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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Greece.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Greece.
With an appetising crunch, I push my fork into a kataifi, splitting it in two. The traditional filo pastry, with strands as thin as vermicelli, wind tightly around a soft eggplant filling. It releases a warm, fragrant aroma of rich Cretan herbs on splitting and, after dipping a forkful into the accompanying sweet tomato marmalade, I savour its piquancy and delicate texture.
I’m sitting at Avli in Rethymnon, Crete, one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the Greek islands. Known for honouring traditional flavours of the land and preparing them with inspired techniques, Avli seamlessly blends the best of both old and new. Like the people of every Greek island, Cretans are fiercely proud of their local dishes. There are subtle differences, but a mutual climate with sun-soaked Mediterranean earth, warm seas and cultural influences from ancient Greek, Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish ruling periods bring the scattering of islands together in their cuisine profiles, producing a unique culinary landscape.
Gastronomic origins – From those historic eras until now, Greek island dishes show off the local produce, with olives, citrus, fresh seafood and local vegetables playing starring roles. Though simple, main meat dishes are never plain. Fragrant, slow-cooked rabbit, goat or lamb stews highlight the bold and bright qualities of intensely flavoured fruits and vegetables, thanks to the islands’ blazing sun and meagre rainfall. The country’s best wine varieties hail from Santorini, where volcanic soil nurtures the main grape variety, Assyrtiko, a vine that thrives on a water source of sea mist and nocturnal dew.
Above all, seafood reigns supreme. Octopuses are pinned out to dry daily, and can be seen splayed above mounds of sea urchins, calamari and shellfish as they chill on ice trays. Handpainted fishing boats haul in their catches of the day, to be consumed mere hours later. Whether it’s sea bream or sea bass, simply grilling a catch with a classic, uncomplicated blend of olive oil and fragrant herbs such as oregano or thyme often completes a recipe. Once served, a satisfying squeeze from a fresh lemon instantly brightens the scorched fish, rendering it irresistible.
Old island towns – Greek island fine dining brings these ingredients and techniques to an entirely new level. Avli’s degustation menu celebrates local culinary treasures and is inspired by the past and present in both taste and presentation. Dining in the Greek islands is also about appreciating the incredible surrounds. In Rethyrnnon, marbled door frames, ochre-painted walls, and intricate wooden Byzantine balconies draped in bright pink bougainvillea greatly enhance the experience. The conversation of passing locals and wandering travellers are the only sign that time hasn’t stopped in the most romantic of eras. At a neighbouring table, a clink of small tumblers brimming with a locally made raki – an anise-flavoured spirit – is accompanied by the toast “san ygeia mas” (to our health), setting a meal in motion among friends.
From the seaside – That familiar toast is echoed in Mykonos, my next stop, with glasses of a pale, golden-hued local white wine. At the five-star Bill & Coo Suites and Lounge, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, I’m settling into one the most prized dining verandahs in the country. This time, I’ve traded an old town island view for another quintessential island scene: the impossibly azure Aegean Sea stretching endlessly into the distance.
Adrift in the trance-like tranquillity, a white plate topped with a stunning crimson composition suddenly seizes my attention. Called Cherry Tomatoes vs. Strawberries, this dish turns out to be not a competition of flavours, but rather a harmonious balance of them. Local cherry tomatoes roasted in honey, caper cream, thyme, virgin olive oil and goat cheese complement the sweet tang of strawberries for an entirely pleasing dish. It’s the start of a degustation menu meant to be lingered over, which isn’t very hard considering the setting. By the time I’m enjoying the last delectable mouthful, the sun is slowly sinking in a fantastically coloured sky. Taking in the moment, I sit back and breathe in the quiet night air and feel the hint of a cool sea breeze. Dining in the Creek islands – a truly intriguing and breathtaking destination – is about appreciating everything that surrounds you.
But when I reached the Acropolis, I kept walking’ past the stands selling archaeological schlock, past the spectators on Segways, into the park that surrounds Philopappou Hill. I took a seat on a rock ledge overlooking olive trees, where a few smart Athenians had strung hammocks to watch the sunset. Someone was playing abouzouki. Someone else was practicing the trumpet. Everywhere there were ruins. The yawning sun cast the whole park in a strange sepia glow.
I followed ancient stone pathways to the western edge, clambered down a dirt trail, and emerged in Petralona, a neighborhood that felt like it was in an entirely different city. It had bougainvillea, jasmine, cats, funky 1960s apartment buildings. Everyone was on their terraces, on the street. I had that pleasant sensation, unique to urban travel, when you find your neighborhood, relax your shoulders, and think, I could live here. I sat down at a sidewalk cafe and asked for an ouzo. “No, we drink raki,” the waiter said with a smile, “because we are from Crete.” An icy pitcher arrived. The sharp, anise-flavored liqueur went down smoothly with what I had ordered: sausage marinated in vinegar, tomatoes sprinkled with oregano, olives, cheese.
