Greece is the cradle of Western Civilization and the father of Democracy. The world revolved around this relatively small country for a thousand years. Even today, Greece holds a special fascination for travelers because of its rich heritage. With its numerous islands, there is also great natural beauty in this country which tries hard to preserve its past and to continue its interesting culture in the face of modernization. Join me on a tribute to one of the top travel destinations in the world. Later, check out the photo album which will follow shortly.
Greece’s major tourist attractions are described in order below.
1. Athens & the Acropolis
The Acropolis, in Athens, Greece, dates back to the 5th century B.C. It positively stirs the imagination since it represents the origins of democracy and Western Civilization. This was the home of Demosthenes, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The plays of Aeschylus, Aristophanes and Euripides were performed here.
The Propylea was the entryway to the Acropolis and one can still imagine its splendor. The Erechthyon, on the north side, is also impressive with its Karyatids (sculpted maidens) instead of columns (the real Karyatids are in the Acropolis Museum to preserve them; the ones outside are reproductions). Also visible from the Acropolis is the Odeon of Herodotus-Atticus, an amphitheater still used during the summer months for the performance of Greek plays.
But the most impressive sight is certainly the Parthenon — Phidias’ masterpiece is regal, graceful, and beautiful, although much-changed from its 5th century grandeur. It dominates the Acropolis and remains a clear cut symbol of Ancient Greece, despite its ubiquitous scaffolding and seemingly perpetual restoration.
From here there are also great views of the Agora (the marketplace/gathering place), the Temple of Hephaistus, the Theater of Dionysus (the oldest theater in the world), the Areopagus (Hill of Curses) which is associated with St Paul’s first visit to Athens, the Plaka (an old area of the city beneath the Acropolis which contains many shops, hotels, and restaurants), and Likavitos Hill, with St George’s Church at its summit.
The Acropolis Museum is a treasure trove of original sculpture rescued from the damaging air pollution of Athens and also displays reproductions of what some areas of the Acropolis looked like before they became ruins.
There are a number of vestiges of the time when Greece was under Roman rule in the city. These include the Roman Agora, near the original and similar to a Roman Forum. Noteworthy here is the Tower of the Winds. Also of Roman origin are the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch, in a park not far from the Plaka.
Elsewhere in Athens is Syntagma (Constitution) Square, which is anchored by the Parliament Building (and former Royal Palace). In front of the building is Greece’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where visitors can watch a Changing of the Guard Ceremony (most elaborate on Sundays).
Be sure to see the Acropolis at night — the soft-lighting enhances its symmetry.
A popular excursion from the city involves a 70 kilometer (40 mile) drive southeast to the tip of the peninsula at Sounion to see the beautiful Temple of Poseidon, overlooking the Aegean Sea.
2. Aegean Islands
The Greek Islands dot the Aegean and the Adriatic Sea in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. They are known the world over for their special, whitewashed beauty and their storied history. There are actually several groups of islands: the Ionian Islands, which lie west of the Greek mainland; the Cyclades, which were named for the fact that they form somewhat of a ring around the central island of Delos; and the Dodecanese Islands, which are the most easterly of the Aegean islands, many of them quite close to the mainland of Turkey.
Santorini is usually billed as the most beautiful, most unforgettable Greek isle, and it does not disappoint. Most people arrive at the island via cruise ship — certainly the most dramatic approach. The current island is all that remains of a large volcano, From the moment the ship enters the caldera, all are on deck to witness the breath-taking event. Beautiful, pure white villages spill over steep cliffs of dark volcanic rock and look out over the caldera of an ancient volcano far (over 1000 feet) below which has been filled in with Aegean Sea — it’s quite a postcard.
The event that created the Santorini of today occurred in 1450 BC, when the volcanic island erupted. The eruption is credited with destroying much of the island itself, but also the palace of Knossos, on the neighboring island of Crete, by causing the ignition of casks of olive oil which created huge fires. The resulting tidal wave drowned the Minoans and marked the end of that civilization. Many scientists feel that this volcanic eruption which also destroyed the Minoan community on Santorini, was the source of the legend of Atlantis, the lost continent.
Ships can only moor in the harbor and then tenders are used to bring visitors ashore. Next is the trip to the rim of the crater. There are three (3) choices: 1. On the backs of donkeys, 2. By foot, walking up the numerous switchbacks, trying to avoid the piles of donkey poop, 3. By funicular (6 tandem chairlifts).
