Join Jaideep Mukerji on a trip across Greece. Fabulous ruins, superb scenic beauty and great food. Greece is worth a visit for many reasons
Jaideep Mukherji with Veeresh Malik Greece, a small southern European country of 11 million people, has a history that has shaped the modern day world. Ancient Greece is recognised as the cradle of Western civilisation, the birthplace of democracy, the birthplace of the Olympic Games and the country that gave the world the concepts of philosophy, drama, geometry, political science and scientific principles. The country of 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites is made up of a mainly mountainous mainland and a collection of over 1,400 islands, only about 227 of which are inhabited. With such a large number of historic sites and scenic islands to visit, only a glimpse is possible during a brief visit.
Athens, the country’s capital, is the very heart and soul of Greece. The city has been pedestrianised in recent years and most sites of interest are easily accessed by foot or subway. A lot of sightseeing can be done independently on foot with a guide-book in hand. The new Acropolis Museum, located at the foot of the Acropolis, is a good place to start your exploration of Athens. The Museum was built to house about 4,000 objects, from the Greek Bronze Age to Roman and Byzantine times, found during excavations. The Acropolis itself is adorned with magnificent buildings, dating from 5th century BC, the Golden Age of Athens. At the highest point on the Acropolis is the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to Athena ‘Parthenos’, the virgin and patron goddess of the city, and is considered the finest monument to Greek civilization.
Descend from the Acropolis and enter the ancient Agora located adjacent to the old part of the city, the Plaka. Among the numerous sights in the Agora are the well-preserved Temple of Hephaistos and the landmark Roman era Tower of the Winds. The Plaka is the most colourful park of Athens. Its 19th century buildings, street cafés and shops give it a historic ambience reinforced by its location at the foot of the Acropolis. From here, it is just a brief walk to the southern slope of the Acropolis, the site of the Dionysus Theatre. Built in the 6th century BC, it is one of the world’s oldest theatres and the place where the great plays of Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were first performed. Nearby, within walking distance is the ‘newer’, the Odeon of Herod Atticus, from 2nd century AD, which is still used for concerts.
Take a conducted day-trip offered by the reputable Chat Tours to Corinth and the impressive Corinth Canal. During ancient times, Corinth was one of the three major powers in Greece and took part in the battles against the invading Persians. Most tours continue to Mycenae, a kingdom that was for 400 years (1600-1200 BC) the most powerful one in Greece. You enter Mycenae through the famous Lion Gate built in the 13th century BC and see the Great Court where King Agamemnon is believed to have been murdered. The citadel, built by the Mycenaean, occupies the triangular summit of a low hill with extensive views of the surrounding countryside dotted with olive groves.
The Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea have become an irresistible tourist draw and even summer crowds cannot hide the fact that Mykonos has the prettiest village in Greece. Naxos has the most scenic landscape and Santorini, the most awe-inspiring crater bay.
Start your Greek Island hopping tour by taking a ferry from Athens’ port, Pireaus, to the island of Mykonos. From the town’s harbour waterfront, you can watch the local fishing boats or explore the maze of dazzling, whitewashed streets to the many churches, tavernas, or shops selling crafts, jewellery and the latest fashion. In the distance stand a string of windmills that once harnessed the winds for grinding grain. As one of the most cosmopolitan Greek islands, Mykonos is legendary for its shopping and nightlife.
From Mykonos, take a boat to the nearby tiny sacred island of Delos, only a 30-minute boat ride away. Delos gives the whole group of islands surrounding it their name, the Cyclades, so named because they form a circle (cyklos) around Delos. For nearly 1,000 years, this sanctuary was the political and religious centre of the Aegean. From Mykonos, you can take a ferry directly to the island of Santorini or make a stop in the island of Naxos on the way. Naxos, the largest of the Cyclades, has some of the best beaches and restaurants in the area.
Volcanic eruptions have given the island of Santorini its unique form resulting in the nickname, ‘Pre-Historic Pompeii’. The present island, a jagged crescent shape, is the remnant of a large volcano that erupted 3,600 years ago and collapsed into the sea leaving the present semi-circular caldera surrounding the lagoon, now part of the sea. For many, to stand on top of the cliff of Santorini’s caldera at sunset and look west at the blue Aegean Sea is a lifetime’s dream.
The ancient site of Akrotiri, 30km to the south, is one of the places where excavations have revealed a complete prehistoric Minoan civilisation city with squares, streets and two-storey houses with marvellous frescoes. The buildings date to late 16th century BC. No skeletons or treasures have been found in Akrotiri, leading historians to believe that the inhabitants were forewarned of the volcanic eruption and were able to escape. Climb to the highest point on the island and the nearby Monastery of Profitas Ilias for great views of the entire island and the caldera.
Later, head to the main town and capital of Santorini, Fira, for a visit to the impressive Archaeological Museum. The Museum features many exhibits from the site of Akrotiri, as well as artefacts dating back to the Cycladic Civilisation. The most impressive legacies of this civilisation are the statuettes carved from marble—the famous Cycladic figurines that depict images of the Great Mother.
Returning to Athens, I joined a four-day coach-tour to visit the main sites in the Peloponnese Peninsula starting with a tour of ancient Olympia and its interesting museum. This was the place in ancient Greece where rival states shed their enmity and congregated in peace to enjoy the ancient games and make offerings to the Gods. The games were held in conjunction with a festival dedicated to Olympian Zeus. The temple of Zeus once dominated the entire complex and housed a 13-metre (43-foot) statue of Zeus.
North of Athens is Delphi, a spectacular site, also with an excellent museum. According to mythology, Zeus released two eagles at opposite ends of the world which came to rest at Delphi, the ‘navel of the world’. Delphi was the site of the famous Delphic oracle, the most important oracle in the Greek classics; it was a major site for the worship of the god Apollo who embodied moral discipline and spiritual clarity.
A half day’s drive away, in north-central Greece, are the famous cliff-top Meteora monasteries, built on natural sandstone rock pillars that rise vertically from the plains below, at the north-western edge of the Plain of Thessaly. These ‘Rocks of the Air’ are visible for miles around and are crowned with old monasteries that cling to their summits. Meteora is one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and is second in importance only to Mount Athos.
Spend some time to savour Greek cuisine which has a long tradition and has spread its culinary influence, via ancient Rome, throughout Europe and the wider world. The most characteristic element of Greek cuisine is olive oil which adds the distinctive taste to Greek food.
Why Go There: The cradle of Western civilisation, with an incredible variety of historic and scenic locations, some dating back thousands of years, Greece is not to be missed. A relatively small country with easy ferry travel between the islands, the country can be toured independently. The climate is temperate most of the year, apart from a few summer and winter weeks and there are many World Heritage Sites to explore
Getting There: All European airlines, including Turkish Airlines, offer convenient connections to Athens.
Why Go There: Hotels and transportation are best booked through a reliable and experienced Greek tour operator. My arrangements were made by the efficient English-speaking staff at Hellas Vacances. Contact them at [email protected]