If You Like
The sight greets you time and again in Greece—a line of solid, sun-bleached masonry silhouetted against a clear blue sky. If you're lucky, a cypress waves gently to one side. What makes the scene all the more fulfilling is the realization that a kindred spirit looked up and saw the same temple or theater some 2,000 or more years ago. Temples, theaters, statues, a stray Doric column or two, the fragment of a Corinthian capital: these traces of the ancients are thick on the ground in Greece, from the more than 3,000-year-old Minoan Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete to such relatively "new" monuments as the Parthenon. You can prepare yourself by reading up on mythology, history, and Greek architecture, but get used to the fact that coming upon these magnificent remnants of ancient civilizations is likely to send a chill up your spine every time you see them.
Temple of Poseidon, Sounion, Attica. Set over the sea and showstopper of the Apollo Coast, the extant columns of this great temple are one of the icons of ancient Greece, hallowed by King Aegeus and visited by Lord Byron. Delphi, west of Attica. Set in a spectacular vale, this was the ancient site of the most venerated and consulted Greek oracle. The site is breathtaking, and the remnant artworks, such as the fabled Charioteer, even more so. Mycenae, Northern Peloponnese. Haunted by the legendary spirits of Agamennon and Clytemnestra, this royal town of the 13th century BC conjures up the days of Homer, thanks to such staggering relics as the Lion Gate.
A legacy of the great Byzantine era, and often aligned with great historic churches of the Greek Orthodox church, the monasteries of Greece seems as spiritual and as peaceful as when the land was strode by St. John. A religious mystique hangs over many of these island retreats, infusing them with a sense of calm that you will appreciate even more when escaping from party-central towns like Mykonos or crowded beaches. The natural beauty and calm of these places, many visitors find, heal your body and soul, revitalizing you for the rest of your trip.
Monastery of St. John the Theologian, Patmos. On the hill overlooking Hora is this retreat built to commemorate St. John in the 11th century—not far way is the cave where he wrote the text of Revelation, near the Monastery of the Apocalypse. The Meteora, Thessaly. Set atop soaring rock pinnacles, six heaven-kissing monasteries make up one of Greece's most spectacular sights—everyone from Lord Byron to James Bond has visited. Osios Loukas, near Delphi, west of Attica. The mosaics here follow to perfection the Byzantine model—set against a gold background they were created by great artists from Thessaloniki and Constantinople. Profitis Ilias, Sifnos, the Cyclades. This Byzantine extravaganza sits atop the island's highest mountain. After touring the interior with a monk, take in the panoramic views which stop all conversation. Evangelistria, Skiathos, the Sporades. On Skiathos's highest point, not far from the town of Lalaria, is this late-18th-century jewel, looming above a gorge and set with a magnificent church with three domes.
Some countries have serene pastures and unobtrusive lakes, environments beautiful in a subtle way. Not Greece. Its landscapes seem put on Earth to astound outright, and often the intertwined history and spiritual culture are equally powerful. This vibrant modern nation is a land of majestic mountains whose slopes housed the ancient gods long before they nestled Byzantine monasteries or ski resorts. The country's sapphire-rimmed islands served as a cradle of great civilizations before they became playgrounds for sailors and beach lovers. If there are no temples to the ancient gods on many of the mountains on the Greek islands, the looming summits that seem to reach into the heavens, impressive from any perspective, inspired the Greeks to worship natural forces. Many islands have ancient goat and donkey trails that are sublime hikes; prime walking months are April and May, when temperatures are reasonable, wildflowers seem to cover every surface, and birds are on their migratory wing.
Samaria Gorge, Hania, Crete. From Omalos a zigzag path descends steeply 2,500 feet into the tremendous Samaria gorge that splits the cliffs here for 13 km (8 mi) down to Ayia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea. Catch views of the Cretan kri-kri goat near the famous "Iron Gates" stone passageway. The flooded caldera, Santorini, the Cyclades. What may be the most beautiful settlements in the Cyclades straddle the wondrous crescent of cliffs, striated in black and pink, rising 1,100 feet over the haunting, wine-color Aegean Sea.
The Most Beautiful Towns and Villages
Historic, simple, famous, nondescript, or perfectly preserved: almost any Greek village seems to possess that certain balance of charm and mystique that takes your breath away. The sight of miragelike, white clusters of houses appearing alongside blue waters or tumbling down hillsides is one of the top allures of any trip here. Villages are awash in cubical, whitewashed houses—often built atop another along mazelike streets (designed to confound invaders). Add in architectural landmarks—a Byzantine cathedral, a Venetian 16th-century kastro (or fortress), and monasteries that seems sculpted of zabaglione custard—and these villages and towns often look like paintings that belong in anyone's National Gallery.
Rethymnon, Crete. A Venetian fortessa rests on a hill above this city, where cobblestone alleyways squirm their way through Turkish and Italianate houses. Bypass the newer parts of town to stroll through the Venetian harbor, packed solid with atmospheric cafés and shops. Ia, Santorini, the Cyclades. Here is where you will find the cubical white houses you've dreamed of, and a sunset that is unsurpassed. Pirgi, Chios, Northeast Aegean. Whitewashed buildings stenciled with exuberant traditional patterns create a unique effect here, one of the defensive villages on Chios island founded by the Genoese in the 14th century. Hydra, the Saronic Gulf Islands. The chicoscenti steal away to this harbor beauty, set with 19th-century merchant's mansions, festive waterside cafés, and some Hollywood pixie dust (Sophia Loren filmed Boy on a Dolphin here).
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