Greece is a paradise for different kind of tourists. It is far out for the beach bum, it is great for the lover of the classics and it is a must see for anyone interested in knowing where civilization as we know it stems from.
Located in southeastern Europe, Greece is bordered by Bulgaria, Albania, Turkey, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The Balkan Peninsula, which constitutes Greece, is surrounded by over a thousand tiny islands, of which less than 200 are inhabited. It is primarily a mountainous country with a major chunk of its landmass perched at over 1,500 m above sea level.
Perhaps no nation in Europe can boast of a more ancient history than Greece. Greece’s antiquity dates back to 3000 BC when the powerful Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations flourished here. The evolution of powerful city-states, especially Athens and Sparta, between 800 and 500BC produced the classical age of Athens which was the high point of the Grecian civilization. Under the leadership of Pericles, Athens ushered in an era of prosperity in all spheres: an era when Pericles himself commissioned the Parthenon, Democritus taught the concept of democracy, Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex, and Socrates taught the intricacies of logic. Later, Alexander’s conquest of the city-states was followed by the Roman invasions that began in 205 BC. Greece became a part of the Byzantine Empire in the 4th century AD. This was followed by the Crusades, and by AD 1500, Greece came under Turkish control.
The glorious history of Greece is reflected in the ruins and monuments that lie scattered all over the country. Although the capital Athens may seem a smog-filled city of high-rise flats, it has a special charm and grandeur. Besides the oft-visited Acropolis, the Parthenon, and the Theatre of Dionysus, the National Archaeological Museum is a treasure trove of antiquities.
The southern peninsula, the Peloponnesos , is known both for its picturesque scenery and rich history, as are the islands of Crete , Rhodes and Cyclades ; while in mainland Greece, you have the magnificent Meteora monasteries. The mountainous terrain of Greece is ideal for trekking, while Mt. Parnassus near Delphi offers opportunities for skiing.
In the east, Greece’s second biggest city of Thessaloniki is absolutely worth a visit. The city has many monuments most of them dating back to Byzantine times.
When you plan a trip to Greece try to visit at least the capital Athens , a bit of the Peloponessos and one or two islands. You will then get a general idea of what this fascinating country has to offer. Athens is a great city with many interesting street fairs.
Athens will host the 2004 Olympics. The capital of Greece is a huge modern city, but one with old roots and many many monuments dating back to the dawn of civilization.
The main monument to visit is of course the Acropolis, the hill upon which the Parthenon and other important sites are located. The climb can be hot, but it is worth your while.
The Plaka is one of the nicest areas of town: ideal for shopping and wandering through cobblestone streets or sitting down in one of the many tavernas.
Athens is a good base for exploring the region: Epidaurus, Corinth and Mycenae can all be see on a trip from the capital, Cape Sounion, Delphiand Marathon (42 km away) are also good options.
Pireaus is the port of Athens. It is a very lively part of town and the place to start your trip to the greek islands.
Thessaloniki is the second city of Greece and the administrative centre for the north. Its history dates back more than 4000 years. The city of Thessaloniki was founded in 316 B.C. on a site of old prehistoric settlements dating back to 2300 B.C., by Cassander, king of Macedonia, and was named after his wife, sister of Alexander the Great.
During the Byzantine era, Salonica, as it was then known, was the second city after Constantinople (Istanbul), remaining so until its sacking by Saracens in 904. It was restored to the empire in 1246, reaching a cultural “Golden Age” until Turkish conquest and occupation in 1430. Until just a few decades ago the city’s population was mixed as any in the Balkans. Besides the Turks, who had been in occupation for close on five centuries (and even Mustafa Kemal Pascha, today known as Kemal Atatürk was born here), there were Slavs, Albabians and the largest European Jewish community of the period. In World War II when all but a fraction were deported to the concentration camps, in the worst atrocity committed in the Balkans.
