After our series of articles on the secret and unknown attractions of Athens and its suburbs, we wanted to expand our search to Piraeus. The port of Ancient Athens, with its own important history and distinct personality, has many known and unknown attractions that the visitor deserves to discover. The unpleasant thing in the case of Piraeus is that many of the ancient monuments were damaged or neglected, neoclassical buildings were demolished, and important landmarks were lost on the altar of modernization and reckless building development (mainly during the 1960s and 1970s). In this article we present 7 important sights of Piraeus (in chronological order), each with its own story, which most of us have seen at some point but without knowing their significance.
Siraggio (Σηράγγιο ή Σηραγγείον) is a natural cave on Kastella’s south coast, specifically Votsalakia Beach, which was formerly known as “Paraskevas Beach” after the owner of a nearby tavern. For this reason, the cave is also known as the “Cave of Paraskevas” (or even earlier as the “Cave of Lalaounis”). According to the ancient sources, its name is due to the ancient hero Siraggos, who founded a sanctuary here. According to some theories, the first people to use the cave were the prehistoric Minyes from Orchomenos in Viotia, while the oldest find inside the cave is a porinus altar dedicated to Apollo. During the 4th century BC, the space was transformed into a public bath.
This underground structure, which extends for about 12 metres into the rock, has two large chambers and tunnels, where benches, alcoves, a tank, and a drainage channel were carved for the needs of the bath. Research in the cave, discovered in 1897, revealed two important mosaics in two parts of the floor. The first represents the hero Siraggos or the hero Glafkos (in a chariot with four horses) and the second the mythical beast Scylla. The space underwent transformations during the Roman Period, while in the 1920s it was turned into a tavern. Finally, during the 1960s (and until 1968), it developed into a popular restaurant called “Spilia” where many famous singers of the time appeared. Today, unfortunately, the cave remains closed to the public and the signs of abandonment are evident in the area. (Votsalakia beach, Kastella)
The shipsheds / neosoikoi (νεώσοικοι) were seaside buildings whose purpose was to lift and guard the ships of Ancient Athens when they were not operating at sea. They were large closed sheds with gabled roofs, the floor of which was provided with a wooden floor that was greased. In this way, the ship was easily launched by the crew as it slid up the timbers. Two ships usually entered each of the buildings with their bow toward the sea. According to ancient sources, there were 196 shipsheds in the port of Zea (Ζέα), making it the largest naval station in Athens. Ancient Zea was walled and turned into a naval base at the beginning of the 5th century BC. In addition to shipsheds, there were a large number of auxiliary buildings, such as barracks, warehouses, tool sheds, and areas for feeding and entertaining the crews.
Today, one of the places where the ancient shipsheds have been uncovered and are visible is in the basement of a post-war apartment building on Akti Moutsopoulou (at its junction with Siraggeiou Street) and continues under the nearby school yard. Each of the specific shipsheds was roofed and consisted of a sloping corridor about 44 metres long that reached the sea. Unfortunately, these places cannot be visited but you can see them quite clearly from the windows on the street. (Akti Moutsopoulou, Pasalimani)
CITY GATES OF PIRAEUS
The construction of the city walls, which began with the fortification of the port of Piraeus and continued with the Long Walls (Μακρά Τείχη) that connected Piraeus to Athens, was one of the most important building projects of Ancient Athens. After their defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, the Athenians were forced by the Spartans to demolish the walls, which were then largely restored by Κonon in 394 BC. Parts of the walls visible today in various areas of Piraeus date back to Konon’s time and were part of the Kononian Walls. Along the harbour fortifications, there were various gates, but the best known was the City Gate / Pyli tou Asteos (Πύλη του Άστεως) in the west because the carriage road between Athens and Piraeus passed through it.
Today, the site of the City Gate is enclosed by Pylis, Euripidou, Distomou, and 34th Syntagmatos Pezikou streets. The Median Gate / Dia Μesou Pyli (Δια Μέσου Πύλη) was later built a hundred metres from this gate, and the two together formed the City Gates of Piraeus / Astikes Pyles of Piraeus (Αστικές Πύλες Πειραιά). Until the beginning of the 20th century, parts of the City Gates were visible, but during the mayorship of Aristidis Skylitsis, a large part of the archaeological site was bulldozed in order to build warehouses, high-rise buildings, and roads, with the result that only a few parts of the ancient walls and gates, such as the stepped fortifications and the circular towers, were saved. In 1996, excavations began to highlight the ancient gates and create an archaeological park, which, however, has not yet been completed. (34th Syntagmatos Pezikou & Pylis, Piraeus)
ARSENAL OF PHILON
The current image of Philon’s Arsenal / Skevothiki tou Philonos (Σκευοθήκη του Φίλωνος) does not do justice to the grandeur of this important structure. The Arsenal was one of the most magnificent buildings in the ancient port of Piraeus, and it was built between 346 and 328 BC. In fact, the Epigraphic Museum of Athens exhibits the inscribed stele describing the construction conditions of the building by the architects Philon of Eleusis and Euthydomos of Athens. The basic elements of the building’s architectural form are described with particular precision, which helped the scholars in its accurate design representation. The building of the Arsenal was used as a warehouse of materials for the equipment of the ships. In particular, it is estimated that it collected war material sufficient for 150 ships, while in total it served the needs of 400 ships.
