Attica offers a rich world of diversity

With the publishing world opting increasingly for color and glitz as marketing tools, especially in the ever more competitive guidebook category, it is surprising to run across an informative guide to an important and heavily frequented region that so clearly goes against this grain. A Guide to Rural Attica, by Robin Barber, takes lack of pretension to new heights while providing a manageably sized guidebook (roughly 215 pages) that is both relatively compact and extensive in coverage. Barber’s professional work in classical archaeology forms the backbone of knowledge for this guide, and his earlier writings for the authoritative Blue Guide series give him instant credibility for discerning readers and aficionados of the Greek world. Greece’s classical ruins are spread everywhere, of course, and with so much focus on, for example, the Peloponnese or Crete in guidebooks, it is easy to forget that there is a tremendous wealth of this ancient legacy right under our noses in the Attic region – all of it located within a few dozen kilometers of downtown Athens – and immensely rich in culture, topographical variety and myth. A lot to discover The term rural Attica may seem almost a contradiction in terms, given the ongoing explosion of construction activity over the last couple of years. New road and other transport projects, skyrocketing land prices, the encroachment of an overbuilt city ever further into the countryside and up the slopes of nearby mountains, the new airport at Spata, and new venue construction for the 2004 Olympics all herald radical changes for Attica, especially Mesogeia, and sooner rather than later. Rural Attica may be a dying concern, which is all the more reason to get hold of a copy of Barber’s guide and start investigating the region’s charms before it’s too late. Most readers will quickly find that they know less about Attica than they probably thought they did. Barber uses an informative and straightforward approach to get the reader to wherever he or she is going and to explain what’s there when there, providing enlightening historical, archaeological and mythological background to classical ruins, monasteries and the like. He is particularly solicitous of readers without access to a car, providing careful instructions on how to reach places via the region’s extensive (and still cheap) bus network. Indeed most places are easily accessible even to the day-tripper, precluding the need for overnight stops, lugging luggage around or renting a car, though the latter, or taxis, can obviously provide more flexibility for reaching out-of-the-way sites like Rhamous (a lovely and nearly forgotten spot which Barber has done well to include). Some hotel names and phone numbers are, however, provided for those wishing to avoid having to double back to the city center. The book, divided into straightforward geographic segments, first covers the mountains around Attica. This is for good reason, because Hymettus to the east, Pendeli in the north, and Parnitha to the west, along with Aegaleos further south, are genuinely defining and delimiting features; they physically hem the city (and its smog) in, separate it from its surrounding area, provide key geographical landmarks, and make for fine escape destinations. He then covers, in succession, Southern Attica (especially the area toward Cape Sounion both through the coastal and inland routes); Northeastern Attica, including Marathon, Rhamnous, and the area north of Kifissia; Northern and Western Attica, including Dafni, Elefsina (Eleusis), Megara, and Porto Germanos; and a shorter section on the Saronic islands near Athens (Salamina, Aegina), along with a brief postscript on Piraeus. Given the title, he makes a conscious attempt not to cover the cities (Athens, Piraeus, or most suburbs), but there is more than enough material as it is. The index, focusing mainly on placenames, covers a full seven pages. Book for a bouncing bus The book’s first pages give a brief historical overview of Greece, along with descriptions of the art and architecture of the country with special reference to earlier development in the Attic region, not just Classical but Hellenistic, Roman, Early Christian, Byzantine and post-Byzantine eras. This introductory section concludes with a quite good bibliography of books with relevance to the region, though few have a contemporary focus. The author tells the story without drawing too much attention to the storytelling. Generally serious, it is occasionally livened up descriptively (at Aghia Triada at Markopoulou, for example, we learn that the compound is delightful but the church itself has been hideously painted). The text quality is fairly even, and double spacing between paragraphs means the text doesn’t run together. Key words are set in bold print, a helpful addition when trying to read on a bouncing bus. The book also includes nine illustrations and a back-page foldout map of the whole region. These vary in quality; though informative, they tend to be hand-labeled, which lends a nice human touch but makes them occasionally hard to make out. While the book generally focuses on the sites themselves, it takes in modern encroachments (such as heavy industrialization around the rich and well-described ruins of Eleusis) that can detract from a visit. Any future edition might look more closely at the huge effort to transform Attica into a transport hub, and how – both generally and in regard to specific sites – this could affect the region’s character, accessibility, or enjoyability. More prosaically, references to the metro in Athens should be adjusted to distinguish between the old electrico Piraeus-to-Kifissia train and the new Athens Metro that opened last year. What Barber’s seemingly self-published book (it lacks an ISBN number and comes spiral-bound) may lack in polish it much more than makes up for in manageability, insight, and wide coverage. It deserves space on the bookshelf, or in the backpack, of anyone with an interest in this fascinating region and a desire to learn more. Robin Barber’s A Guide to Rural Attica will be updated with a new edition in 2002. At present, it is available at a few Athenian outlets, including Andromeda (46 Mavromichali St), in the UK, or through the author ([email protected]). Until the release of her book, Halo had little connection with her Greek and Assyrian ethnic roots. She grew up in an Irish-American community and has lived ever since in an arts community. She describes the embrace by these two communities as a gift: It’s sometimes difficult to know that something is missing in your life until you finally find it.