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National Parks of Greece : Sounio

Established: 1974
Size: 3500 ha
Location: SE Attica (coordinates 37°N39', 37°N47', 23°E47', 23°E52')

This is the smallest of the country's ten national parks. Its core area is only half that required for a national park but an exception was made because it's coastal, extraordinarily scenic, archaeologically unique, and a visitor destination that could do with the additional legal protection. The 750 hectare core is surrounded by another 2750 ha of limited use land. All land within it is state-owned and most of it is covered by the Aleppo pine (pinus halepensis) forest typical of coastal southern Greece.

The greatest interest for the natural historian lies in its geological history and properties though its main draw is the fifth-century BCE temple of Poseidon (built with local marble, the old quarry lies within the park) and, to a lesser extent, the neighbouring temple of Athena. Avid rock connoiseurs might find odd items like laurionite (which takes its name from the area and is only found there and in Cornwall), phosgenite and a number of minerals unique to the area and often associated with ancient slag.

Its plant and animal life are of limited interest compared to the other national parks. Apart from one endemic cornflower species, the flora are generally commonplace. It does serve as a valuable refuge for species long gone in the rest of the densely populated peninsula such as foxes and jackals. Its fossil record is actually more exciting than what currently lives there. Perhaps the most important factor is that its's protected as a forest and thus almost impossible to turn into lots, it being absolutely prime real estate in the eyes of the many greedy property developers that infest Attica (there's an endemic pest we could do without).

Archaeologically speaking, it's one of the most interesting and diverse parts of Greece, which says a lot in a country in which you can't dig a hole in your back yard without an archaeologist peering over your shoulder. That part of Attica has been inhabited since palaeolithic times and holds an impressive record of successive cultures based on agriculture and mining. The silver mines of nearby Lavrio, operational into the 20th century, yielded much of ancient Athens's wealth as well as zinc, lead and iron, and the many findings have given scientists a lot of insight into the presence of man in prehistoric and ancient Greece, as well as into ancient mining and smelting technology.

Getting there

Being so close to Athens (only 50 km SE along a good coastal road), it's an immensely popular destination for both locals and tourists. Public transport is available hourly between 06:00 and 18:00 (orange "KTEL" buses), and private tour buses come and go like bees in a hive. If you're in Athens as part of an organised group they'll probably herd you there anyway; if you're staying at a large hotel, chances are they have a deal with some tour bus operator--ask. I'd recommend an individual trip, it's the kind of place where being in the middle of a mob and on a timetable distracts from the atmosphere. A side trip to the Mineralogical Museum in Lavrion, just to the north, is an additional option if you're travelling by car. I recommend late spring or August as the best times to visit.

Note: Claims of spectacular sunsets over the Saronic Gulf, as seen from the cape, are more likely to be an understatement than an exaggeration.

Sources:
http://www.rac-spa.org.tn/SPA/Greece/SOUNIO.htm
http://users.astronet.gr/theonik/peribal/sounio.htm
http://mineral.galleries.com/minerals/fablocal/fablocal.htm
http://greece-private.com/sounion.htm

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