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Greece and Its Islands

Greece is often called the cradle of western civilization with a history and historic sites spanning several millennia.  The Greek Archipelago has about 6,000 islands and islets spread over the Aegean and Ionian seas, of which about 200 are inhabited.  Historic sites aside, Greece beckons with its towering mountain ranges and idyllic beaches, from its mainland to its beautiful islands some of which ranked among the most-visited islands in the world.  If you are visiting Greece for the first time and for an appreciation of the quintessence of Greece, the following places are not to be missed.

Capital of Greece – Athens
Athens, the capital of Greece and one of the world’s oldest cities, has a recorded and fascinating history spanning more than 3 millennia.  Athens was once the capital of Europe – the birthplace of civilization and a powerful empire.  Its heritage from the classical era is still evident in the city with numerous ancient monuments and works of art bearing testament to that rich heritage, the most famous of all being the Parthenon, sitting majestically on the Acropolis of Athens, an ancient citadel located on a flat-topped rocky outcrop rising some 150m above sea level.  Also known as the “Sacred Rock“, the Acropolis, together with the Parthenon that sits within it, is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Once a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, the Parthenon, constructed in the 5th century BC, is probably the most significant relic of Ancient Greece.  There are also Roman, Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire) and Ottoman monuments in and around the city.  Athens hosted the first modern-day Olympic Games in 1896 at the Panathenaic Stadium (the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble), and after 108 years, it welcomed home the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Apart from Acropolis and Parthenon, top attractions in Athens include: Olympian Zeus (6th century BC), Hadrian’s Arch (131 AD; the symbolic entrance to the city), ancient Theatre of Dionysos (5th century BC), ruins of Asklepieion (5th century BC), Stoa of Eumenes (2nd century BC; covered walkway/porch with columns), Odeon of Herodes Atticus (161 AD), ruins of Temple of Athene Nike (5th century BC), Erechtheion (5th century BC; ancient Greek temple dedicated to Athena and Poseidon), rocky hill of Areios Pagos (used to be the High Court of Ancient Athens and hence the most ancient law court in the world!), Stoa of Attalos (159 BC), Church of the Holy Apostles (10th century), Mount Lycabettus (Cretaceous limestone hill – highest viewpoint in the city), Philopappou Hill (beautiful cobbled streets and Roman monument of the same name – an ancient Greek mausoleum – on its top), Ancient Agora (commercial, political and religious centre of Ancient Athens since 6th century BC), Syntagma and Omonia (main central squares with Greek Parliament Building and Monument of the Unknown Soldier), Zappeion Mansion (mainly for official and private conferences and/or ceremonies), Kolonaki (most “aristocratic” area of the centre of Athens) and Plaka (an old charming historical neighbourhood filled with restaurants, cafes and jewellery shops and where most of the streets are closed to traffic).

 Historic Neighbourhoods In Athens
A walk around the famous historic old neighbourhoods – such as Plaka, Thission and Psyri – will enable you to see the co-existence of different eras.  Old mansions, well-preserved or showing the ravages of time, stand alongside luxurious department stores, small retail shops, fancy restaurants and traditional taverns.  Plaka (east of the Acropolis) is the core of the historic centre and it has been inhabited without interruption since time in antiquity.  As you stroll along the narrow maze-like streets lined with houses and mansions from the time of the Turkish occupation and the neoclassical period (19th century), you get the feeling of yourself travelling through time!  There are plenty of picturesque taverns, cafes, bars, and shops selling souvenirs and traditional Greek products.  Continuing from Plaka you will arrive at Monastiraki, a characteristic area of “old” Athens, with narrow streets and small buildings where the city’s traditional bazaar (Yousouroum) is sited.  Nearby is Psyri, a traditional neighbourhood which during the past few years has evolved into one of the most important “centres” of Athens’ nightlife, with scores of bars, taverns and clubs.  The nearby Ermou Street is the city’s best known shopping street with more than 2,000 shops of all kinds spread out over the few streets surrounding it.

Greek Cuisine
Like any modern city, Athens is not lacking in cafes, pubs and restaurants.  From strong coffee to strong spirits to delicious dishes, Athens has them all!  Fresh vegetables, feta cheese, yogurt, olive oil, olives, fish, seafood and lamb play a significant role in Greek cuisine.  You will no doubt detect the significant Middle Eastern and Italian influences on Greek cuisines.  The most popular and probably the best street food in Athens is the “souvlaki (shaved “grilled-on-skewer” meat served on a pita bread with garnishes and sauces).  Moussaka, a legendary dish of Greece, is served in almost all taverns in Greece.  It is about using tomato sauce to cook minced beef which is subsequently layered with sweet eggplants and creamy béchamel sauce (a typical French sauce).  Café Frappé, a foam-covered iced coffee drink made from instant coffee, is a beloved drink of the Greeks.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Delphi & Meteora
Delphi and Meteora are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the former an archaeological and the latter a cultural site.  After the Acropolis, ancient Delphi is the most popular archaeological site in Greece.  The Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi is widely regarded by locals as the most sacred site in all of Greece.  At Delphi, any guide accompanying you will no doubt be telling you stories about the Greek god Zeus and why Delphi was considered the “Centre of the World” in ancient Greece!

