Today’s driver from Delphi is efficient and on time. The car windows are all open and I’m directed firmly to the back seat, car sickness notwithstanding. ‘Covid rates are rising’. From here to Athens there are smaller mountains, the ridges topped with wind farms. The tall white mills suit the arid scrubby landscape better than other areas I’ve seen them where they are an intrusion. Though they’re not as pretty as the windmills of Mykonos.
Athens, the capital and largest city of Greece generates high expectations as a place to visit. It’s one of the world's oldest cities, with a recorded history spanning over 3,400 years. It is widely referred to as the cradle of western civilization and the birthplace of democracy. Ancient (classical) Athens was a powerful city-state, a centre for the arts, learning and philosophy. This heritage, coupled with an endless fascination for Greek mythology is a magnet for me (and the crowds).
Athens became the leading city of Ancient Greece in the first millennium BC. Legend has it that it was brought to prominence by Theseus of mythological fame (he fought the Minotaur), but he has sadly, never been proven to exist. By the fifth century BC Athens was the preeminent city state and this became known as the Golden Age of Athenian democracy. It was the time of playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the physician Hippocrates, the philosopher Socrates and Pericles, who promoted the arts and fostered democracy. And this was when Athens embarked on the ambitious building programme that saw the construction of the Acropolis and its temples. Eventually, Athens became too ambitious and was defeated, first by Sparta and then by Macedonia. Later, under Rome, Athens was given the status of a free city because of its widely admired schools.
According to Wikipedia, modern Athens is 'a cosmopolitan metropolis, central to economic, industrial, maritime, political and cultural life in Greece'. Though at first glance, from inside a car, it’s not hugely prepossessing: hills covered in beige three storey apartment blocks with balconies and plate glass shops underneath.
But once in the centre I glimpse the Acropolis , from the terrace of my hotel, and then I climb it and my opinion changes dramatically. From this marble covered flat topped hill (it’s very skiddy walking) Athens glitters. The whole of the city is spread out below. This is the awe inspiring stronghold which enabled Athens to become the centre of the Greek world. It helps of course that Athens is right in the centre of Greece and has direct access to the sea.
The buildings around the base of the Acropolis, looking from up top, are a fascinating melange of really old and fairly old. The red roofs of the lively Old Town Plaka district are juxtaposed against the ancient pillars of the numerous Roman and Greek sites and mega domed churches and mosques, Byzantine, Orthodox and Ottoman. After that excitement, my eyes wander outwards across the Attic basin – the spikey mound of Lycabettus, the smaller but still impressive Hill of the Muses, the whole bounded by four grandaddy mountains: Aigaleo, Parnitha, Pentelicus and Mount Hymettus. Beyond them, to the southwest, the port of Piraeus and the sparkling blue of the Saronic Gulf.
So, the monuments don’t steal the show from this angle at least. But they are totally glorious – even though they are all being renovated and almost, it seems, rebuilt. Pathways are blocked off, JCBs proliferate and views are obliterated. There are screeds on signs about the feat of getting the crane into place in the middle of the Parthenon.
There’s some debate about whether Athene gave her name to the city, or the city gave the name to the goddess. She apparently acquired the citizens’ patronage by offering them the olive tree. (Poseidon only offered horses) and most of the most famous temples up here are consequently dedicated to Athene. The Parthenon, the Nike, the Erechtheum (Erechtheus was the legendary founder of Athens ) are the three that are least damaged and most well-known.
The caryatid ladies who hold up part of the roof of the Erechtheum are world renowned. These are only copies- the originals are in the relatively new and much lauded) Acropolis Museum, almost next to my hotel. along with all the interesting sculptures and findings. (I’m not even going to mention the Elgin Marbles). At a glance, it’s hard to tell how much else now is reconstruction.
The most complete temple is the Thesion, down below, in the ‘Ancient Agora’ next to the Hill of Mars. There are an astonishing array of other monuments to see from up here. The ancient Roman Agora with its gate and astronomical tower is clearly visible to the east of this even more ancient Ancient Agora. To the south, the Greek Dionysus Theatre and Roman Herod’s Odeon, both still utilised for performances. Further in the distance, the Temple of Zeus still has some huge pillars standing.
An incredible view, and in addition, bliss, no queues for tickets. Despite this, the sales lady still can’t summon up the energy to tell me that my guidebook is wrong, and my Acropolis ticket won’t let me into all the other sites, although you can buy a ticket that will allow this. It’s much better value than the one she sold me. And I don’t find out till I wander downhill and am refused entry to the ancient Ancient Agora. The lady on the Roman Agora gate I had already visited didn’t seem to mind. The agora was the marketplace and centre of town. One of the notable buildings here is The Tower of the Winds or the Horologion of Andronikos Kyrrhestes, an octagonal Pentelic marble clocktower. It's the world's first weather station.
I discover an entirely different Athens on these lower slopes. Wide promenades, with street musicians to the south, beneath the theatres, slightly narrower walkways to the west, where you can wander free (hurrah)) and up the Hill of Muses (another skiddy track) to the Philopappos Monument (he was a prince) and what is said to have been Sophocles' prison in a dilapidated casemate.
To the north, both agoras abut the Monastiraki area, which, with Plaka, most rewards my wandering. Monastiraki is an exceptionally pleasant stroll along side lines of pavement cafes and the tatty, but atmospheric flea market. I can testify to good ice cream and friendly service here.
Plaka is even more touristy, wide alleys packed with souvenir shops. Olive oil, olive oil soap, olive wood, sponges, wine and other Greek mementos. It’s also home to, what seems like thousands of tavernas, the nicest, in my opinion, tucked away under the leafy shade in the narrow alleys, winding up the lower slopes below the Acropolis. Nestling in-between, still more remains of the ancient world, Hadrian’s Library.... And when I get tired of columns there are the churches and cathedrals. There are some excellent, but touristy, fish restaurants around the cathedral square.