Situated on the shores of the Thermaikos Gulf, Thessaloniki is divided in a modern area and the old town. The old town is where most of the sights are. In the old town it will be mostly Byzantine churches and buidlings that you are looking for. They are what Thessaloniki is famous for. You can get glimpses of “Old Salonica” in the walled Kastra quarter of the city, on the hillside beyond the modern grid of streets. In the modern areas you will find examples of recent architecture, that are interesting enough if you are into that kind of thing.
Rhodes is one of the most visited Greek islands. The island is famous for its sun, sea and sand: the ideal place for vacations. It is the third largest Greek island and, officially, the sunniest place in the Europe. Rhodes City is among the finest, not only in Greece but in the whole of the Mediterranean. It is situated at the island’s most northerly point and ringed by sea on the east and west. Rhodes (Rodos in Greek) combines the cosmopolitan character of a contemporary city with the picturesque of the medieval town, which gives the impression of having been untouched by the passage of time.
The city of Lindos in the south of the island has a very beautiful acropolis and is absolutely worth visiting. Other highlights include the excavations of Old Kamiros.
Tilos is an Aegean island with nineteen beaches, twelve mountains, seven medieval castles, a Byzantine monastery and two hundred churches, a cave full of natural discoveries, a village that is a declared cultural monument, a hundred bird species, hundreds of wild flowers and herbs, and five hundred residents. I visited this unspoiled Greek island recently to rediscover the Greece of times past.
As the dawn gently appeared over the horizon during my first morning on Tilos after an absence of nearly a quarter century, I wondered to myself what had changed or remained the same during this time. I decided that the best way to find out was to fold my memories into my overnight bag and venture out with an open mind to explore the body and soul of this island in the Dodecanese.
I began my journey at the port of Livadia on the east side of Tilos which is the main entry point for most visitors to this small, intimate island that is home to 250 residents. As you step onto the dock, the village of Livadia quietly hugs the shore next to the port at the foot of the mountains that shelter Livadia Bay. As you face eastward, the silky silhouette of the mountains of Turkey appear to rise out of the morning sea mist in the distant background while early morning fishermen can be seen guiding their boats out of the harbor before fanning out into the open waters of the Aegean. As your gaze drifts upward to the sky, Agriosykia Castle emerges from the rocky mountaintop to cast its watchful eye over Livadia as it has done unfailingly for the past six hundred years.
As the sun slowly rose, I was captivated by the changing pastel hues of the mountains above Livadia which stood in contrast to the unremarkable architecture prevailing in the village below. There are a few noticeable exceptions which include the gracefully sculpted Italian architecture of the Tilos Police Station building at the port, reminiscent of the Italian domination of the island from 1912 until 1948 at which time the Dodecanese reverted to the modern arms of its maternal Hellenistic past. Another welcome exception can be found dotting the foothills of the mountainside where you will see scattered white, cubed buildings in which small, fully equipped apartments have been constructed and tastefully landscaped with spectacular views overlooking the pristine bay.
Livadia Beach begins its graceful mile-long curve twenty meters from the port, but it will test the reliability of your shoes with pebbles blanketing the shore by the village before gradually refining to sand at its distant end. This slight inconvenience underfoot will not deter enthusiastic beachgoers who enjoy swimming and snorkeling in warm, crystal clear water; breezing along the smooth surface of the protected bay on colorful windsurf boards, canoes and pedaloes easily available for hire; and sunbathing on comfortable lounge chairs that peak out from the welcome shade of tall pine trees scattered along the beach.
When the spirit moves, you can drop into any one of a multitude of small tavernas that overlook the beach or are tucked away in the village, which fulfills the needs of the visitors and local residents with the exception of island banking services that are limited to those offered at the Livadia post office.
The overall feeling I had from the town is one that reflects its recent history. The village of Mikro Horio, established in the 15th century in the hills above Livadia, was abandoned after World War II by its residents, some of whom moved to Livadia to build a new life as business developed around the port. The incongruity of recent building designs and colors in some portions of Livadia reveal the underlying dreams of hard-working people whose visions reflect a commendable self-reliance tainted by a blindness to their cultural heritage and the merits of community coordination. On balance, though, I found a refreshingly relaxed atmosphere in this town with genuinely accommodating residents.
