Athens News Article: Vouliagmeni’s secret
Posted on: 06-03-2011 | Category: Articles & Interviews

FASKOMILIA (or Sage Bush) is one of outer Athens’ loveliest places and one of
its best-kept secrets. Around 1,000 stremmata of wild, unblemished hillside,
it is a peninsular stretching between Vouliagmeni’s lake and the neighbourhood
of Varkiza.

 
You can walk along its 10 kilometres of meandering tracks, gazing across the
Saronic Gulf to Aigina and the Peloponnese on one side and all the way down
the coast to Sounio on the other. Hawks circle overhead, partridges cluck in
the undergrowth and you can sit under eucalyptus trees, on banks of
drowsy-scented camomile, looking down on the small fishing boats returning to
port.

 
For many years, the fate of Faskomilia hung in the balance. It would have been
all too easy for its rocky slopes to be plundered for building projects,
transforming it into yet more urban seaside sprawl. However, its future is now
guaranteed, and the last two years have seen an extensive forestation
programme. There are even hopes that it could become a much-needed park for
Athens’ southern suburbs.

 
Vouliagmeni’s colourful and sometimes controversial mayor, Grigoris
Kasidokostas, has fought many battles to save Faskomilia during his two
decades in office.

 
“We’ve been planting trees there for the last 20 years, but we’ve faced
endless problems,” he admitted. “In 1992, the government [of Constantine
Mitsotakis’ New Democracy] tried to make bonds [ktimatika omologa] so
that three hundred MPs could build houses on Faskomilia. We managed to stop
that, but then there was pressure from the church and from various
businesspeople. The church owned 300 stremmata and wanted to develop hotels,
but we changed the local building regulations, so they were unable to go
ahead.”

 

 

 

 

 
It was not until 2003 that the legal backup to save Faskomilia finally went
through and a presidential decree was made, ensuring the preservation of the
whole area, including Vouliagmeni’s thermal lake.

 
I have to declare a personal interest in Sage Bush. I live close by and,
during the cooler parts of the year, I visit the area most days to walk or
run. I mark the seasons by the flowers and animals I find there. I know spring
has arrived when the hills are dotted with lime-green Euphorbia tuffets, and
tortoises and snakes emerge from under the ubiquitous yellow Jerusalem Sage
bushes. Summer turns the place into a dry, baked wilderness, while the first
rains of October coax delicate little cyclamen and crocuses from the rocks. In
winter, swathes of pink and mauve anemones give way to gangly asphodels and
carpets of miniature orange marigolds, purple grape hyacinths and white Stars
of Bethlehem.

 
Normally, there are few people on the hills, though I’ve come to recognise the
regulars – some joggers and dog-walkers, the occasional hunter training his
hounds and, more rarely, a mountain biker. We are few enough to say hello,
though the subtext written all over our faces is: “Surely we are the luckiest
people in Athens, having access to such an unspoilt and beautiful place.”

 
Going greener

 

 

 

 

 
One autumn morning in 2006, I arrived at Faskomilia to see digging machines
gouging holes out of the hillside and gangs of workmen with picks. My first
fearful thought was that the developers finally got their hands on it.
Happily, however, this theory was quickly scotched by the director of works
and forester Ilias Litsos. Actually, he explained, they were planting trees.

 

Each day when I returned, more and more craters had been dug in the rocky
land – an extremely tough job that in earlier planting programmes had been
achieved with dynamite. Then soil, water tanks and pipes were brought in, and
by spring the trees were planted. Around 47,000 of them. The terrible
heatwaves of 2007 destroyed a proportion of the saplings, but these were
replaced in the autumn.

 
“We only lost about five percent, ” commented Litsos. “Considering some of the
area’s older trees were badly affected by the summer, that’s very good. We
planted about 70 percent conifers, like pines and cypress, and about 30
percent of other trees and shrubs including Acacias, Oleanders and wild
olives.”

 
Though the estimate for the forestation of 500 stremmata was originally over
one million euros (75 percent funded by the EU), Litsos’ project has actually
only cost about 400,000 euros.

 
Mayor Kasidokostas is delighted with the developments, but he is also
critical.

 
“We have put gates to prevent people driving around the tracks any more, but
the agriculture ministry needs to look into fire protection. They’ve put lots
of money into the planting, but it could all burn down if we don’t have fire
corridors and other schemes.”

 

 

 

 

 
Litsos believes that it’s more a question of keeping an eye on the place and
having water available in the case of a conflagration. As yet, inconclusive
conversations are underway with the water board – EYDAP.

 
What Kasidokostas would really like to see is the declaration of Faskomilia as
a metropolitan park, like “there are in all civilised countries”.

 
“It should be a place for all Athenians, not just a few locals who know about
it. There should be proper parking, some benches and good management and
protection. And that’s not something we can afford at the municipality,” he
said.

 
Perhaps this is something that could be paid for by independent MP Stephanos
Manos’ scheme for creating parks throughout Athens, funded by developing some
of the land at the old airport in Elliniko.

 
For those of us in the know, it’s tempting to want to keep Faskomilia a
private pleasure – an untamed reserve with good walking tracks lying within
minutes of urban streets would be an extraordinary luxury in any city.
However, it is also glaringly obvious that such a stunning place should be
available for anyone who appreciates Greece’s uniquely beautiful landscape and
has seen how it can be all too easily destroyed and forgotten by the busy capital.

 


 

 
The rock-carving, partridge-lover of Faskomilia
IT TOOK me some time to solve the mystery of the tapping sounds I often
heard at a particular point on my Faskomilia runs. I remained puzzled until
the day I clambered over the edge of an escarpment to investigate and came
across a ruddy-cheeked man dressed in All-Stars sneakers and a hand-knitted
woollen vest.

 
He was chipping away at the limestone rocks with stone mason’s tools. I asked
him what he was doing and quickly learned that 60-year-old Apostolis
Liakopoulos travels several times a week by bus from Dafni, climbs up to his
favourite outcrop above Vouliagmeni’s Limanakia bay and spends his days
carving elegantly-shaped drinking pools and water channels for the local
partridges.

 
Once an avid hunter, he now tries to help the birds by giving them food and
water. He admits the contradiction. “I adore birds,” he enthuses, “and I
regret having killed so many of them.” He waves his arms about and crosses
himself, as he talks with boyish innocence about his obsession.

 
Unmarried, childless and intensely devout, Apostolis has lived alone since his
mother died five years ago. He has an unusual aversion to technology – he has
no car, phone or washing machine. Following his early retirement, he dedicated
himself to Faskomilia. “I don’t want to go to the kafeneio [coffee
shop],” he announces. “So I come here.”

 
Over recent years, he has become such a fixture that the Vouliagmeni
municipality even supplied him with a small water tank so he can top up the
birds’ supply in the summer. He scrambles about the rocks like a mountain goat
and in the warm months descends to the bay below for a swim. He has also
learned to fend off the occasional over-enthusiastic male visitor who wanders
up from the popular gay cruising area around the Limanakia and propositions
him.

 
Having done the best he can for his beloved partridges, Apostolis has turned
his attention in other directions, creating stone benches, little stairways
and a number of natural zardinieres (flower pots), which he fills with
shrubs and trees. He has also uprooted some medium-sized wild olive trees,
pruned them into elegant shapes and planted them in artistic formation at the
end of the track where he works. This pocket-sized ornithological paradise
gives great pleasure to its human visitors. It is hard not to be reminded of
the “petroforms” of ancient and indigenous peoples – expressions of the deep
human urge to mark and decorate the landscape.

 
Photos by Vassilis Papadimitriou

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