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Kavala, in the north of our mystery country, was known as Neopolis 2,000 years ago, when the apostle Paul visited on one of his missionary journeys. It’s often included as a stop on Christian pilgrimage trips following the footsteps of Paul. The city’s position on the Roman Via Egnatia, and its large port on the Aegean Sea, made it an important commercial center in antiquity.

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Go East Young Man! The Via Egnatia to Byzantium

Via Egnatia route map, Wikipedia

Via Egnatia route map, Wikipedia

The Roman Via Enatia was built in the 2nd century BCE running west-east through Roman occupied lands from the Adriatic Sea to Byzantium (which became Constantinople a few centuries later, then Istanbul… https://youtu.be/Wcze7EGorOk). The road begins on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea at the Albanian town of Durres (ancient Dyrrachium) and heads eastward for about 700 miles through some very rugged terrain, including multiple mountain passes. The modern countries on the route are Albania, the Republic of Macedonia, Greece and European Turkey. All roads lead to Rome, as they say, but the Via Egnatia required a transfer to the Via Appia, which picked up on the other side of the Adriatic and continued to Rome.

the Via Egnatia at Philippi in Greece

the Via Egnatia at Philippi in Greece

The apostle Paul used the Via Egnatia to travel between Philippi and Thessalonica in northern Greece on his 2nd missionary journey. In the waning years of the Roman Empire, travel along the Via Egnatia, or any road in the Roman provinces for that matter, was dangerous and by the 5th century CE, the road was in serious disrepair. With the Byzantine Empire, centered in Constantinople, the road was restored and became an important trade route to western Europe. The Via Egnatia made up one leg of the crusader march from Europe to the Holy Land.

Like many highways through once-Roman territories, the modern Egnatia Odos runs parallel to its ancient namesake from Thessaloniki, Greece to the Turkish border.

 

 

Crete

Knossos fresco

Knossos fresco

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, 160 miles long and 37 miles across at the widest point, located 99 miles south of Athens at the very southern border of the Aegean Sea and of the European continent. One blog post will not do justice to Crete’s many, diverse attractions but we’ll take a stab at an informative overview.

Crete was the center of the highly sophisticated, pre-Greek Minoan civilization which thrived from approximately 3,000 BCE until it vanished about 1,500 years later. Its main city was Knossos but it had settlements all over Crete, around the Aegean, and even on mainland Turkey. At its height, Minoan influence rivaled that of ancient Egypt.

Most tourism development on Crete is on the north coast of the island; some areas are densely packed with mass market facilities. The main centers are Heraklion, Chania, Hersonnisos and Elounda.

Venetian Harbor, Heraklion

Venetian Harbor, Heraklion

Heraklion is the commercial and administrative center of Crete, the major city on the island and one of Greece’s largest cities, not so much a tourist destination as a hub for air and sea traffic. It is, however, a sophisticated city with excellent dining, shopping and nightlife and its proximity to Knossos and world-class archaeological museum are reason enough to spend at least a few hours in Heraklion.

Phaistos

Phaistos

Knossos is 3 miles from Heraklion. It’s the most thoroughly restored of Crete’s Minoan ruins but the accuracy of the restoration is questionable and has a bit of a theme park feel. For less flashy but still very grand Minoan ruins, see Phaistos, about 40 miles southwest of Heraklion, and Aigia Triada, a few miles from Phaistos. Artifacts from the Minoan sites can be viewed at the excellent Archaeological Museum in Heraklion.

Venetian Harbor, Chania

Venetian Harbor, Chania

Chania is an exceptionally picturesque little city, especially the well-preserved old city with Venetian and Ottoman buildings clustered around the harbor.

On the far northeast end of the island, about 50 miles from Heraklion, is Elounda, mostly known for luxury resorts.

White Mountains (Lefka Ori), Crete

White Mountains (Lefka Ori), Crete

Crete’s interior is mountainous and cut through with stunning gorges. A serious hiker can easily spend weeks trekking about. More casual hikers should check out sections of the coast-long E4 trail, especially in the White Mountains near Chania and the Psiloritis Mountains near Heraklion. The Samarian Gorge, near Chania, is a very popular day hike.

There is a great variety of beaches on Crete, from long and sandy to short and rocky. In general, those on the north coast are more crowded than those on the south coast. Knowing when you’ll be there and specifically what you desire in a beach experience will help us suggest where to go.

During season (April-October), there are multiple daily flights from Athens to Chania, Heraklion and, to a lesser degree, the new airport at Sitia. Flights from Rhodes and Santorini in high season are also a possibility.

Cruise ships dock at Heraklion. Ferries travel from Athens to Heraklion and Chania and from Santorini and Rhodes to Heraklion.

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This theater of Dionysus is tucked into the slopes of the world’s most famous acropolis. Although often overlooked in favor of the famous structures on top of the hill, such as the Parthenon and the Erechtheion, the theater is an impressive remnant of the  influential ancient civilization of this mystery country.

