Go to Greece

Listen! Can you hear them? The whispers of ancient philosophers? Of gods and goddesses? Wherever you travel in Greece, the antiquities seem to speak to you.

Stand atop the Acropolis in Athens, with a cool breeze blowing in from the Mediterranean, and you can almost hear the voices of old, drifting up from the Agora, where Plato and Socrates walked some 400 years before the birth of Christ. Visit the sun-worshiping city of Rhodes, largest of the Dodecanese islands, and follow in the footsteps of St. Paul. Travel through the Ionian Islands to Corfu, where Odysseus made his last stop on the long journey home to Ithaka.

And while you marvel at the ruins of a once-great civilization, remember another reason you’ve come to Greece: to enjoy the friendly hospitality of the Greek people, as warm as the sunshine that blesses their lands. We recently visited three destinations in Greece: Heraklion, Santorini, and Athens, all of them exciting in distinctive ways.

Heraklion, on the island of Crete, was once home to the Minoans, a society named for the legendery King Minos. Their power stretched over much of the Mediterranean until, in about 1400 BC, the civilization mysteriously disappeared. (Some historians suspect a massive earthquake, others a huge volcanic eruption.)

Luckily for us, a wealth of magnificent artifacts is on display at the Archeological Museum, retrieved from the 19th-century excavations of nearby Knossos, where the rulers built their capital (housing 100,000 people), and the impressive, 1,200-room Royal Palace. According to legend, a labyrinth beneath the palace was home to the Minotaur­a half-man, half-bull who had to devour 14 youths each year to survive. “There’s little known about the Minoan religion,” we were told by a guide, “but we do know that the civilization came to an abrupt end between 1400 and 1500 BC.”

That was about the same time Santorini, southernmost of the massive Cyclades archipelago, was destroyed by a huge volcanic eruption. Romantics are convinced Santorini was once part of the lost city of Atlantis. Scholarly studies have disproved the connection, but many locals embrace the myth. It’s easy to believe, flying in to Thera, one of the two main villages topping this shining crescent of land like white icing. Below, in the conical harbour, lie two small islands of hardened lava. A steamy core on the larger one reminds us there’s still a restless volcano far below the ocean’s surface, perhaps the same one that blasted away most of the island some 35 centuries ago. Today, tenacious, unique villages perch high on the steep cliffs, and some islanders have built homes into the solid rock.

Thera’s popularity as a tourist resort is understandable when you see the narrow, steep streets lined with colourful boutiques, excellent restaurants, and enticing watering holes like Franco’s Bar. Its cave interior is warm and friendly, but the best seats are outside, against a low white wall which separates you from the steep drop into the harbour. Sip your ouzo, listen to classical music under an unbelievably blue sky, and watch the parade of donkeys patiently climbing 800 broad steps from harbour to village, carrying adventurous souls who scorn the efficient funicular.

And how do we begin to describe the sprawling, vivacious, multifaceted capital city that is Athens? It’s ancient, Byzantine, Neoclassical, modern, crowded, and noisy. And yet…we found peaceful little pockets of green, and always reminders of Athens’ ancient past. (“Those aren’t old, they’re just Roman,” said one guide as we marvelled that pieces of marble pillars in a park were just lying around unprotected.)

Of course you’ll visit the Acropolis area, where the magnificent Parthenon temple (built more than 2,400 years ago) overlooks other ancient structures, including two theatres: the massive Dionysos and Odeon of Herod Atticus, still used for Athens Festival performances each summer. The Ancient Agora (meeting place) sprawls at the foot of the hill, and it’s easy to make out the layout of the old marketplace. The Plaka, on the north slope of the Acropolis, is a pleasant area of narrow cobblestone paths, winding stairways, tavernas, and shops. Adjoining Plaka is the Roman Agora, where you’ll find Hadrian’s Library, built by the Roman ruler in the second century AD.

The Plaka was once considered the heartbeat of Athens, but the modern-day centre is Syntagma Square (also known as Constitution Square), filled with outdoor cafes, shops, offices, and hotels. One side faces the Parliament building, guarded by two evzones (guards) in their traditional, skirted uniforms. The National Gardens, behind the Parliament building, offers a cool respite from the heat of summer, and an oasis any time of year from Athens’ busy traffic.

The variety of stores makes Athens a wonderful city for shopping, but if it’s a bargain you’re after, don’t miss the Monastiraki area, especially the Sunday Flea Market by the Metro station. Go in the morning to miss the rush. Athens has many marvellous museums (as you’d expect from such a venerable city), but if you have time for only one, make it the National Archeological at 1, Tosita Street. It’s one of the world’s best, and certainly has the greatest collection of Greek artifacts.

Did you hear the whispers yet? They’re there, especially when you visit the Acropolis by moonlight. Try it!

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