Then, the Olympeon, the Temple of Zeus (it is truly enormous), It must have been gargantuan when it was complete - which wasn't until Roman times. Emperor Hadrian paid for it to be finished in in the 2nd century AD. As I've discovered, he also ordered the construction of a library, still more temples and an aqueduct. The remains of many of these slightly less ancient buildings still stand in greater or lesser states of ruin.
Adjacent is Hadrian’s Arch, built to ‘welcome the city’s benefactor’. The entire monument is made of marble, from Mount Pentelikon. The inscription on the side facing the Acropolis says (in Greek): This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus. On the other side, facing the Olympeon it reads: This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus.
Next up, moving north again, the landmarks of the modern era, Syntagma Square, the central square of Athens with a (on -off) fountain and the tomb of the unknown Soldier. Fronting onto, it the Hellenic Parliament and then the National Garden (still more monuments). In the other direction, the stone stadium built in ancient style for the first of the modern-day Olympic Games in 1896. They used the stadium for the archery, when the games returned for the 2004 Summer Olympics.
The route back to my hotel takes me past the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates and two monuments to Byron. Lysicrates paid for the monument (the first in Corinthian style), to commemorate a choral competition that he sponsored. In the more ornate of the Byron monuments Greece is depicted in the form of a woman crowning Byron for his support in the war of Independence.
Now I’m utterly exhausted. And that’s before I’ve even got onto the museums - the National Archaeological Museum, featuring the world's largest collection of ancient Greek antiquities, the Acropolis Museum, the Museum of Cycladic Art, the Benaki Museum and the Byzantine and Christian Museums.
The Herodian couldn’t be better located. It has a view across the back of the Acropolis, (there’s a crane in the middle of course) creating a stunning outlook from the sun terrace (two Jacuzzis) and the restaurant. It’s most atmospheric at night when it’s lit up. The restaurant takes advantage of this and charges rather more than the distinctly average cocktails and pretentious food warrants. It’s also extremely Covid conscious. My suitcase is sprayed with disinfectant before I’m allowed up to my room, which is sadly dark and slightly poky. No view from in here or any mention of an upgrade – though they’re certainly not full.
I’m going to be sorry to go home – I’ve even been considering extending my stay, but the English quarantine list keeps changing. The media suggests that they are going to put Greece on the list every Thursday and I keep having to check earlier flights home. BA have raised the price of their alter Friday flights to £700. This week five of the seven Greek islands were actually added to the safe list. Who knows what will happen? So reluctantly I’m heading back from the southernmost capital on the European mainland and the warmest major city in Europe.
To Samos from Milos by plane via Athens. Samos is not your typical Greek island. It’s covered in pine forest, which is really green, even at the end of the dry season. The vegetation is interspersed with amphitheatre like vineyards. Since ancient times, when Samos was an especially rich and powerful city-state, it has been particularly known for its vineyards and wine production – mainly a sweet Muscat. The roofs are red tiles and the houses are multihued.
According to Strabo, the name Samos is from the Phoenician meaning "rise by the shore". And it definitely does, soaring out of the sea and rising to two large peaks, Ampelos and Kerkis. Ampelos is the larger of the two and occupies the centre of the island, but Kerkis, is the tallest. The mountains are a continuation of the Mycale range on the Anatolian mainland, which beckons across the water. They’re so close I feel I can reach out and touch Turkey; there’s actually a mile of sea - the Mycale Strait - that separates the two countries here. It's not considered to be a significant distance by Vodafone either; they are trying to charge me Turkish rates.
Samos thankfully doesn’t go in for large hotels or all inclusive resorts and my diminutive boutique establishment, Armonias Bay Hotel, is one of the largest on the island. It’s nestled into the cliffside, surrounded by olive groves and orange orchards. It’s family run and the staff couldn’t be nicer or more helpful. The breakfasts on the terrace overlooking the bay – Greek yogurt with honey and nuts is noteworthy – are a highlight. And I’m spending most of my time on the swimming pool tucked round the corner from the terrace, being grateful for the unseasonably warm October weather. The ginger hotel cat is pretty well fed, but still isn't above begging when I’m eating. She’s looking over my shoulder at breakfast and follows me up to my room afterwards, clearly hoping for some kind of fun and games.
The hotel is just above Tsammadou Beach (appropriately almost Xanadu), which is touted as one of the prettiest on the north side of the island. The best view is the one from the window of my room looking down onto the perfect turquoise bay. The pebbles are smooth discs and the water absolutely crystal clear.
The first night I eat at the hotel. The food is gorgeous, shrimp tartare and bream cooked in parchment. A snowy tablecloth by the edge of the pool, looking out over the bay. But I’m the only diner and it’s a tad lonely. I also feel bad keeping the chef out just for me. Though maybe he’s glad of the work.
Google tells me that there are numerous restaurants along the road to Kokkari village in the east. So The next day I walk along the cliff tops, and down to Lemonaki Cove, a smaller version of Tsammadou. I’ve read that there a restaurant on the beach there. But it’s closed, beach beds all stacked up alongside and no sign of life. Covid or end of season? I’m not sure. The same goes for the bar at the far end of the beach. Up to the cliff to and along to Helen’s Tavern. Closed too. Though Google tells me it will open in half an hour. Is Google to be trusted? I wonder. There are tables out here, but still no sign of life.
I’m beginning to feel a little desperate. I expect the chef at my hotel’s gone home by now, so I scan my map and call the next taverna along the road. Google assures me the Marina Restaurant is open and it is, though its name is a little optimistic. I can just see the sea from my ‘garden table’ if I squint. Saganaki (fried cheese) and lamb chops. I had the same choices at Meteora and it was utterly delicious. This doesn’t quite match up. The slab of battered cheese is huge, but salty. And this is definitely a case of mutton dressed as lamb. The chops are huge ribs, almost as long as mine and the meat is so leathery I give up trying to chew it. But there’s gin.
