Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Country Review: Greece

Dates there: 4th to 13th April 2014: 10 days

Greece's Wonders: The Parthenon, Meteora

Also visited: Temple of Olympian Zeus

On the Longlist: Mount Athos, Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, Acropolis of Rhodes.

Original Wonders (no longer with us): The Colossus of Rhodes, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia.

Athens. It was pretty good back in the day. That day was, unfortunately, around 2500 years ago, before Athens discovered concrete and spray paint. It's a depressing shambles now.

If I was to advise a trip to Greece, I wouldn't plan on spending too much time in Athens. Have a day and rush round the Acropolis and the other surroundings ruins - then get out. Because the rest of the country is a lot better. Well, Meteora and Thessaloniki are, at least, as they were our other stops.

Your full day in Athens will be a busy one though. We spent far too long - five days - but the essence can be distilled into a single hectic day of sightseeing. Everything begins and ends at the Acropolis. While civilisations have risen and fallen and the entire globe has transformed over and over beyond all recognition, the Acropolis monuments have stood, timeless. The Parthenon, naturally, is the main event, but it's just part of the Acropolis ensemble. There are no surprises here - these are classic ruined Greek temples and structures. Back in the day, there were bigger and better out there - but where are they now? The Parthenon has survived. (Sure, it's in bits and there has been scaffolding supporting it for decades but we are assured that the scaffolding will one day be removed, maybe even in my lifetime.)

Around the Acropolis are the remains of other ancient Greek structures, and you can wander among these and imagine what Athens used to be like when it was good. I wouldn't describe them as spectacular, but they are very interesting in a ruined, archaeological kind of way. My favourite was the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It's just a fragment of what it once was, but it's not difficult to imagine it in its heyday. It would have been majestic.

Let's get out of Athens now. Phew, that's better. Our next stop was Meteora, or the village of Kastraki, technically. Kastraki sits at the base of the weird rock peaks of Meteora, which looks like stone has dripped down from the sky and then frozen in position. It's a weird, alien scene, and a breathtaking one. What turns it from a natural marvel to a man-made spectacle is the medieval monasteries that were built. Once, there were loads, but these days only around six survive, but these six are splendid. They are perched on the peaks of cliffs and nestled in the most improbable locations. They baffle the eye - the Meteora monasteries really do make you wonder "How did they do that?". We spent a delightful few days walking in the hills, exploring the monasteries and the hillsides. (I almost got murdered by a ghost, but I didn't let that spoil it for me.)

We had a couple of days in Thessaloniki after that. It's got some nice landmarks - the city walls, the White Tower, loads of Roman ruins and some great churches - although none I would nudge onto my Longlist. But that's not the chief appeal of Thessaloniki. Thessaloniki's selling point is itself. It's a vibrant, exciting, city. Sure, it's a chaotic shambles, but unlike Athens it's a joyous one. It was a pleasure to simply walk the streets. Danielle and I could easily have spent a week in Thessaloniki and never tired of it.

That was our Greek experience. I'd happily return. To be honest, I'd like to return to a place like Kastraki, a slow, slumbering village with wine for a Euro and a terribly relaxed, friendly atmosphere. But I should probably give Rhodes a look-in too, as it seems to have some pretty interesting stuff. It's got an Acropolis for a start, although it's not the Acropolis of Rhodes I'm particularly interested in (it looks a bit rubbish), it's the Acropolis of Lindos, also on the island of Rhodes but about 30 miles from the actual city of Rhodes. It's an acropolis with ruins from the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusader Knights, and the Ottoman Empire.

Back to the city of Rhodes, and there's the pompously titled Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes. It was built in the 14th Century.

And returning to medieval monasteries for a moment. Visitors to Meteora may notice that they're not alone. These once isolated monasteries now have gift shops and tour buses. If you're wanting a true taste of monastic solitude, you need to visit Mount Athos. It's the real deal. Effectively autonomous, it is a rugged peninsula with around twenty monasteries, many perched on the mountainside. Only accessible by boat, it is not open for casual tourism. Only ten non-Orthodox visitors are allowed every day (100 Orthodox ones are allowed but they have to prove it with a letter from a priest). And ladies - sorry. No women allowed.

I couldn't mention Wonders and Greece without mentioning its original Wonders. Modern Greece has two - or has the locations where two once stood. Rhodes used to have its giant statue by the harbour, the Colossus, and Olympia used to have a giant seated statue of Zeus inside a temple. But both have been gone for at least 1500 years. Neither looked anything like the pictures below.


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