We could have taken the funicular to the top of Lycabettus Hill, the highest point in Athens. But the path was more inviting, winding its way upwards through a pine-scented landscape rich with legends. Besides, I wanted to try to find the rock church of Saint Isidore.
A View From the Top of the Hill
Mount Lycabettus is higher even than the Acropolis. (Confusingly, Acropolis means “highest point of the city” but there is no contradiction here; Lycabettus was outside the boundary of the ancient city.) It was a steep climb up, but worth it for the classic Greek landscape. We walked between pines and olive trees, the path lined with wild flowers and prickly pears everywhere.
There was hardly anyone about, but half way up we were disturbed by a sudden movement and watched as a large tortoise ran past us and into the undergrowth.
Then there were the panoramic views. Right over the city, to the Acropolis and across the sea towards the Peloponnese.
Legends of Mount Lycabettus
This is a place of legends. Lycabettus means “hill of wolves” and it is said that wolves once roamed the slopes, protected by the goddess Athena. But the most famous story concerns Athena herself, who was carrying a massive rock to the Acropolis with the intention of building herself a temple that would reach up to the sky. But on the way she was disturbed by two ravens and dropped the rock, so creating Mount Lycabettus.
A Hidden Church on Lycabettus Hill
At the very top of the hill we stopped at the café to have something to eat and to enjoy the views. I had also hoped to visit the small chapel of St George but it was closed for cleaning. However I did manage to peep around the door, confirming the guidebook description of it as “of little interest”.
In fact, I was more interested in finding the rock church of St Isidore (or Isidorus). We had diligently followed the signs on the way up but seen no sign of it, and the one or two people we met appeared to be unaware of its existence. Certainly it seems to be little known; I had heard about it from a local guide but could find no mention in the guidebook. But, coming down the hill by a different route, we spotted the cave entrance high above the path. A long stairway reached enticingly up to it but unfortunately the gate at the bottom was locked; a sign outside showed that the church only opens for services and special events.
Still, I had found the church, enjoyed the views and given my legs a good workout. And I had met a tortoise along the way. I couldn’t ask for more than that!