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Athens

Athens ranks with Rome and Jerusalem for its glorious past, yet few fall in love with the modern city. Most visitors never see beyond the nefos (smog) and the high-rise apartment blocks built hurriedly to house the refugees who poured in from Asia Minor during the 1923 population exchange with Turkey. But beyond the off-putting veneer of concrete there is a kind of dilapidated charm. Almost every house and apartment has a balcony bulging with geraniums, and many of the city's streets and squares are fringed with orange trees. Athens is a curious blend of east and west; its raucous street vendors and colourful markets are reminiscent of Turkish bazaars, while crumbling neoclassical mansions hark back to the city's brief heyday as the 'Paris of the Mediterranean'. The Acropolis, crowned by the Parthenon, stands sentinel over Athens and is visible from almost everywhere in the city. Pericles set about transforming the Acropolis into a city of temples after being informed by the Delphic oracle in 510 BC that it should become a province of the gods. The city was a showcase of colossal buildings, lavishly coloured and gilded, and of gargantuan statues, some of bronze, others of marble plated with gold and encrusted with precious stones. Now in ruins, the cool grandeur of the bare marble is still breathtaking. Beside the Parthenon, which is unsurpassed in its grace and harmony, is the Erechtheion, immediately recognisable for its much-photographed Caryatids, the six maidens who take the place of columns. The Ancient Theatre of Dionysos, where every Athenian citizen took their turn in the chorus of Greek tragedies, is on the southern slope of the Acropolis. Nestled into the northeastern slope of the Acropolis is the old village of Plaka, virtually all that existed of Athens before it was declared the capital of independent Greece. Its narrow labyrinthine streets retain much of their charm despite gross commercialism. Fenced off on the verge of Plaka is the ancient Agora (marketplace) which formed the centre of social and civic life in ancient Athens. Other attractions include the National Archaeological Museum, which houses magnificent gold artefacts from Mycenae and spectacular Minoan frescoes from Santorini (Thira), among other exquisite objects and antiquities; and the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic & Ancient Greek Art, with a collection of the elegant marble figurines that inspired the likes of Modigliani, Brancusi and Picasso. Plaka is the most popular area to stay, and some budget hotels may let you sleep on the roof in summer. Book in advance in July and August though, as Athens becomes overrun with tourists.

 
Crete

Greece's largest island has the dubious distinction of playing host to a quarter of all visitors to Greece. It's still possible to find some peace by visiting the undeveloped west coast, the rugged mountainous interior and the villages of the Lassithi plateau. Crete was the centre of the Minoan culture, Europe's first advanced civilisation, which flourished from 2800 to 1450 BC. The palace of Knossos, just outside Crete's largest city, Iraklio, is the most magnificent of Crete's Minoan sites. While Iraklio is a modern, wealthy but somewhat charmless city, the other large towns, Hania and Rethymno, are packed with beautiful Venetian buildings. Paleohora, on the southwest coast, was discovered by hippies in the 1960s and from then on its days as a quiet fishing village were numbered, but it remains a relaxing place favoured by backpackers. Many travellers spend a day trekking though the 18km-long Samaria Gorge to get to Agia Roumeli on the southwest coast. Further along the south coast, which is too precipitous to support large settlements, are the villages of Loutro and Hora Sfakion, linked by boat. The climate on the south coast is so mild that swimming is possible from April to November.

 
Cyclades

The Cycladic islands epitomise the postcard image of the Greek islands: dazzling white buildings are offset by bright-blue church domes, while golden beaches meet an aquamarine sea. Some of the Cyclades, such as Mykonos, Santorini, Paros and Ios, have vigorously embraced the tourist industry; others, such as Andros, Kea, Serifos and Sikinos, are visited infrequently by foreigners but are favourites with holiday-makers from Athens. Mykonos is the most expensive and heavily visited of all Greek islands. It has the most sophisticated nightlife and is the undisputed gay capital of Greece. Barren, low-lying Mykonos would never win a Greek-island beauty contest, but it does have superb (if crowded) beaches. The town is an enchanting warren of chic boutiques and chimerical houses with brightly painted balconies draped in bougainvillea and clematis; it's too perfect for some tastes. Santorini (also known as Thira) is regarded by many as the most spectacular of the Greek islands. Thousands of tourists come every year to gape at the sea-filled caldera, a vestige of what was probably the world's largest volcanic eruption, ever. Despite the crowds who visit in summer, Santorini's weirdness, apparent in its black-sand beaches and mighty cliffs, holds a distinct allure.If you want to escape the tourist hordes, Sikinos, Anafi and the tiny islands to the east of Naxos offer some respite.

