Located on the southernmost point of mainland Greece, the Mani
peninsular is known for its rocky mountains and barren landscapes,
and medieval villages made up of churches and towers.
Githio, a tranquil holiday resort with
excellent facilities, makes a good base for exploring
the area. Of particular note are the semi-abandoned village
of Vathia with its numerous stone towers, and
the amazing Caves of Dirou, an extensive network
with underground channels and huge caverns, which can be visited
Built into a rocky promontory overlooking the sea, almost on
the southeastern tip of the Peloponnese, stands the stunning
medieval fortified town of Monemvassia. Made up of cobbled
alleys and old stone houses, the town is crowned by a
hilltop Citadel and the Byzantine church of St Sophia,
both of which offer superb views of the town and gulf below.
The fertile plain of Thessaly is surrounded by high mountains:
the Pindus Range to the west, Olimpus (Olimbos) to the
north, Ossa, Pelion (Pilio) and Othris to the east, and Trimfrestos
to the south. The River Pinios, flowing from the western slopes
of the Pindus, cuts Thessaly in two and passes through the Valley
of Tempi to meet the sea.
The region’s capital, Larissa, is a significant
industrial centre and traffic node (road and rail), with
good shopping and nightlife and plentiful cafes.
The main port, Volos, located on Pagasiticos
Bay, is largely modern, due to repeated destruction
by earthquakes. However, there is a pleasant seafront with restaurants
and cafes, and frequent ferry services for the Sporades. Close
by, on the slopes of Mount Pelion, stand the beautiful
villages of Makrinitsa and Vizitsa, noted for their traditional
architecture, and the winter sports centre of Hania.
Mount Olympus, home of Zeus and the immortal
gods and land of the Centaurs, is Greece’s highest
mountain, standing 2917m.Walking tours head off from
the village of Litohoro, where one finds hostels, hotels and taverns.
To the west, above the Pinios Valley and the town of Kalambaka,
just as the Pindus Range begins to form, stand the amazing
cliff-top monasteries of the Meteora. Perched upon bizarre
vertical rock formations of up to 300m (984ft) high, a total of
24 monasteries, some with stunning Byzantine frescoes, were founded
here during the 15th-century. Several are open to the public (accessed
by a series of steep steps carved into the rocks), particularly
Megalo Meteoro and Varlaam Monastery.
Lying between the Ionic Sea and Thessaly, in the northwest corner
of the Greek peninsula, Epirus is the most
mountainous region. Due to its isolation, locals here
have retained many of their traditions: dances, costumes and handicrafts.
The main settlement, Ioannina, overlooking Ioannina
Lake, reached its peak during the 18th century under the Ottomans
when it was an important administrative centre and home to the
notorious Ali Pascia, Istanbul’s local representative at
that time. The town has conserved a marked eastern atmosphere,
thanks to a bazaar and numerous mosques, notably Aslan Pacha Mosque,
which now houses the Museum of Popular Art.
North of town lies the magnificient Perama Cave,
filled with stalactites, stalagmites and running waters. Further
north still, one enters the mountainous area of Zagoria,
well-known for its dense pine forests, wildlife (wolves and bears)
and picturesque stone villages. Here, contained within the Vikos-Aoos
National Park lies the spectacular Vikos Gorge,
a canyon formed by the River Aoos, popular with
South of Ioannina lies the archaeological remains of
Dodoni, particularly the well-conserved theatre dating
back to the third century BC, where open-air performances are
held during summer. On the coast, built around a bay, the beautiful
town of Parga is backed by pine woods, olive groves and orchards.
Here one finds a 16th-century Venetian fortress, whitewashed
houses, hotels and an exceptional sandy beach.