Eager to explore the rest of the island, I took the main road out of town toward the direction of Megalo Horio which is only a ten minute drive (7 km) from Livadia. Visitors can select from a variety of transport options, including a car or scooter available for hire at the port, a surprisingly reliable city bus, or a taxi, all of which are easy to procure. A petrol station is conveniently located on this road halfway between the two villages.
As I wound my way through the mountain, I marveled at the ancient stone walls made centuries ago to corral the animals, the plethora of tiny churches with their ruggedly rustic architecture barely perceptible against the stony hillsides, and the venerable, twisted trunks of windswept oak and olive trees that guard the secrets of the island’s past.
The history of this island, dating back to six million years ago resulting from a territorial separation from the coast of Asia Minor, clearly traces its population back to the Minoan, Mycenean and Dorian periods between 3,000 BC and 1,000 BC from the artifacts discovered here. But I personally felt the unmistakable presence of the past in the atmosphere surrounding the small churches I visited off the beaten path. Those who enjoy nature walks will find the added bonus of discovering that Tilos is home to two hundred Byzantine era churches scattered throughout the island with as many as forty one still retaining their original frescoes.
While walking on some of the nature trails filled with green and golden hues of unspoiled flora and fauna that abound on this island, the pungent aroma of wild thyme and sage wafting through the air reminded me of the Greek myth explaining the island’s name. According to legend, Tilos was named after the youngest son of Alia and Apollo who collected herbs from the island hoping to cure his mother when she became ill. After her recovery, he returned to the island and established a sanctuary in honor of Apollo and Poseidon in order to express his appreciation.
Continuing on toward the ancient capital of Tilos, I saw ruins of the castle and fortress of Messaria, brimming with life during the 14th and 15th centuries, rising out of the mountain. Beneath it, the cave of Harkadio is the site of recent excavations that surprised paleontologists when the skeletons of pygmy elephants dating back to 4,500 BC. were unearthed. There is an impressive presentation of this discovery in Megalio Horio which is open to visitors free of charge.
Just three kilometers up the road, Megalo Horio begins to unfold like a ruffled white fan against the steep slopes of St. Stefanos hill which is crowned by an ancient castle that dominates the skyline. There is a quiet charm inherent in this village that is built on tradition. Beginning in 1827, some of the ancient ruins were respectfully incorporated into the buildings you see today in which you will find City Hall, the public school and library, the Pygmy Elephant Exhibit, the medical office, and the general grocery store. The adjoining main square offers heavenly dimensions of fragrance and color in this gardener’s paradise filled with plumeria, bougainvillea and roses shaded by trees that overlook the valley and Eristos Bay to the south.
After my visits to the local cafés, I sensed that those islanders who live close to this ancient capital feel strong bonds to their ancestors as reflected in their discussions about family chapels, preservation of the environment, the island hunting ban, the merits of organic farming and the importance of gravesite care. The road between Livadia built on dreams and Megalo Horio built on tradition may physically connect the two towns but it cannot bridge the two different worlds.
From Megalo Horio, the bird’s eye view of the fertile valley below against the cool, blue backdrop of Eristos Bay will tempt any visitor to explore this part of the island. Tilos is gifted with an abundance of natural spring water that enables the cultivation of a dazzling array of fruits, almonds and vegetables. The agricultural sector consists entirely of small family businesses thus creating a comfortable, old world feel to the food you enjoy on Tilos. In springtime, this valley becomes a vibrantly colored canvas brushed with deep reds, swirling yellows, and splashes of blue bursting from the wildflowers that grace this island’s soil.
