Places you must visit in Greece
Athens ranks with Rome and Jerusalem for its glorious past, yet few visitors fall in love with the modern city. But beyond the off-putting veneer of concrete there is a kind of dilapidated charm. Almost every house or apartment has a balcony bulging with geraniums. Athens is a blend of east and west; its raucous street vendors and colourful markets are reminiscent of Turkish bazaars, while neoclassical mansions hark back to the city's brief heyday as the 'Paris of the Mediterranean'.
The Acropolis, crowned by the Parthenon, stands over Athens and is visible from almost everywhere in the city. Pericles set about transforming the Acropolis into a city of temples after being informed by the Delphic oracle in 510 BC that it should become a province of the gods. The city was a showcase of colossal buildings, lavishly coloured and gilded, and of beautiful statues, some of bronze, others of marble plated with gold and encrusted with precious stones. Now in ruins, the cool grandeur of the bare marble is still breathtaking. Beside the Parthenon, which is unsurpassed in its grace and harmony, is the Erechtheion, immediately recognisable for its much-photographed Caryatides, the six maidens who take the place of columns. The Ancient Theatre of Dionysos, is on the southern slope of the Acropolis.
In the northeastern slope of the Acropolis is the old village of Plaka, virtually all that existed of Athens before it was declared the capital of independent Greece. Its narrow labyrinthine streets retain much of their charm despite the modern gross commercialism. Fenced off on the verge of Plaka is the ancient Agora (marketplace), which formed the centre of social and civic life in ancient Athens. Other attractions include the National Archaeological Museum, which houses magnificent gold artifacts from Mycenae and spectacular Minoan frescoes from Santorini (Thira), among other exquisite objects and antiquities; and the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic & Ancient Greek Art, with a collection of the elegant marble figurines that inspired the likes of Modigliani, Brancusi and Picasso.
Plaka is the most popular area to
stay. Book in advance in July and August though, as Athens
becomes overrun with tourists.
The Peloponesse, Greece's southern
peninsula, is rich in history and scenically diverse. Packed into
its northeastern corner are the ancient sites of Epidavros,
Corinth and Mycenae, all easily reached from Nafplion.
Further south, you can explore the medieval, capacious
Byzantine city of Mystras near Sparta at the slopes
of Mt Taygetos, with its winding paths and stairways leading to
deserted palaces and fresco-adorned churches and the area of Mani,
a region of bleak mountains and barren landscapes broken only by
imposing stone towers, mostly abandoned but still standing
sentinel over the region. Other attractions in the region include
the beautiful medieval town of Monemvasia, the Ancient Olympia,
birthplace of the Olympic Games, and the thrilling Diakofto-Kalavryta
which roller coasts its way through the deep Vouraikos river
The World Heritage monasteries of Meteora,
in the middle of Greece, are one of the most extraordinary
sights. Built into and on top of huge pinnacles of smooth rocks,
the monasteries provided monks with peaceful havens from
increasing bloodshed as the Byzantine Empire waned at the end of
the 14th century. The earliest monasteries were reached by
climbing removable ladders. Later, windlasses were used so monks
could be hauled up in nets, a method used until the 1920s.
Apprehensive visitors enquiring how often the ropes were replaced
were told 'When the Lord lets them break'. These days access to
the monasteries is by steps hewn into the rocks and the
windlasses are used only for hauling up provisions.
The Cycladic islands epitomise the postcard image of the Greek islands: dazzling white buildings are offset by bright-blue church domes, while golden beaches meet an aquamarine sea. Some of the Cyclades, such as Mykonos, Santorini, Paros and Ios, have vigorously embraced the tourist industry; others, such as Andros, Kea, Serifos and Sikinos, are visited infrequently by foreigners but are favourites with holiday-makers from Athens.
Mykonos is the most expensive and heavily visited of all Greek islands. It has the most sophisticated nightlife and is the undisputed gay capital of Greece. Barren, low-lying Mykonos would never win a Greek-island beauty contest, but it does have superb (if crowded) beaches. The town is an enchanting warren of chic boutiques and chimerical houses with brightly painted balconies draped in bougainvillea and clematis; it's too perfect for some tastes. Santorini (also known as Thira) is regarded by many as the most spectacular of the Greek islands. Thousands of tourists come every year to gape at the sea-filled caldera, a vestige of what was probably the world's largest volcanic eruption, ever. Despite the crowds who visit in summer, Santorini's weirdness, apparent in its black-sand beaches and mighty cliffs, holds a distinct allure.
If you want to escape the tourist crowds, Sikinos,
Anafi and the tiny islands to the east of Naxos
offer some respite.
Greece's largest island has the dubious
distinction of playing host to a quarter of all visitors to
Greece. It's still possible to find some peace by visiting the
undeveloped west coast, the rugged mountainous interior and the
villages of the Lassithi plateau. Crete was the centre of the
Minoan culture, Europe's first advanced civilisation, which
flourished from 2800 to 1450 BC. The palace of Knossos,
just outside Crete's largest city, Heraklio, is the most
magnificent of Crete's Minoan sites. While Heraklio is a modern,
wealthy but somewhat charmless city, the other large towns, Chania
and Rethymno, are packed with beautiful Venetian
buildings. Paleohora, on the southwest coast, was
discovered by hippies in the 1960s and from then on its days as a
quiet fishing village were numbered, but it remains a relaxing
place favoured by backpackers. Many travellers spend a day
trekking though the 18km-long Samaria Gorge to get to Agia
Roumeli on the southwest coast. Further along the south
coast, which is too precipitous to support large settlements, are
the villages of Loutro and Hora Sfakion, linked by
boat. The climate on the south coast is so mild that swimming is
possible from April to November.
Strung along the coast of western Turkey, the Dodecanese archipelago is much closer to Asia Minor than to mainland Greece. Because of their strategic and vulnerable position, these islands have been subjected to an even greater catalogue of invasions and occupations than the rest of Greece - Egyptians, the Knights of St John, Turks and Italians have all done their bit as conquerors. Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese islands and its town is the largest inhabited medieval settlement in Europe. The Avenue of the Knights is lined with magnificent medieval buildings, the most impressive of which is the Palace of the Grand Masters, restored, but never used, as a holiday home for Moussolini.