The anticipation grew as the flight captain signaled all to fasten seat belts for the final descent into Greece. Finally after more than 10 hours and nearly 5,000 miles in the air, we were about to get our first glimpses of the land known for ancient ruins and whitewashed buildings with blue trim.
As the airplane banked this way and that to line up with the runway we could see that this land would be a feast for the eyes. We were in for a two-week tour of the land that has been called the cradle of Western civilization. It began in the capital city known as Athens and covered the islands of Mykonos, Santorini and Crete, each with its own special charm.
We were whisked from the airport in a motor coach to the heart of Athens. Our hotel restaurant afforded us a perfect view of the Acropolis in the distance. What a treat to sit and enjoy a postcard view of the 5th century Parthenon as we dined. It was here that we met the rest of our 23 tourists, our contribution to the 16 million tourists that descend on Greece each year along with the 11 million permanent residents of Athens. Interestingly, Greece has been populated for more than 7,000 years and is currently the home of 18 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage sites.
The next morning we set out on the grand adventure of touring Athens, replete with its impressive list of antiquities, the most outstanding of which is the Acropolis and its world renowned Parthenon. This place is not only historic, it is massive even though one only sees the remnants of thousands of years of decay. I was left in awe of just being in the midst of such a grand collection of structures.
To confer the title of cradle of Western civilization on Greece is to acknowledge that those who lived here many centuries ago are the ones who created a structure for the development of many of the systems we hold dear and which guide us through life today. Most of the ideas they put into place were the direct result of their use of systematic thought. Before systematic thought, solutions came as a result of scattered logic. In its many applications it influenced their progress in biology, mathematics, literature, science, philosophy and many other areas. They also developed the basis for equality under the law, jury trials and government by the people. In the 4th and 5th centuries, Greece developed the world’s most advanced economy. That’s quite a contribution to the many generations that have benefited from their genius.
The next day, we had a new, unexpected adventure. Thanks to Emmie, our tour guide, we completed our task of getting on and off the fast ferry to Mykonos, baggage in hand, without undue duress. When the ferry lowered the terminal ramp and commenced the process of loading, we all ran for our lives up the ramp and into the boat.
The payoff for our little adventure was a smooth, fast trek across the water in the remarkably efficient ferry to our next ocular feast. Our next destination was the island of Mykonos. Our tour director gave us a quick once-over of old Mykonos Town including the iconic windmills from the 16th century. These windmills were built to grind wheat, barley, etc. for food, but serve today as a reminder of just how ingenious the people of that time were in capturing the wind for the production of a staple food.
Mykonos is a beautiful island and a veritable mecca of tourist shopping opportunities. Each day as the sun sets, it creates a beautiful duel between the sky and the sea for dominance of this orange vista. The sea always seems to win as it swallows up the sun and leaves us hungry for the next celestial joust tomorrow.
Tomorrow meant another mad dash onto a fast ferry bound for the island of Santorini. When we arrived, it immediately became clear why many travel companies rank Santorini as the world’s top island. Much of the unique beauty of the island is due to the fact that it is a caldera and was formed by the eruption of a volcano many years ago. The volcano created a rim and allowed the waters of the Aegean Sea to fill the crater left by the explosion. The result is enormous cliffs populated by whitewashed dwellings overlooking beautiful azure waters.
Santorini is lined with black-sand beaches, mouth-watering restaurants and quaint little cabanas.
The technique of whitewashing buildings came about to keep these dwellings cooler during the hot summers. The white covering is actually not paint, rather it is a plaster mix made of limestone. Since 1974, all new houses have been required to be painted white. It has become the “trademark” of the Greek islands. Take a look at the Greek national flag; it is blue and white, too.
A fellow tourist was looking back at the caldera rim at Oia in the far distance. He asked, “what is that white coloration on the mountain top? Is it snow?” It was actually the whitewashed buildings that have been so meticulously integrated into their natural surroundings that they look like an integral part of the landscape.
Crete is the largest island among the Grecian chain. One of the first things you notice when you get to Crete is the lack of white buildings. In fact, Old Town Crete is a typical old town of the period with loads of charm and brimming with history.
We traversed a large swath of the island in our pursuit of the city called Chania. It revealed spectacular mountains and flora including pink flowers which seemed to cling to the road’s edge for most of the distance there.
Crete produces most of the food used by the other Grecian islands making it strategically important to the well-being of the remainder of the country. We saw quite a bit of it at the Agora Marketplace in Chania. Laden with a little of everything, this gathering place is quite impressive.
We were provided a sumptuous meal at the end of the historic tour. The harbor setting made the culinary treats even more special.
I could write a book about this beautiful land, but I will end with some quick facts:
Greece is surrounded by three seas: the Mediterranean, the Aegean and the Ionian. It also is bordered by two continents: Asia and Africa. With all this water it is easy to believe that there are more than 2,000 islands with about 170 of these inhabited. Eighty per cent of the land surface is mountainous which gives it character and visual diversity, but also makes it harder to cultivate. Most plants don’t flourish here since the mild, wet winters are trumped by the dry, hot summers. Some varieties of grapes grow low and close to the ground and only require the moisture of the dew to survive. This allows for a small wine industry to prosper.
Greece is easy to enjoy since it averages about 250 days of sunshine per year. If you don’t have a good attention span, don’t try to sing the Greek national anthem since it is comprised of 158 different verses. And, finally, Greece is most noted for three things: olive oil, cuisine and hospitality. We can all attest to that assessment. Thank you, Greece, for a wonderful vacation and thank you, Emmie, for keeping us on track from Athens to the islands and back again.
Jerry and Frances Woodlief live in Graham.
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