A week into a summer “family vacation” in Greece complete with squeezebox one bedroom apartments, flighty aunties, grumpy old uncles and a legion of cousins reproducing themselves via a next generation of offspring leaves me desperate for some space in which to draw breath, and reward, from my surrounds. It’s time to explore a tiny spot in the prefecture of Attica. Alone. First step: board a bus, all stations to Lavrion.
The plain of Attica is an agricultural and wine-growing region, greater Athens and Piraeus accounting for the bulk of its population. Fine beaches along the Apollo Coast boast brilliant views of the Saronic Islands but nothing can compare to the superb Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion that my bus shuttles me toward, and past, en route to Lavrion.
The town of Lavrion, 60km south of Athens, on the tip of the Attica Peninsula is not featured prominently in guidebooks about Greece, though this is where the giant columns from the Temple of Poseidon were dug out. Further, the entire town lays upon a bed of minerals and silver. In fact, the silver mines date back to prehistoric times. The washeries where the silver was extracted are still visible and while I visited were being restored.
The Lavrion Silver mines financed the fleet with which the ancient Athenians defeated the Persians, and funded the building of the Acropolis and Parthenon by Pericles (495 – 429 BC) during Golden Age of Athens. To think, silver production was so high that the historians of the Classical Period wrote: “the silver is flowing like spring water”. These Lavrion silver mines soon became the principal source of wealth for the Athenian State. Fine Arts and Sciences (philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, drama, history) flourished.
Later the mines became industrialized, and covered the entire region with melting pots and tunnels. This industrialization led to the first railroad tracks of Greece being built in Lavrion, and the first proper harbour facility to load ore onto barges and ships via a bridge.
Another side effect of this mining activity was that unique minerals were discovered. The tunnels and shafts dug to reach the layers of minerals created debris near the mine entrances. Despite highly developed metallurgical techniques at the time, the Ancient Greeks could not extract all the silver from the ore and after smelting would dump the slag into the sea.
Sea water of course contains its own minerals which when penetrating the slag, react with other trace elements maturing thereafter over thousands of years into perfect crystals some of which are very rare and exist only in Lavrion. In the winter, when the heavy seas deposit these crystals on the beaches, collectors flock to Lavrion.
The decline of the mines came during the 30 year Peloponnesian War, held between Athens and Sparta. In 413 BC, the Spartans captured Lavrion and the excavations in the mines ceased.
Fast forward to 1859 when the Greek metallurgist Andreas Cordellas was sent to Lavrion by the Greek Government to examine the possibility of reopening the mines after a lapse of centuries. What was discovered? Lead and zinc (zinc was an unknown metal in ancient times while lead had limited applications and was produced in small quantities).
Instantly the abandonded town of Lavrion transformed into a great industrial city and up until 1982 silver, lead, zinc and arsenic were produced in vast amounts. This industrial activity became an important source of income for the newborn Greek State, which was founded in 1830 after four centuries of Ottoman occupation and twelve years of war which liberated Greece from the Turks.
As one door closes, another swings right open: the definite exhaustion of the ore deposits in the late ’80s meant economic decline for Lavrion. However, who could deny its natural beauty? The locality perched upon a harbour, its stunning light, clear waters and proximity to Greeks Islands? The catalyst for change came with the construction of a passenger’s port connecting the mainland to Greeks islands and beyond: Istanbul, Izmir, Patmos, Mykonos, Rhodes, Crete, Santorini. Fortunes for Lavrion’s locals once again brightened.
Fortunes turned for me too, that day I took off for Lavrion. Perspectives altered as well, for in town I met a posse of local kids loving life among the ruins of their own heritage, happy to swim in their clean harbour, on their doorstep the magic of island life, and so proud to show me around their great town of Lavrion. These new surroundings rewarded my intrepid spirit. I took breath. Next step: back on that bus, bound for my own home.