The media herald it on a regular basis: To experience the “real” Greece, unaffected by the financial crisis, the perfect destination are the Greek islands. Only there can tourists still get a glimpse of the relaxed life of the Greek population. “Chalaróno” (χαλαρώνω) is what the locals say, “Take it easy”. And that, in fact, is easier done than said for a foreigner visiting one of the country’s famous peninsulas or islands.
The Cyclades – The Way to Your Heart is Through Their Cuisine
Setting off at the Southern edge, the first group of islands that is worth a visit are the Cyclades. These specks of land offer the perfect opportunity to get a ‘taste’ of the typical Greek cuisine.
To get there, the most common way is to take a plane to the capital Athens and travel to Piraeus, a big transfer site for ferries coming from and going to various destinations in the Aegean Sea. It stops in (1) Náxos, which is a great point to start your journey. A sunset at the beach, the typical white houses and Greek churches, ruins of an ancient temple – Náxos lets you get a first glimpse of what the typical Greek island experience is all about, namely relaxing, eating local food and gathering some historical knowledge at the same time. As you walk along the restaurant mile at the sea shore, you will spot calamari drying in the sun in front of many doors. Sit down at one of the island’s taverns and start your culinary journey with a bite of this popular Greek seafood.
Náxos is a small island whose main attraction, the Temple of Apollo, can be spotted from the ferry docking point. From there, you just have to enter one of the winding alleys between the white-and-blue houses to explore the rest of its sights.
After hopping on the ferry again, it does not take you long to reach (2) Amorgós. This island is most famous for the Monastery of Hozoviótissa, which was built directly into a steep cliff. If it wasn’t for the white color setting it apart from the rock face, you might just miss it on your way up.
The best way to get to the monastery from the harbor is by either taking a bus or hitch-hiking. In the monastery, you should not miss a tasting of the wine made by the monks living there and the view from its small rooftop.
Another interesting place to visit as you make your way back to the harbor is the small village Chóra with its mill ruins standing on a low hilltop.
When you reach the next destination, (3) Páros, you will have already learned that exploring Greek islands involves lots of walking up and down. What makes up for that, however, are the wonderful beaches and, again, fascinating historical buildings. The Archeological Museum and a church located nearby are worth a visit, as is the Holy Temple of Zoodoho Pigi, from where you can start wandering through the center of Páros.
In the island’s restaurants, ask for the famous (Easter) lamb, which most Greeks douse with lots of lemon.
The last stop on your Cyclades-Hopping should be (4) Syros, which sets itself apart from the other three islands by having a slightly less Greek flair due to its more modern and European architecture. Nevertheless, it also houses churches, an Archeological Museum, but hardly any ruins. The Town Hall and the promenade along the harbor are what still makes Syros attractive to island hoppers. After the calamari on Náxos, spiritual wine on Amorgós and Greek lamb from Páros, Syros is a good place to get a taste of other European countries or try some typical Greek dishes, like Greek salad or Moussaka.
The Sporades – Culture and Music
This group of islands, located farther north on the Greek coast, consists of less ‘members’ than the Cyclades. Two of the bigger ones are Alónissos and Skópelos.
On (5) Alónissos, travelers owning a sailing boat are especially lucky, as they are free to explore several bays in and around the island, in some of which you can find shipwrecks lying abandoned at a beach. As there is more to see here than on the smaller islands, the best way to travel around if you don’t own a boat is by car. That way, you can easily reach the beautiful Ágios Dimítrios beach and enjoy a view from some of the island’s higher points. When traveling on four wheels in Greece, however, you have to always be prepared to stop for a group of goats suddenly crossing the street.
Located right next to Alónissos, (6) Skópelos has had a slight increase in visitors since the release of the musical movie “Mamma Mia!”, which was partly filmed there. While Skópelos Town or Amarítis, both of which are beautiful destinations, do not feature in the movie, the small chapel Ágios Ioánnis will definitely look familiar. Going there by car is the easiest way, especially in order to be relaxed before starting the ascent up the steep steps that lead to the chapel. Afterwards, you can schedule some relaxation time on Kastáni beach, which also had a cameo in the feel-good film.
Metéora & Mount Áthos – Keeping Your Spirits Up
As you finish your exploration of the Cyclades and Sporades and travel farther north, one of two prominent religious destinations you must not miss is (7) Metéora. Its Greek name, which loosely translates to “suspended in the air”, accurately describes the conglomerate of monasteries located on tall rocks rising towards the sky. Most of these cloisters are open to the public during the day, and are especially impressive when bathed in the golden rays of the sun as it sets behind the large stone formations in the evening.
The last area that should be included in a summer visit to Greece, the Chalkidikí, consists of three peninsulas or ‘fingers’, one of which is (8) Mount Áthos, housing a number of ancient monasteries. It has become especially famous due to its prohibition of females to enter the peninsula. While male travelers have the chance to walk around the Monk’s Republic, female visitors can only circle it by boat. This, however, is still a great opportunity to view many of the Greek or Russian monasteries, most of which are situated close to the shore. With a guidebook and binoculars in hand, you will be able to see and learn as much about the religious sites as can be learned from afar.
Thessaloníki, Kassándra & Sithonía – White Tower & White Sand
To get a taste of the tourist flair of Greece’s bigger cities, without having to witness the number of protests happening in Athens, (9) Thessaloníki is a commendable location. Most famous for its landmark, the White Tower, it also offers an abundance of UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the church Ágios Dimítrios, or Vlatádon Monastery in the Upper Town. In addition, it has a long promenade along the sea shore, passing by the White Tower and an artwork by Giórgos Zogolópoulos featuring umbrellas, providing you with both tourist destinations as well as modern art.
The very last stop, in order to “chill out” on the white beaches of Greece, are the remaining two fingers of the Chalkidikí, (10) Kassándra & Sithonía. To drive along those peninsulas, a car will again be the best means of transport, taking you to villages and wonderful beaches such as Áfitos, Néa Fókea, or Toróni, where you can see small turtles in their natural habitat.
By visiting any of these ten destinations, you will most probably come back a fan of the Greek culture and cuisine, and agree with locals or visitors who say that Greece may have lost its money, but it has still kept most of its beauty.