The gigantic rocks of Meteora are perched above the town of Kalambaka at approximately 400m in height.  The monasteries were built by monks who were previously hermits living in individual caves on the cliffs and who got together and painstakingly carried construction materials to the top of the cliffs with the aid of foldable ladders, ropes, baskets, nets, and, one might add, plenty of will-power.  When the Roman Empire began to fall and Christians were being pursued and persecuted, the monasteries served as safe havens for the monks.  Although Meteora was once home to some 20 amazing monasteries – built on cliff-tops or into the cliffs – only 6 have survived.  They are:  Grand Meteoron Monastery (the biggest and oldest), Varlaam Monastery (second biggest and opposite Grand Meteoron Monastery), Roussanou Monastery (16th century), Holy Trinity Monastery (the most difficult to reach but the view at the top is simply captivating), St Nikolaos Anapafsas Monastery (14th century) and St Stephen’s Monastery (the most accessible one by simply crossing a small bridge).  Given their elevations, these monasteries offer staggering views of the region!  The monasteries to visit are typically Grand Meteoron Monastery, Varlaam Monastery or St Stephen’s Monastery.

Pearl of the Aegean Sea – Santorini
Crescent-shaped Santorini, also known as Thira, is one of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea, about 200km southeast of mainland Greece.  An Aegean volcanic island arc – the eastern edge of a sunken caldera resulting from an explosive volcanic eruption – Santorini, with its unique terrain and the wide half-moon-shaped bay (the submerged caldera) facing a group of small islands to the west of the island, exudes a distinctive beauty that attracts not just tourists but also couples desiring a romantic escapade at one of the most romantic places on planet Earth!  Instead of flying to Santorini, there is nothing like taking a cruise from Port Piraeus in Athens to Santorini.

Santorini’s picturesque capital, Firá, is perched high up at about 260m on the edge of the caldera.  Together with other villages namely Oia, Imerovígli and Firostefáni, they form the so-called “Caldera’s eyebrow” – the “balcony” of Santorini offering amazing views of the caldera from every corner of the island.  Firá is a typical Cycladic village with charming whitewashed houses with blue windows and doors, separated from each other by narrow paved streets.  Many of its beautiful buildings were constructed back during the Venetian invasion and occupation, including some blue-domed churches and sun-bathed verandas that offer an incredible view of the caldera and the sunset.  Oia (pronounced “Eee-yah”) is the most popular of all the settlements in Santorini.  Probably the oldest settlement in Santorini, it is most certainly the island’s most beautiful and picturesque village.  Situated on top of an impressive cliff with a spectacular view over the caldera, it is a traditional – and photogenic! – village with charming whitewashed houses with splashes of rich okra, deep fuchsia, cobalt blue, oyster pink or earthy red along narrow streets or on the hillside and with cobblestone alleys, never-ending stairways, pristine windmills and the iconic blue-domed churches adding to the quaintness and charm of the place.  The iconic dazzling whitewashed cubic houses clinging to or perched on the cliffs is an awesome sight by day and a magical sight by night!  (If you feel overwhelmed by the number of photos below, it is because Santorini is simply overwhelming in its beauty!)

Apart from having quaint villages displaying beautiful traditional architecture, winding paved streets and breathtaking views of the caldera and the sea, Santorini is particularly famous for its romantic sunset – the spellbinding sunset especially when viewed from the village of Oia is in and of itself good reason to visit Santorini!  An evening drink at one of the many inviting verandas as you watch the sun dipping slowly, casting its last golden rays onto the sea and painting the sky with shades of orange and pink will undoubtedly be a magical moment leaving you with indelible memories of the moment and the place!  A truly spectacular sunset by any measure and not surprisingly the locals proudly declare it “the most famous sunset in Europe“.  So beautiful – and romantic! – are the settings and views at Santorini that it has been a destination of choice for couples looking for a romantic place to get married!  Beautiful sunsets – and also sunrises – aside, there is a lot else to do and see in Santorini.  Among others, check out the beautiful beaches and visit museums, archaeological sites, historic castles and temples.

A visit to Santorini is the ultimate gastronomic experience, as the island is a true culinary paradise!  Santorini boasts world-renowned wineries and delectable local products revolving round locally-caught fresh fish and seafood and local ingredients yielded by the rich volcanic soil on the island.  Treat yourself to some popular traditional products like cherry tomatoes, white eggplants, fava (yellow split-pea dip similar to hummus), local wild capers and “hloró tyrí” (a special kind of local fresh goat cheese) and the exceptional wines produced from grapes grown on the volcanic soil of the island!  Some of the more remarkable dishes to try include cod baked with paprika, cherry tomatoes salad with octopus and white eggplant and accompanied by fava dip and of course the delicious Greek souvlakis (shaved “grilled-on-skewer” meat served on a pita bread with garnishes and sauces) that is ever popular with locals and visitors alike.

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