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4 Daytrips from Athens

Some of Greece’s top sites are close enough to Athens for an easy day trip.
Here are a few:

Delphi, Greece

Delphi, Greece

Delphi is a 2.5 – 3 hour drive northwest of Athens on the slopes of Mt.Parnassus, a really stunning spot. The ancient Greeks believed it to be the center of the world. According to legend, Apollo killed the Python that guarded the Omphalos, or navel of the earth, and thereafter, the site was dedicated to the god. The Delphic Oracle was a priestess known as the Pythia, who channeled the words of Apollo for seekers of wisdom from near and far. Delphi was also known for the Pythian Games, similar to the original Olympic Games.

The extensive remains are mostly from the 6th-century BCE and are scattered on several terraced levels right down the side of the mountain. The small museum holds artifacts found at the site. The modern town of Delphi is right there, with lots of hotels, restaurants and shops. Staying a night instead of doing the roundtrip to Athens in one day is a good option. There are motor coach tours either way.

Lion Gate, Mycenae, Greece

Lions Gate, Mycenae, Greece

Located about 60 miles southwest of Athens on the northeastern Peloponnese, in the region of Argolis, Mycenae was a major center of power in the eastern Mediterranean from about 1600-1100BCE. The Mycenaeans were culturally influential and the period is the source of a lot of Greek legend. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey sprang from this time. In the Iliad, Agamemnon, the legendary king of Mycenae, led the Greek forces in the Trojan War. War sparked when Helen (of Troy) ran off with Paris, prince of Troy. Helen was the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta and Agamemnon’s brother. It’s a good story, really. Whether any of the bones of the story are factual is debatable but there’s no question that it was inspired by some complex power struggles, think Game of Thrones.
(See my brief retelling of the Iliad here and here.)

Excavations at Mycenae represent different periods, ranging from 17th-century BCE shaft tombs to the 14th– century cyclopean walls (so called because the stones are so large the Cyclops must have built them) and the 13th-century Lions Gate. A fair bit of walking over very uneven ground is required to see the site. Good, sturdy shoes are a must, and a big bottle of water.

Theater of Epidaurus, Greece

Theater of Epidaurus, Greece

About an hour drive from Mycenae is Epidaurus, on the Saronic Gulf. In mythology, Epidaurus was the birthplace of Asclepius, son of Apollo and god of healing. The Asclepion sanctuary there was an active healing center from the 6th-century BCE to the 4th-century CE and then continued as a Christian healing center for another century. The area thrived on the popularity of the sanctuary and the spectacular theater is one indication of that prosperity. The theater seats 15,000 and the acoustics are so perfect that normal voices on the stage can be heard clearly from every seat. The theater is still used for performances today.

Napflion, Greece

Napflion, Greece

The capital of Argolis is the sweet seaside city of Nafplio, widely considered one of the prettiest towns in Greece, which is really saying something. If you’re on a day trip from Athens, at least stop here for lunch and walk around the narrow alleys of the Medieval Old Town. If you’re on a longer tour of the Peloponnese, this is a good place to overnight.

Aegina Island, Greece

The island of Aegina is just 16 miles from Athens in the Saronic Gulf. Ferries travel regularly from Piraeus and take about an hour and 15 minutes.

With ancient ruins, idyllic fishing villages and lots of beaches, the island makes a good day-trip from Athens.

Sites of interest include:

Temple of Aphaia

The 5th century BCE Doric Temple of Aphaia (Afea), a local goddess of fertility, is a beautiful monument in its own right, but it’s especially interesting because it is built on the site of a Mycenean Mother Goddess sanctuary, which dates to at least the 13th century BCE.

Kolona archaeological site

Kolona archaeological site

Near the Aegina harbor, the Kolona archaeological site is easily recognized by its  lone column, all that stands of a Temple of Apollo, which was destroyed by Christians in the 4th century. The site was continuously inhabited for two thousand years from about 3000BCE and sporadically thereafter. There are remains (mostly rubble) of a theater, a stadium, numerous temples, civic buildings, a synagogue, tombs and a port. If you’re an archaeology nerd, you’ll love exploring this place. If not, it may try your patience. The lovely views should satisfy anyone. The Archaeological Museum helps make sense of this very complex site and documents the history of other parts of the island as well.

Paleochora

Paleochora

Paleachora (which means Old Town) was the site of the island’s capital for a thousand years (9th-19th centuries CE). Remains consist mostly of Byzantine churches, 38 of them, to be precise. Scattered across a steep hillside, the churches are connected by footpaths and range in condition from newly restored to quite decayed. Nearby, the very beautiful, 20th century Agios Nektarios church honors a saint who died in 1920 and is a popular pilgrimage site.

Perdika village

Perdika village

Perdika is a sweet fishing village, with cafes and bars facing the small harbor and Moni Island beyond. It’s a popular place for fish lunch. Across from the harbor is the Camera Obscura, built in 2003 for the Light & Image Exhibition. A 360-degree image of the surrounding landscape is projected, upside down, on the inner walls of the cylindrical building though small holes in the walls.

The coast road is dotted with equally quaint villages.

And now a plug for Animal Protection Aegina Agistri, just because. It’s an animal welfare charity and founding member of the Panhellenic Animal Welfare Federation that shelters dogs and cats, vaccinates, neuters and finds homes for hundreds of animals annually. Check out their FB page!