Embroiled in a financial crisis triggered by the global recession of the late 2000s, it’s fair to say that Greece is often seen as one of the ailing nations of Europe right now. When I spoke to my mum late last year, she said ‘well it’s a good thing you’re not in Greece now’, citing the ongoing protests and the near impossibility of withdrawing cash from the ATMs there as reasons for that line of thinking.
Well, what my mother might have forgotten was that wildfires ravaged the Peloponnese peninsula when I was in Greece, but anyway…it’s sad that Greece is going through some troubled times. My abiding memories of the country consist of hopping from island to island across the shining, emerald-blue Mediterranean; downing Ouzo potent enough to knock your eyeballs from their sockets; wizened old men, hands forming a steeple across their walking sticks as they philosophically contemplated the world before them; and, of course, the Ancient ruins dotted throughout the land.
The classical era ruins are probably Greece’s biggest draw, and with good reason. Among other things, Greece is the cradle of Western Philosophy, the birthplace of Democracy and place of some of the world’s greatest Myths and Legends: its taking great restraint on my part not to go geek out and go in to more depth about any of them (especially the Philosophers). Suffice to say, it is this rich cultural heritage that inspired the magnificent ruins of once grand monuments, harking back to a time long ago when Greece was the civilised epicentre of the (Western) world.
Athens is studded with the lion’s share of these glittering prizes. The world-famous Acropolis dominates the city skyline, standing astride the city like the long gone Colossus of Rhodes before it. But it’s not content with just that, of course. It has to muscle in with sights such as the Temple of Hephaestus (arguably the best preserved ruin in town, if not in Greece as a whole), the breathtakingly panoramic Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the dramatically situated Temple of Zeus – with its lovingly toppled Doric column alongside the centrepiece nest that is still intact – and the atmospheric Agora.
There are other Ancient sights of note elsewhere, such as the sacred sites of Delos (offshore from, incongruously enough, the rowdy party-island of Mykonos) and Knossos in Crete. But for me, what trumps all of the other ones I visited is the site of Delphi. This, of course, was the location of the mysterious and all-knowing Oracle (aka Pythia), a series of Priestesses who made prophecies, believed to be inspired by the Greek god Apollo. A place of enigmatic wonder in its classical heyday, the remains that are dramatically surrounded by the plunging slopes of the valley of Phocis still retain an air of breathtaking wonder: when I stood among the ruins it was hard not to feel overwhelmed by it all.
A land of sandy, sun-hazed beaches – both of the party and the deserted, idyllic variety – I personally feel that the natural beauty of Greece’s landscapes should not be overlooked. Hiking through Crete’s Samaria Gorge, with its narrow cliff-flanked corridors, remains one of my top five treks to this day. And then there’s the volcanic-sculpted island of Santorini, where pretty pastel-hued buildings peep precariously (how’s that for alliteration?) over blood-red remnants of collapsed calderas. Truly, the sunsets here are a thing of twilight beauty.
The aforementioned Ouzo is, to me, of curious novelty appeal but little more. The wine is worse and the beer generally average. The food – be it fast food Souvlaki or lovingly marinated kebabs – can be delicious, although sadly a proliferation of tourist trap eateries can cluster around the more noteable sights. And what of Greece’s people? Well, whilst the wizened old men might be the image burned in to my memory, I do recall sharing a conversation or two with a more colourful cast of Grecian characters. Friendly and hospitable, the Greeks I came across were also fiery and passionate, keen to share their views on the current political issues of the day – a legacy, perhaps, of the Democracy that was founded here all those centuries ago.
Whilst Greece faces a far from certain economic and political future, and while it is most renowned for its ancient sites, it is, for me, not a country that is harkening back to the glory days of its long-ago past. Whether on the mainland or one of its many islands, it is as much about the present as the past. With plenty to see in both town and countryside, and whatever the future may hold, Greece is a place still worthy of a traveller’s attention.