In the village of Thira/Fira, the main town on the island, the labyrinthine alleys are lined with hundreds of shops and restaurants. However, the view is the thing!! Looking down or up is positively breath-taking, certainly one of the most picturesque spots on earth.
Ia (another smaller village on the western rim of the crater) is also extremely photogenic with its blue-domed churches and narrow alleys.
Mykonos is another beautiful island. Imagine hundreds of white-washed buildings sloping down to a U-shaped tranquil harbor; myriad, narrow, winding alleyways lined with shops and chapels, spreading out below a ridge of white-washed windmills. It is lovely just strolling the streets, backtracking often because of dead-ends, getting lost but not worrying because downhill always means toward the harbor. It is relaxing to sit at a small table, outside a bar in “Little Venice”, an area of town with buildings directly over the water, watching “Petras”, the resident pelican, strut about and taking pictures of the town. This island is incredibly picturesque.
The island of Rhodes is located very close to the Turkish coast, but still belongs to Greece. It has a long tradition and history. The town of Rhodes is a beautiful walled, Medieval city. The streets are cobblestones, for which the town fathers used smooth beach stones — very unusual and attractive.
Rhodes harbor was once the location of the statue known as the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World! He straddled a section of the harbor until crumpled by an earthquake. The spot on which he stood is today marked by two columns, each of which is topped with a statue of a deer, the symbol of Rhodes. Legend says that the island was once populated by many snakes until deer were brought to the island and the snakes disappeared.
City gates are turreted and built into the walls. The Street of the Knights (Ippoloton) leads up to the Palace of the Grand Masters. The street itself is considered one of the best preserved Medieval relics in the world. The buildings, known as “Inns”, along the street, were where the Knights of St John were housed and are all cultural landmarks in their own right.
The Palace itself is an impressive building which is also built into the city walls. It contains beautiful, tranquil gardens, great places for a stroll and some contemplation.
A great view of the city of Rhodes can be obtained by climbing the Byzantine Clock Tower (83 steps). Those who pay for the opportunity are rewarded with a free beer after returning to ground level.
Lindos, another city on the island of Rhodes, is a another well-preserved Medieval town. It is a very steep walk up to its famous Acropolis, with its Medieval Castle, Porticos, and Stoas (courtyards). It makes an interesting side trip from Rhodes Town.
Delos, Greece, is one of the North Cyclades Islands and is considered sacred, since, in Greek mythology, it was the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Today, the entire island is an archeological site and is, thus, uninhabited. Access is available by skiff (caique) from Mykonos and other Cycladic Islands.
On the island, there are ruins of four Temples of Apollo in the Sanctuary of Apollo which is reached by walking up majestic Sacred Way, lined with Lion Sculptures. Other sites on the island include the Sanctuary of the Bulls, the Treasuries, and the Sanctuary of Artemis. There are also ruins of houses from the time when the island had inhabitants, as well as a Stadium and a Gymnasium.
Patmos, another island near the coast of Turkey, is also a favorite stop for cruise lines. This island is famous as a Christian pilgrimage site, associated with St John the Theologian, who wrote one of the Gospels, as well as the Book of Revelations, in the New Testament.
St John lived on Patmos from 95 to 97 AD (when he was an old man) and was exiled during that time. He wrote “the Apocalypse” as a result of visions he received inside a grotto or cave which can be visited. According to legend, he listened to God’s revelation while lying in the cave and the cave wall was split during the vision.
From the cave, visitors are led to the highest hill of the island where a Monastery was built, in the 11th century, dedicated to the memory of St John. The Monastery is still in operation and contains a beautiful church, with frescoes from the period. The museum on the grounds has numerous artifacts on view which have been left by pilgrims with the Monastery, notably a painting by El Greco and some relics given by Catherine the Great of Russia. The Monastery area also provides a great view of the island and its Aegean coastline.
