It’s a wonderful world out there, stacked full of places you spend your life hearing about and hoping one day to visit. We all have our wish lists, don’t we.
When the opportunity comes to hit something on that list, the excitement can be overwhelming. I’m not shy to confess that it always gives me the world’s biggest buzz to have that I’ve always wanted to…now I’m here! moment. Equally, there’s a buzz factor every time I’m with a group as they have their own moment of unrestrained excitement at ‘being here’. It’s great to witness.
How many places have given me ‘the moment’? Yes, quite a few—something I can feel lucky about. And there’s one that still does it to me every time. It’s one that must be in most people’s if only, one day I’d love to category and can be found, down there in the SE corner of Europe. Its shores lapped by the beautiful waters of the Aegean, Adriatic and Mediterranean seas. Yes, it’s Greece.
What is it that does it for me? I guess it’s a mix of many things. So much human history has emanated from this corner of Europe. If you sit and think, how much is in our language, civic tradition and learning having originated here—it can be mind-blowing at times. Try it for yourself or amongst your friends: at the risk of feeling like a Monty Python script, have your own ‘what have the greeks done for us?’ moment. Then, of course, there’s all the mythology stuff of classical times; the talk of gods and goddesses etc (an interesting bunch of characters if ever there was one!) Food for anyone with even the slightest of colourful imaginations, oh yes. And to this day, you can still touch these thousands of years of human history via the classical sites; the ruins of temples, stadia, cities. It’s incredible that these sites of human antiquity are still here, nestling amidst modern cities, on the islands, in the heart of a countryside still in everyday use by the Greece of today. Real buzz territory. (OK, and speaking as a northern European, you can’t beat the Mediterranean climate and outdoors lifestyle. The thought of aquamarine seas lapping shores and the soundtrack of cicadas from morning to night). All in all, an irresistible combination.
So here are my top 5 amazing bits of Greece:
1. Acropolis, Athens
Think of Greece and this is likely to be the immediate picture you have in your mind. Antiquity perched on a rock. On any visit to Athens it’s always my first ‘must’: to stand below the rock and get those views of the Acropolis with its iconic Parthenon. This is your wow moment that tells you you’re in Athens and in Greece.
[photo: Visit Greece]
It is the Acropolis that gave Athens its reason for being. To the Athenians, this was the most important of places; its summit crowned by one of the greatest temples of antiquity, the Temple to Athena: the Parthenon. In its heyday this building must have blown your mind with its multi-coloured decoration, its friezes, let alone its size and proportions; all built at Pericles’ bidding to house one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, a statue of Athena. Today it remains something breathtaking and when, as you must, you get to gaze on it at night, floodlit, it is as captivating as ever it must have been. In the 2,500 years it has presided over Athens it has seen so much.
From atop, you get to gaze upon the Athens of today. It is a strangely hypnotic sight—the dramatic geography of the ancient world speaks for itself; the thoughts of the chronicles and myths of those times able easily to bubble to the surface as you gaze from city to the waters of the Saronic Gulf a short distance away; whilst the Athens of modern times swathes the landscape in a seeming flowing blanket of concrete, a testament to its 20th century history, solar panels on the roofs glinting in the sunlight.
2. Theatre of Epidaurus
Spectacular in setting. One of the greatest natural theatres of antiquity. Nestled in the hills of the Argolis Peninsula on the Peloponnese, this oozes the brilliance of the ancient Greeks, a brilliance which for all their cleverness, the Romans who followed would never match. Etched into the landscape, its arc of marble-tiered seating captures a perfect sound acoustic as well as providing an audience with wonderful views across the countryside beyond.
Stand in the central spot of the stage area, speak your piece be it classical play, a bit of Byron poetry; a touch of song and the magic is such that from front row to the distant back row all can hear perfectly without amplification. They even say you can drop a coin and those in the cheap seats at the rear will hear it. Incredible to witness. Nerve-tingling to try out for yourself. All the more astounding when you gaze at the scale of the theatre knowing it could seat 14,000.
What arts must have been performed here in classical times. What magic its audiences will have experienced.
3. Ancient Delphi
What must be one of the most dramatically situated classical sites and one reached after a drive through the countryside of central Greece. From Athens, pass near to the ancient site of Marathon; cross a landscape mapped out in fields of green that may well have witnessed Alexander the Great, before rising into the foothills of Mt Parnassus and wind your way along the hillside-hugging road that leads you to what, to the ancient world, was the ‘navel of the world’.