Bordering onto Albania, Macedonia (Former Yugoslav Republic of)
and Bulgaria, Macedonia stands slightly apart from the
rest of the country; its climate and scenery have more
in common with the adjoining Balkans, the mountains being bitterly
cold in winter. Though not much known by foreign tourists, this
is still a particularly beautiful part of Greece,
rich in historical monuments and archaeological sites. The region’s
capital, Thessaloniki, is the second-largest
city. A modern industrial port, partly
protected by impressive city walls, it is home to the outstanding
Archaeological Museum, housing the ‘Treasures
of Ancient Macedonia’. On the seafront, the impressive
16th-century White Tower, built by the Ottomans as part of the
city’s defence system, houses an excellent Byzantine Art
Collection. Churches of note include the 4th-century Rotonda
(also known as St George’s), Agios Dimitrios with its 7th-century
mosaics, and the 8th-century Agia Sofia, converted into a mosque
during Ottoman rule. The main ancient sites are the Arch of Galerius
built in AD 297, and the relics of the Roman Agora.
Southeast of Thessaloniki are the three mountainous peninsulas
of Halkidiki: Sithonia, Kassandra and Agio Oros (Mount
Athos). Kassandra and Sithonia
shelter Northern Greece’s most excellent beaches
and are both popular holiday resorts. However,
Mount Athos, with its well-known monasteries,
is undoubtedly the region’s highlight. The first religious
community, Megistis Lavras, was founded here in AD 963. Between
the 13th and 16th centuries, the amount of monasteries multiplied,
until there were about 30,000 monks living in the area. Today,
about 1500 monks remain (predominantly Greeks, but also some Bulgarians,
Russians and Serbs), housed in 20 monasteries. Women (and female
animals) are turned down entry, but men can gain a special permit
by proving religious or scholarly interests. For additional information,
contact: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Directorate
of Churches, Zalokosta 2, Athens (tel: (210) 368 1000/2000/2311/3000/4000),
or the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace, Directorate
of Political Affairs, Plateia Diikitiriou, 541 23 Thessaloniki
(tel: (2023) 103 7900).
East along the coast, Kavala is a modern, commercial seaside
port with beaches, hotels, museums, restaurants and tavernas.
The old town retains many traditional features, particularly the
aqueduct and Byzantine fortress. There are some nice sand beaches,
and facilities for fishing, water-skiing and sailing. From here
one can reach the island of Thassos, another
popular summer retreat with beaches, hotels, and some
interesting ancient ruins. Filippoi,
north of Kavala, is one of Macedonia’s most extensive
archaeological sites. Named after the father of Alexander
the Great, this is where Caesar’s murderers, Brutus and
Cassius, were defeated by Octavius in 42 BC, and is believed to
be the site of St Paul’s first recorded preaching in Greece.
West of Thessaloniki, at Vergina (Aigai), findings
from the monumental 4th-century BC ‘royal tombs’ are
displayed in a beautiful museum, housed underground,
within one of the former burial mounds.
Further west still, overlooking Kastoria Lake, lies the attractive
town of Kastoria, home to some exquisite frescoed Byzantine
churches and an important fur coat industry. From Kastoria, driving
north to the border with Albania and Macedonia (Former Yugoslav
Republic of), are the Prespa Lakes (Limnes Prespes) enclosed within
the Prespa Lakes National Park.
Going east from Macedonia, the villages and towns become more
oriental in style. Xanthi is a beautiful
small town clinging to the hilly sides of the Remma Valley.
Avdira is southwest of Xanthi. Close by Lagos,
built on the narrow strip of land in the lagoon, is rich in wildfowl.
One of the finest northern beaches is 8km (5 miles) east of Fanari.
The main road dips down to the coast before going inland again
to Komotini, further east, and then follows the coast via Nea
Hili to Alexandroupolis, which has an archaeological museum of
local finds. North from here is Soufli, well-known
for its silks. East from here lies the River Evros, marking
the boundary with Turkey.
Lying south of Athens and to the east of the Peloponnese, these
islands are easily accessible, with regular ferry and
hydrofoil services running from the port of Piraeus.
Aegina, Poros, Hydra, Salamis and Spetses are the most popular
islands, with Hydra as the indisputable highlight.