Exhausted firefighters contained on Monday wildfires which had been bearing down on Athens and threatened ancient Greek landmarks after a round-the-clock rescue effort.

But the authorities' response to the inferno came under criticism two years after similar wildfires that killed 77 people.

After a weekend of devastation which saw hundreds of residents evacuated from their homes in the suburbs, thousands of hectares of woodland reduced to cinders and fears that Athens would soon be choked by smoke, respite finally came when heavy winds died down.

Crews on the ground have been backed up by water-bombers flying overhead since Friday and their efforts finally began to pay off as the plumes of black smoke receded although the smell of burnt wood was all pervading.

A fire service spokesman said that while fire crews would remain on standby in case the flames flared up again, the situation had been brought under control everywhere apart from around Porto Germeno, to the west of the capital.

Several residents refused to evacuate from Porto Germeno in order to protect their properties. The flames were no longer threatening homes by late Monday, firefighters said.

"The situation has improved, there is no more significant active fronts in the Athens region", fire service spokesman Yannis Kapakis told reporters.

More than 500 firefighters have been involved in the effort to douse the fire around Athens, bolstered by counterparts from France, Italy, Austria, Cyprus and even Greece's traditional rival Turkey. Around 300 troops have also been on standby.

The fires have threatened some of Greece's most important archaeological sites including the ancient Athenian fortress of Rhamnous, near Grammatiko, where firefighters again battled on Monday to hold back the flames.

The plain of Marathon, site of the battle in 490 BC between the ancient Greeks and invading Persians, had also been engulfed in smoke.

Meanwhile fire crews managed to save the Pantokrator Monastery, which was founded in the mid-14th century, from being burned down after the nuns occupying it refused to evacuate.

Other fires brought havoc to some of the country's tourist retreats, including the Ionian resort island of Zante and Skyros, an island in the Aegean Sea.

Before it emerged that the tide was turning, residents voiced anger over the fire crews, with some saying they had been abandoned to face the flames on their own while others made frantic appeals for assistance.

"The fire is 500 metres away and we're choked in smoke," a woman from the community of Dioni, threatened by the fires, told Greece's Mega channel.

"Please do something, we need a helicopter to drop water," she added.

The wildfires have been the worst since a similar outbreak in 2007 that killed 77 people and destroyed 250,000 hectares of land.

So far casualties have been averted this year, but more than a dozen homes have been gutted and scores more are feared lost.

Many residents claimed that incompetence by the emergency services has endangered lives as newspapers said authorities had failed to learn the lesson of 2007.

"Anti-fire corridors have not been created, the forests have not been cleared and the undergrowth has not been cleared since then," said the Eleftherotypia daily.

The fire started late Friday in a rural area of Grammatiko, 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of Athens, where a new waste disposal facility strongly opposed by residents is to be built.

Firebreaks in forests on Mount Penteli, the last barrier to the capital, failed to hold the flames late Saturday, and the fire crossed into the northeastern Athens suburbs of Dionysos, Stamata and Rodopoli.

With temperatures often above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and seasonal strong winds, Greece is vulnerable each summer to fires that ravage forest and agricultural land.