LIFE

Ancient Eleusis has much to offer the visitor, as does modern Elefsina

By Margarita Pournara

A row of robust pepper trees stand between the Archaeological Site of Ancient Eleusis and Nikolaidou Street, modern Elefsina’s main drag, like an almost invisible boundary.

Here in Elefsina, which lies southwest of Piraeus and some 20 kilometers from central Athens, ancient history is ever-present. An industrial hub during the 19th and 20th centuries, it drew Greeks seeking work from far and wide, and their descendants today take great kind of pride in their town.

Elefsina has a special gift in its ability to charm visitors. Filmmaker Filippos Koutsaftis, who beautifully captured this in his 2000 documentary “Mourning Rock,” which takes the pulse of the modern working-class town and presents its past glories, is among the many people who have visited Elefsina and found inspiration. The annual Aeschylia summer festival is also a magnet for artists and visitors, while Elefsina has no shortage of local and municipal initiatives that contribute to the town’s profile.

Elefsina’s main highlight is without doubt its archaeological site: The ruins of the home of the ancient Eleusian Mysteries is also an oasis of green that is teeming with life. The biggest religious center during antiquity continues to hold the secret of the mysteries, which were attended even by slaves, children and women – a great show of democracy for the time. The figures of Demeter, Persephone and Cronus and the rites for the coming of spring continue to enchant visitors today, and it is even said that the spring’s first wildflowers appear in Elefsina before they do in any other part of Greece thanks to its privileged relationship with the gods.

On the other side of the pepper trees, past Nikolaidou Street, it is clear that the economic crisis has hit Elefsina – whose glorious industrial past went into a tailspin from which it never recovered in the mid-1980s – hard as you see one boarded-up shop window after another on the way down to the coast.

But all is not lost, because there are a few very decent tavernas and cafes that make the modern town a great place to spend a sunny weekend afternoon.

In Elefsina’s main square there is also a small church dedicated to Aghios Zacharis, patron saint of bakers. Fragments from the ancient site are embedded in the walls of the church, built on the site of an Early Christian basilica.

Nikolaidou Street ends at Elefsina’s coastal strip. Turning to the right will bring you to the old Kanellopoulos Olive Press, which is used to host performances during the annual summer festival, and further on the Titan cement factory, which is still in operation. The oil press was one of the first industrial units in Greece to process olives and produce soap, among other products. It was an important source of jobs and a key part of the local economy, built in the strategic spot between the Thriasio Plain and Elefsina Port.

A left turn at the end of Naikolaidou brings you to a picturesque part of the town ideal for a stroll or just to sit down and relax.

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