A GREEK JOURNEY

After Athens we rented a car and set off. We wanted to feel the essence of the country - the culture and the nature. Greece is steeped in history so we picked a couple of top antiquities but made sure the route included plenty of beaches, hilltop villages and harbour-side tavernas. We planned an anti-clockwise loop, taking us south around Peloponnese, as far north as Ioannina on the mainland and looping back to Athens from there.

Car trips are always an adventure. Even if you know where you are going and your hotel for the night is booked you never know how the day's drive will pan out or exactly what you'll find when you get there. Will you have a swim at a picturesque bay on the way, meet somebody nice who gives you a great local tip or have the best ever kolokithokeftedes (zucchini balls) for dinner?!

Our first stop was Nafplio, a picturesque coastal town which became capital when Greece started the revolution against the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century. We climbed to the Palandri fortress which towers 216 meters above the little town and in the evening enjoyed a romantic dinner in the laneways below. The next day we visited another old capital a short drive away. The remains of Mycenae date back to the Mycenaean rule from 1600-1100 BC and the Lion Gate entrance, made from enormous stones weighing up to 20 tonnes, has stood since then. When it's hot and dusty ruins sometimes just look like... well ruins but knowing that these enormous walls were the home of King Agamemnon who planned the War of Troy to help his brother get back his beautiful wife Helen is a game changer. Suddenly they become interesting (helped no doubt by Brad Pit and Orlando Bloom in the movie Troy).

On this trip we planned to see remains of more than 3000 years of history - from ancient Mycenae through the classical period to the Byzantine and more recent Ottoman times. One of my favourite sites was Olympia in the west of Peloponnese, home to the first Olympic games which were named after Mount Olympus where the gods lived. The games were held here every 4 years for 1100 years from 776 BC with participants from all over the Greek empire and up to 50,000 spectators. The ruins are now surrounded by tranquil parklands and there is a museum with an amazing collection of sculptures and bronze works.

One of the other places on Peloponnese that we were particularly keen to visit was Monemvasia, a unique town clinging to the side of a island-rock just 200 metres off the mainland. The fortress town, which has passed through Byzantine, Vatican, Frank, Venetian and Ottoman hands, is hidden from view on the far side of the rock and used to be protected by 3 sets of walls, each one higher up the slope for maximum security. The upper town has long been deserted, only a pretty 12th century church still stands but you get a good feel for the size of the original town from the ruins and the view of course is stunning. The lower town has retained its charm and character with narrow houses and cute cafes lining its maze of laneways.

From Monemvasia we made a day trip to the tiny island of Elafonisos, a 10-minute ferry ride from the southern tip of Peloponnese. Simos beach is one of the most beautiful beaches we've ever seen and we had a great day relaxing by the impossibly turquoise sea. All along the coast we found good spots to have a dip but long sandy beaches are the exception - mostly we enjoyed the clear water swimming from rocks and little pebbly beaches.

The landscape throughout Greece is picturesque with never-ending mountains and little villages scattered in the valleys. We loved the olive groves, the little village squares and the cute stone houses. The countryside retains a sense of wilderness and is surprisingly non-developed. Especially as we went further north it got greener and lusher.

On the mainland one of the highlights was our stay near Meteora, a cluster of Byzantine monasteries perched high on enormous rock columns. No doubt inspired by the dramatic landscape, hermits came to the area as far back as the 4th century and found caves high on the rock walls in which to pray and meditate. Eventually a number of monasteries were built - old photos show the rickety early constructions and we saw a couple of ruins precariously balanced however the 6 still in use have been thoroughly restored and are accessible by steps. Not like the early days when the monks would get up and down in a net sack at the end of a long rope! Meteora means 'middle of the sky' and you really have to marvel at the dedication and hard work it took to establish these monasteries.

I love the colourful stories that are woven together by mythology and history. Delphi, the religious sanctuary dedicated to the sun god Apollo and home to the famous Oracle of Delphi has strong links to both. Myth has it that Zeus determined this spot as the navel (centre) of the world and Homer wrote that Agamemnon, before heading off to fight in Troy, sent Achilles to Delphi to seek advice from the oracle. Located on a mountain side with stunning views, representatives from the various Greek city-states would make the journey here to consult the oracle on likely outcomes of future events and wars. The avenue leading up to where the oracle sat was lined with monuments built to commemorate victories and offerings in gratitude to the oracle for her advice. Delphi was one of the most important centres of its day and a certain feeling still lingers today.

To see Delphi we based ourselves in Galaxidi, one of the prettiest Greek harbour towns on the mainland. It was the perfect last stop before we had to drop the car back in Athens. The town has a rich maritime history, a couple of beautiful churches and just enough tourists to add life to the few tavernas on the long daylight evenings. We had seen so much and were happy to spend a few days here enjoying the slow pace and soaking up the atmosphere of another quintessentially Greek setting.