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 few things actually matter, or last. Greece does – and has.
Home of Aristotle, Homer and Plato, the Greek philosophers at the basis of our Western values, Greece invented democracy, the type of government we still adopt 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 their mythology is considered the richest in the world. Later the base for the European Renaissance, Greek culture, aesthetics and ideas still influence us today.
Yet Greece now is a country with lots of problems. Life is not easy for the average citizen. ‘It’s hard to make a living here’, some say. ‘There’s a lot of corruption in the government’, add others. With high unemployment 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 stayed in Greece to weather the worst of the storm, and people think things are getting better. The Greeks’ sense of nationality also played 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 got 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 so many we saw on our way. We opted out of going on a cruise as well. We saw many dropping thousands of passengers on designated islands for only few hours, which wouldn’t give us enough time to explore. Although tour groups or cruises may work best for some, we were happy we didn’t take either, after seeing chaotic scenes of people fighting for a spot in restaurants and popular spots. As a matter of fact, in some islands there’s a growing movement to restrict the number of cruise ships allowed each day, as their impact – specially on the small ports – is becoming a serious issue.
Instead, Margot and I took ferries at our leisure, from island to island, and when 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 different regions, each with its own culture. But 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 know its different parts, each very distinct from the other:
Northern Greece has borders with Albania, Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey. The region’s capital is the seaside town of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, a good base 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 attractions 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 going south, a triangular peninsula where the capital, Athens, is the main hub. Attica is the center of what we call the classical world: some of the most important remains of ancient Greece are only few hours away: Delphi, Marathon, the temple of Poseidon at Sounion, 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 tourist crowds 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 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 – that is considered the prettiest in Greece. And let’s not forget Laconia, home to the historically harsh Spartans, or the beautiful – and 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 and Ionian seas, in the Mediterranean that together account for 20% of the Greek territory. Including these islands coasts, 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 anyone entertained for a long time. The islands are classified in groups, depending on their their location:
The Ionian Islands – Lush Corfu, in the Ionian Sea, is the main island of the group, said to be the loveliest Greek island.
The Sporades Islands – on the east side of Greece, in the northern Aegean Sea. Sacred sites Skiathos and Skopelos are its best known islands.
The Saronic Islands – near Athens; exclusive Hydra, one of the country’s prettiest harbors, is the best known of this group.
The Cyclades – where famous Mykonos and Santorini are located, the most visited of the Greek islands.
Crete – in the southernmost part of the Greek territory, 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 include Symi, Kos and Patmos
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 – under Turkish control – as Turkey isn’t part of the EU.
There is a lot to see and do and learn in Greece, in the mainland or in the islands. Greece is a definite proof that size doesn’t matter.