5 years, 6 months ago
I’m always a little surprised that Greece only has seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s Greece, which is basically ‘Ancient Greece’ as far as I’m concerned. So that would make it the land of Tragedies, Choruses, Oracles, Gods, Goddesses and effectively the inspiration – one way or another – of just about every work of art and literature in existence. And not just ‘Old Masters’ and ‘Classics’ – The Cohen Brothers are well known for their nods to the Odyssey: ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’ gives a writing credit to Homer (850-800BC) and the Gorfein’s wandering cat in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is, of course, called Ulysses.
What is the story with Greece’s slight UNESCO showing? Do Italy and Spain have more clout? Does France send round baskets of freshly baked goods? Well, on your behalf, I’ve investigated the anomaly and come to the conclusion that when it comes to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Greece just gives you more bang for your buck. The actual numbers might be low but the content is pretty high. We’re talking collections rather than ‘sites’ and not collections in the style of ‘what a charming collection of snuff boxes’. No, these are collections of monuments, entire cities, several archaeological sites lumped together, a group of temples, a bundle of birthplaces.
So here are my picks based on personal preference, accessibility and, let’s face it, more than a little touch of Ancient Greek Glamour.
Greece has many Acropoleis but only one is ever referred to as ‘The Acropolis’. Constructed under Pericles in the 5th century BC, The Acropolis in Athens is the most important and best known of all Greek World Heritage Sites. It’s here that you’ll find the magnificent Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, the Propylaia and the Erechtheion along with another 17 archaeological wonders, recently restored and visited by millions every year. Today The Acropolis’ 3 hectare site, rising above the city of Athens, also overlooks the spectacular Acropolis Museum. The Museum, designed with a skewed roof to align with The Parthenon, was opened in 2008 and houses a huge and diverse collection of Ancient Greek artefacts as well as reproductions of the controversial Parthenon (formerly Elgin) Marbles – the originals are currently held by the British Museum in London as you may have heard George Clooney mention recently.
THE MEDIEVAL CITY OF RHODES
For most of us, it’s the Colossus of Rhodes that rings a classical bell. But, Ancient Wonder of the World though it once was, the mighty statue that stood guard over Rhodes Harbour is long since gone. Today the big pull is the Medieval City where the Knights Templar held sway between 1307 and 1522 before being overthrown by Suleiman the Magnificent and forced from Rhodes with only as much wealth as they could carry (good incentive for some heavy lifting). Dominated by The Palace of the Grand Master, the fortified Medieval City is beautifully preserved and rivals World Heritage Sites like Carcassonne in SW France for dramatic impact. Rhodes lies in the Aegean within easy reach of the lovely Cyclades and Dodecanese Islands and, in addition to the Medieval City, is worth a visit for the recently discovered Medieval shipwrecks, the Harbour of St. Nicholas and the Suleiman Mosque.
CORFU OLD TOWN
With its classic Mediterranean climate, clean beaches and relaxed atmosphere, the entire island of Corfu is just lovely. But if you want World Heritage, focus on Corfu Old Town. Sometime in the early 15th century the Venetians pitched up in beautiful Corfu – Venice and the Ottoman Empire just couldn’t get along – set up port, built fortresses, dug in with their refined elegance and stayed for 4 centuries. So Corfu Old Town completely confounds expectation with neo-classical Venetian style architecture, colonnades, intricate brickwork, stone carving, statuary and street names. The town’s also the most coveted place to live in Corfu City so it’s not just historic and enchanting and well cared for, it’s also lively with great restaurants, smart shops, cafes, bars, theatre and much, much music – Corfu has two resident orchestras.
DELPHI, CENTRAL GREECE
What with the mythology, vengeful Gods, the woe-is-me-is-that-my-mother lifestyle choices and a tendency to fight to the death at the drop of a hat, it’s not really surprising that the Ancient Greeks were fairly keen on Oracles. But, back in the day, if you really wanted your money’s worth the only Oracle was the Oracle at Delphi. The Ancients believed Delphi was the ‘navel’ of the world and standing, surrounded by soaring mountains, on the lip of the magnificent amphitheatre millennia later, it’s easy to see why. One of the most sacred World Heritage Sites in Greece, Delphi comprises dozens of archaeological marvels including The Temple of Apollo and The Sanctuary of Athena Pronoia. Delphi was also the site of the Pythian Games and has the Arena, Hippodrome, Gymnasium and statues to prove it – the Pythian Games were the forerunner of the modern Olympics.
PATMOS, DODECANESE ISLANDS, SOUTH AEGEAN
Tiny, sparkling Patmos was voted ‘Europe’s most idyllic place to live’ by Forbes Magazine. So get a move on if you want to see this enchanting Greek Island before it’s invaded, has three airports, a couple of casinos and all the traditional, whitewashed houses have been turned into hot-tubs. At the moment, gorgeously pretty still comes as standard with Patmos, and the island’s Chorá (historic centre) is also a World Heritage Site. Along with the 17th century houses and churches, the Chorá is where you’ll find the immense Hagios Ioannis Theologos Monastery, the Monastery of Saint John and the Cave of the Apocalypse. And, happily, you’re more likely to meet gentle pilgrims visiting the Monastery and Cave than you are Forbes Magazine subscribers.
So if World Heritage is a holiday deal breaker for you, I can highly recommend the Greek sites as ‘value for visit’. But, personally I’d give Mount Athos a miss. The 20 magnificent monasteries do look amazing but the autonomous monks are still banning all women visitors and for those welcome men who are tempted, make sure you have short hair or an apprentice will cut it for you on arrival.