At the end of this valley lies the most beautiful swimming beach on the island called Eristos Beach. Most of the mile long beach is golden sand inviting beachgoers to sunbathe, swim, snorkel, play volleyball and soccer and take long, dreamy walks along the shore. When fishing enthusiasts get hungry, they barbecue their catch of the day right on the beach using the island’s own lemon juice, olive oil and wild thyme to make a succulent, memorable meal.
Another fine beach on Tilos is a few kilometers north of Megalo Horio at Plaka Bay. Before you reach Plaka, you will come across picturesque St. Antonios Bay with a small port, a thin rocky stretch of uninviting beach, a few hotel rooms and a restaurant. The gravesite with fossilized human skeletons overlooking the bay is noteworthy for its historical value; however, for those with a beach agenda and limited time, continuing to Plaka is recommended.
From Plaka, I continued west along this scenic road with breathtaking views until I reached the monastery of St. Panteleimon that was built in 1470, restored in 1703 and 1824, and expanded in 1843. The palm-leafed entrance opens to a pebbled courtyard that looks like a lush oasis landscaped with flowers, trees, the traditional Greek basil and grapevines. The monastery’s zenith was reached during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as it printed bank notes used on the island, owned vast tracts of land with animal herds and served as a key economic as well as spiritual center. Today, you will see a walled complex consisting of the courtyard leading to the church whose inspiring, centuries-old frescoes have been restored following the plaster covering by the Turkish occupation, the monks’ quarters adjacent to the church and a tree-filled courtyard on a lower level offering picnic tables for those who bring their own lunches or order at the sandwich hut. There is also a glorious fountain of cool, fresh and delicious spring water gushing continuously at the entrance.
My quiet return to Livadia allowed me the time to reflect upon what had changed or remained the same since my last visit. My memories of monuments had faded over the years but my memories of the warmth and the surprising respect with which I, as a financially strapped student, had been treated by the islanders had remained in my heart. On this journey, I found the island’s natural beauty, tranquility and unspoiled beaches to have remained exactly as I remembered long ago. The preservation and presentation of its historical past have clearly been enhanced. And despite the few islanders sadly swept up in the cyclone of tourism, I prize above all my discovery that the elusive, unspoiled Greece of yesteryear lives in the hearts of most islanders which, for me, is what makes Tilos the real jewel of the Aegean.
Corfu is a Ionian Island located between mainland Greece and Italy. It is a very nice island to visit and especially popular with British tourists.
For travelers with an appetite for adventure Corfu offers a good starting point for a trip to Ionian.
The backpacker set almost exclusively settles at the Pink Palace on the west side of the island. A massive hostel complex, the Pink Palace is a hostel resort unto itself for the 20-something crowd, with pools, a club, a bar, a bevy of events (booze cruise, cliff diving, car tours around the island, toga parties), air conditioned rooms, shops, and much more. Anyone over 28 would be advised to stay well away.
Paxos is in the Ionian group of Greek islands, a few miles south of Corfu. As there is no airport on Paxos, most people travel there by ferry from either Corfu or Igoumenitsa.
There are 3 main villages on Paxos. Gaios is the main “town” and is the liveliest, with lots of restaurants and a huge harbour where you can stroll along and drool over all the “rich people’s” floating gin palaces. It’s certainly worth at least one visit, but it gets very busy during the day with trippers from Corfu and Parga and many of the shops seem to just want to make a quick killing from these daytrippers.
Loggos is the tiniest of the 3 and, for me at least, it’s the friendliest and least spoilt. One of their major concession to commercialism was to string a row of fairy lights along the harbour front about 5 years ago, but each year we went back, more and more bulbs were in need of replacing, and last year (2003) they had taken it down altogether! It has about half a dozen tavernas, about the same number of bars and a handful of shops, including a wonderful bakery – so everything you need really.
Lakka is somewhere between Loggos and Gaios in terms of size and has plenty of restaurants, bars and shops – even an internet bar! Personally speaking, that means to me that it lacks both the charm and intimacy of Loggos and the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Gaios, but it’s very popular especially with first time visitors, so that’s just my own opinion for what it’s worth.