On my third day I walk for half an hour into Kokkari itself. The village has plenty of tavernas, along the beach and lining the wharves and squares round the port. Maybe half of these are shut, but the rest are hopefully open, gay tablecloths and chalk menus – Authentic Greek Cooking they all promise. There’s little evidence of customers as yet.
Kokkari isn’t exactly pretty, maybe it would qualify as charming if it were more lively; but it definitely has character. There’s an imposing central church, some winding streets and plenty of bars - even some souvenir shops.
The beach is stone and the buildings here are a hotch potch of glass, wooden shutters, colours and sizes, an assortment of parasols and beach beds, everything from plastic to raffia. But there’s a great view and at Akrigialia waiter Nikos brings a fish feast to my wooden bench on the pebbles. Cats are again ubiquitous. They appear magically whenever I eat; a tabby delicately scrambles onto my lap at one point, fixing soulful eyes on me. And my fish. A huge posse of hangers on miaow in chorus, from under the chairs and Nikos mournfully bewails the effect of Covid on business in the town.
I’ve left my driving licence at home and the rental companies aren’t keen to rent to me on the basis of a photocopy. I’m not wild about driving anyway, after my exploits in Milos, so I’ve done a deal with taxi driver, Pantelis for the day. Most of our stops are views above more beautiful beaches or looking down to the Mediterranean across cypress laden slopes, from delightful mountain villages.
The hamlets, the largest, Manolates especially, are a warren of terraced narrow streets, plants encased in terracotta, a church, a tiny main square and a sprawl of tavernas. The tables are all laid out in the hope that some tourists will emerge before the end of the season.
Pantelis’ other job is renovating houses and I wile away some time indulging in fantasies about buying one of the village houses – apparently they are to be had for 20,000 euros. Though renovation will quadruple the outlay. There would definitely be worse places to live. Pantelis says that Samos wasn’t so lush a few years ago. There was a fire that resulted in two thirds of the island being scorched and blackened. There’s little sign of it now
The second town of Karlavasi, at the north west corner of the island on a small plain, used to be a huge leather production centre but all the stone factories are now in ruins. Beyond Karlavasi is Potami, yet another contender for most gorgeous beach on the island.
Across the mountains and another maze of narrow streets in Platamon to more beaches. One called Psilli Ammos has sand instead of pebbles (the name literally means fine sand) – a novelty on this island. There are a string of picturesque ports - Marathakampos Bay, Pefkos, Ireon. Potokaki beach is pebbly, but it's the largest on the island. It’s drier in the south, the mountain backdrop more barren and rugged.
The must see, in the centre of the south, is the ancient town of Pythagoreion, named after the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, who was born here. He’s not the town’s only claim to fame. It was also home to philosophers Melissus and Epicurus and the astronomer Aristarchus, the first known individual to propose that the Earth revolves around the sun (in the third century BC – well before Galileo). The nearby island airport is named after the latter.
Pythagoreion has two castles, on a point with vantages up and down the coast, a pretty church that shares the same outlook and a scattering of temple ruins. There’s also a port area lined with tavernas that is larger and aspires to be more sophisticated than Kokkari. Here, most of the restaurants and bars have chairs with stuffed cushions and plastic menus. The boats lining the quay are mostly bigger and offer excursions. There’s a colourful village running up the slope to a monastery. That has a cave with a church inside and the best view of the town.
A few miles away is another ruin in the form of the Heraion of Samos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the Eupalinian Aqueduct, a ‘marvel of ancient engineering’ that runs through the mountain. It’s closed on Tuesdays so I can only peep through the railings. Hera’s Temple was once huge, there’s plenty of the building left at ankle level, but there’s only one pillar standing. And I think that has probably been reconstructed.
Samos is the ninth most populated Greek island and a large majority of its 33,000 inhabitants live in its largest town, confusingly also called Samos. The old capital, which is part of Samos Town is known as Vathy. Samos Town is wedged around a bay in the northeast; its population is doubled in size by a tented refugee camp filling in the outskirts of the town.
Next stop Athens.
From Delphi to Milos via Athens. I’ve heard rumours that the ferry crossings can be rough and unpredictable. The coastguard decides if sailing conditions are safe enough and they make rulings every six hours, so services are often disrupted at short notice. I’m on a hydrofoil and I'm told that these are faster, but more vulnerable to wind and waves, so more likely to be cancelled. They're virtually all enclosed too, so its not quite the tranquil sun-drenched journey I had fondly imagined. I'm not sure I'm looking forward to it at all now.
Another grumble is the time of departure – seven in the morning. And I have to get up and drive to the port to arrive just under an hour before the ship actually departs. There’s another ship at eight and I have lobbied to change to that one, but have been ‘strongly advised’ not to. It’s a smaller vessel, more vulnerable to bad weather and cancellation in this time of Covid, when there are far fewer tourists I’m told.
There’s a hardly a lurch, however, as we make our way down the Saronic Gulf - Piraeus (the largest passenger port in Europe and the second largest in the world) still shadowy and lamp lit, the island of Aegina a short while later, a dark hump on the horizon. Later, Serifos and Sifnos, white dice houses spilling up hills, with a domed church atop in each port. Serifos is on the government quarantine list at the moment, but no-one here is sure why. And I’m not sure if a ten minute stop counts as a transit. I'm not going to ask.
