Travel consultant focused on cultural travel in the Middle East & Mediterranean
Europe has always seen classical Greece as a great source of inspiration – our ideas of art, philosophy, literature and civil society have their roots there, and the vast and beautiful remains of the old culture bring these ideas to life for the traveller. It’s impossible to stand on the Acropolis hill and not be moved by our closeness to these ancients and the deep familiarity of their civilization.
Any travels in Greece should begin in Athens, and the focal point of the city, both literally and metaphorically, has always been the Acropolis. The Parthenon, the Erechtion and the subsidiary buildings dominate the landscape as they do the Western imagination, and remind us where our notion of beauty was born. The new Acropolis Museum, at the foot of the hill, is a brilliant showcase for the artistic treasures uncovered there.
The ancient riches of the city, mostly accessible on foot, include the Roman Agora or market place with its finely reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, the Hephaistion (the best preserved Greek temple in the world), the Tower of the Winds (a tiny Roman monument), Hadrian’s Arch, the nearby Temple of Olympian Zeus, and a great many other ancient sites. Around the base of the Acropolis hill is a cluster of lively old quarters, including Monastiraki and Plaka – the spirit and energy of Greece is expressed here in dozens of restaurants and cafes, where the locals’ hospitality and enjoyment of life is on public view.
Greek museums have long been a model for the rest of the world, and the modern versions are uncluttered, beautifully lit, well labelled and full of treasures. Apart from the Acropolis Museum, the National Archaeological Museum is a must-see. Of the smaller museums, my favourites are the Benaki Museum, a collection of antiquities, folk art and religious art that was begun by a public-spirited millionaire and is now in the care of the state; and the Museum of Cycladic Art, a privately funded collection of remarkable Bronze Age artifacts.
Leaving Athens, our first stop in the Peloponnese is usually Epidauros with its remarkable theatre, built in the 4th century BC, buried some time in antiquity and uncovered more or less untouched in the late 19th century. This most famous of ancient theatres is used for an annual drama festival.
Next stop is Mycenae, a rocky hill-top ruin that was the capital of a kingdom that ruled most of the Mediterranean from 1500BC to 1100BC. Across the mountains of the central Peloponnese we find ancient Olympia. This was always a religious sanctuary honouring Zeus and Hera, and the Games were an integral part of the ritual. The site itself is extensive and beautifully planted with shade trees, and like many ancient Greek places, it still impresses and inspires. One curious phenomenon – many visitors, especially young boys, break into a run as soon as they reach the stadium (but this is optional).
The Greek genius for architecture expressed itself most strongly in the dramatic positioning of buildings and complexes, and this is very evident at the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. The sanctuary nestles high up between two mountains and looks over a bay in the Gulf of Corinth. This was the holiest place in Greece, the ‘navel of the universe’, with a stone marking the centre of the world. The visitor winds up the hill past treasuries, temples and altars, and finishes at a stadium at the very top, where the whole sanctuary seems to tumble down to the sea. Needless to say, the site has an excellent museum.
The islands of Greece are an enchanting world of their own – my personal favourite is Samos near Turkey. It’s among the greenest of the islands, and was an important power when Athens was young. It had one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (the temple of Hera), and was home to Aesop and Pythagoras. Anthony and Cleopatra took a long holiday on Samos, and the main attractions of the island now are its peaceful ambience and charming inhabitants.
Beyond the spectacular ancient sites, the country has a huge variety to offer the traveller – hundreds of islands ranging from the ‘party islands’ of Mykonos and Santorini to sun-drenched specks of land in the middle of a blue sea, the Byzantine hill-top monasteries of Meteora, the elegant Italianate towns of Nafplio and Corfu, the mountain villages and towns of Epirus, memories of the Ottoman empire in Thessaloniki, the great civilizations of Crete and Rhodes, and a great deal more.
So many places, so little time.