Hania is one of the nicest towns in Crete, with wonderful houses, parks and squares and a well designed town-plan.
The Public Market is an impressive building, in the town center, built at the beginning of the present century (1911) and houses grocery stores, butchers’ shops, a fish market and vegetable shops. The Public Gardens, next to the Market, are ideal for those in search of shade and tranquillity. Northeast of the gardens is the beautiful neighborhood of Chalepa where the residences of Prince George and Eleftherios Venizelos were.
The old city has preserved to a great extent the distinctive atmosphere and charm of the Venetian and Turkish periods. Entire Venetian, Turkish and Jewish quarters are saved, with well preserved buildings in the narrow picturesque streets. One of the most significant buildings is the large Venetian church of Aghios Frankiskos which today houses the Archaeological Museum of Hania.
The old city leads at the harbor, where many Venetian and Turkish buildings are preserved. At the entrance of the harbor, at its northerst point, is the renovated fort “Firkas”, built on 1629, that today houses the Maritime Museum of Hania as well as a summer theatre, where drama performances are presented. Opposite the Firkas fort, is the magnificent Venetian lighthouse, built on the 16 century and restored by the Egyptians. The harbor is protected by a Venetian breakwater, built of huge stones. At the center of the breakwater are the ruins of a fortress.
West of Hania, at a distance of 4.5 km, is the hill of Profitis Ilias, where the memorial and tomb of Eleftherios Venizelos and his son Sophokles are located. Hania can be the starting point for a tour to the western Crete, a part of the island with magnificent natural beauty. There are lots of places worth seeing , within driving distance (two to three hours) , the most famous being the Samaria Gorge. This is a National Park of Greece that starts at the village of Omalos, at an altitude of 1227 m. and ends after a walk of approximately 18 Km to the beach of Agia Roumeli. The Gorge is open from May to the beginning of October and is definitely a must for everyone.
Naxos is a truly unique Greek Island. It is one of the only Cyclades islands whos predominant industry is not tourism. You experience true Greek culture and amazing food-at amazing prices-everywhere you turn. The island is covered with ruins, history and secluded beaches. I enthusiastically recommend it. It can be reached by a ferry from Athens.
Lefkada is impressive even as it first greets the visitor, as he crosses the narrow strip of dry land and the 50-metre long floating bridge from the coast of Aitoloakarnania. The bridge turns around on itself allowing small boats to pass through the canal of Lefkada. Gyra is one of Lefkada’s most important natural beauties. This narrow strip of white sand, 7 kilometres long, which embraces the lagoon on the north of the island, makes the landscape quite special. Gyra begins from the point almost behind the Kastro, creating Ammoglossa (‘sand tongue’) and reaching as far as the other side, beyond the town. Inside the lagoon is the ‘ivari,’ where fish are bred in special, traditional wicker baskets and grow within natural conditions.
The Pilion (also written Pelion) is a peninsula in Central Greece, just east of the city of Volos, between the Pagasitic Gulf and the Aegean Sea.
Cosmopolitan island, famous the last decades from the international jet set visitors that spend here their holidays. Mykonos beaches are magnificent, the nightlife surprising and Delos a couple of miles away (this is probably the reason that brought tourism on the island in the first place).
Mykonos is popular with all kinds of people. The island has more non-nude beaches per square km than any other island else in Greece, it is popular with gays travelers, but it is also a popular honeymoon destination. Even greek tourists like to come to the island.
Even to the island has become pretty crowded with tourists, there are still many quiet spots if you bother to look for them.
Santorini is one of the cycladic islands, created by the eruption of the vulcano 1500 B.C.. Due to this, the island offers a versatile landscape with on the one hand steep darkish rock formations and on the other hand beaches and small white villages. Besides that, there are several interesting monuments and the inactive vulcano of course. Thira offers, besides remnants from several eras, ruins of the old Roman baths, theatres and markets.
Santorini can be reached by plane from Athens and during summer time also from other islands.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons.