While most towns of any size in the ancient Greek world had an acropolis, the acropolis of Athens has come to define the word. In general, an acropolis is the high place of a city and a center for important religious and civic activities.
Most of what stands on the Athens acropolis today was built under the great Athenian leader Pericles in the last half of the 5th century BCE, a Golden Age of ancient Greece. Earlier buildings succumbed to the hands of time, natural disaster, and invading hoards. The Parthenon stands on an artificial hill made up of acropolis debris left over after the Persians sacked Athens in 480 BCE.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some of Greece’s top sites are close enough to Athens for an easy day trip.
Here are a few:
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.
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.
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.
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.
In central Greece, near the town of Kalambaka, is Meteora. The name means something like “suspended in air” and describes a collection of Greek Orthodox monasteries perched 1,000 feet above Plain of Thessaly at the top of titanic natural pillars.
The pillars were first inhabited by Christian hermits in the 11th century, seeking solitude and security. They scaled the towers and lived in caves and cracks in the stone. In the 13th century, groups of monks came to the area and began to build. Over the next several hundred years over 20 monasteries were built.
Today, the six surviving monasteries are open to visitors. Inside you’ll find a few monks and nuns and important collections of frescos, manuscripts and icons. It’s over 5 hours from Athens, so you’ll want to overnight in Kalambaka, the small town at the foot of the rock towers. You can get a 2-day motor coach tour to Meteora from Athens or a 3-day tour to Meteora and Delphi, or a 4-day tour that combines Meteora with Mycenae, Epidaurus, Olympia and Delphi.
Visit www.yallatours.com/greece to see tours that include Meteora.