Soon it was dark. I was pleasantly drunk, wandering again. Every restaurant was flung open, the interiors empty, the tables and chairs spilled onto the street. You could not tell, based on the confusion of small plates arriving and departing, whether people were just starting dinner or almost finished. No one, as far as I could tell, had any intention of leaving.
I approached an old red building with film reels mounted on its facade; ZEFYROS, the sign said. I knew it was a cinema, but I didn’t realize until I was inside that it was open to the night sky. I took a seat at a patio table in the garden. The air was cool and vaguely botanical, the walls covered in vines. The film was black-and-white, Italian with Greek subtitles, and the only thing I understood was that I did not want it to end.
WHEN MARK TWAIN arrived in Athens, in 1867, his ship was quarantined, so he sneaked ashore after dark. Ashe recounted in his grouchy travelogue The Innocents Abroad, he bribed his way into the Parthenon, stole a “gallon of superb grapes” from a nearby vineyard, and then completely bypassed modern Athens while dismissing its inhabitants as “pirates,” “villains,” and “falsifiers of high repute.” On his boat the next day, having visited only moonlit ruins, Twain concluded, “We have seen all there is to see,” and set sail for the islands.
To this day, Twain’s attitude persists with too many travelers.
The rap on Athens is that it’s ugly, dirty, even dangerous, that you should just get in and get out. See the Acropolis, eat a gyro and hop a ferry to Santorini. The Greek capital may be many things—chaotic, complicated, enthralling—but a layover should not be one of them. This city demands attention.
It deserves it, too, especially right now. Years of economic catastrophe and political fecklessness have instilled in its residents an almost heroic fatalism. I recently spent a week in the city talking to everyone from soup-kitchen volunteers to anarchist waiters to local art- and fashion-world denizens. No one I met believes a real recovery is coming. But what’s inspiring is that Athenians are getting on with their lives anyway. They’ve stopped waiting—for the government to get its act together, for the EU to bail them out. They’re finding ways, small and large, to move forward.
This process, however painful, has unexpectedly dynamized Athens. A desperate creative energy has gripped its art world. Chronically underemployed young people are launching cooperative restaurants and cafes. And an audacious generation of entrepreneurs is investing in locally made luxury products. All of this creative bootstrapping has coincided with an unexpected surge in foreign tourism. A record 27 million people visited Greece in 2016. Suddenly, the city’s cafes are full, restaurants are opening and hotels are going up.
At the same time, Athens has experienced an eruption of high culture. In recent years, it has become a hot spot for avant-garde performance, like Katerina Evangelatou’s staging of Euripides’ Rhesus as a Sleep No More-style journey at Aristotle’s Lyceum. The prestigious German art festival Documenta began a three-month run here in April, its first-ever event outside its home country. And last fall, after more than a decade of management fiascoes, the National Museum of Contemporary Art opened in a once-derelict l950s-era brewery south of the Acropolis, showcasing leading Greek artists and international stars like Shirin Neshat and Bill Viola.
Even more ambitious is the €600 million Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, the new home of Greece’s national opera and library. Designed by Renzo Piano, this waterfront temple to the arts sits atop an artificial hill in the working- class neighborhood of Kallithea, overlooking a rambling park filled with aromatic herbs. The building at once references and defies Athens’s classical architecture: its scale is epic, but the columns and canopy roof are built out of a paper-thin concrete that makes it look like it’s about to float out to sea.
It may well have been the Rocket War on the Greek Island of Chios that you’ve heard ringing in this important date on the Christian calendar.
The story goes something along the lines of a traditional rivalry between two places of worship, and their respective congregations deciding to settle their differences by firing cannons at one another from opposing hilltops – all very Christian-spirited, right? Over the years it was sensibly decided that firing actual cannons was a tad too dangerous and the practice became what it is today. A massive display of large bottle rockets careening across the sky, the object of which is to hit the opposing church’s belltower.
Locals know that it’s important to batten down the hatches and cover their houses and cars with a wire mesh cover before the battle begins. It’s advisable for tourists to stay at a safe distance from the ‘festivities’, which is where the best views are anyway.
Athens is so old that one would be forgiven for trying to make a “Yo’ mama” joke. From myths, gods, war and philosophy to today, Athens — and Greece — have come a long way.
The Greek economic crisis not only gave rise to hoaxes about Disney buying the country, but has also made travel cheaper — locals prize tourism more, hotels are cheaper, the gas prices have reduced traffic (incredible but true), and yet, the good stuff—great food, fantastic scenery and the grandeur of history – are still there and as alluring as ever.