Milos is another postcard perfect island. Adamas, the main port and largest town sits below Plaka, the capital, which is the go-to-place for sunset. Every building on the island is a whitewashed cuboid, mostly with cerulean blue shutters and doors. A few rebels have painted their window frames grey or a paler blue. I’m staying in Pollonia, which was a fishing village, and is now a new tourist town, the apartments lining the bay still all in the same boxy style. It’s the only settlement with direct access to a beach.
Pollonia is pretty though, with its tranquil harbour, fishing boats bobbing, turquoise roofed churches and line of seafood tavernas. Hot pink bougainvillea spills over the roofs and cats are prolific, wandering the streets, hiding under the café tables and squatting hopefully in the garbage areas. The beach is scenic from a distance, as it is planted with small silvery pine trees. However, the sand isn’t the prettiest colour - it’s a muddy beige - and I’ve watched all the felines prowling here at night. I have a suspicion it’s a giant litter tray. I think I’ll stick to the swimming pool.
I’m in the En Milo apartments, very nicely situated two minutes out of the main town, just behind the edge of the beach. I have great views of the bay and port from my little terrace and everything I need in my studio. There’s a kitchenette which I won't be using, as there are no grocery shops in town at all and I haven’t brought any supplies with me. I can’t decide if the absence of a mini market is due to lack of demand or a cynical ploy to ensure that the tavernas are well patronised. So it's crisps and coke for lunch and an early dinner on the quay every evening. The hosts are super friendly and helpful. They're a local family with two sons. The latter also run the local travel agency and half the yacht I’m sailing on for a round the island tour.
The hotel cat makes free use of the sunbeds, stretching luxuriously, then snoozing. She also assumes that the towels folded on my neighbours terrace have been put there to provide her with a comfy place to spend the night
There are ten of us on the boat, and the tour is conducted in English, though I’m the only native speaker. Everyone else’s first language is French or German. Antonis, the eldest son, our charismatic guide for the day, describes Milos very accurately as an open air geological museum. It’s one of Greece’s four volcanic islands and offers a variety of spectacular scenery. The volcano last erupted 90000 years ago, but it is considered to still be a dormant volcano and there are sulphurous thermal springs in the sea and caves around the island. The submerged caldera created a horseshoe shaped island – two sides joined by a narrow isthmus.
The volcanic rocks contain an abundance of minerals, which are doubly useful. They paint the cliffs and pillars in an amazing variety of shapes and colours. naturally legends have been woven around the pillars - especially the one that looks just like a bear.
And they have made the island wealthy. There have been mines here since ancient times. If Pliny is to be believed Milos was then the richest source of sulphur in the known world. In addition to sulphur manganese, bentonite and perlite are also lucratively extracted. Some of the mines are now in ruins, some still operational and nicely hidden from the main tourist routes.
Just in case mineral wealth wasn't enough Milos also has what is said to be the safest and best harbour in the Mediterranean. It was utilised by the British in World War I and Germany in World War II; there’s still a submarine net across the entrance. So Milos has made its name through seafaring exploits and especially, historically, the provision of pilots to aid navigation. These were consequently very wealthy men, who lived in opulent villas close to the entrance of the harbour. Here, they could observe the comings and goings on the water.
This entrance area has the most ancient remains and is where the Venus de Milo (now in the Louvre) was discovered, the most famous of the artefacts retrieved round here. Created sometime between 130 and 100 BC, the statue is believed to depict Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. However, there's some debate around this. Some scholars claim it is actually the sea-goddess Amphitrite, who is venerated on Milos. There is also an ancient Roman theatre on the hillside here, as well as a labyrinth of catacombs.
Wealth from mines and seafaring meant that the people of Milos were all in gainful employment and, as a result, the island came late to tourism; despite its attractions it’s possibly not as well known as other parts of Greece.
Most of my boat’s sightseeing, unsurprisingly. revolves around the scenic wonders of Milos. Kleftiko is the most renowned area, with its stacks and caves and ultra clear water. I’ve heard of the Greek dish, lamb kleftiko, but Antonis tells us that the word kleftiko actually means thief. The caves here are where the pirates or thieves stashed their haul – or treasure - if you like fairy stories. Barbarossa lived here for 25 years. The dish is called kleftiko, as you bake it with a lid on it, so that it can’t be smelled and give away your location.
There are numerous beautiful beaches (mostly inaccessible) with cinnamon streaked cliffs, striped stacks and hexagonal lava formations spouting vertically out of the water. There’s little habitation round most of the coast, though there is the fortified Iron John monastery, perched on one cliff top (too far way to photograph properly). It has huge wooden doors, but these were said to become as strong as iron (because of God’s intervention) when the pirates attacked, so they couldn’t be battered down. Undeterred, the pirates clambered on the roof. One lopped off the top of the dome and insinuated his hand through the hole, to fire his pistol inside. His hand was instantly chopped off (God again) and the gun is on display in the monastery.
It’s a good day, with plenty of food and drink on offer - though a long one. We sail back into Adamas at seven thirty, as the sun sets.
I’ve hired a car and the rental agreement has a tiny map at the bottom with a ring on i,t to show all the places I’m not allowed to drive the car, as the roads are too bad – they’re mostly dirt. From east to west, Milos measures about 14 miles, from north to south eight miles. The greater portion is rugged and hilly, so the ring covers most of the island - nearly all the west and some of the east.
They might have extended the no-go zone still further if they’d seen me edging cautiously, on the unfamiliar right side of the road down the steep slopes and narrow lanes that are the approaches to the beaches and tiny fishing ports. Plaka, on the hilltop, with its bustling shops and churches, is especially challenging. The cars are parked with gay abandon and the locals charge their vehicles straight through the remaining space. There's just enough to squeeze by.
More geological wonders. Sarakiniko Beach is snowy white stone with caves and a creek and an assortment of stacks and pinnacles. I’ve been warned to go early, to avoid the hordes and it is busy, despite the current ‘quiet times’. There’s a model posing amongst the most extraordinary rocks, screens, reflectors and cameras on tripods. I’m trying to work round her.
