I was introduced to Greece not long ago, but once we two met, it was love at first sight. One look at the 5th-century BC Acropolis in Athens – one of the remnants of the greatest civilization the West ever produced – is enough to remind us of how very few things actually matter, and how even fewer last. Greece does – and has.
Home of Aristotle, Homer and Plato, the Greek philosophers whose words formed the basis of our Western values, Greece invented democracy – the type of government still adopted in most places in the West. A cultivated society, when the rest of Europe was still inhabited by barbarians, the Greeks were the first to study Logic and Philosophy, and their mythology is considered the richest in the world. Later to become the base for the European Renaissance, Greek culture, aesthetics and ideas still influence us today.
Yet Greece is now a country with lots of problems; life is not easy for its average citizen. “It’s hard to make a living here,” some say. “There’s a lot of corruption in the government,” add others. With a high unemployment rate and a bleak economy, many Greeks have left their country for better opportunities abroad. But their strong sense of family – one member helps the other – has allowed most of those who have stayed in Greece to weather the worst of the storm, and people say things are slowly getting better. The Greeks’ sense of pride in their nationality also plays a part: ask those who left what they identify primarily with, and the answer will always be, “I’m Greek.” This warm-hearted, party-loving people are proud of their country, and rightly so.
I was very smitten by Greece, after 3 weeks there with a French friend who shares my ideas about traveling. We went by ourselves, not as part of a crowded group of anxious-looking tourists struggling to keep up with an overwhelmed guide like many we saw on our way. We opted out of going on a cruise as well; after seeing cruise ships dropping thousands of passengers on designated islands for only a few hours, we decided we needed more time to really see things well. Although tour groups or cruises may work best for some, we were happy with our choice, after witnessing chaotic scenes of cruise guests fighting for a spot in restaurants and popular spots. As a matter of fact, on some islands there’s a growing movement to restrict the number of ships allowed each day, as their impact – especially on the small ports – is becoming a serious issue.
Instead, Margot and I took ferries at our leisure, from island to island, and on the mainland we used regular buses like the Greeks do. We talked to people, asked questions, made friends. Most of all, we observed the way things are done (very slowly, and not always on time).
And we loved what we saw. I, for one, was touched by that ancient country in more ways than one. And not only because it has different angles – it’s not all ruins and islands – or for its amazingly fresh Mediterranean diet. I was impressed by the diversity offered by the country’s many regions, each with its own culture. Above all, I was impressed by the Greek people: their resilience and determination to enjoy life, no matter what comes, was something I will never forget.
The regions of Greece
To better understand Greece, it’s good to have some familiarity with the different parts of the country, each very distinct from the other:
Northern Greece shares borders with Albania, the Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey. The region’s capital is the seaside town of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second main city. It is a good base from which to explore Skyros island, part of the Sporadic island chain, as well as the empire of Alexander the Great in Macedonia. The sacred places of Mount Olympus (the reign of Zeus) and Mount Athos, a male-only sanctuary, are also worth a visit. So is Dion, a temple city at the base of Mount Olympus that is not widely visited.
Attica is the next region to the south, a triangular peninsula with Athens, the capital, as its main hub. Attica is the center of what we call the Classical World: some of the most important remains of ancient Greece are only a few hours away – Delphi, Marathon, the temple of Poseidon at Sounion and the monasteries of Meteora. Athens’ port, Piraeus, is Europe’s largest passenger port, with great numbers of boats taking people and cars to Greece’s many islands, all the time. Attica is the energetic, pulsating heart of Greece.
The next region down is the Peloponnese, separated from Attica by the Gulf of Corinth and the southernmost extreme of Greece’s mainland. A region not as affected by the crowds of tourists that descend upon other parts of Greece, the Peloponnese has rugged mountains in the south, and some very important ancient sites: Olympia (birthplace of the ancient Olympic games), Corinth, Mycenae (with the giant tombs of the heroes of Homer’s Iliad), the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, ancient Messene and attractive Nafplion. A town built by Byzantines, Venetians and Turks, later empire builders in Greece, Nafplion is considered the prettiest town in Greece. And let’s not forget Laconia, home to the historically harsh Spartans, or the beautiful – though not often visited by tourists – Mani Peninsula.
Perhaps the main characteristic of Greece – and an important part of its culture and traditions – are the 6,000 Greek islands scattered in the Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean seas that together account for 20% of the Greek territory. Including the coasts of these islands, Greece has a staggering 8,498 miles of coastline – a huge amount, if we consider the size of the country. Only 227 of them have a recorded human presence – or are inhabited – but that’s quite enough to keep any tourist entertained for a long time. The islands are classified in groups depending on their location:
The Ionian Islands – The lush Corfu, in the Ionian Sea, is the main island of the group and is said to be the loveliest Greek island.
The Sporades Islands – on the east side of Greece, in the northern Aegean Sea. The sacred sites of Skiathos and Skopelos are its best known islands.
The Saronic Islands – near Athens; the exclusive Hydra, one of the country’s prettiest harbors, is the best known of this group.
The Cyclades – where the famous Mykonos and Santorini are located, the Cyclades are the most visited of all Greek islands.
Crete – in the southernmost part of the Greek territory, it is the country’s biggest island and the richest in history.
The Dodecanese – Rhodes, with the oldest medieval town in the world, is the main island of the group. Almost touching the Turkish territory, the Dodecanese chain is very Greek and include Symi, Kos and Patmos islands.
Cyprus – not part of Greece politically, but culturally Greek. The Independent Republic of Cyprus is part of the European Union, though this doesn’t apply to the northern half of the island – which is under Turkish control – as Turkey isn’t part of the EU.
There is a lot to see, do and learn in Greece, on the mainland or on the islands. Greece is a definite proof that size doesn’t matter.