According to the most likely version, the Arsenal was 405 metres long, 55 metres wide, and 30 metres high. Lighting was provided by 36 windows on each side, and there were 2 large bronze doors at either end of the building. The Arsenal was completely destroyed in 86 BC by the Roman general Sulla. The ancient parts that we see today on the ground floor of the apartment building on Ypsilantou Street at number 170 (they are also visible from Kountouriotou Street) were uncovered during the excavation for the construction of the building (1988–89) and formed its northern entrance, with the double door and the beginnings of the colonnades of the central corridor. Unfortunately, the space, although it has been arranged and marked by the Ministry of Culture, is not open to the public and you can only see it through the ironwork or the glass at the entrance of the apartment building. (Ypsilantou 170, Pasalimani)
PATSIADIS MANSION (ZILLER DISTRICT)
The great architect Ernest Ziller, apart from Athens, in the early 1870s was also active in the area of Piraeus, specifically in the area of Zea. He bought a plot of land on the site of today’s Alexandras Square, on which he built not only his own residence (on the site of the current church of Agia Aikaterini), but also a series of country houses which he rented to wealthy citizens of Athens and Piraeus, and which he later sold. As a result, the area became known as Ziller District or Mansion District (Συνοικία Τσίλλερ ή Συνοικία των Επαύλεων). This is the neighbourhood described by Penelope Delta in Trelandoni’s book. According to her description, “in the first, the big house, sat the King, in the second a Russian woman, the Queen’s lady of honour; in the third, Antonis with his brothers… and in the others below various others…”.
Unfortunately, the only house that has survived from this unique district is the Patsiadis Mansion (Οικία Πατσιάδου ή Πατσιάδη), which is located on the corner of Akti Kountouriotou and Alexandras Square. Of course, we must point out that it was not one of Ziller’s original residences, but was built by the architect two decades later. The building was the home of the flour manufacturer, Panagiotis Patsiadis, and consisted of two independent sections. The upper floor of the building hosted the Italian Consulate of Piraeus for several years, while the ground floor housed the famous Karandasis coffee shop. Today, the building has been classified as preserved but is not used and cannot be visited. (Akti Koundouriotou, Pasalimani)
CHAPEL OF AGIOS VIKENTIOS
The church of Agia Aikaterini in Alexandras Square in Pasalimani is one of the most popular churches in Piraeus, especially for weddings and baptisms. This popular church hides a strange history as well as a chapel that not all of its visitors know about. The church was built from 1936 to 1938 on the plot of the former Ziller house by the Italian Vicenzo (Vikentios) Caivano, who lived in Constantinople, in honour of his wife from Piraeus, Aikaterini Lebesi (who had died in 1934). It took a lot of persistence from Caivano as he first tried to get permission to build the church on the square and then (after failing) to buy the Ziller plot from the industrialist Spyrakis. In the basement of the church, he built the Chapel of Agios Vikentios (Άγιος Βικέντιος), in which there was a crypt where he placed a tin and lead coffin with the embalmed body of his wife. In the years that followed, every time Caivano returned to Piraeus, he locked himself in the crypt for hours in order to mourn his wife.
However, on the eve of the Greek-Italian war, the history of the chapel took an unexpected turn. British counterintelligence detected strange encrypted signals emanating from the area around the church. Based on this evidence, the Greek authorities raided the church and discovered in the crypt and specifically in the coffin, a technologically advanced radio transmitter. So, when Caivano returned from Constantinople, he was arrested and tried on the charge of espionage. Knowing this story, it is certain that the next time you are in the church you will look for both the icon (located to the left of the sanctuary) and the chapel of Agios Vikentios. (Akti Kountouriotou & Volanaki, Pasalimani)
Although there are many visitors to the port of Piraeus, few have noticed the impressive ship Hellas Liberty, which is moored at Akti Vassiliadi. Even fewer are aware of the historical significance of this ship. The symbolic name “Liberty” was given to a class of cargo ships of around 10,000 tons, designed in the United Kingdom and mass-built in the United States during the Second World War to meet the ever-increasing needs of the Allied forces for the transport of goods and war supplies. More than 2,720 ships of this type were built in the USA over a period of four years, an extremely large number of ships that even today is difficult to achieve despite advanced technology. After the end of the war and for 25 years, these ships played a dominant role in the consolidation and development of Greek shipping as they were frequently used by Greek shipowners.
The Hellas Liberty is one of 3 remaining Liberty ships, which the US government donated to Greece in 2007. The ship was towed to Piraeus in January 2009, and restoration work was completed in July 2010. Today, the ship is a museum open to the public in which the visitor can learn information about an important part of the history of Greek shipping as well as watch a video on the history of the ship [for more information, visit www.hellasliberty.gr]. (Akti Vassiliadi-Gate E2, Piraeus Port)
As we mentioned at the beginning, Piraeus has an important history inextricably linked with the history of Athens and certainly, its monuments deserve a better fate. Even so, it is worth looking for and discovering these unique 7 sights of the city.
Piraeus is also an excellent destination for a short city break. In this case, a perfect accommodation solution is the Savoy Hotel Piraeus. The Savoy Hotel is in an excellent location in the centre of Piraeus and within walking distance of both the main port, Pasalimani and Freattyda. It has modern rooms and an excellent restaurant.