There are caves all along the coast – Papafragas Beach has still more, lashed by the waves. Firapotamos Bay (great name) has the bluest possible sea. Firiplaka Beach has more stacks and beautifully coffee and soot splodged cliffs. Tsigrado next door, is tiny, the sand has been eroded away and what there is, is reached (if you’re feeling adventurous), via a wooden ladder.
The fishing villages, especially Klima and Mandrakia, are almost impossibly cute. The houses here are called syrmatas – huts built into the rocks with boathouses below. It seems that colour is permitted alongside the harbours and the boat house doors are a rainbow of shades. The boats arranged perfectly in arcs out front. Tavernas on cliff tops with amazing views across the bays and little churches set on the points below. What more could you want?
Dropping down into Klima is far too thrilling. It’s a string of narrow hair pin bends down a steep hill edged with thorny vegetation. And more vehicles. I’m following another rental car and the occupants spill out into the parking bays at the bottom, sighing with relief, alongside me. Jay and Beth are from Calgary in Canada. We pile into the waterside bar and Jay lights up a huge cheroot to accompany his beer. It’s a good way to deal with stress – he was the passenger.
The al fresco taverna food isn't cheap, but it's good. in Pollonia. Jay and Beth are staying in Plaka, but pop over to Pollonia to eat with me on my last night. Antonis has recommended Enalion, another taverna on the waterfront – it’s a good choice. I drink luminescent pink cocktails made of Greek mastiche - it’s called N.O.S. (No ordinary spirit.) The mussels and squid are cooked exquisitely. We chat non stop. The cats look on plaintively from the beach behind.
Next stop Samos.
Student Zoe has appeared unexpectedly (again) to escort me from Meteora to Delphi. This time the driver with her really is Nikos, complete with a ‘new’ car. He is a total contrast to Quiet Kostas, boisterously lively and he spends the whole journey telling me that I have beautiful eyes and that he loves me. Zoe takes great delight in translating and giggling. I'm very tempted to put on my headphones.
It’s raining and,, except for the artificial Plastira Lake (there's a dam), the landscape is dull. This is the area in which a rare medicane (Mediterranean hurricane) hit last week and many of the cotton fields around Trikala are still muddy lakes. Streamers of escaped bolls are gathering along the sides of the tarmac. The driver says that this is an important crop, the financial mainstay of this area since ancient times.
We stop for a break at the narrow pass of Thermopylae, where Leonidas' tiny army met Xerxes of Persia, seeking revenge for the Battle of Marathon. Nikos wants to re-enact the battle in front of the statue of Leonidas, who wields an impressive Gorgon monster emblazoned shield. Both Zoe and Nikos are, worryingly, under the impression that the Greeks were victorious. Then Zoe tells me that it was Hercules that killed the Gorgon monster; they are clearly not the best informed of guides. There is an exhibition centre with a diorama (for a fee) and happily Nicolas turns his charms on the lady behind the counter in the café instead.
From here we climb the zig zag passes and pine scented ridges of the Pindus Mountains to Delphi. The forests and peaks are interspersed with less than elegant flat roofed buildings, spur roads and lorries. These serve the many local bauxite mines located in the limestone crags and have resulted in great scabs across the beautiful landscapes. Above are two ski sections, Kellaria and Fterolakka, which together make up the largest ski centre in Greece. Ski House, Ski Café the shop facias proclaim. The villages are still very traditional, with narrow streets and large squares full of men, drinking their post church service and pre Sunday lunch aperitifs.
Delphi is built into the south western side of towering Mount Parnassus, which sadly has not been immune to bauxite scarring. Otherwise, Delphi has as heavenly a setting as the name suggests. It's built up the steep pristine slopes, with views across gorges and a sea of rippling olive trees, down to the Gulf of Corinth. Parnassus was sacred to both Dionysus and Apollo. The name literally translates as the mountain of the house of the god. Some scholars argue that Parnassus was also the home of the Muses, who were led by Apollo, so Parnassus has become synonymous with music, poetry and learning.
Because of its importance, the Ancient Greeks considered the centre of the world to be in Delphi; it was marked by a stone monument known as the omphalos (navel). Delphi grew rich, as it was venerated by most of the important ancient Greek city-states, who built various treasuries and monuments here.
The most renowned building is the temple Sanctuary of Apollo, the site of the Oracle. An eternal flame burned in the inner hestia (hearth) and the rich and famous came to hear their fate from the ranting Pythia. The most familiar building, that features in all the pictures of Delphi (there isn’t so much of Apollo’s temple left) is the beautiful circular tholos from the temple of Athena. This is idyllically situated, much lower down the slope.
This UNESCO site is not to be missed, and I decide to risk the ominous dark clouds gathering and stroll up the road from Delphi village. It's built along a precipitous ridge, so the hotels can all boast panoramic views. To the Delphi Enclosure, where there is good news and bad as always. The good news is that it’s a European Heritage Day and so it’s free to enter. Like everywhere else at the moment the site is relatively quiet with a few small groups of tourists and only one small coach parked up.
The bad news is that the lady in the ticket booth is horrified when I ask for a site map. So, I just follow the path, which has a few low stone signs and meanders relentlessly uphill. It’s torture for my calf muscles, still suffering from yesterday’s literally meteoric ascent.
Past the ruins of assorted temples and shrines, pillars arranged artistically against settings of cypresses, the theatre (surely one of the best open air backdrops in the world) and right up top to the stadium. Apollo's sacred precinct in Delphi was a Panhellenic Sanctuary. Every four years, starting in 586 BC, athletes from all over the Greek world competed in the Pythian Games here. I expect the athletes were fitter than me and their muscles didn’t complain.
