flight greece

The Country’s island, greek argosy, from the rising star of Santorini to the mythical Crete, make for gorgeous getaways.

santorini featuredThere’s only one country in Europe where islands are a really important part of the national geography, and even more, a crucial part of the national psyche, and that’s Greece. In fact, the country’s territorial waters, which contain all of its 6,000 –plus islands, cover a bigger  area than the Greek mainland, and the islands are pivotal to its culture. Just ask Homer.
A nation of seafarers since the time of Odysseus some three millennia ago, Greece is enamoured of its islands and so are a wealth of other Europeans who use them as a summer sandbox and playground. People from around the world love to make their own odysseys to these strings of exquisite isles set in azure seas. The epic tale of Odysseus’s voyages ripples underneath the constant jockeying of inter-island ferries, a web of shipping that plies the various seas which surround the Greek mainland, connecting the majority of Greece’s 227 inhabited islands.

Blessed with almost endless sunshine in summer, brilliantly whitewashed architecture and warm – hearted hospitality, the islands have an array of attributes. There are ones that have been forgotten by time, and ones that offer cosmopolitan luxuries for every contemporary taste. There are islands soaked in history, and ones where it seems nothing has ever happened. There are quiet islands where you can be lost in the most tranquil reveries, and those that resound with the clamour of crowds and thud of breakbeats.

Whichever ones you choose to visit, there will be a regular boat service to get you there. The main starting point is the teeming port of Piraeus, which is the waterfront of the capital city, Athens. It’s likely the ferry will not be direct; there will be stops along the ways as the boat meanders around the archipelago.

Castle of Kavala

Castle of Kavala

Situated all around the mainland, nearby or far to the east and south, the Greek islands are divided into several groups or archipelagos. Nearest to Piraeus are the Argo-Saronic Islands, of which Hydra (Idhra in Greek) is the peach. Anybody who is short of time can at least zip across by hydrofoil to its beautiful harbor of waterfront cafes and shops, overlooked by a natural amphitheatre cloaked in gracious mansions. Long loved by artists and now a chic escape from Athens, motor vehicles are banned on Hydra, and donkeys are the only transport, so calm reigns supreme.

More distant from Piraeus, strung out to the southeast across the Aegean Sea, is the wonderfully eclectic Cyclades Islands, boasting several of Greece’s most favoured destinations. Hugely popular is Mykonos, famed for the picturesque windmills crowning its arid hilltops in stark contrast to its cosmopolitan ambience. Centred on a huddle of whitewashed buildings around the harbor of Chora, the after – dark options of bars and nightclubs are intoxicating indeed.

Equally scenic but more relaxed is Paros. In Parikia, the main town, houses are constructed in the archetypal Cycladic style with flat roofs, whitewashed walls and blue doors, shaded by luxuriant vines and surrounded by gardens of oranges and pomegranates. On a seaside rock are the remains of a Venetian castle, built of the famous Parian marble taken from an ancient temple. Ios is another party island, beloved of beer – bingeing backpackers. But if you drop your anchor at Kythnos or Serifos expect only to hike the rocky, rustic trails, following the farmers’ donkey paths.

Ioulida at Kea

Ioulida at Kea

And then is Santorini (aka Thira), the star of the Greek islands – and the site of the biggest explosion that ever occurred in Europe’s recorded history. Totally unique, an eerie yet stunningly beautiful landscape created by a massive volcanic eruption in about 1600 BC, Santorini is a crescent of sheer – cliffed land overlooking a flooded caldera. On these cliff – tops perch some of the most exquisite boutique hotels in the world, offering views to die for. Or views that the ancient inhabitants did die for…

Santorini has become the most popular of all the islands, and the country’s most naturally sublime destination. But a cruise to the east will take you to load more options with their own special character, such as the Dodecanese Islands, whose nature is much influenced by their lying just off the coast of Turkey.

Others swear by the attractions of the sizeable island that is Rhodes (Rhodos), be they sight seers who thrill to the remarkably preserved medieval town of Rhodos, a legacy of the crusading Knights of St John who were based here from 1309 to 1522, or swimmers who revel in the many sandy beaches, or barflies who buzz around the pulsing nightlife of resorts such as Faliraki.

The second largest island after Rhodes, Kos also has a crusader castle, grandiose Italian public buildings, and minarets and palms sprouting amongst Hellenistic and Roman ruins, whilst volcanic Nissyros tends to the primeval with natural steam baths popping upninits remote villages.

To the north are the East Aegean Islands, where Lesbos (Lesvos), Greece’s third largest island, will also give you a good thermal bath in its hot springs. Lesbos is celebrated as the home of Sappho, the ancient Greek renowned for her love poetry, just as her notoriety gave rise to the modern word “lesbian”. The island was also the home of Aesop, he of the fables, but for modern Greeks the greatest recommendation is its distillation of the very best ouzo, the Greek national liquor laced with anissed. Poured on ice and topped up with water, a long cool ouzo is the ideal sundowner on any island terrace with a view.

Naxos during spring

Naxos during spring

It’s no accident that Homer is reputed to have come from Chios (Hios). The poet who wrote those seafaring epics which are the foundation of European literature, The Iliad and The Odyssey, back in the fifth century BC, was succeeded in the 20th century by modern masters of the waves. Several major shipping dynasties became established on this strategically positioned island, which is in the midst of the Aegean, halfway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Today, the Chians own roughly half of the Greek merchant marine world, which, astonishingly, means about 12 percent of the world’s merchant shipping. Even Odyseus would be impressed.

And then, way own south, hallway to Africa from the port of Piraeus, there is the biggest island of all, Crete (Kriti), which is almost a country in itself. A 260 – kilometer – long rectangle of land, Crete is the cradle of European civilization, home to the Minoan civilization that peaked 3,500 years ago, with a dazzling reconstruction of a royal palace to be seen at Knossos. Northern Crete’s coast hosts atmospheric old ports like Rethymnon and Hania with haunting vestiges of Venetian and Turkish rule, whilst its southern coast is rugged and wild, boasting the Samarian Gorge, Europe’s longest canyon, carving its way down from the centre of the island all the way to the coast – making one hell of a hike.

The Monastery of St. John the Theologian

The Monastery of St. John the Theologian

Lastly, a world away from Cretan aridity, strung along Greece’s west coast, lay the Ionian Islands. Green from heavy winter rains, sentinels at the mouth of the Adriatic Sea, the Ionians were long held by the Venetians, and the largest and most famous island is Corfu (Kerkyra). Its capital city of the same name is an elegant mixture of the Italian influence plus that of the later French and British periods. Lined with fine beaches, long loved by northern Europeans, Corfu started to be ringed with concrete resorts back in the 1960s, but its rustic interior still consists of olive groves, woodlands and mountains.

To the south, garlanded in legend, lies Ithaca (Ithaki), the home island of Odysseus, to which he finally returned after 10 years of action – packed odysseys throughout the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. In his poem called Ithaca (1911), the illustrious Greek poet Cavafy wrote:
When you set out on the voyage to Ithaca
Pray that your journey may be long
Full of adventures, full of knowledge.
And that goes for any of the Greek islands. They’re watersheds of wisdom with groundswells of good times.

Categories: Featured, Touring

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