I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.
– Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
People often say, you know it when you fall in love. With a person, a place, or an object. Love at first sight, second sight…
I first visited Greece as a young college student, backpacking through Europe, and fell in love not only with her iconic islands but also a Zeus-like Greek fellow. A lightning bolt that lasted beyond the summer before running its course with one last gyros in Paris. Revisiting Greece of my youth has been such a joyful occasion, making me fall in love once again with this magnificent country. Nikos Kazantzakis is right; happiness can be so simple. The sun, the sea, and all that true Greek blue. Little else matters, at least for now!
In Sarande, Albania, I hop on a ferry for Corfu and begin my three-month Greek odyssey in the less visited Northern part of the country. In a classic itinerary covering Venetian islands, old cities, scenic villages, stunning ruins, and UNESCO monasteries, I spend two weeks in Thessaloniki, Meteora, Delphi, Olympia, Sparta, Mystras, Monemvasia, and Nafplio before making my way to the gorgeous Saronic Islands. Living by the dictum of Kazantzakis, I soak it all in. I hope nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.
Corfu is different, everyone says, more Italian than Greek and fiercely independent. Flanked by two huge fortresses and sitting pretty on a dramatic promontory with a sweeping view of the Ionian Sea, Old Town is a delight to lose oneself in, roaming along cobblestone streets and pastel-coloured Venetian architecture.
In a January morning, I grab a freshly baked spanakopita/spinach pie and make my way to the Palais-Royal-inspired Liston Arcade, to capture gentle wintry light casting shadows on old lanterns, watching locals mill about a brand new day. The nearby Palace of St. Michael and St. George, now the exquisite Museum of Asian art, shines in its full former splendour. I explore the sprawling grounds of the magnificent 15th-century old fort before strolling along the waterfront esplanade to reach idyllic Mon Repos park. Greek winter is so mild that Corfiots love to enjoy a midday dip before a wholesome lunch. What island dolce vita!
It’s Sunday. Why not climb a little castle that Corfu has no shortage of? The most impressive one is without doubt the 1000-feet high 13th century Angelokastro. Hemmed by tall, wind bent cypress trees, the path zigzags towards the citadel ruins offering an expansive view of the entire Southern coast. On my descent, I hitch a ride to the quaint hillside village of Lakones and follow a steep footpath towards Paleokastritsa beach where Ulysses washed ashore before being saved by a princess. I sit on this poetic Homeric ground till sundown, admiring the supreme rugged beauty of a proud island that centuries of battles, Ottoman sieges, and pirate attacks had failed to conquer. I understand why Gerald Durrel writes, Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen…
On my third day, I venture up North to Old Perithia , once the wealthiest village on Corfu, with over 130 hand-built houses of Venetian origin by mid 17th century! A hideaway from pirate attacks – to see the sea but not be seen – the town was abandoned until 2010 when a few locals and expats began rebuilding. One can definitely feel Corfu’s past here. Alas, ominous clouds are zeroing in. Instead of lingering and continuing on to Mt. Pantokrator, I hitch a ride to nearby Kassiopi to visit the Byzantine castle ruins – under the rain – before making my way back. Corfu, what a stunning first port of call!
January weather is finally here with a forecast of rain for the next foreseeable future. It starts to pour in the long bus ride from Igoumentisa to Thessaloniki, but then stops just enough for me to do a two-day exploration of this energetic, soulful city.
Greece is a longevity hotspot? You bet! To be close to the gods and to protect themselves from endless invasions, everything was built high up and you have to walk! From the waterfront promenade, it is an invigorating morning trek to reach the four-kilometre long commanding city walls and the Tower of Trigonion with an expansive view of the sprawling city and the Aegean Sea. On my way down through the old neighbourhood of Ano Poli, I pass through a succession of impressive Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Venetian, and modern masterpieces from the ancient agora to the Rotunda, Arch of Galerius, churches and monasteries, White Tower, and the Modiano Market. Little wonder why Thessaloniki is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for her long cultural exchanges with Rome and Constantinople. Today, Greece’s second largest city is home to a vibrant, multicultural population, famous for its gastronomy with the tastiest sesame bagels, bougatsa/custard pie, and spanakopita!
