Why you should care
Because the water seldom dips below 71 degrees, and it’s rumored to be good for your health.
At first it was a just a nibble. One fish, two fish … and suddenly hundreds of little Garra rufa had swarmed my feet, tickling me as they dashed between my toes and under my arches, nibbling. On a recommendation from a friend, we had come to Lake Vouliagmeni, a brackish lake in an affluent suburb 12 miles south of Athens, on a warm, sunny fall afternoon.
Though most visitors to Greece come during the summer, drawn to the islands and the sparkling Mediterranean beaches, we were there in late November, when crowds dwindle and temperatures dip. Still a perfect time for a lounge — especially after downing countless glasses of mastiha and consuming your weight in lamb. Vouliagmeni is a hot-springs-fed lake that stays warm (OK, relatively warm — the temperature seldom dips below 71 degrees Fahrenheit) year-round. I went in only up to my knees, but dozens of braver souls submerge themselves daily, even in the depths of winter. In the summer the lake attracts between 500 and 600 visitors a day.
Athenians have been coming here since at least the 19th century.
Thanos Chondros, the lifeguard on duty, swims in the lake every morning. “The light at sunrise is otherworldly,” he says, gesturing toward the limestone cliffs that surround Vouliagmeni. He started coming here 15 years ago to swim and became a lifeguard a decade ago. His friend Zeta Stavraki came at the recommendation of her physical therapist. “I was swimming laps at the gym, but then discovered Vouliagmeni. I much prefer to exercise in the open air — although the water is freezing,” she says. Behind her, several older women had gathered in front of a heat lamp.
Locals say Lake Vouliagmeni formed around 2,000 years ago, after an earthquake caused the cave that had once covered the body of water to collapse (Vouliagmeni means “sunken lake”). Athenians have been coming here since at least the 19th century. “Vouliagmeni used to be a secret,” says Marianthi Vavoulaki, head of communications for Thermal Spa Vouliagmeni. “Word got out about 10 years ago — now it’s a known secret.” Thermal Spa, which manages the lake (and charges admission), offers up amenities like lounge chairs, a bar and restaurant and changing rooms, and organizes activities (snorkeling, yoga, guided hikes).
The lake’s appeal is immediately apparent — crystalline water surrounded by hiking trails and pine trees, an underwater cave that leads to the Mediterranean, and friendly local cats. There’s even an indigenous sea anemone, the Paranemonia vouliagmeniensis. But many come to the lake for its purported health benefits: Locals believe that Vouliagmeni’s high concentration of salts and minerals, sulfur, calcium and potassium can relieve everything from post-traumatic stress to sexually transmitted diseases and skin disorders. “It’s a combination of the minerals in the water and the pleasure you get from exercise,” Vavoulaki says. And although she can’t specify the afflictions the lake is thought to treat, she adds that “coming here releases your mind.”
We agree. After our fish “pedicures,” we made our way to the lounge chairs and, along with the cats that had settled in our laps, dozed off in the sun.
Get there: Lake Vouliagmeni
- Directions: It’s a 12-mile drive from Athens’ Syntagma Square. Map
- Cost: Monday through Friday, $15; weekends and holidays, $16
- Hours: Monday through Sunday, from dawn until dusk
- Pro tip: Come here for a refreshing dip after touring the Acropolis or hiking the hills of Hydra.