Start with a free walking tour of the city. See major attractions like the Acropolis and the Parthenon and discover why Greece really is the perfect country – every year, from November 1 to March 31, Sundays bring free admission to the various sights and attractions. Which means that if you start your Sunday nice and early, you can actually see almost everything for free.
What a wonderful world! In between Sundays, you can station yourself at Syntagma Square, sighing in lazy satisfaction with every ceremonial changing of the guard as well as at the many pedestrians heading to the nearby uber-busy metro station.
Take a walk in the National Gardens and feed the ducks or urge the turtles to go faster. History is also free at Athens, with sights like the Roman Baths, Hadrian’s Arch, the Temple of Olympian Zeus and even Aristotle’s Lyceum — all either visible from the road or open to the public.
Or take yourself off to museums – the National Archaeological Museum is particularly fine, and oh, yes, free on the first Sunday of the month from November 1 and March 31, Kanellopoous Museum, housing jewellery, clay, icons, figurines and more, and, at the foothills of Plaka, the nearby Centre of Folk Art and Tradition. The Museum of Greek Popular Instruments in Athens is also free.
If you’re itching to spend some cash, take day-trips to local weekend favourite Aegina Island, an hour away. You can also flaunt your (imaginary) wealth on the Athenian Riviera, or the Apollo Coast beaches with clear waters and breathtaking scenery.
LEAVE ON A JET PLANE: Return flights start at 506USD from Mumbai and New Delhi.
VISA: 68USD, plus a VFS service fee from 13USD.
GET AROUND: Athens couldn’t be more perfect, it has a convenient, easy public transportation system of includes buses, trams and the metro. Get a tourist ticket that will get you an airport round-trip, and travel on all public transportation, valid for three days. If you’re in Athens for more than three days, buy a five-day ticket that’s valid on all modes of transport.
STAY: Try City Circus Hostel, Athens Backpackers or Athens Choice. If you prefer hotels, The Omonia area is a good option – it’s central and has many budget hotels. Despite its less-than-sterling reputation, it’s relatively safe as long as basic precautions are followed.
EAT AND DRINK: Restaurants are expensive and may deplete your funds fast. Street food in Athens is cheap and delicious. A gyros is really filling. Another great option for breakfast is bougatsa, a delicious, custard-filled pastry. Souvlaki (grilled meat in pita, like a shawarma) is also a cheap and filling option. If you want to be even more canny, or plan to stay longer, buy basic non-perishables and cook.
Most hostels have communal kitchens that you are free to use.
WHEN TO GO: Avoid the months of July and August, when hotels and the weather will try to fleece you. April to May and September to October are much cheaper, and less crowded. The water is also much cooler then.
In grade school I was always the kid who eagerly awaited the newest issue of National Geographic magazine. I remember devouring each story, especially when it involved one of my favorite destinations — Greece. Reading about the Greek islands was thrilling. For a while, I had a bookmark with a photograph of the Parthenon in Athens.
Such treasures seemed so far away to a young Midwestern girl, but recently I visited those dreamed-about destinations in the best way possible—aboard Grand Circle Cruise Line’s M/I Athena.
Titled “Hidden Gems of the Dalmatian Coast & Greece,” the two-week itinerary included a night before the cruise at an Athens hotel and three nights afterwards in Zagreb, Croatia. Places we visited on the 10-day cruise: Delphi and Corfu in Greece, Butrint in Albania, Kotor in Montenegro, and Dubrovnik, Korcula, Hvar and Split in Croatia.
My cruise had 32 passengers. Grand Circle welcomes solo travelers, and there were four on my cruise, plus me. Founded in 1958, Grand Circle specializes in offering travel to Americans over age 50. Alan and island of Korcula, a port visited by Grand Circle’s Athena. The town claims to be the birthplace of Marco Polo.
Ivo Blocinaf Croatian National Tourist Board Harriet Lewis acquired the company in 1985, and it now has a dedicated fan base. On our cruise, only two of us had never traveled with Grand Circle before. Two couples in the group were taking their 13th trips with Grand Circle, the ultimate compliment.
A highlight of my first day in Athens was visiting the Acropolis and the $175-million Acropolis Museum, opened in June 2009. A strikingly modem building with glass galore, the museum sits on an archaeological site about a quarter-mile from the Acropolis. Glass floors in the entryway and elsewhere let you see excavations that may contain treasures yet undiscovered.
Next stop was the guard-changing ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens. The two Greek soldiers known as evzones are self-disciplined almost beyond belief. Every 15 minutes, the guards change positions in an impressive slow march with highly stylized movements.
Stepping onto our tour bus, we left Athens to head to the ship. Resembling a luxurious yacht, the 50-passenger Athena is big enough to be comfortable but small enough to dock easily at islands that big ships seldom get to visit. My cabin was an outside stateroom (all Athena staterooms are outside) with a balcony, flat-screen TV, refrigerator, plenty of storage space and large walk-in shower.
The next day I was ready for our visit to ancient Delphi, a 40-minute drive from Itea, a town on the Corinth Canal, the east-west passageway that connects Athens to the Ionian Sea. On each shore excursion, passengers were divided into two groups with different program directors and local guides. Our tour itineraries varied slightly so that all 32 of us were not converging on the same place at the same time. Both groups saw the same things, just in a different order.
An unmissable journey is aboard the vintage rack-and-pinion Diakofto-Kalavryta railway. It takes travellers on a scenic one-hour ride through dramatic Vouraikos Gorge, with its reddish cliffs and rushing rapids below. The energetic can ask to be dropped off at one of the tiny stations en route and walk back. It’s a 14-mile, five-hour hike from Kalavryta to Diakofto.
THE MENALON TRAIL
This well signposted, 45-mile trail stretches from Stem nits a to Lagkadia, passing through the dramatic scenery of the Lousios Gorge, the western slopes of Mt Menalon, the Mylaon River valley and the Gortynian Mountains. Completed in May 2015 by volunteers, the trail is divided into eight sections of varying difficulty. You can download the excellent Menalon Trail topo Guide app for detailed maps.
These extraordinary caves were in habited since Neolithic times, but abandoned in 4 BC after an earthquake and not rediscovered until around 1895. Visitors can explore via a half-hour eerie glide by boat through the cave’s many passages, giving you time to admire the beautiful stalagmites and stalactites, before walking the remaining 300m. The site is seven miles south of Areopoli.
The Olympic Games took place here for at least 1,000 years, until their abolition by Theodosius I in 393 AD. Little remains of the magnificent temples and athletic facilities, but enough exists to give you a hint of this sanctuary’s former glory. Visit the Museum of Olympia beforehand. The site is a five-minute walk from the village of Olympia.
Spread over a steep mountainside of the Taygetos range, this former provincial capital of the Byzantine Empire stands as Greece’s most compelling set of medieval ruins. A classic fortified city, Mystras is surrounded by olive and orange trees. Treading cobblestones worn smooth by centuries of footsteps, you can walk with the ghosts, ducking into palace ruins, monasteries and churches, most dating from between 1271 and 1460.
In the barren foothills of Mt Agios Ilias and Mt Zara, the sombre, mighty ruins of Mycenae were the home of the mythical King Agamemnon and the most powerful kingdom in Greece for 400 years, from 1600 BC. Six miles to the north, and close enough to combine with Mycenae as a day trip, Ancient Nemea was once the venue for the biennial Nemean Games, held in honour of Zeus.
This town occupies a knockout location on a small port beneath the towering Palamidi fortress, bursting with boutique hotels, quayside cafe and museums, and flanked by a couple of beaches. Arvantia Beach is a small pebble shoreline a five-minute walk south of town; from its car park, a pine lined, two-mile path runs to long, sandy, Karathona Beach. Nafplio can get seriously crowded during peak season, but it’s a great spot.
This former fishing village has excellent beaches with wonderfully clean, cold water, courtesy of underground springs and there’s good hiking in the hills above. Celebrated author Nikos Kazantzakis lived here for a while and based the protagonist of his 1946 novel, Zorba the Creek, on a local man. The resort is now popular with British and German tourists, but less hot and busy during the shoulder seasons.
This lovely Venetian port town on Messinia Bay has streets lined with medieval mansions and churches leading to a castle-topped promontory. Its main attraction, though, is Zaga Beach – a mile-long sweep of golden sand just south of town, near which loggerhead turtles regularly come to lay their eggs. You can cut through the castle to get there if walking, or go by road.
With the grace and poise of a ballet dancer, one clogged foot is raised steadily into the air. The leg to which the foot is attached extends with equal measure until it is entirely straight. There it hovers, dead still, until the limb is brought down with sudden force, the stamp of foot on pavement like the shot from a pistol.
It is one small p art of a ceremony that takes place every hour outside Athens’ parliament building: the changing of the guard. The soldiers, in beige kilts, red berets and pom-pommed clogs, remain resolutely focussed, even as sweat rolls down their faces and spectators dive in for photos.