There is no place like Meteora. Nestled in a vast complex of giant rock pillars with monasteries precariously perched on top of sandstone cliffs, it is a one of the most beautiful spiritual places I have visited. One has to be there to feel the grandeur and the ingenuity of the monks. Meaning “suspended in the air”, Meteora became home to Orthodox Christian hermit monks living in caves around the 10th century before the first monastery was built four centuries later in inaccessible hilltops to shield from Turkish attacks. Today, six monasteries remain active that are connected through a network of trails and roads, so beautiful that they alone are worth a trip to Northern Greece.
Delphi: Center of the Universe
Located on a slope of Mount Parnassus, overlooking the the valley of olive groves and coastal plain, Delphi is breathtakingly beautiful and exudes an incredible spiritual energy. Ancient Greeks considered Delphi – meaning “womb” – the centre of the world, a sanctuary where major oracles were consulted about important decisions throughout the classical universe. I am greeted by a welcome rainbow over the Pleistos River Valley and hurry to the magnificent Delphic Tholos before darkening clouds gather. Lo and behold, the sun makes a generous appearance till sundown. I return to the main site the following morning and have the entire Ancient Agora, Temple of Apollo, Athenian Treasury, and amphitheatre all to myself – the joy of traveling off season – even if the menacing sky threatens to open and pour anytime…
From Delphi on, it becomes a logistical challenge to reach other archeological sites in Peloponnese by public transport in January. To get to Olympia, I take a bus to Itea and manage to hitch a ride all the way to Antirrio, cross to Rio by ferry, take a tram to Patras, and wait patiently for the bus for Pyrgos. When the bus finally pulls in the terminal at 20:05, the last bus for Olympia has just left. A call to the driver and a pricey three-minute taxi ride later, I am finally bound for Olympia, sweating with the Olympic spirit. The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well ! I awake in this spectacular sanctuary where the ancient Olympic Games were held every four years from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD. Everything seems so well thought through from the baths to the socializing gymnasion, wrestling ground, and ceremonial temples that Olympia must embody the ancient Greek ideal of perfection.
Sparta and Mystras
Sparta was one of the most important city states known for its athletic and military reputation in ancient Greece that reached the height of its power after defeating Athens in the Peloponnesian War (4th century BC). Today, little remains of ancient Sparta aside from some amphitheatral ruins. Twenty minutes’ bus ride away, however, lies the magnificent site of a fortified Byzantine town of Mystras. At the top of a 620 m high hill overlooking Sparta, the castle was surrendered by the Franks to the Byzantines in 1262 before being captured by the Turks two hundred years later and then occupied by the Venetians. As the inhabitants gradually moved to the modern town of Sparta around mid 19th century, only medieval ruins – and a group of nuns still living in the Pantanassa Monastery – remain in this magnificent landscape.
Some places have an iconic site that defines their identity. Founded by the Byzantines in the 6th century, Monemvasia is famous for her breathtaking medieval castle built into the side of a rock on the southeastern coast of the Peloponnese. A full rainbow upon arrival adds to the dramatic effect of the Rock. I can only imagine the summer beach crowd, explorations along the coast, and long, relaxing evening by the sea. Alas, a winter storm is brewing. It’s time to head back up North for the last beautiful town of Nafplio.
My tour of Northern Greece ends in Nafplio, often considered as one of the most romantic cities in Greece. Flourished during the Byzantine era and successively occupied by the Franks, Venetians, and the Turks, the city is well known by its architectural and cultural richness. From the Italianate Syntagma Square in the center, one sees the domes of two beautiful old mosques, Ottoman fountains, and Venetian castles. As the first capital of the Greek state between 1823 and 1834, Nafplio boasts many exquisite neoclassical buildings. The region is also known for many important archaeological sites including the famous Mycenae ruins. First sung by Homer in his epics, Mycenae was the richest palatial centre of the Late Bronze Age in Greece and has inspired poets and writers over many centuries. January is probably not the best month to visit Nafplio but this one at least could be easily reached from Athens!
What a whirlwind tour of spectacular Northern Greece through some of the most stunning archaeological sites, ancient monasteries, islands, and coastal cities. Two weeks barely scratch the surface of the beauty and diversity of this vast region. For now, though, the Aegean Sea beckons me. That is where I am heading to celebrate my birthday!
The journey is the thing.
– Homer, Odyssey
This is part of a four-blog series on my three-month journey through Greece and the Aegean Sea.
Next: Athens and the Saronic Islands!
Part III: True Greek Blue: The Cyclades!
Part IV: Crete and the Dodecanese!
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan