I know a bank where the wild thyme blows ...
Cheap flights to Athens mean that a month from now you could go in search of the 'wood near Athens' where the action in Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' takes place. Moira O'Neill investigates
Saturday 23 May 1998
The ancient Athenians used the word polis to describe the city of Athens. However, they also sometimes used polis to refer to the rocky outcrop of the acropolis, the sacred heart of the city. In ancient times the polis of Athens was not easily defined and there was an ongoing debate among the intellectual elite as to the outer limits of the city.
Philosophers argued over whether the Acropolis walls or the long walls built under Themistocles marked the city's boundaries, and the farming inhabitants of the demes who lived many miles from the Acropolis argued that they too were included in the city. It is possible, therefore, that Shakespeare's wood could be "near Athens" in the sense of near to the Acropolis and the Agora, the ancient sacred and political centres of the city.
These days, the only surviving green areas near to these classical ruins are the National and Zappeion gardens which boast subtropical trees, peacocks, waterfowl, ornamental ponds and a botanical museum. However, these gardens did not exist in Shakespeare's day; they were created only during the last century.
But you will find greenery, lots of it, if you go to the north-east suburban limit of Athens to Lykabettos, the highest of the hills of the city. It still has wooded slopes where visitors can walk in the shade, but is now a green island in a sea of houses.
Travelling in the same direction 14km farther north east of Athens you'll find Kifissia, an attractive and popular "garden city" on the south-west slopes of Mt Pentelikon. The shade of its pine trees offers a welcome relief from the glare of Athens. A few miles farther north of Kifissia, Ekali, a pleasant summer resort is also situated amid pine woods.
Heading out to Eleusis west of Athens, you will pass the botanic garden on your left with its tall poplars. A little further on, Plato's Olive Tree is one of the few survivors from the famous grove that once bordered the Kifissos from Kolonos to the sea. Along the same route, laurels sacred to Apollo once flourished in the area around the Monastery of Dhafni, which owes its name to these trees.
Wooded hills can also be seen to the west of the approach along the Mesogia road to the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion. However, I think that these woods are too far from the city to be a possible contender.
North west of Athens, Mount Parthina is cut by deep ravines and covered with pine trees. It has more than 1,000 plant species, several easy, well marked trails and two refuges.
The most appealing possibility for a setting for a Midsummer Night's Dream is somewhere on the west slopes of Mount Hymettos, which reach almost to the eastern outskirts of Athens. Here the aromatic plants and shrubs that produced the best food for bees in classical times are now less widespread, though terebinth, juniper, thyme, sage, mint and lavender are still to be found and you can easily imagine the intrigues of Puck and Oberon taking place in these fragrant surroundings. But what the place lacks in ebullient greenery it makes up for in love. A climb through the woodland around the 11th-century Kaisarianis monastery 5km from Athens will lead to a hilltop fountain idyllically set among pine, plane and cypress trees. The water that bubbles from this fountain was believed to have magical properties; it was dedicated to Aphrodite, whose temple stood nearby.
EasyJet (0990 292929) has promised a return fare of pounds 140 when it begins flights from Luton to Athens on 10 July. The impending arrival has caused the other airlines flying to Athens - British Airways (0345 222111), Cronus Air (0171-580 3500), Olympic (0171-409 3400) and Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747) - to lower their fares; for a trip from Heathrow in June, Cronus is quoting pounds 161 return.
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