The Temple of Apollo was amongst the most important of the classical world; its most renowned resident, the Oracle, made this for a 1000 years the pre-eminent religious site drawing everyone from rulers to the ordinary man. To consult the Oracle would be a moment of destiny for you.
Ancient Delphi: stadium (L) temple of Apollo (R) [photos: wikipedia]
Any visit will lead you into the life of the classical world, its ruins a testament to that world— religion, entertainment but also sport. For a site that clings to its hillside, cooly covered in cypress and olive trees, its piece de resistance rewards those who seek it out: the stadium. Follow the path upwards to the highest point and you reach the site of Delphi’s ancient Games, second in importance only to those of Olympia. You will be rewarded with the sense of a special place as well as views across the ravine in which this ‘centre of the world’ is situated.
A visit to the site’s museum will reveal artefacts that connect you with the ancient world and are, even 2,500 years later, incredible in their artistic creation—the Charioteer has to be one of the most captivating pieces of sculpture to experience.
4. Ancient Olympia
Nestled amongst the cypress trees and olive groves in the heart of the Peloponnese countryside, this, of any of the ancient sites, is one that links us most directly with the classical era. It might not have the dramatic positioning of others but in its tranquil setting and its purpose, it has the magic.
Think Olympic Games. Think the kindling of the Olympic flame every four years. It all started here at ancient Olympia. And every modern Games looks back to this place in a link with this past (think most recently of those brilliant London 2012 Olympics, of course).
The temples and gymnasia may be in ruins but to stroll amongst the site, witness the scale of felled columns, allow a guide to paint the picture of the importance of this most sacred of sites to Zeus, is to touch the ancient world.
To set foot into the original Olympic Stadium brings the spirit of the Olympics into your own world. It may now be void of its marble terraces but remains dramatic for its grassy slopes and still provides the chance to embark on the original Olympic event, the sprint (a ‘stade’)—the length of this stadium and said to be the distance Herakles ran in one breath during one of his mythological ‘labours’. You and me both may be unable to do as per Herakles but to embrace the spirit of Olympia is, naturally, to embrace a challenge ‘stade’, with a victor’s prize of an olive branch awarded should you be victorious.
5. Still in Athens, the Plaka
Classical sites and National Archaeological Museum aside, this is the part of Athens in which any visitor will likely spend most of their time. Curving around the base of the Acropolis, these cobbled pedestrianised streets are lined with shops selling everything from t shirts & souvenirs to rugs, natural sponges, olive oil and jewellery. It’s also home to many a taverna with menus to satisfy any peckish visitor.
Why on my top 5? Where else can you sit at a taverna table, relaxing over souvlaki, greek salad, tonic water ice & lemon, with a wonderful buzzy atmosphere around you and at the end of the street, the Acropolis. Of course, it is most magical after dark when the main square is lit by lights hanging from the trees, and the Acropolis sits before you floodlit in spectacular fashion. Enjoy your food whilst the world strolls past your table. Sit back in the warm evening air, soak up the atmosphere and the view!
And if that’s not enough, what must be one of the funkiest nights out: an open-air cinema on the rooftops—watch the latest blockbuster whilst also enjoying views of the Acropolis. Surreal or what.
enjoying the atmosphere of the Plaka, day and night [photo credit: (R) best tourism]
Any visit to Greece will bring a real mix of experiences—you can embrace the wonders of the classical era, see artefacts before your eyes that link you with historical characters you’ve heard of but probably doubted existed; travel a countryside with some amazing vistas that take your breath away and in doing so witness the daily rhythm of a modern nation seemingly with a foot in two eras of human history. As the glorious sun of the day you’ve enjoyed settles gently towards a star-lit warm night sky, where else can you find a cafe to reflect on your day’s discoveries within sight of an illuminated classical ruin. It can only be Greece. And it’s a wonderful feeling!
Of course, there’s no avoiding the current economic pain of the nation as a result of its financial crisis. It is a pain that cannot be hidden and will be hurting the Greeks deeply. But they remain a proud nation with a pride in their heritage and always, wonderfully welcoming.
If it’s on your ‘wish list’, enjoy your moment when it comes.