Corfu is one of Greece’s Ionian Islands, located just west of the mainland, in the Adriatic Sea, just off the coast of Albania. It was the residence of Homer, ancient Greece’s most famous writer/historian. The island itself is lovely and Corfu Town is a pleasant-to-walk, Medieval metropolis whose architecture combines many cultural influences, since the island was a another of the crossroads between East and West, and because of its proximity to Italy, especially Venice. Attractions which should not be missed include the Palace of St Michael and St George, which, today, houses several museums, the Old and the New Fortress, obviously erected for defense, the Esplanade, lined with beautiful homes, and the Church of St Spyridan, with its tall red-domed bell tower.
Knossos, the ancient palace of King Minos and the center of Minoan civilization, is located on the island of Crete, the largest and most distant of the Greek isles. The Minoans existed from 2000 to 1450 BC, and Knossos is a tribute to their wealth and power. The palace was also reputed to house the labyrinthine chambers which were home to the Minotaur, a legendary half-man, half-beast who ate humans.
Knossos was first excavated by Sir Arthur Evans, an Englishman, in 1900. Evans restored some of the palace and has been criticized by many archeologists because he tampered with the ruins. Others feel that the restoration makes the place come alive and adds a certain richness to the experience. Whatever the visitor feels about this issue, it is still amazing to walk around in an area that was occupied 4000 years ago.
The Minoans were extremely resourceful. They had indoor plumbing and also had a system of clay pipes used to transport water to the palace from a mountain 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. The columns holding up the walls were made of the trunks of trees and are wider at the top and narrower at the bottom because the trees were used upside-down. Builders thought the “green” wood would lose its moisture faster in this position, and they were obviously right, since many have survived to the present day.
There are huge clay cisterns in the chambers which held water, olive oil, etc. and the chambers of the king and queen are decorated with beautiful frescoes, the originals of which are housed in the Archeological Museum in Heraklion, which should also be visited.
Unfortunately, the destruction of the Palace of Knossos by an earthquake and fire in 1450 BC also marks the end of the Minoan civilization. The event which led to this destruction was the eruption of the volcanic island of Santorini (see above). Archeologists are convinced that accompanying earthquakes caused the ignition of casks of olive oil which burned much of the palace (some wood from the palace shows charring), and a subsequent tidal wave from the Santorini eruption killed all the Minoans.
There are a number of other Greek islands which merit mention. These include Naxos, once dubbed the most beautiful of all the islands by both Herodotus and Lord Byron, with its marble streets and Venetian homes, Lesbos, one of the largest and most affordable of the islands, Ios, which has become a major gathering place for the young people of the world, and Hydra, very close to the mainland and popular as a weekend getaway from Athens.
Delphi was considered by the Ancient Greeks to be the center of the universe. The ruins of the Temple of Apollo and the famous Delphic Oracle are located on the slopes of 3,000 meter (9,000 foot) high Mt Parnassus, north of Athens. The Oracle was in operation from 800 BC to 400 AD and was consulted by rich and poor from all over the known world. The visitor first reaches the marketplace (agora) which offered, for sale, goods which could be used as offerings to the Oracle (the price of admission). The route from the marketplace to the Oracle, called the “sacred way”, is studded with “treasuries”, buildings erected by all the major city-states of Greece to hold their municipal stores of offerings. The largest of the treasuries is the Athenian Treasury. This area also included a portico, represented now only by a beautiful stone wall, mortar-less, but beautifully fitted.
Above the treasury area is the Temple of Apollo which was once a large multi-columned temple (only 4 or 5 columns remain) that consisted of two rooms. The first room was the reception room where the petitioners were met by the priests of the Oracle who received their gifts and their query. The second room was exclusively used by the Oracle itself, represented by an ignorant virgin from the village who stayed in this room, exposed to vapors rising from below. She was entranced by the vapors and translated the message received from the Oracle to the priests in an indecipherable mumbo-jumbo. The priests then translated this message into the Oracle’s answer to the petitioner, which always contained an “ambiguity”. For instance, King Croesus consulted the Oracle about an impending battle and was told that a great civilization would be destroyed in the battle. He interpreted this message to foretell his victory, but, instead, his civilization was destroyed, making the Oracle right.
Above the temple is the amphitheater (from here on, the paths are very steep) and then, far above that, the stadium where the Pythian games were held. They were very much like the Olympics and pitted athletes from all over Greece (believe it or not, cities even suspended their wars to participate).
At the base of the area is a small museum which contains, among other things a beautiful bronze charioteer sculpture from the 5th century BC.
