A Greek holiday conjures images of Mykonos and Santorini, of crisp white buildings wearing blue hats and of lively restaurants by the sea. But Greece offers so much more, writes Kate Ford.
Go big or go home
Outwardly, Crete, Greece’s largest island, may lack the glamour associated with its Aegean neighbours. Its cliffs are not liberally iced with white and blue buildings, as is Santorini. Nor would you discover a glitzy party scene that would rival Mykonos.
Crete has its own rough charm and rich culture and it would truly be a Greek tragedy if you overlooked this holiday destination.
Renting a car will afford you more enjoyment as Crete’s headlining acts are scattered around the island, which is 260 km wide. The middle of the island offers up mountainous stretches of roads that every now and then reward you with gulps of glimmering sea views.
Northwest is the city Chania, where Venetian and Turkish leftovers pepper the area in architectural forms and the harbour is a wonderful place to stroll with a coffee or cocktail in hand.
We ventured out a little further and spent a few nights at an Airbnb tucked away near the water’s edge. The family operation included an attached restaurant right near the sea. As we sat out on the deck, the water lapped so close that ripples threatened to snatch back the octopuses drying out in the sun ahead of their appearance on the menu.
On olives and Olympics
For a different type of Greek holiday that does not involve as many beaches, exploring the Peloponnese’s famous cities is a great option. This peninsula in southern Greece, parades its plump history.
For starters, it is here you will find Olympia, home to the first Olympic Games in 776 BC (and the current location where the Olympic torch is lit). You can still visit the site of the Games, however due to the destruction ordered by Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II and earthquakes since, the remnants of many temples and athletic facilities exist only as ruins.
Head south on the Peloponnese and you’ll hit Kalamata. Famous for its raisins, olives and olive oil, the produce in Kalamata is lauded as among the finest in the world. The old town has a tumultuous history, experiencing vast destruction during the War of Independence, before being rebuilt by French engineers in the 1830s and being struck down again by an earthquake in 1986.
Today you can find lovely restaurants using some of the finest olive products in the world, good shopping spots, and historical sites like the beautiful Church of Ypapantis.
You needn’t be particularly familiar with Greek history to know of Sparta, east of Kalamata. This legendary city-state was home to the famous Spartan warriors. The main enemy of Athens during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), Sparta was eventually defeated in 371 BC by Thebes, but the legend of the area remains triumphant. With no walls or fortification, however, there are few remnants of the ancient Spartan civilisation.
Visit the archaeological museum to see several Spartan artefacts such as reliefs, votive figurines, terracotta masks and mosaics. Get a tasty bite of history at the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil and learn the origins of the olive from its beginnings in the Mediterranean in 60,000 BC to its uses today. Be assured, this museum is more interesting than it may sound.
Greek island beauty without the crowds
A visit to Greece will see you added to the country’s tourism statistics, but that doesn’t mean you have to be part of the crowds.
There are numerous Greek islands blooming with the beauty of classic tourist destinations Santorini, Corfu and Mykonos but without such a touristy feel.
Less trodden than its Cyclades neighbours, Serifos boasts more than 70 beaches, numerous seaside tavernas serving up fine Greek classics, and a stunning capital, Hora, a quintessential Greek town with whitewashed buildings.
To experience biblical history, visit Patmos. According to the Bible, this spot is where St John wrote the Book of Revelation. For this reason, the island gets many pilgrim visitors, but venture beyond the monasteries and you will find great beaches and an idyllic rural centre.
For a more isolated experience and complete relaxation, Koufonisia is the place to go.
Made up of two islets separated by a 200m channel, Upper Koufonisia is a fishing village with cute cottages, no real roads, and, apparently, more boats than people.
In Antiparos, venture off the main street to find a tranquillity and anonymity that many of the more boisterous islands lack. Although it’s a haven for some Hollywood stars (Tom Hanks has a property here), that’s also a testament to the island’s reputation for peace and quiet.