If you haven’t explored the area surrounding the centre of Athens, you can’t really imagine it, but, just a few minutes from Syntagma square, you can reach a small neighbourhood with stone houses, that creates the sense of being in a quiet village instead of in the busy capital city.
The neighbourhood known as “Petrina” is part of the Ano Petralona district and is located next to the Filopappou Hill, a favourite destination for hikes and picnics. The houses are built on a verdant small hill, with the narrow streets resembling a neighbourhood of a past era, providing the perfect setting for a stroll among lemon trees and blooming gardens.
Of course, the neighbourhood hasn’t managed to completely escape time as can be seen by various signs of modern life – like for example with the Airbnb lodgings that appeared before the pandemic. However, the simplicity of the past seems to have been preserved, while the pace of everyday life appears to be more laid back here compared to the city centre.
Whoever has watched the film “Dream Neighbourhood” (1961) staring Alekos Alexandrakis, will be aware of the proximity of Petrina to the city centre, from the scenes in which Aliki Georgouli crossed her poor neighbourhood heading towards the Acropolis neighbourhood – towards a different Athens and, ideally, towards a different life.
Attaliotika, Asyrmatos and “Vrehi sti ftohogitonia” (it’s raining in the poor neighbourhood)
It’s hard for a visitor today to believe that Petrina is the neighbourhood seen on the film “Dream Neighbourhood”, as well as the one described in Mikis Theodorakis’ song “Vrehi sti ftohogitonia”, performed by Grigoris Bithikotsis in the film from the stage of a local tavern. The area was first inhabited after the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), when the immigrants from Asia Minor arrived: around 800 families that built makeshift houses (using any material available) on the small 30,000 m² hill of an abandoned mine.
Since most of those families were from Attaleia, the neighbourhood was first called Attaliotika. But with the passing of time, probably due to the transmitting antenna of the Hellenic Naval War College nearby, the neighbourhood became known as Asyrmatos (wireless in Greek). Asyrmatos featured in the press, from the 1920s until the time the film was made, as one of the most deprived districts of Athens: a slum full of barefoot children, lit only by oil lambs, where they carried the garbage outside the neighbourhood, and carried the water to the houses on rutty paths.
Things changed, but they changed slowly. First, the fire of 1944 during the Dekemvriana (a series of clashes fought during World War II in Athens from 3 December 1944 to 11 January 1945), that destroyed both the War College and some of the houses, and then, some actions made by Queen consort Frederica during the 1950s. It was her initiative to use the stones from the demolished War College to build 170 houses where the population of the Asyrmatos were housed in 1956. However, the houses were not enough for everyone, a problem that was solved in 1967, when a large apartment building was built, at the old entrance to the neighbourhood (today Stisikleous str) designed by the architect Elli Vasilikioti.
Since then, on the one hand due to Vasilikioti’s apartment building, and on the other hand due to the Filopappou ring road (that was constructed a few years later) the old slum has disappeared. And the stone houses have turned into such landmarks that the name Asyrmatos has been forgotten; as the neighbourhood was slowly integrated into what is known today as Ano Petralona, it was known as “Ta petrina tis Friderikis” (Frederica’s Stone houses), a name that was simplified to just Petrina during the Metapolitefsi (the period after the military junta).
The stone houses have been clearly upgraded since the time of Queen consort Frederica. Photo: Amalia Kovaiou
The building regulations that don’t allow the construction of tall buildings in the area, the neoclassical buildings that have been preserved, the legendary open-air cinema “Zefyros” (that used to be a famous variety stage), and the popular cafés and taverns that have opened make Ano Petralona one of the most beautiful districts in the extended centre area.
Starting there, you can walk to Petrina that is a distinct neighbourhood but also part of the extended Ano Petralona district. Kallisthenous street is considered the main road of Petrina, so that you can find your bearings.
Today, the stone houses are much improved versions of those built under Frederica’s orders. Just a few, scattered around the narrow streets, remain that still look like they did in the past: even the old chapel of Metamorfosi tou Sotiros, by the Filopappou ring road, has been renovated. So, if you walk on the streets of Petrina, you’ll see well-kept houses with lovely gardens, some of which are full of flowerpots while others have various citrus trees, further contributing to the neighbourhood’s overall “countryside” feel.
It’s a very pet-friendly neighbourhood, something that makes it an ideal place to walk your dog, while on the pedestrian part of Troon street, on the northern edge of Petrina, there’s space for you to jog or ride your bike, and there are also basketball courts.
A nice stroll is to start from Petrina and instead of returning to Ano Petralona, heading toward the Acropolis, more or less following in the steps of Aliki Georgouli in “Dream Neighbourhood”. You’ll cross the lovely, verdant Filopappou Hill park and get to Dionysiou Aeropagitou street, and from there you can head to Plaka, Thiseio, Monastiraki and Psiri.
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