 
Dodecanese Islands

Strung along the coast of western Turkey, the Dodecanese archipelago is much closer to Asia Minor than to mainland Greece. Because of their strategic and vulnerable position, these islands have been subjected to an even greater catalogue of invasions and occupations than the rest of Greece - Egyptians, the Knights of St John, Turks and Italians have all done their bit as conquerors. Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese islands and its town is the largest inhabited medieval settlement in Europe. The Avenue of the Knights is lined with magnificent medieval buildings, the most impressive of which is the Palace of the Grand Masters, restored, but never used, as a holiday home for Mussolini. The imposing Acropolis of Lindos shares its rocky outcrop with a Crusader castle above winding streets with whitewashed, elaborately decorated houses.Other popular islands in the Dodecanese include Kos, Symi and Patmos. The untouristy islands of Lipsi and Tilos have fantastic beaches without large crowds, and the far-flung Agathonisi, Kastellorizo and Kasos are great places to experience traditional island life. Kasos is a rocky little place just south of Karpathos, populated only by prickly-pear trees, sparse olive and fig trees, dry-stone walls, sheep and goats. If you tell Karpathians you're off to Kasos, they'll tell you to take your knitting.

 
Ionian Islands

The Ionian group consists of seven main islands: Corfu (also known as Kerkyra), Paxi, Kefallonia, Zakynthos, Ithaki, Lefkada and Kythira. Strung along the west coast of Greece, the Ionian islands are the only group not in the Aegean, and in many ways they are more reminiscent of their close neighbour, Italy. Apart from tiny Meganisi, none are 'undiscovered', although, as with all Greek islands, anyone who forays into their hinterlands will be rewarded with the delights of unspoilt villages. Corfu, with its beguiling landscape of vibrant wildflowers and slender cypress trees rising out of shimmering olive groves, is considered by many to be the most beautiful of the Greek islands.

 
Meteora

The World Heritage monasteries of Meteora, in the province of Thessaly, are one of the most extraordinary sights in mainland Greece. Built into and on top of huge pinnacles of smooth rock with cheese-like holes in it, the monasteries provided monks with peaceful havens from increasing bloodshed as the Byzantine Empire waned at the end of the 14th century. The earliest monasteries were reached by climbing articulated removable ladders. Later, windlasses were used so monks could be hauled up in nets, a method used until the 1920s. Apprehensive visitors enquiring how often the ropes were replaced were told 'When the Lord lets them break'. These days access to the monasteries is by steps hewn into the rocks and the windlasses are used only for hauling up provisions.

 
Northeastern Aegean Islands

There are seven major islands in the northeastern group: Samos, Chios, Ikaria, Lesvos, Limnos, Samothraki and Thasos. Huge distances separate them, so island hopping is not as easy as it is within the Cyclades and Dodecanese. Most of these islands are large and have very distinctive characters. Samos, the birthplace of philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, is lush and humid with mountains skirted by pine, sycamore and oak-forested hills. Egg-shaped Samothraki has dramatic natural attributes, culminating in the mighty peak of Mt Fengari (1611m) which looms over valleys of massive gnarled oak and plane trees, thick forests of olive trees and damp dark glades where waterfalls plunge into deep icy pools.

 
Peloponnese

The Peloponnese, Greece's southern peninsula, is rich in history and scenically diverse. Packed into its northeastern corner are the ancient sites of Epidaurus, Corinth and Mycenae, all easily reached from Nafplio. The ghostly, capacious Byzantine city of Mystras clambers up the slopes of Mt Taygetos, its winding paths and stairways leading to deserted palaces and fresco-adorned churches.Further south, you can explore the Mani, a region of bleak mountains and barren landscapes broken only by austere and imposing stone towers, mostly abandoned but still standing sentinel over the region. Other attractions in the region include ancient Olympia, the beautiful medieval town of Monemvasia and the thrilling Diakofto-Kalavryta rack-and-pinion railway, which rollercoasts its way through the deep Vouraïkos Gorge.

 
Saronic Gulf Islands

The five Saronic Gulf islands are the closest of all to Athens, and Salamis is virtually a suburb of the capital. Aegina, Hydra, Spetses and Poros are all surprisingly varied in architecture and terrain, but they all receive an inordinate number of tourists and are expensive. Hydra, once the rendezvous of artists, writers and beautiful people, is now overrun with holiday-makers but manages to retain an air of superiority and grandeur. Motor vehicles, including mopeds, are banned from the island: donkeys rule.

 
Sporades

There are four inhabited islands in this mountainous and pine-forested northern archipelago: Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonnisos and Skyros. They are all heavily touristed and expensive. People go to Skiathos for the exquisite beaches and the nightlife; if you're there for anything else, you'll probably leave quickly. Skopelos is less commercialised than Skiathos, but is following hot on its trail. There are some lovely sheltered beaches, but they are often pebbled rather than sandy. Alonnisos is still a serene island, partly because the rocky terrain makes building an airport runway impossible. The water around Alonnisos has been declared a marine park and consequently is the cleanest in the Aegean. Every house has a cesspit, so no waste goes into the sea. Skyros is less developed than the other three, designed to attract posers rather than package tourists.


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