Trail of the Unexpected: South of Athens lie the Lord of the Sea's ancient remains

As you wander around the Greek capital, spare a thought for Poseidon. How different things might have been had the sea god won the epic showdown for the city, back in mythical times.

Competing for the right to be its patron deity, he and niece Athena agreed to conjure a gift and let residents choose their protector according to the offering they liked best. Poseidon struck the Acropolis rock with his trident; out sprang a fountain of flowing water. Athena summoned an olive tree, giving the city food, oil and shelter in one fell swoop. Poseidon's water on the other hand was salty and scarcely drinkable. It was a no-brainer for the judges.

And so today it is Athens that we visit, not Poseidonopolis. It is the Parthenon – the "world's most perfect poem in stone" built to honour the victorious virgin goddess – that dominates the skyline. But we shouldn't forget the city's second god. For when the heat of the city gets too much, the Lord of the Sea can provide the inspiration for a refreshing day's escape.

Any Poseidon adventure should start in the imposing neo-classical splendour of the National Archaeological Museum. It is home to an overwhelming array of impressive art, from human-sized vases to 3,000-year-old sculptures. To cut to the chase, scoot straight to Room 15, where, amid a deluge of white marble, your eyes are inexorably drawn to the majestic bronze statue of Poseidon.

It is the very definition of imposing: standing over two metres tall, his legs in full stride, his sculpted chest taut, his right arm pulled back as if about to unleash hell. The empty eye sockets only heighten the menace.

The statue dates from 460 BC. It languished at the bottom of the sea until 1928, when it was pulled up from the waters off Cape Artemision at the northern end of Greece's second largest island, Euboea. Some have claimed that, in fact, it depicts Zeus rather than Poseidon, but you can't help thinking that surely only the maritime god could have endured so many centuries underwater.

Having seen Poseidon in his urban incarnation, it's time to set off for his more natural environs. Athena may have her Acropolis in the heart of the historic town, but Poseidon can almost rival it. His temple lies about 70km out of town at Cape Sounion, perched on a dramatic cliff top with ocean panoramas. And the scenic coastal drive down Highway 9 to the southernmost tip of Attica offers many spots to stop off and sample the sparkling blue waters of the Aegean.

After navigating the crazy Athenian traffic, the first stop is Agios Kosmas. If you watched the sailing events in the 2004 Olympics, it may appear familiar: it's next door to where the crews launched their boats. The reason I had come here, though, was Christos Kortzidis, the mayor of this seaside suburb who, two years ago, went on a 24-day hunger strike to force the creation of a free beach for the people.

In a statute that Poseidon himself might have drafted, Greek law gives the public the right of access to the sea, but the mayor argued that privately run beach bars had hijacked all this section of coastline and therefore poorer families were being deprived of their constitutional rights.

Agios Kosmas is the fruit of that fight. As one of the handful of free beaches close to the city, it gets packed at weekends and the public maintenance leaves a little to be desired. But you have to applaud the fact that this pleasant bay is one of the few places where Greek families can lounge on the sand or splash in the water without paying for the privilege.

At the other end of the spectrum, and another 20km along the coast road at Vouliagmeni, lies Astir Beach. Here it's all white minimalism and curtained day-beds; waiter service to your umbrella-shaded lounger; and wooden boardwalks down to the sea to stop you scorching your feet on the sand. There's free aqua-aerobics or beach yoga classes for those not content to merely swim or sunbathe – and a beachside restaurant serves up balsamic strawberry salads.

Astir Beach even has

its very own Ancient Greek ruins. But if the €17 entrance fee makes your eyes water, head to Vouliagmeni's public beach, which has fantastic (and free) views along the bay. It's a narrow strip of sand and there's little shade, but if you bring your own umbrella, it's a great spot. Alternatively, compromise between the free-for-all public beach and the high frills of Astir by visiting the private Attica Vouliagmeni beach, where an €8 entrance fee grants you an umbrella, lounger and showers.

The final stretch of the drive is distinctly less stressful than the first few kilometres out of Athens. The traffic melts away and the road clings to the undulating coast, offering spectacular views of the Aegean as the sun begins its descent. All the while you crane your neck for that first view of the Sanctuary of Poseidon. When you finally make out its proud Doric columns silhouetted on the cliff, it does not disappoint.

Byron visited the place he called Sunium in 1810. He was so entranced that he carved his name on to one of the columns (although the authorities have now roped off the ruins so you have to make do with seeing his autograph in the guidebook). The Poseidon temple, which dates to the fifth century BC, is where mariners would come before they set sail, offering sacrifices to the maritime god so he would protect them on their voyage.

Getting there an hour or so before sunset is a magical experience. The waves lap at the foot of the rock 60m below as the shifting light plays on the marble. As Byron wrote in his poem, Don Juan: "Place me on Sunium's marbled steep / Where nothing, save the waves and I / May hear our mutual murmurs sweep..."

National Archaeological Museum, 44 Pattision Street, Athens (00 30 210 821 7724; odysseus.culture.gr). Open 8am-8pm daily (Mondays from 1.30pm); €7. Sanctuary of Poseidon, Sounion (00 30 22 920 39363; odysseus.culture.gr). Open daily 8.30am-8pm; €4. Greek National Tourist Office: 020-7495 9300; gnto.co.uk.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there