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An unusual walking tour in Athens

It was just my luck that the day I’d signed up to take a walking tour in Athens, there was torrential rain.

Nevertheless, this tour – covering religious Athens under Ottoman rule – was fascinating.

A Greek Orthodox church

A Greek Orthodox church

It never occurred to me, to be honest, that there were ever any religions in Greece beyond the ancient Greeks and their pantheon of gods and the modern Greeks and the Greek Orthodox Church. That just shows my over-all ignorance.

In the Ottoman period, the rulers were Muslims, but nevertheless the Christian and Jewish communities thrived, even if they did have to pay extra taxes to be allowed to practice their religions.

Ottoman-era home

an Ottoman-era home in disrepair

The tour guide was Nico Nicolaides, an extremely well-informed and personable history scholar, and no matter what questions we threw at him, he could answer completely and intelligently. We visited, between downpours, a number of places related to all three religions.

Remarkably effective projections show the kinds of activities that took place in the bathhouse.

Remarkably effective projections show the kinds of activities that took place in the bathhouse.

A highlight was the Bathhouse of the Winds, now a museum. This used to be, as its name indicates, an extensive hammam, but it was used by Christians and Jews as well. I was impressed by the quality of this little museum and its effectiveness in evoking a feeling of what this bathhouse would have meant for the people of the time, especially the Muslim women who were not allowed out much: a place of peace and community. The visual effects and the background soundtrack of water noises and pleasant chatter brought me right into the atmosphere of the bathhouse of that period.

I was also fascinated by the story of the Jews of Athens. Not Sephardic, not Ashkenazi – the two major groupings of Jews around the world – the original Greek Jews are called Romaniotes who lent their own unique practices to the more mainstream Sephardic Judaism. The community that has survived the Holocaust – mostly Sephardic – is very small, but the two Athens synagogues are active today.

Holocaust memorial

The holocaust memorial in Athens honors the Jewish communities all over Greece that were decimated in the Holocaust

I didn’t mind at all that, because of time spent waiting for the rain to subside, the tour took longer than planned. I didn’t even mind my wet feet in canvas shoes and soaking-wet jacket. Nico had plenty to tell us and show us. Usually my generally short attention span prevents me from enjoying a walking tour that’s longer than about two hours. That was no problem in this case.

If Big Olive’s tours are all of this quality, I would certainly recommend them for anyone who wants to get a knowledgeable local’s view. But if it’s off-season, bring an umbrella and wear waterproof shoes!

[Disclosure: I received this tour for free, but all opinions are my own.]

Have you taken any other of Big Olive’s walking tours? Please write your impressions below!

6 Comments

  • anne

    November 14, 2014 at 8:02 pm

    Rachel,
    Speaking of religions in Athens~~A reform Jew, I spent Rosh Hashonah, decades ago, on my own in Athens. When I got organized in the women’s section of the synagogue and began listening to the sound of the prayers, much to my amazement, first, I realized, there was no English, only Greek. And then, even more amazing, the familiar-sounding parts were in HEBREW!! Funny how things like that both happen, and are remembered!

    Reply
    • rachel75

      November 14, 2014 at 8:20 pm

      What’s also interesting is that they have Greek commentaries written in Hebrew lettering. It’s just like how Yiddish is written in Hebrew lettering.

      Reply
  • An American expat

    November 15, 2014 at 7:03 am

    A very well written and informative piece for travelers. I’d visited Athens some years ago and appreciated its history as the first Western city to have a form of democracy. It also developed a highly intellectual culture. But I’d missed what you are describing here. Thanks to you for sharing.

    Reply
  • Paula Gardner

    November 18, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    I did one of their food tours which I can heartily recommend. Seven stops and tastings, taking you right through the heart of Athens, although, like you, we had problems with the rain. I was surprised at how much the Athenians like their sweet food, even tea and coffee was flavoured with sweet rose water.

    Reply

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