The city seems made for drama. In the alleyways of nearby Plaka, waiters invite diners into their restaurants with promises of plate-smashing, while men noisily slap down backgammon counters in smoky bars. Down streets paved with marble and shaded by orange trees, crumbling columns and arches rear up like ancient ghosts. They are but a warm-up act to the main stealer of limelight in the city, though: the 2,500-year-old Acropolis that presides over Athens from a hill right at its heart Built as home of the gods, with a temple devoted to Athena at its core, the survival of the complex is due in part to its ability to change purpose over the millennia, from temple to mosque, church to harem. Now, it serves both as a Greek history lesson brought to life, with archaeologists and tourists alike gathering to wonder at the ingenuity of its makers, and a romantic backdrop for the couples who gather to watch the sunset from the olive groves of nearby Filopap pou Hill.
There are different gods to worship these days. At Brettos, Villy Saraidari, resplendent as Athena in an electric blue dress, pours clear liquid from an oak barrel and places the glass on the marble counter. A photo of Mr Brettos, who founded the ouzo distillery in 1909, hangs in the room that has changed little since. Villy fell in love with the place as a customer, and now indulges her passion for its many types of ouzo from behind the bar. “We have people come in who are 70 years old and they start crying. They remember being here as lids,” she says. “It still has the same spirit, the same history.”
In Gazarte, home to the old city gasworks and a rapidly changing nightlife, bartenders are somewhat less respectful of tradition. `People said when we started that this was a terrible idea, that the Greeks only like what they already know,’ says owner Thodoris Koutsovoulos, sitting under a fig tree in the backyard of MoMix, an operation that is part theatre, part laboratory, part bar. Cocktails are presented in solid, wobbly bubbles that explode in the mouth, in chewy, deceptively alcoholic lozenges, or in glasses that swirl with dry ice. The place is full every night.
Round the corner from MoMix, there is no grand announcement for Funky Gourmet: just a nondescript door and a doorbell. Head chef Georgianna Hiliadaki, her blonde hair in wild curls, makes sure all the drama comes out of the kitchen. Placing a lamb’s tongue in a gold-painted sheep’s skull, part of a dish called Silence of the Lamb on the flamboyant tasting menu, she says, “Diners come because they want an experience. It’s not just going out for dinner, it is like going to the opera.” The approach has earned Funky Gourmet two Michelin stars, and endless bookings of its nine tables. Here, it seems, the Athenian love of performance has reached its zenith.
There’s a deceptive calm to Hora town at midday. A few people drift between the boutiques, staring at Gucci watches or Chanel sunglasses through the windows, or loll on restaurant terraces, iced coffees and plates of steamed mussels on order. The twisting flagstone alleys that tumble down to the seafront, built to block the wind or to baffle the pirates who swept through the Cyclades hundreds of years ago, are largely quiet. Above town, the seven windmills that feature on so many of the island’s postcards lie dormant. There is little hint of the role they played in creating vast wealth for their owners: the grain they milled was once so valuable, it was known as ‘white gold’.
Come late afternoon, all changes. Troops of people emerge from b&bs housed in the tightly packed white buildings of Hora, the blue of their painted shutters matched only in intensity by the sky above. They squeeze down streets now merry with the sound of chatter and music, heading to the harbour for cocktails and the catch of the day. Little Venice, a wall of merchant’s houses hanging over the sea, is the sunset location of choice; a forest of selfie-sticks is hoisted endlessly in front of it as day edges into night.
From amongst the tourist hubbub, local culture peeks out. Candles are still lit in the town’s many churches each morning. Men still gather at the shore with a fishing rod each evening. Nikoleta the weaver, dressed all in black, stills earns her living at an ancient loom in her seafront workshop. “Of the next generation, only my daughter knows how to use this old thing,” she says, a cheerful smile on her lined face. “She wants to keep the tradition going. But I say, you cannot eat tradition!”
Dimitra Asimomyti might well disagree. An islander by birth, she left to make a new life, returning to her parents’ vineyard when the recession hit. “A friend tried to persuade me to take over my father’s business but I was never interested,” she says, pulling on a bike helmet. “The wine is not my passion, it is his. And then I thought of my idea. I was so excited I didn’t sleep that night.” Her idea was to many her love of cycling with her desire to show people a part of Mykonos far from the circus of Hora. She leads tours from the family farm, Vioma, taking guests down quiet country lanes banked by stone walls, behind which fig trees grow and goats bleat. With the light turning gold, cyclists are rewarded with a picnic of homemade buns and cups of wine on a remote beach. Sharing the sunset here is but a group of three horse-riders from a neighbouring farm.
