are of a strikingly different style to the rest of Plaka. You instantly feel like you’ve flown by magic to some Cycladic island. Posters of Anafi make the illusion even stronger. Another unique feature is the house numbering; the first house ever built is “Nr 1”; the second one (even if several meters away) is “Nr 2” and so on. Street names remain largely absent. The houses now stand based on previous clay abodes that were roughly built within a few days’ time, to provide urgent shelter for the islanders. In some cases, homes are half-carved into the rock itself – a practice common in many Cycladic islands. But what is more striking is that Anafiotika residents are keen in remaining there and have done so for generations. Contrary to the rest of Plaka, their little island remained untouched from the 1980’s old-town restoration process (where many previous owners were encouraged to sell out and leave). This process turned Plaka into a gentrified and quiet district but pushed real estate prices sky-high, now affordable only to wealthy elites. They are not the case in Anafiotika.

“Yes, but we have to pay a price”, says a resident, aged 55, born and raised here, in her parents’ home. “We love our little village but we constantly feel neglected. There are problems with electricity and water supply all the time, the water distribution network has never completed any decent works here”. As the residents say, many times the little alleys flood because of poor management of the water that flows down from the rock. “In any case, we don’t want to leave”, says another dweller, 30 years old. “We get down to the city’s madness every morning, we go to work and in the evenings we come back and our minds are at peace again”. Young and old live in a mini society that sticks together. The area provided shelter to refugees from the Asia Minor war in the 1920’s, it was an area that welcomed the poor. A few expats and a few artists have come to live here too, in time incorporated in the neighborhood’s simple way of life. Architects, sociologists and many others have conducted studies about the unique combination of the old and contemporary, the urban and rural in this quarter.

  Videos occasionally capture spontaneous moments of togetherness, like a latest one that shows neighbors meeting at the end of the day over a glass of retsina and then a famous singer joins in as if from nowhere to play old Athenian serenades on the guitar for everybody to sing along.

  As I was strolling around today, the usual noon-day quiet was disturbed by neighbors calling out each other to meet a newly born baby, a neighbor’s grandchild. In my view, despite the serious problems described, the standard of living is worthy of envy for the rest of us. It is a common complaint that ever since Athens became what we call “City of Cement” we also lost that sort of communal sharing and caring that was an integral part of society just a couple of generations ago. It’s too late now and we have to make do with other problems, equally serious or even more. I think these people are lucky.

  Should you decide to pass by Anafiotika, please remember to keep quiet and respect the fact that this is a residential area. Best time to visit is early evening, especially during the summer months, where anyway Greek life is witnessed outdoors. People will likely be there hanging around in some yard or alley, are very much used to tourists walking outside their doors, so a smile and a “hello” is very welcome!

Article by Sophia Nikolaou