When visiting Athens, a walk through Plaka seems to be automatic; the little neighborhood developed right under the Acropolis hill and, with time, its set of alleys, houses and shops have become a walk-through area for whoever visits the Parthenon. Plaka was where most of the few “modern” Athenians lived and had their houses, so it does not come as a total surprise when visitors come across the oldest house in Athens: a two-story mansion right in the heart of this busy area, which has been restored, turned into a museum, and it is now accessible to visitors and locals.
The claim “the oldest house in Athens” can be a little misleading though; many would think that the house is somehow connected with ancient Greek times – maybe a great philosopher lived here? Or maybe a rich, devoted Athenian family, or, was it the stage for secret and sacrilegious plays? None of the above. Instead the house dates back to the 16th century and it is the last standing example of Konaki, a typical Ottoman construction, in Southern Greece. The house is referred to as the Benizelos Mansion as well, because of its first owner Angelos Benizelos, who was the descendant of an aristocratic family and father of Saint Filothei, considered a Patron of the city of Athens. The history of the building is not yet fully clear, though. The building still features remaining structures erected in the 16th century. It was reconstructed in the late 17th and early 18th century, but then abandoned for years during the 19th century. Finally, was taken over by Greece’s institutions by 1972 and has been run by the Archdiocese of Athens since 1999. It then underwent extensive restoration until its reopening in 2017.
The mansion has two floors and a courtyard. It presents all the characteristics of a typical noble house with elements from the Balkans and Asia Minor. It has two distinctive features; the ontas, an all-day activity room with easily moved furniture, and hayiati, a sitting area that connects the rooms. Outside the house, in the courtyard, there is a well, used for daily activities. Currently, there are tables and chairs for visitors to sit and relax. In general, the ground floor of the mansion is made of stone and on the second floor the dominant material is wood, both being common materials of the era.
Visiting it is worth it to really learn more about the architecture and culture of the time and the place: it really helps those who want to spend a little time reading the information panels (in brail language as well) to learn about the city’s past habits, routines, and context; it is relaxed and offers a good “resting station” for the many beaten by the walking and heat; it does not take hours to visit it. Getting in the oldest house in Athens is free but planning your visit ahead might be a good idea as the museum’s opening hours are pretty limited (Tuesday-Thursday, from 10 AM-1 PM; Sunday from 11 AM-4 PM).
Cover photo credits © Federico Spadoni
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