The rain has returned with a vengeance so I nip into the museum. There’s an impressive range of artefacts, the earliest tiny clay figures dating from the eighth century B.C. Some of the pediments and column topping figures, including the omphalos itself are exquisite. (No pictures allowed.) It’s a shame that they can’t be admired in the actual buildings to which they belong.
Then, ten minutes along the road to Athena’s sanctuary and the tholos. It definitely takes centre stage amongst all these ruins, uplifting in the tranquillity of the olives.
The Kastralia advertises itself as four star boutique though I’m struggling to see why. Outside, it's prettily traditional with wooden doors and wrought iron balconies. Indoors my room is more Premier Inn with laminate furnishing and plain white linen. It’s not exactly atmospheric. And I’m smarting, as the hotel, like everywhere else in the time of Covid is not exactly bustling. And they still haven’t given me a room with a view. I’ve got the main street and the attendant noise below.
To be fair, you do get the view from the terrace restaurant, where the food is good, the staff friendly and they give you blankets to fight the chilly wind.
Next stop Milos.
I’m supposed to have a driver, Nikos, pick me up at 10.30 a.m. in Thessaloniki, but at 9.30 a.m. I’m told that his car has broken down and he' going to be late. I finally set off at noon with a new driver, Kostas and his hastily pressganged ( I gather) assistant Zoe. She is a young music student at Thessaloniki, who lives in the village of Kalabaka at Meteora, where I am headed. Kostas and Nikos live there too. Apparently, everyone knows everyone else in Kalabaka. Zoe chatters away to me. Kostas leans more towards the taciturn, but that doesn’t stop him complaining at the bursts of conversation. ‘I don’t speak English…’ he sulks. This is not the way to earn a tip, I think.
We’re taking the scenic route as compensation for the delay. Alongside us is huge and lofty Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece at 2918 metres above the sea. It's home of the gods, but they are disappointingly not in evidence today, as it’s swathed in cloud. And a stop, to the south east at a medieval fortress. Platamon, is a Crusader castle in a strategic coastal position which controls the exit of the Tempe Valley, connecting Macedonia with Thessaly and southern Greece. It has one lone tower, sadly not accessible as part of the three euro ticket, and fabulous views across the wide bays and beaches below.
My next viewpoints are from Kalabaki itself. Meteora is spread before me, one of those stunning places that should be on any bucket list. It is already included on the UNESCO World Heritage List - more on that later. It is a series of rock formations (unromantically composed of sandstone conglomerate originally from the seabed) hosting precipitously built complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries, second in importance only to Mount Athos. The six (from an original 24) monasteries are perched on immense natural pillars and huge rounded boulders that dominate the skyline. The area is named Meteora for obvious reasons. And it’s astonishing.
Amazingly, radiocarbon dating evidences human presence 50,000 years ago, in caves in the area. The first people documented to inhabit Meteora, after the Neolithic Era, were an ascetic group of hermit monks in the ninth century AD. Seeking tranquillity, they moved up to the ancient pinnacles and lived in hollows and fissures in the rock towers, some as high as 550 metres above the plain. This great height, combined with the sheerness of the cliff walls, kept away all but the most determined visitors.
I can’t help but feel sorry for them; as is so often the case their solitude was intruded upon by official organisation of the monks into monasteries. Numbers grew still further when additional monks sought shelter from the Turkish invasion and subsequent religious oppression. They still managed to maintain their isolation by restricting access using a system of nets, baskets, ropes and ladders to access the pinnacles and transport goods. The ladders were drawn up when danger threatened. The ropes were replaced, so the story goes, only "When the Lord let them break”.
But eventually, even the monks' heroic determination failed to keep out the rest of the world. Steps were carved into the rock during the 1920s. And some monasteries were rendered uninhabitable because of Italian bombing during World War II, when they were again being used as a refuge. Treasures were damaged or purloined. Rescue came in the form of UNESCO recognition, which led to a huge influx of money for restoration and repair. It also led to a huge influx of tourists. Today, there is a road up to the main entrances of the largest. Ironically, most of the monks have left. Of the 24 monasteries, only six - four for men, two for women, (who were allowed in, during the 1960s) - are still functioning, with each housing fewer than ten individuals. The remainder are now uninhabited ruins.
I’m not visiting by road though, I’m virtuously hiking, taking the old monks’ trails. My guide is called Heracles. He has a shaven head, twinkly blue eyes and muscles that go well with his name. This bodes ominously for the severity of my ‘gentle hike’ into the mountains. He says not to worry, it’s not a very arduous walk and then bounds off in a straight line up the steep, gravel covered slope of the Doupiani Peak in front of us. I follow after, trying simultaneously not to topple over and to keep breathing.
Thankfully, the path gradient lessens when we reach the upper peaks. And it really is worth the clamber, for the incredible panoramas and the tranquillity of the woodlands. Heracles says that north Thessaly is known as the land of oaks. The leaves are much larger than English oaks – I think they might be Turkey oaks. But I’m not going to suggest that in Greece. We’re also assaulted by small nipping flies. Heracles says they’re a legacy of the recent heavy rains - a medicane (Mediterranean hurricane) zipped though here last week.
We rest atop one peak to admire the unravelling panorama alongside a cross, and a circular helicopter landing type area with a statue of a heroic monk Thymios Vlachavas, a Greek klepht or resistance fighter against the Turks. He’s wielding a gun and sword, as he was intent on organising some large scale resistance. But it didn’t get beyond the planning stage. He was betrayed, captured by Ali Pasha, executed and quartered.
Our destination is the Great Meteoron Monastery on the Broad Rock. It is the oldest and largest monastery, founded by Athanasios Koinovitis from Mount Athos in 1356. It also receives the most visitors, which is probably why only three monks currently reside there. The Katholikon (main church), dedicated to the Transfiguration of Jesus was erected in the middle of the fourteenth century and sublimely a hundred years (or so) later. (No pictures allowed).
Across the ravine - Great Meteron probably has the best views of all, from its balcony - is perhaps the most photographed monastery, Varlaam. It is reputed to house the finger of St. John and the shoulder blade of St. Andrew. Varlaam is appropriately and scenically positioned on a finger of rock. Heracles says that if it weren’t for Covid the buildings would be swarming and there would be ten coaches lined up in the car park opposite, alongside the souvenir stalls.
Kastraki village is huddled under the huge peaks. One looms over the church like King Kong waiting to pounce. There's a monastery directly above. This one is closed but, according to tradition, the local people donate clothes once year. These are festooned, colourful pennant strings, across the balustrades. There is a tiny taverna lined square in front of the church, atmospheric al fresco dining in the lee of the giant rocks. The succulent souvlakli at the Bakaliarakia are excellent.
The Doupiani House Hotel is nestled below the first hill I climb - the Doupiani Peak - and boasts that it has the best panoramic view in the village of Kastraki. That’s probably true. It would be hard to better the vista from my balcony. There are little tables and chairs scattered beguilingly under the olive trees. There’s welcoming fruit, local wine and some kind of gorgeously gelatinous sweet stuff in a dish – Grecian Delight? Breakfast is typical Greek fare - plenty of yogurt, honey, fruit, rice pudding and flaky apple cake served by beaming waitresses. The rooms are traditionally styled and provide all I need, though the pillows are a little unforgiving. Sadly though the walls are less traditional and I can hear the conversations and TVs streaming seamlessly from both sides of me.
Next stop Delphi.
Mount Athos is almost a casualty of coronavirus, despite the fact that it was the main reason I came to Thessaloniki. The coach journey I booked has been cancelled and no operators are now offering the trip. But the hotel staff have galloped to the rescue and found me a taxi who will drive me 140 kilometres to Ouranopoli (at a price), from where the boat departs. The journey to the little port is very pretty, especially in the verdant vicinity of Halkidiki itself, replete with misty grey olive groves. The taxi driver says I don’t have to put on my seat belt - he has a fake plastic clip he inserts into the clasp to prevent the warning beep. 'Only made in Greece', he exclaims proudly. Well he said it…
Mount Athos, on the third, most easterly finger of the Halkidiki Peninsula, is 'an autonomously governed region of the Hellenic Republic, the most important centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism in the country.' Commonly referred to as The Holy Mountain, it is home to twenty monasteries under the direct jurisdiction of the 'Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople'. The monastic traditions here date back a long time, to at least AD 800 and the Byzantine era. Today, over 2,000 monks from Greece and many other countries live the ascetic life in Athos, isolated from the rest of the world. The Athonite monasteries are also known for their rich collections of well-preserved artefacts, rare books, ancient documents, and artworks of immense historical value - Mount Athos has been listed as a World Heritage site since 1988.
The special jurisdiction of the Monastic State, gives its leaders the authority to regulate the free movement of people and goods in its territory; in particular, only males are permitted to enter; no women have been allowed in for over a thousand years. So the only way I’m going to get close is by boat.
I’m fully expecting the boat trip to be cancelled, but it isn’t and the ship is as full as current regulations allow. No Seating areas are marked to space out passengers. Naturally, these signs are mostly ignored. The monasteries are currently home to 2300 monks escaping 'normal life'. Most of the buildings have idyllic locations, amidst the craggy gorges and green scrub of the peninsula. either by the waterside or perched high above the sea, so the occupants can be closer to God. Some are reminiscent of the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan. Here the Buddhist stupas are replaced by red domes or spires – green in the case of the monastery that houses Russian monks. While Simonopetra Monastery, soaring above the water, is reminiscent of the Potala in Tibet,.
Their decision to permanently self isolate does not prevent the monks from making the most of economic opportunities. Four of them, in full black priestly garb, descend on our vessel from a speedboat complete with baskets of ‘relics’ and other bric a brac for sale.
Thessaloniki is the second-largest city in Greece and the capital of the region of Macedonia, with over one million inhabitants, It is also a gentle seaside city that rewards exploration. It is one of those places where there’s a surprise round every corner. Usually in the form of an ancient red brick church with tiled and domed roof or an excavated section of Roman palace. And statues of Alexander the Great, naturally. Filling the spaces between the ruins are modern squares, boutiques and eating places. Every other building seems to be a café, bar or restaurant, ranging from the pleasingly traditional with wooden tables spilling onto the pavement, to polished metallic counters with steaming coffee machines.
The eateries stretch along the seafront and promenade to the newly renovated port in one direction (gleaming restaurants and museums). In the other, the city’s most famous landmark, the (originally Venetian, but renovated by the Turks) White Tower, looking out to sea.
Just off Aristotle Square is a labyrinth of street stalls and tavernas, a lively market area where everyone is exceptionally friendly, even though I’m not buying. In fact, everyone seems very friendly everywhere.
The fish in one of the traditional Thessaloniki tavernas is sublime - perfectly steamed mussels and grilled sea bream on a bed of stewed potatoes and carrot. Most of the restaurants in Greece present something extra along with the bill. Sometimes its the milky mildly aniseed spirit ouzo, but more often a delicious sticky dessert, maybe creamy yoghurt laced with honey. So, it's literally a sweetener and though enticing, probably not very healthy. What does The Aeneid say? 'Beware of Greeks bearing gifts....'
