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.
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.
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