Greece might have made a lot of negative headlines due to its national bankruptcy. Nevertheless the lure of its historical and cultural importance to any globe trotter is totally irresistible
By Badruzzahan Ahmed
Picture this. An absolute blue backdrop. Blinding white specks of buildings. And completely dazzling Mediterranean sunlight that seems to blanket it all. And of course, do not forget for a second that what lies before your eyes is thousands of years old, and the realization that the history of the world that we know of today, was in many ways shaped deeply by actions initiated at these very places. That, dear readers, is Greece.
Strategically located at the cross roads of Asia, Europe and Africa, it is no wonder that Greece is tremendously rich in both history and culture. In fact, ancient Greece is considered the cradle of the Western Civilization. It is the birthplace of democracy, Western philosophy, significant scientific and mathematical principles, the Olympic Games and this list could go on forever. Surely we all have come across the names of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and have been enchanted by the tales of the Trojan War or about the heroic conquests of Alexander the Great. Many of us might have even read Greek Mythology as bedtime stories! All of these and much more, have originated in Greece. It is hence no wonder that Greece boasts 17 UNESCO Heritage Sites, the highest than any other country in Europe.
Greece is layered in deep history, from its very First Civilizations to Classical Greece; its Hellenistic and Roman eras, followed by the Ottoman rule till its independence in 1829. However, today Greece is a democratic country, peaceful yet struggling with the late 2000-s recession and the European sovereign debt crisis.
Greece is not for a traveler with limited time. All major travel guides and websites will suggest the main highlights such as the Parthenon and the Acropolis, public squares like the Monastiraki and Syntagma Square and museums like National Archaeological Museum and the Acropolis Museum, most of which lies within Athens. However, much of the deeper essence of real Greece lies outside of Athens or “Athina” (in Greek), named after the Goddess Athena, patron goddess of the city. Athens today is a bustling capital thriving mostly on its tourist industry.
A visit to Greece is not complete without having seen Delphi which is easily accessed from Athens for a day-trip. Delphi is considered as one of the most important sites of the God Apollo, and fabled as the “center of the Universe”. According to Greek mythology, the God Zeus determined the site of Delphi as the center of “Gaia” (or Grandmother Earth) when he sent two eagles flying from the western and eastern extremities, and Delphi was chosen to be where their paths crossed. Indulge on a day-trip along the Attic Coast till its southern-most point to Cape Sounion. Here stand the ruins of the magnificent Temple of Poseidon, perched on a point such that it conveys to visitors a feeling of what it might have felt for the Greek Gods to command the eternally blue Aegean Sea.
Connected to mainland Greece by the narrow Corinth Canal (interesting enough to make a stop!) is the region of Peloponnese. The “small-town” ambience of its cities will leave its visitors charmed and mesmerized. Peloponnese has star-rated archaeological sites such as Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympics (and a must-see!), the Palamidi Fortress, Mycenae and Epidaurus. Yet southern Greece is best experienced when one chooses to get lost among the countless alleys of towns such as Nafplio (a good base to explore the surrounding sites) and Argos, occasionally stumbling upon hidden cafes and restaurants serving authentic Greek cuisine and drinks. And of course, Peloponnese is also the home of Sparta, the legendary military powerhouse of Greece during the Greco-Persian Wars in 499 BC, and made even more famous by the 2006 Hollywood movie “300”.
The gem of Central Greece is none other than the stunning Meteora. Literally translating to “suspended in the air”, Meteora is a marvel of nature, made more well-known to the world after the 1981 James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only”. Meteora is a set of rocks (or rocks large enough that they appear to be like mountains!) weathered and shaped over thousands of years. Perched on these rocks are 24 monasteries which make it one of the largest complexes of Greek Orthodox monasteries, accessible in the ancient days only by foot. However, vehicles now can access to most of the monasteries. I can personally assure you that Meteora is nothing like anything you might have seen before or might ever see, and that neither words nor photographs do justice to it. The hike up can be made from the nearby villages of Kastaraki or Kalambaka. Even though your feet might be killing you at the end of the almost 10 km hike, walking is far more exciting as it takes you through a series of enchanting views while the rocks twist and turn around you.
A visit to Greece’s islands would be the cherry-on-the-top finale. The sparkling white houses against the brilliant blue skies and waters leaves the visitors with unforgettable memories. Santorini is by far the most popular destination, if not the most beautiful (you honestly cannot compare!). It is almost 8 hours by ferry from Piraeus, the main ferry port of Athens. For a traveler on a budget and time constraint, Aegina (1 hour by ferry from Piraeus) provides a good alternative for the island experience.
Greece is not only famous for its spectacular sites, but also well-known among travelers for the hospitality and warmth of its people. Greeks, irrespective of how history may portray them as fearless warriors, are generally relaxed and friendly as a nation. You will be offered smiles or help abundantly at every corner, and sometimes even a cup of coffee or a drink from someone whom you might have just met. English is well spoken in most popular tourist destinations, but be assured that they will be helpful even if there is a language barrier. I remember the one time I was lost, asked for directions to a kind man who did not speak English, and ended up being walked to the nearest Metro Station by him. And that is only the most minimum act of hospitality of the Greeks.
So the next time you are planning a trip that you hope will give you a complete experience of culture, history, supreme cuisine and welcoming people, let the stunning Greece be on the top of your list. It truly is a destination like no other that leaves you in a dilemma of having raised your travel expectations to standards that will forever be hard to overcome. Let the birth cradle of the Western Civilization embrace you for an unforgettable experience, painted eternally in blue and white.
Useful Travel Tips:
- The peak seasons for tourism in Greece are between April to October. As strange as it may sound, many shops, restaurants and even some hotels operate only during this period! Also transports such as ferries may be less frequent. However, traveling in the off season has its perks. Hotels can be bargained and all sites are comparatively empty and much more peaceful.
- When visiting the main archaeological sites in Athens, it is possible to buy a combined ticket, valid for 4 days, for six different sites together for 12 Euros which includes both the Acropolis, the Temple of Olympian Zeus and four other sites. Single ticket to the Acropolis costs 12 Euros. (as of March 2015)
- Students from any nationality (including Bangladesh!) can enter all sites for half the price upon presenting a valid Student ID.
- The cheapest food would be “Gyros” or “Souvlaki”, usually available for 1.5-2 Euros.
- Trying a Greek coffee is a must! And same applies for the Greek salad! Some authentic Greek restaurants will serve “roasted Feta Cheese”. This is an absolute must try!
- Even though the Greeks are very friendly and helpful, certain areas in Athens needs to be avoided after dark. One such area is the Omonia.
- Wearing sun-block is a must if Greece is traveled between May to September.