“I am not a monuments expert,” says Dimitra, back at Vioma, serving a feast of cured ham, tomatoes piled high on rusks, just-made cheese and honey fresh from the beehive. “It is local life I love to share.” Dad Nikos and mum Helena potter about the terrace, pouring more wine and loading plates with small almond and lemon cakes. Panagia Tourliani, the monastery that owns the land here, is just visible, perched high on a hill beyond the rows of low-lying vines. Standing guard, too, and forming a chain to the sea, are the crumbling watch-towers that once protected the fields and farmhouses from raiders. “I like to go to Hora now and then,” says Dimitra, as a lightbreeze ripples down the valley. But here it’s a completely different side to the island. Here, you see our heritage is very dear to us.”
“Paros is the ark that saved the Malvasia grape from extinction,” says Savvas Moraitis, standing in the stone cellar of his winery in Naoussa. “We were the only place not affected by the phylloxera that wiped it out in the rest of Europe.” He pours a glass of Malvasia and takes a sip. “See, it is clean and crisp, just like the sea.”
The ocean is never far from the thoughts of Parians, even when talking about wine. The sea breeze, limited freshwater and loose sandy soil create a terroir unique to the islands, producing wines different to any in Europe. In pride of place in the Moraitis winery sits a model of Seveasti, the boat that once transported their produce all over the Aegean, setting sail from a nearby beach. “The sea is why anyone on this island is here,” explains Savvas.
Down in the harbour, a shortwalk away, white-haired men sit chatting on benches from dawn to dusk, rising occasionally to check their fishing lines. Costa, a retired engineer from Athens, spends six months of the year on the island. “This is my work now,” he says, gesturing at the water. “I fish, I eat fish, I watch the fishing boats come in.” He is not the only one drawn to such simple preoccupations. As the shadows start to lengthen across the cobbled quayside, the tables fill at restaurants that sit barely a metre from the water’s edge. Waiters hang octopus from the doorways to advertise their wares, and sardines, lobsters and red mullets are put on ice at high tables, to the immense frustration of local cats.
Fishing boats come and go, puttering out from the harbour, past the fort that once protected the town from pirate attack. In unlikely homage to those days, the familiar skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger flag flies over several of the town’s bars, their interiors liberally decorated with fishing nets and glass floats. Customers flit in and out, seeking a position closest to the water, trailing snorkels and beach bags.
Most spent the day dispersed around the island, on the hunt for a beach that’s just right. Everyone has a different definition of what that means on Paros. There are sandy beaches accessed by clifftop paths lined with heather and buzzing with cicadas. Beaches where children search through rock pools, keeping their catch in plastic buckets. Beaches whose rocks have magic exfoliating powers when rubbed on the skin. Beaches where teenagers play keepy-uppy before heading out to windsurf. Beaches with parasols and pedalos, and beaches where there is nothing but pebbles, the gently lapping waves and the wide sky above.
Olivier Kindinis maintains, however, that the very best beaches can only be reached by boat. The owner of activity company Paros Adventures, he has teamed up with local skipper Ilias and his converted fishing boat, Rofos, in a mission to reveal the hidden coves and islands of the Parian coastline to summer visitors. “I’m a city boy originally,” says Olivier as the Rofos eases over the crystal-clear waters of the Blue Lagoon, its sandy bottom clearly visible 14m down. “But being by the sea, you wake with a smile on your face.” The boat passes Nikolas Church, built on an islet in honour of Paros’s fishermen, candles in its windows doing the job of a lighthouse on dark nights. Drawing into a sheltered bay ringed by tall cliffs, Ilias cuts the engine.
“If you come to Paros and don’t go out on a boat, you miss the whole point of it,” says Olivier. “You miss all this.” He gestures at the luminous water, sun bouncing off the surface like diamonds. The only spectators are the swifts circling above. It’s impossible to resist diving in.
WHAT: October half-term can be dark and gloomy — the days arc; getting shorter and colder and there are fewer opportunities to get the kids outdoors to burn off energy. So, what could be better than a five-night trip to Greece for some sun, swimming and, of course, a kids’ club. The Ikos Olivia resort is making a bit of a name for itself by claiming to have ripped up the all-inclusive rulebook. From the chauffeur pick-up at the airport to the rooms, food and facilities, everything is included and it’s all top quality. There are five restaurants on site serving up menus created by Michelin-starred chefs — four (Asian, Italian, Greek and French) offer a la carte menus. The other offers a buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner but it’s not the usual spread. Here, you’ll find a huge rang; of goodies, from pancakes at breakfast, Greek salads and pulied pork for lunch to Moussaka at dinner — all delicious. And if you grow tired of all these opt ions, you can even swap your meal at the resort for one at a local taverna. Alcohol is also included at no extra cost.
