Greece is one of those countries one must visit in their lifetime, thanks to its rich historic and cultural heritage, stunning landmarks and its natural beauty. Although there are many spots to check out in Greece, I will guide you through some of the most ancient and beautiful parts of this amazing country.
The blistering summer sun descended into the sea and with its departure a long and bloodshed day on the coastline of Eastern Greece came to an end. It is here that the Malian Gulf meets the Greek shore, which then stretches a mere 100 meters or so inland before it is greeted by mount Kallidromon forming what is known as the Thermopylae pass. In the year 480 B.C., the narrow pass was all that stood in the way of the invading Persian force from reaching Athens and conquering central Greece. And it is here that a small united Greek army of seven-thousand men under the command of King Leonidas of Sparta held off hundreds of thousands of Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae. The Greeks where resolute and withstood one Persian assault after another for over three days before a local tipped off the Persians about a secret passageway across the mountains from which they could out-flank the Greeks. In a final last stand and most probably in the hopes of covering for his retreating army, King Leonidas and a group of soldiers stayed behind to fight and perished in a heroic effort that has since been enshrined as a moment that stands to symbolize man’s courage against overwhelming odds.
Today, Thermopylae is just one of countless places that personify the rich mythology and history of Greece, and though there is very little left of the battle that transpired here, that is not the case in many other parts of Greece where one can still taste the essence of the past. Starting west from Athens into the Peloponnese and ending in central mainland Greece, the journey offers endlessly winding roads through mountain vistas, punctuated by the constant presence of a lifestyle that hearkens back to the days of Ancient Greece.
Heading west out of Athens on Highway E94 you enter the Peloponnese after crossing the Corinth Canal, a 6.4 kilometer man-made slot that connects the Ionian Sea with the Aegean. Not far from the canal lie the ruins of the ancient city of Corinth. The city’s history tells of the importance of its geographic location. As goods were traded with countries all over the Mediterranean, Corinth was in a unique position, and had two harbors which allowed it to become a major power in Ancient Greece. Today, the site is very well preserved and offers a glimpse into what must have been the overwhelming experience of visiting the city in its heyday. The most prominent structure is The Temple of Apollo, built around 540 B.C.
Going off the highway, and following the winding EO Isthmou Archaias Epidavrou roadway for 60km leads to Epidauros. Though a small city in Ancient Greece, the prosperity brought by the Asclepeion (“healing temple” dedicated to the God Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine) made the city famous and led to the many ornate monuments dotting Epidauros. One such monument is the world renowned Ancient Theater, constructed in the 4th century B.C. The theater is one of the marvels of Ancient Greece and is famous for it’s near perfect acoustic qualities.
During the 4th and 3th century B.C. Epidauros became the center of healing for a large part of the Greek world. Visitors wanting to be healed would first make a sacrifice to the gods and undergo ritual purification. Then they would spend the night in the abaton (“sacred dormitory”). It was expected that the God himself would appear in their dreams, and the next day the priests would interpret the dreams and suggest a treatment. The visitors would also spend extensive time doing physical exercises at the site’s sports facilities and relax on the grounds in their path to better health.
Heading south along E65 and then E961 to Sparta, you reach the ancient city after 2.5 hours drive. Sparta itself is an unremarkable modern city, though the ancient city’s acropolis remains a relic of the city’s illustrious past. Located on the edge of the imposing Taigetos Mountains and fed by the Eurotas River, it is obvious why the location was chosen. With plenty of water to grow crops and well protected by mountains, Ancient Sparta easily flourished. On the nearby mountain, perched on the steep slopes, stands Mystras, one of the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century A.D.
5) Byzantine Churches and Fortress of Mystras
Nestled on the slopes of the Taigetos Mountains, the Byzantine churches and fortress of Mystras offer a glimpse into the art and culture that was prevalent during the latter days of the Byzantine Empire. Serving as the empire’s Despotate of Morea (Modern day Peloponnese) during the 14th and 15th century, Mystras experienced great prosperity and its churches remain partially active to this day, lending the the site a beautifully archaic aura.
6) Gytheio and Limeni
From here, the road south into the Mani Peninsula snakes through the heart of the Mediterranean. The roadside fruit stands along the road create a strong alibi for tasting the region’s famous olives along with other local delicacies all the while resting in the shade of centuries old olive groves. Gytheio, a beautiful town which has been overrun with tourists offers the gateway to the two main attractions of the peninsula; Limeni and Vatheia.
Hidden away in a small cove on the Mediterranean sea, the village of Limeni is what some may term a piece of paradise. With turquoise water on one side and a steep hillside on the other, the village sits right on the edge of the sea. Photographically, Limeni faces westwards, which means that it gets incredible sunsets as the sun descends right into the horizon line over the sea.
Further south at the tip of the Mani Penninsula lies the abandoned town of Vatheia. Made famous for its stunning seascapes and rolling hills that flower during spring, the town has been partially abandoned, giving it a ghostly ambiance. Both Limeni and Vatheia can be seen during the course of one day, starting out in Vatheia and spending the afternoon and sunset in Limeni.
Our sights now shift to the northwest Peleponese, where Highway E55 takes us to the birthplace of the Olympics in the ancient city of Olympia. In its earliest incarnation, the games were part of a religious festival to honor the god-of-all-gods Zeus. Men competed in footraces every 4 years and the winners were heralded for their heroism. The site is immense and it can take a couple of visits to really explore it in its entirety. The accompanying museum is also phenomenal and an integral part of understanding Olympia, where you can find sculptures like the one below of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus from the 4th century B.C.
Leaving the Peloponnese over the Gulf of Corinth near Patra, we return back to mainland Greece where highway E65 flows along the gulf’s northern shores. After an hour or so, the road shifts course and heads north into the mountains where it reaches Delphi. Located high in the mountains overlooking the gulf of Corinth, Delphi was the home of the Oracle (“a priestess consulted on important decisions throughout the ancient classical world”) and was made both wealthy and famous because of this. Situated beautifully on the side of a mountain, Delphi is a large site with many different ruins from different periods of Ancient Greece. The crown jewel is the Delphic Tholos (pictures below) which is the most beautiful and mysterious building in Delphi. The Tholos is an architectural wonder built with incredible feats of mathematics involving the precise calculation of ratios based on the golden number.
The location of Delphi sits at crossroads from which you can either return to Athens by going south-east or you can venture into the heart of north-central Greece to to a place where churches levitate on the tops of giant spires of rock.
Meteora (literally translating to “middle of the sky”) is a UNESCO World Heritage site composed of six Greek Orthodox churches built on natural pillars of sandstone which rise from the plain below. The first monastery was constructed in the 14th century, while the rest were built during the following two centuries.
The monks chose to build the monasteries here because their secluded nature and hostile geography provided a natural defense from the outside world. From a photographic perspective you can go both very wide and try to emphasize the incredible geography or you can go with longer focal lengths and really isolate the churches. It is also a good place for back-lit sunsets and each church offers a unique feel during this time of the day.
From Meteora, it is a long 5 hour drive back to the capital city. With centuries of history and lore adorning it, Greece is a country that must be visited in one’s lifetime. With a Spanakopita in one hand and a camera in the other, hounded by the very same sun that tormented Leonidas and his men over 2,500 years ago, his sacrifice starts to make more sense. For there is something about this land that imbues your senses in a way that no other place can.