4. Meteora Monasteries
The Meteora Monasteries are found in an otherworldly landscape of tall, cylindrical rocks rising precipitously from the countryside below. At the tops of some of these rock towers are monastic communities which date back to the 1200’s. Today there are six monasteries open to the public. The most convenient embarkation point is the city of Kalambaka, about a two-hour drive southwest from Thessaloniki, and a 3-4 hour drive from Athens.
The monasteries recommended for the tourist are the following: Ayia Barbara (sometimes known as Roussanou), which has particularly superb picture-taking opportunities, Megalo Meteora, the highest monastery at 450 meters (1360 feet), Ayios Nikolaos Anapafsas, with its beautiful frescoes, Varlaam, which, unfortunately, requires a climb of almost 200 steps, and Ayios Stephanos, the oldest of the monasteries. Other monasteries in the area include Ayia Triada, which also has spectacular views, and Ayia Moni, which is deserted.
Nafplion, Greece, is the quintessential Greek village and walking this lovely town is an excellent way to spend a day. It is located about 150 km (100 miles) southwest of Athens, in the northern part of the Peloponnese. It has the classic castle on a hill, the Palamidi, actually a Venetian fortress, narrow streets, numerous churches and beautiful squares. There are actually more fortresses at the Acronafplia, as well as parks and museums.
An interesting excursion from the town is to Epidaurus, Greece, another of Greece’s important ancient locations, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, specifically because of the Theater of Epidauros, which is the best-preserved one of its kind in the world. It dates to the 4th century B.C. and was, no doubt, the setting for the production of many of the famous Greek plays, such as Oresteia, Medea, The Frogs, etc. The theater has excellent acoustics and is still used for outdoor theater productions during the summer.
Another worthwhile day trip from the Nauplion is to Mycenae, an ancient citadel which recalls a kingdom that was extremely powerful in the years 1500-1100 B.C. The site was first excavated in the 19th century by the famous archeologist, Heinrich Schliemann. Here was the location of the kingdom of Agamemnon.
Particularly important areas of the ruins include the Lion’s Gate and the Treasury of Atreus. A visit to this site compels the visitor to recall the Trojan Wars, with its legendary characters such as Helen of Troy, Paris and Hector, as well as the story of Orestes and Electra, the children of Agamemnon. Perhaps the most important find at Mycenae is the famous Death Mask of Agamemnon, which can, today, be viewed in Athens’ National Archeological Museum (It has been determined, recently, that the age of the mask precedes the rule of Agamemnon).
Olympia, Greece was the site of the original Olympic Games, probably first held in 776 B.C. The ruins that a visitor sees today, located in the western Peloponnese, include many buildings of what was once a thriving area. The life of Greeks at the time centered around conflicts between the various city-states for prominence. However, every four years, this warlike behavior stopped, for a five day period of sacred truce during which the games were held.
Because the site is relatively compact, the area can be seen easily in several hours. Particularly important are the Heraion, the Temple of Hera, which is fairly well preserved, the Treasuries, which are where visiting city-states stored their valuables, the Stadium, which could seat 40,000-50,000 spectators, and the Temple of Zeus, King of the Gods, which must have been incredibly impressive in its day. The statue of Zeus, which was at the center of the temple, was huge (several times life size) and was the work of Phidias, who was responsible for much of the Acropolis in Athens. Zeus’ statue was one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. Unfortunately, it was moved to Constantinople in 475 A.D. and was destroyed by a fire. Some of the tools and molds used by Phidias are still on display in his workshop on the site.
Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, is a melting pot of cultures, due to its location at the crossroads between East and West. In particular, Byzantine culture is well-represented here. Despite its size, the attractions of the city are accessible by foot, since most of them are found near the waterfront. Actually, the public promenade along the waterfront is ideal for this purpose.
Notice the White Tower, previously a fort, then a jail, now a museum. Upon entering Aristotelous Square, a look inland gives an appreciation of the city’s size.
One of the most photogenic neighborhoods of the city is Ano Poli, with its traditional Balkan architecture and the Old Fortress (Eptapyrgion).
The most important church in the city is the Agia Sophia, which was modeled after its namesake, Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul.
Thessaloniki is perhaps the best place to sample Greek cuisine. There are certainly numerous restaurants to choose from. Because of its location, seafood dishes are particularly appealing.