Thessaloniki is also known historically, as the co-capital, because it was the co-reigning city of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, alongside Constantinople. The most famous church the Hagia Sofia, dates from this time (seventh century). It is a sister to the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul (Constantinople). It is right in the centre of town, with its own square. There are numerous other pretty domed Byzantine churches beckoning., The
Another landmark is the rotunda church, just uphill from the Roman arch of Galerius. The Emperor Galerius did a lot of building here. His palace ruins are just across the street. There are a plethora of Roma ruins, full stop. A forum, baths, a restored theatre/odeon. It seems incongruous to find so many Roman remains in Greece, though it makes perfect sense chronologically.
Up a long steep hill - I took a taxi - is the 'Old Town'. Here there is a great view out to sea and across the port and more elderly buildings mixed up with newer ones. The old buildings in the Old Town aren’t as old as the ones down the slope, however, as this area was the one mainly settled by the Ottomans. Tavernas, villas and apartments make the most of the panorama, although for some the views are limited by the walls of the fortress and tower that once enclosed the ancient city. It seems that the Turks used old Greek columns for the base of their walls. Some Ionic rams horns are clearly visible at the bottom.
The Modernist is going to get five stars from me. The ladies in reception are the friendliest and most helpful of any hotel I have ever been to. The rooms are lovely and the breakfast utterly divine. The breakfast bar is arranged behind perspex, with due attention to Covid preventing hygiene and looks just like the best deli you ever saw. Seeded bagels dangling on little hooks. Fresh orange juice…
The Cyclades is an archipelago of some 220 islands floating above Crete, in the Aegean Sea. The name means islands around (cycling) the tiny, but sacred island of Delos. These islands are stereotypical Greece, just what one imagines. Whitewashed houses, deep blue shutters and glorious sandy beaches. The largest island of the Cyclades is Naxos, the most populated is Syros and the most famous is Santorini. (Both Milos and Santorini are volcanic.) But several are well known on the tourist circuit and Mykonos attracts more than its fair share of visitors
Mykonos is composed mostly of granite and the terrain is very rocky, with many areas eroded by the strong winds, so its nickname is "The Island of the Winds". It was named after its first ruler, the son or grandson of the god Apollo and a local hero. The island is also said to have been the location of the Gigantomachy, the great battle between Zeus and Giants and where Hercules killed the invincible giants, having lured them from the protection of Mount Olympus. According to myth, the large rocks all over the island are the petrified corpses of the giants.
Mykonos Town (also known as Chora) is very stylish, Gucci and Tiffany in classic white wash. The harbour is picture postcard perfect. The finger of land that forms one edge of the harbour, lined with restaurants and bars, is known as Little Venice. For obvious reasons. You definitely need a credit card here.
The iconic sixteenth century windmills (on every promotional photo) stand guard over the town, posing for photographs. If you can manage one without any other tourists in it you’ve done very well.
The beaches of Mykonos are described as golden. but they aren't stunning. There's Paradise Beach and Super Paradise Beach, if you like thumping music, massive beach bars and celebrity DJs. Not my idea of paradise. Who needs beaches when you can lounge on a muslin swathed sunbed, shop till you drop or eat in eye-poppingly expensive restaurants? (Well - me?)
The hillsides are littered with Greek and Roman ruins. The whole island is an archeological site. But a boat trip is the best way to escape the hordes. Other islands of the Cyclades, Naxos, Syros, Delos are within easy reach by ferry or organised day trip and there are numerous islets. The south is more tranquil. Miniscule Dragonisi Island has even has a sea cave for snorkelling, along with the monk seals.
The internet says Mykonos is’ ‘the ultimate gay destination’. Maybe, it wasn’t the best place to go for my singles holiday.
Delos is only two miles from Mykonos and an easy boat ride by ferry from Mykonos Town. It was revered, in ancient times as the Sacred Island as this is the mythological birthplace of Apollo-Sun, god of daylight, and his twin sister Artemis-Moon, goddess of night light.. It drew thousands of pilgrims and worshippers. Its heyday was during the first millennium B.C, when it was a major cosmopolitan port, attracting the rich and famous to live there. it was even described as 'the greatest commercial centre of the whole world'.
Today, the island is designated on the UNESCO Heritage list. It is, literally, one archaeological site. No overnight visitors allowed. You can see the ruins of Doric temples, markets, an amphitheatre, houses with mosaics and the iconic Terrace of the Lions statues. The lions here are replicas. the originals are on display in the little museum.
Crete is Greece's largest island. That's why it is called krateos' or 'strong.' It is also the most southerly Greek island, known for its varied terrain, which ranges from fine-sand beaches to the White Mountains. Mount. Ida, the tallest of the range, is, allegedly, home to the birthplace of Zeus. It has an ancient history and is home to several Greek myths. But the description 'Island of Heroes' emanates from World War II, when the German occupiers were faced with incredible defiance, even in the face of execution.
Knossos is Europe's oldest city, the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete. It dates from 7,000BC. The Palace of Knossos, was the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture. It was famously unearthed by archeologist Arthur Evans. At its peak, the palace and surrounding city boasted a population of 100,000 people shortly after 1700 BC. It was abandoned at some unknown time at the end of the Late Bronze Age, 1380–1100 BC, but no-one is quite sure why.
Excitingly, Knossos is thought to be the setting for the myth of the Minotaur. Theseus, Prince of Athens,, went into a labyrinth to fight the monster. a half man, half bull, who was kept there by by King Minos, the ruler of Crete. (The labyrinth was built by Daedalus of Daedalus and Icarus fame.) Theseus emerged victorious, of course, with the help of Ariadne, the king's daughter. There is definitely a prevalence of bulls here.
We got a lift on the back of a farmer's motorised truck,
Chania is definitely a picturesque town, on the north west coast. It’s known for its 14th-century Venetian harbour, narrow medieval streets and waterfront restaurants. At the harbour entrance there's a 16th-century lighthouse s. The red painted Nautical Museum has model ships, naval objects and photographs of Chania. ( I didn't go in). And I don't recall that much. It was a singles holiday......
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