Greece has been a country I’ve wanted to visit since studying Greek art history in college. Having had to cancel a previous scheduled trip back in 2001, it was extra special when we finally made this recent visit a reality. We enjoyed stops in Athens, Mykonos, Santorini and Rhodes.
Athens, the capital of Greece is one of the world’s oldest cities. It is also one of the biggest economic centers of southeastern Europe and its port of Piraeus the largest in Europe and second largest in the world. Athens boast some marvelous museums including the National Archaeological Museum, the Acropolis Museum, the Museum of Cycladic Art and the Byzantine and Christian Museum. Athens hosted the first modern day Olympic Games in 1896 and later in 2004. Greek History and Mythology are some of the most studied in all civilization. From the Goddess of Wisdom Athena, to Poseidon, the God of the Seas, to Zeus, the king of the Greek Gods who lived on Mount Olympus.
Arriving by ship to Piraeus, driving past the coastline towards Athens there’s a great sense of traveling back in time to ancient Greece. Once you get to Athens, one of your first stops has to be the historic center, much of it a pedestrian zone. You can start at the Acropolis, a huge rock mound that dominates the cityscape. As you climb and reach the top of the Acropolis and look out across Athens, history stands still. From here you can see the city in all directions as far as the horizon. Ancient temples punctuate the landscape like the Temple of Hephaestus. On one side you can look down on two ancient open amphitheaters, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the Theatre of Dionysus. The largest marble structure on the Acropolis is the Parthenon which is being restored. This landmark temple ruins with iconic Doric columns dates from 447 BC. In the shadows of the Parthenon’s mighty 2,400-year-old columns, the sound you hear as you walk is the ancient gravel beneath your feet. Also on this large rock are the temple of Athene Nike, the Propylaea and the Erechtheion featuring the Porch of the Caryatids on its south side and the Propylaea, the principal entryway to the Acropolis. The Acropolis Museum with 4,000 priceless historic pieces is a modern structure, sits just south of the large mound.
The historic center is the Plaka neighborhood by the eastern side of the Acropolis. Walking its narrow streets lined with houses, mansions and monuments will have you feeling like you’ve traveled to ancient times. Another museum I did not want to miss was the National Archaeological Museum, a neoclassical museum of Ancient Greek Art & Archaeology, featuring sculpture, metalwork, vases & jewelry.
The Greek Archipelago takes up 4,660 miles of the country’s total 10,000 mile coastline, offering a highly diversified landscape… beaches stretching over many miles, sheltered bays and coves, sandy beaches with sand-dunes, pebble beaches, coastal caves with steep rocks and dark colored sand typical of volcanic soil and coastal wetlands. Your connection to ancient history hits home as you cruise the Aegean Sea, where each new port brings more discoveries and timeless lessons. Greek sovereign land is dotted by 6,000 islands and islets scattered in the Aegean and Ionian Seas, of which only 227 of the islands are inhabited. This is a truly unique phenomenon for the European continent.
Most of the islands are found in the Aegean Sea and are divided into seven groups. We toured perhaps the most well known and important of The Cyclades, a group of 56 islands. Probably the two most visited are the beautifully colorful Mykonos, closest to Athens, and the unique Santorini, about halfway to Rhodes. We also went to Rhodes, the largest island belonging to The Dodecanese group of over a dozen islands.
Mykonos is about 33 square miles, and its namesake largest town, has a small marina and is located not far from the main port. Mykonos offers unique colored walkways in an alleyways maze of restaurants, pubs, souvenir shops, designer boutiques, most with upstairs housing. Its white walled buildings are highlighted by colorful doorways, stair railings and window frames of bright red or blue. You also find small churches and the iconic windmills near the coastline. Many other small villages feature terrific beaches and many hotels and resorts. The island is composed mostly of granite and the terrain is very rocky with many areas eroded by the strong winds. Mykonos the town located by the water is mostly flat, the rest of the large island features a slopping mount of just over 1,100 feet at its highest point.
By contrast Santorini’s main towns are located high atop its mountain cliff. You can also, visit a local winery and sample some local wines. We stopped at Santo Wines Winery, they have marvelous views from their top of the mountain location.
Santorini’s main tourist areas are located atop a huge volcanic rock mountain and the white buildings slope down towards the sea below on the island’s western half moon side. Santorini is essentially what remains after an enormous volcanic eruption that destroyed the earliest settlements on a formerly single island, and created the current geological caldera. A giant central, rectangular lagoon, which measures about 7.5 by 4.3 miles, is surrounded by 980 feet high, steep cliffs on three sides. The island’s eastern side is more sparse, not a high and has small housing groupings sprinkled across the very dry landscape.
Two of the main villages in Santorini are Thira and Oia which sit atop the island cliff. Unique white walled churches, with bright blue or red colored domes, are sprinkled about. Interesting arched bell towers top other churches. The many storefronts and small hotels with their individual pools of blue water make up most of these lovely towns. Make sure you pick out a restaurant with fantastic cliff and sea views and grab a drink or a meal. Santorini does not have a large marina, so cruise ships must anchor nearby and passengers have to ferry to one of the smaller ports at the bottom of the island. A cable car now can take you up to the main streets of Thira, or down to the small port where the ferries can dock. There are also donkeys you can ride up, but it’s only for the most adventurous.
Historically, Rhodes was famous worldwide for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The larger island shaped like a spearhead it is the furthest from the Greek mainland and in fact very close to Turkey to its east. On the eastern tip, the Medieval Old Town of the City of Rhodes has been declared a World Heritage Site.
The old town features an impressive medieval walled fortification located by the seaport is one of it’s gates. Inside the walls, the town is full of boutiques, selling everything from souvenirs and clothing to high-end watches and jewelry. Many restaurants like on Hippocrates Square as well as houses of worship and ancient housing fill the pedestrian only streets. The large and impressive Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, also known as the Kastello is worth a visit. More impressive wall gates are located on the western end of the fort. The walled town is but a very small part of this much larger city that extends towards the west. The old town’s architecture is mostly a tan stone marble color just like the walled fortification, while some of the exterior housing more similar to the white washed architecture of Mykonos and Santorini.
Regardless of how many or how few Greek Islands you visit, you will be enthralled by their unique natural beauty. Everything is interesting and different, from the magnificent blue waters and beaches to the hills and mountains, or the unique architecture and the many historic sites.
We enjoyed our trip to Greece and the Greek Islands, but having only gotten a small taste of all there is to see and experience, another visit will hopefully have to happen in the near future. For now I was glad to finally experience a bit of one of the world’s most historic areas.
® All Photographs taken by Ray and Peg Raposo