Then there’s the 24/7 room service; mini-bar (topped up daily); kids’ club run by Brits, sporting activities, including non-motorised watersports, football, basketball, tennis and beach volleyball; plus nightly entertainment. Other touches include being able to leave your kids for half an hour on the beach with qualified staff so you can go fora swim; all-day snacks laid on at the restaurants; and an in-room Nespresso machine. Apart from the last day, the weather wasn’t great, but being typically British we sat by the pool in jeans and jumpers and watched our kids slowly turn blue as they jumped in and out of the water with friends they’d made at kids’ club. Then we huddled under towels on the beach so the kids could build a sand city, before taking to the football pitch to warm up. But sunshine or not, Ikos has really provided with the Olivia and it’s going to be hard to go back to anything else.
WHY: The all-inclusive experience really does live up to the hype.
SUITS: All ages — there’s a creche for babies 4 months-plus (costs extra), kids’ club for4-lls and one for ages 12 and over.
DID IT WORK? Despite the bad weather, we all loved it: the great food, our beautiful room, the beach setting and the facilities. There’s also a lovely spa — treatments cost extra but adults can use the indoor pool whenever they like.
Built in the 14th century by the Knights of Rhodes, who occupied Rhodes from 1309 to 1522, this fortress within a fortress was the seat of 19 Grand Masters, the nerve center of the Collachium, or Knights’ Quarter, and the final refuge for Rhodes’ citizens in times of danger. It was destroyed by an accidental explosion in 1856 and restored by the Italians in the early 20th century as a residence for Mussolini and King Victor Emmanuel III. The palace contains some priceless mosaics from sites in Kos, after which some of the rooms are named. It also houses two exhibitions — Ancient Rhodes and Medieval Rhodes.
During the restoration of the palace, beautiful Hellenistic, Roman, and Early Christian mosaics were taken from buildings on the nearby island of Kos and used to rebuild the palace’s floors, including those of the Chamber with Colonnades and the Medusa Chamber. The magnificent statues displayed in the Central Courtyard were also brought in from Kos; they date from the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
Founded in the 11th century by merchants from Amalfi, the Order of Knights Hospitallers of St. John guarded the Holy Sepulcher and defended Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem. They became a military order after the First Crusade (1096-9), but took refuge in Cyprus in 1291 when Jerusalem fell to the Muslim Mamelukes. They then bought Rhodes from the Genoese and conquered the Rhodians in 1309. A Grand Master was elected for life to govern the order, which was divided into seven Tongues, or nationalities: France, Italy, England, Germany, Spain, Provence, and Auvergne. Each Tongue protected an area of the city wall known as a Curtain. The Knights built some fine examples of medieval military architecture, including 30 castles in Greece’s Dodecanese islands.
The Ancient Rhodes exhibition is situated off the Central Courtyard in the north wing of the palace. Its marvelous collection is a result of 45 years of archeological investigation on the island, and includes vases and figurines — dating from the prehistoric period up to the founding of the city in 408/7 BC — excavated from the Minoan site at Trianda. Also on display are jewelry, pottery, and grave stelae from the tombs of Kamiros, Undos, and lalysos, which date from the 8th and 9th centuries BC. In the south and west wings is the splendid Medieval Rhodes exhibition. Covering the 4th century AD to the city’s conquest by the ‘Ottoman Turks in 1522, the displays here provide an insight into trade and everyday life in Rhodes in Byzantine and medieval times, with Byzantine icons, Italian and Spanish ceramics, armor, and military memorabilia on view.
Chamber of the Nine Muses
This room has a late-Hellenistic mosaic and 16th-century choir stalls.
The palace’s heavy fortifications were designed to be the last line of defense in the event of the city walls being breached.
Chamber with Colonnades
An Early Christian mosaic from the 5th century AD decorates the floor of this room. Two elegant colonnades support the roof.
The mythical Gorgon Medusa, with her hair of writhing serpents, forms the centerpiece of this important late Hellenis tic mosaic. The chamber also features Chinese and Islamic vases.
Second Cross-Vaulted Chamber
Once used as the governor’s office, this room is paved with an intricately decorated mosaic from Kos that dates from the 5th century AD.
A copy of the “Laocoon” group, a famous sculpture depicting the deaths of the Trojan priest Laocoon and his two sons, dominates this hall. The original, created by Rhodian artists Athenodoros, Agesandra and Polydoros in the 1st century AD, is in Rome’s Vatican Museum.
This contains a late-Hellenistic mosaic and carved choir stalls.
The Knights Street (Odhos lppoton)
This cobbled medieval street leads to the palace. Along its length are the most important public and private buildings erected by the Knights.
Hellenistic statues taken from the Odeion in Kos line the Central Courtyard. Its north side is paved with geometric marble tiles.
This imposing entrance, built by the Knights, has twin horseshoe-shaped towers with swallowtail turrets. The coat of arms is that of Grand Master del Villeneuve, who ruled from 1319-46.
