By Joseph Francis
Few countries have defined the western world like Greece. The birthplace of democracy and dialectic philosophy, it boasts a deep and enthralling culture that rarely fails to impress. Its wealth of ancient ruins is rivalled only by Rome and its crumbling cities circa 500 BC reveal a bygone time of heroes and heroism, bloody war and technological prowess. But it’s not just the temples and relics that people come for; sprawled over the sparking waters of the Ionian and Aegean, this country also brings irresistible beaches and romantic towns of whitewashed cubism, a rugged backcountry of limestone cliffs, sweeping olive fields in Crete and even snow-tipped mountains in the Peloponnese.
Here is a Greece travel guide to the great variety of attractions and activities that make this land of islands and mountains, legends and myth, on Europe’s extreme southern edge so darn alluring.
The Greek Islands
Speckling the waters of the Mediterranean Sea like a string of resplendent pearls, the Greek Islands are simply not to be missed. Roughly divided in two sections, between the Aegean east and the Ionian west, they offer everything from mountain trekking to beach lazing to partying. Favourites include the Italian-flavoured Corfu (Ionian), with its stone-cut towns and cypress forests; Santorini (Aegean), home to the cascading whitewashed villages of Oia and Fira, and Rhodes (Aegean), where medieval cities play host to luxurious spa hotels and sparkling white sands hug the shores. Meanwhile, Zakynthos (Ionian) is famed for its much-photographed Shipwreck Cove and Mykonos (Aegean) offers some of the most hedonistic party nights in the Med.
Greek food – of course!
A medley of moussaka and crumbling feta cheese, fried haloumi and Kalamata olives, crusty pitas and spanakopita spinach pastries, meat-packed gyros, salty seafood straight from the Med, cold soups, gritty coffees, uber-fresh and tasty olive oil and boiled greens straight from the Cretan hills, the Greek kitchen is one of the best-loved on the planet – and for good reason! Be sure to quiz your Greek food guide on the national favourites and acquaint yourself with the local tavernas to catch a glimpse of the traditional and earthy side of Greek cooking.
Athens and the Acropolis
Despite Athens’ indelible problems with pollution and political upheaval, most all Greece tour guides will recommend hitting the city for at least a day. Why? Because it is home to the bucket list UNESCO Heritage Site of the Acropolis – that’s why! Soaring on its own bluff in the middle of the enchanting Plaka district of the city, this grand monument boasts the likes of the Parthenon and the Erechtheum – both remnants of the Athenian Golden Age of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. And while you walk in the footsteps of Pericles and Demosthenes, it’s also possible to see the ancient Agora of Athens too, where Plato and Socrates would have chatted away and Athens’s imperial matters were once decided.
Set in the heart of the majestic Peloponnesian foothills, the crumbling acropolis of Mycenae has to be one of the most enthralling of all the country’s ancient sites. The old city’s formidable Cyclopean Walls come steeped in myth and legend (it’s said that the mighty boulders used to build them were transported here by Cyclops across the plains), while tales of Agamemnon, Perseus and Menelaus all coalesce between the excavated palace and pyramid tombs. Put simply – this one’s not to be missed!
As one of the largest islands in the entire Mediterranean, Crete is certainly deserving of a mention of its own. A rectangular cut-out that divides the Ionian, Aegean and Libyan seas, it is a place of soaring mountains and limestone canyons, rugged coastal sections and undulating fields of some of the world’s best olives. Delve into towns like Chania to sample Venetian history, go to Knossos for some breathtaking Cretan palaces, or head to the untrodden seaside for fantastic sands like Falasarna and Elafonisi. And then of course there’s Malia, erupting on the island’s eastern flank with sleepless bars and endless 18 to 30s parties.
Hailed as the home of one of the best-preserved Greek amphitheatres on the planet, the UNESCO site of Epidaurus sits nestled in the midst of the fir forests and limestone hills of the Argolid. It was once the most revered healing complex in the known world, and today Epidaurus tour guides reveal everything from crumbling gymnasiums to 2,000-year-old stadiums. What’s more, theatre troupes still perform here in the famous arena during the summer, drawing huge crowds with their renditions of Euripides, Aristophanes, Aeschylus and more!
Formed and shaped by the Byzantines, Ottomans and Romans alike, the throbbing port town of Thessaloniki looks and feels just a little different to Greece’s other major towns. Thessaloniki tour guides reveal a catalogue of truly gorgeous historic sites, ranging from the UNESCO-attested church of Saint Demetrius to the Rotunda of Saint George and Vlatades Monastery, all alongside the fortified hillsides of Ano Poli. But it’s not all about history here either and this thumping university town is fast becoming one of the favoured partying spots on the mainland, boasting oodles of enchanting tavernas and port-side bars to boot!
The must-see archaeological site on the Greek mainland, Delphi was once the most sacred spot in the known world. City leaders and generals would flock here from as far afield as the Black Sea and the Italian Boot to ask the famous Oracle of Delphi for portends. Today, travellers enjoy one of the country’s finest ancient history museums, while the columns of the famous Temple of Apollo – where the oracles would once have breathed the sulphuric fumes of the volcanic mountain springs before offering omens – still loom on the hillside.
Joseph ‘Rich’ Francis is a freelance travel writer who has travelled extensively in Asia and Europe. He particularly enjoys the jazz bars of Poland, the ski slopes of Austria and the beaches and cities of India.
Image Details and Licenses: https://flic.kr/p/hD3Gp7 (mariusz kluzniak, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Food in Crete, Greece |© Joseph Richard Francis, https://flic.kr/p/4nNXQA (Dennis Jarvis, https://flic.kr/p/AkYSvp (Pinay Flying High, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/prgRz3 (Juan Salmoral, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/yChAkK (heipei, CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/8wFc1i (Tilemahos Efthimiadis, CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/f6EBbr (Ronny Siegel, CC BY 2.0)