Parilissia Iera, the Shrines by Ilissos, was an area with a quite high density of temples and shrines at the edge of ancient Athens, next to the waters of its most important river. In Roman times, the Temple of Olympian Zeus was erected beside it. Today, with the course of River Ilissos covered everywhere except here, it marks one of the city’s most beautiful spots—a site of history, mythology, and wonder, hiding in plain sight, steps from some of Athens most heavily trafficked tourist areas.
The preserved part of Parilissia Iera is a wild green garden next to the archaeological site of the Columns of Olympian Zeus. Half is open to the public and half is inaccessible but visible behind a fence. The site can be reached easily on foot from Plaka, Koukaki, or downtown in general.
The public part of the garden is the visual opposite of modern Athens’s concrete cityscape. Next to the running stream flora grows surprisingly wild, as it did in the time of Pericles, when the area marked the borders of the city. Philosophy and literature buffs, take note: It was under a tree in this grove that Plato’s Phaedrus takes place.
In the inaccessible area the greenery is more restrained, and the remains of shrines are traced on the ground. It is literally, or at least mythologically, holy ground: The side of the garden next to Syggrou Avenue is taken up by a huge rock, and it was at the feet of this rock that a chasm devoured the waters of Zeus’s great flood, and where Deucalion and Pyrrha subsequently repopulated the world by tossing stones over their shoulders.
A pause next to the garden of Parilissia Iera, or walk next to its stream, makes for an understated highlight in any historic tour of Athens.