Men were drawn from noble Roman Catholic families all over Europe to join the Order of the Knights of St John; however, there were never more than 600 knights at any one time. Those who entered the order swore vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty.
Foulkes de Villaret ( 1305-19), a French knight, was the first Grand Master. He negotiated to buy Rhodes from the Lord of the Dodecanese, Admiral Vignoli, in 1306. This left the Knights with the task of conquering the island’s inhabitants. The Knights of Rhodes, as they became known, remained here until their expulsion in 1522. The Villaret name lives on in Villare, one of the island’s white wines.
1300s: The Palace of the Grand Masters is constructed by the Knights of Rhodes.
1856: The palace is accidentally demolished by a gunpowder explosion.
1937-40: The building is restored by Italian architect Vittorio Mesturino.
1988: The Medieval City of Rhodes, including the Palace of the Grand Masters, is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Monastery of St. John is one of the most important places of worship for Orthodox and Western Christians alike. It was founded in 1088 by a monk, the Blessed Christodoulos, in honor of St. John the Divine, author of the Bible’s Book of Revelation. One of the richest and most influential monasteries in Greece, its towers and buttresses make it look like a fairy-tale castle, but were built to protect its religious treasures, which are now the star attraction for the thousands of pilgrims and tourists who visit every year.
Inside the church of Agia Anna, near the Monastery of St. John, is the Holy Cave of the Apocalypse. It was here that St. John had the vision of fire and brimstone that inspired the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. The cave contains the rock where John dictated his vision to his disciple, Prochoros, and the indentation where the saint is said to have rested his head each night. Also visible is the cleft in the rock from where the voice of God is said to have spoken to John. The cave also has 12th-century wall paintings and icons from 1596 of St. John and the Blessed Christodoulos by the Cretan painter Thomas Vathas.
The Christian monk Christodoulos (slave of Christ) was born around 1020 in Asia Minor. He spent much of his life building monasteries on several Greek islands. He was given permission by the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenos (r. 1081-1118) to build a temple on Patmos, in honor of the Apostles. Christodoulos laid the foundation stone for the Monastery of St. John, but died in 1093 before it was completed. His remembrance celebrations are held each year in Patmos on March 16 and October 21.
Also known as the library, the treasury contains a vast and important collection of theological and Byzantine works. There is a central room, decorated with plastered arches supported by stone columns, off which lie other rooms displaying religious artifacts. Priceless icons and sacred art, including vestments, chalices, and Benediction crosses, can be viewed. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases, built into the walls, store religious manuscripts and biographical materials, many written on parchment. Manuscripts of note include the Book of Job, sermons by St. George the Theologue, the Purple Code, and a 14th-century volume containing images of the Evangelists entitled Gospel of Four. The treasury also possesses 15th-to 18th-century embroidered stools and mosaics, as well as beautiful 17th-century furnishings. There are also garments worn by past bishops, some woven in gold thread.
Icon of St. John
This 12th-century icon is the most revered in the monastery and is housed in the katholikon, the monastery’s main church.
This room contains two marble tables taken from the Temple of Artemis, which originally occupied the site.
The Hospitality of Abraham
This is one of the most important of the 12th-century frescoes that were found in the chapel of the Panagia.
Chapel of Christodoulos
This contains the tomb and silver reliquary of the Blessed Christodoulos.
Chapel of the Holy Cross
This is one of the monastery’s ten chapels, built because Church law forbade Mass to be heard more than once a day in the same chapel.
This scroll of 1088 in the treasury is the monastery’s foundation deed, sealed in gold by the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenos.
This houses more than 200 icons, 300 pieces of silverware, and a dazzling collection of jewels.
Frescoes of St. John from the 18th century adorn the outer narthex of the katholikon, whose arcades form an integral part of the courtyard.
Chapel of the Holy Apostles
This chapel lies just outside the monastery’s gate.
This 17th-century gateway leads up to the cobbled main courtyard. Its walls have slits for pouring boiling oil over marauders.
Close to Patmos is a rock that resembles an overturned ship. Legend has it that Christodoulos, on discovering that a pirate ship was on its way to Patmos, seized an icon of St. John the Divine and pointed it at the ship, turning it to stone.
The Orthodox Easter celebrations on Patmos are some of the most important in Greece. Hundreds of people visit Chora to watch the Niptir (washing) ceremony on Maundy Thursday. The abbot of the Monastery of St. John publicly washes the feet of 12 monks, reenacting Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet before the Last Supper. The rite was once performed by the Byzantine emperors as an act of humility.
1088: The Monastery of St. John is constructed, with a heavily fortified exterior.
1999: The Monastery of St. John and the Holy Cave of the Apocalypse are inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.