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It's no wonder that all roads lead to the fascinating and maddening metropolis of Athens. Lift your eyes 200 feet above the city to the Parthenon, its honey-color marble columns rising from a massive limestone base, and you behold architectural perfection that has not been surpassed in 2,500 years. But, today, this shrine of classical form dominates a 21st-century boomtown. To experience Athens—Athína in Greek—fully is to understand the essence of Greece: ancient monuments surviving in a sea of cement, startling beauty amid the squalor, tradition juxtaposed with modernity. Locals depend on humor and flexibility to deal with the chaos; you should do the same. The rewards are immense. Although Athens covers a huge area, the major landmarks of the ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods are close to the modern city center. You can easily walk from the Acropolis to many other key sites, taking time to browse in shops and relax in cafés and tavernas along the way. From many quarters of the city you can glimpse "the glory that was Greece" in the form of the Acropolis looming above the horizon, but only by actually climbing that rocky precipice can you feel the impact of the ancient settlement. The Acropolis and Filopappou, two craggy hills sitting side by side; the ancient Agora (marketplace); and Kerameikos, the first cemetery, form the core of ancient and Roman Athens. Along the Unification of Archaeological Sites promenade, you can follow stone-paved, tree-lined walkways from site to site, undisturbed by traffic. Cars have also been banned or reduced in other streets in the historical center. In the National Archaeological Museum, vast numbers of artifacts illustrate the many millennia of Greek civilization; smaller museums such as the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art Museum and the Byzantine and Christian Museum illuminate the history of particular regions or periods. Athens may seem like one huge city, but it is really a conglomeration of neighborhoods with distinctive characters. The Eastern influences that prevailed during the 400-year rule of the Ottoman Empire are still evident in Monastiraki, the bazaar area near the foot of the Acropolis. On the northern slope of the Acropolis, stroll through Plaka (if possible by moonlight), an area of tranquil streets lined with renovated mansions, to get the flavor of the 19th-century's gracious lifestyle. The narrow lanes of Anafiotika, a section of Plaka, thread past tiny churches and small, color-washed houses with wooden upper stories, recalling a Cycladic island village. In this maze of winding streets, vestiges of the older city are everywhere: crumbling stairways lined with festive tavernas; dank cellars filled with wine vats; occasionally a court or diminutive garden, enclosed within high walls and filled with magnolia trees and the flaming trumpet-shaped flowers of hibiscus bushes. Formerly run-down old quarters, such as Thission, Gazi and Psirri, popular nightlife areas filled with bars and mezedopoleia (similar to tapas bars), are now in the process of gentrification, although they still retain much of their original charm, as does the colorful produce and meat market on Athinas. The area around Syntagma Square, the tourist hub, and Omonia Square, the commercial heart of the city about 1 km (½ mi) northwest, is distinctly European, having been designed by the court architects of King Otho, a Bavarian, in the 19th century. The chic shops and bistros of ritzy Kolonaki nestle at the foot of Mt. Lycabettus, Athens's highest hill (909 feet). Each of Athens's outlying suburbs has a distinctive character: in the north is wealthy, tree-lined Kifissia, once a summer resort for aristocratic Athenians, and in the south and southeast lie Glyfada, Voula, and Vouliagmeni, with their sandy beaches, seaside bars, and lively summer nightlife. Just beyond the city's southern fringes is Piraeus, a bustling port city of waterside fish tavernas and Saronic Gulf views.
Although the fishing boats still go out in good weather, Mykonos largely makes its living from tourism these days. The summer crowds have turned one of the poorest islands in Greece into one of the richest. Old Mykonians complain that their young, who have inherited stores where their grandfathers once sold eggs or wine, get so much rent that they have lost ambition, and in summer sit around pool bars at night with their friends, and hang out in Athens in winter when island life is less scintillating. Put firmly on the map by Jackie O in the 1960s, Mykonos town—called Hora by the locals—remains the Saint-Tropez of the Greek islands. The scenery is memorable, with its whitewashed streets, Little Venice, the Kato Myli ridge of windmills, and Kastro, the town's medieval quarter. Its cubical two- or three-story houses and churches, with their red or blue doors and domes and wooden balconies, have been long celebrated as some of the best examples of classic Cycladic architecture. Luckily, the Greek Archaeological Service decided to preserve the town, even when the Mykonians would have preferred to rebuild, and so the Old Town has been impressively preserved. Pink oleander, scarlet hibiscus, and trailing green pepper trees form a contrast amid the dazzling whiteness, whose frequent renewal with whitewash is required by law. Any visitor who has the pleasure of getting lost in its narrow streets (made all the narrower by the many outdoor stone staircases, which maximize housing space in the crowded village) will appreciate how its confusing layout was designed to foil pirates—if it was designed at all. After Mykonos fell under Turkish rule in 1537, the Ottomans allowed the islanders to arm their vessels against pirates, which had a contradictory effect: many of them found that raiding other islands was more profitable than tilling arid land. At the height of Aegean piracy, Mykonos was the principal headquarters of the corsair fleets—the place where pirates met their fellows, found willing women, and filled out their crews. Eventually the illicit activity evolved into a legitimate and thriving trade network. Morning on Mykonos town's main quay is busy with deliveries, visitors for the Delos boats, lazy breakfasters, and street cleaners dealing with the previous night's mess. In late morning the cruise-boat people arrive, and the shops are all open. In early afternoon, shaded outdoor tavernas are full of diners eating salads (Mykonos's produce is mostly imported); music is absent or kept low. In mid- and late afternoon, the town feels sleepy, since so many people are at the beach, on excursions, or sleeping in their air-conditioned rooms; even some tourist shops close for siesta. By sunset, people have come back from the beach, having taken their showers and rested. At night, the atmosphere in Mykonos ramps up. The cruise-boat people are mostly gone, coughing three-wheelers make no deliveries in the narrow streets, and everyone is dressed sexy for summer and starting to shimmy with the scene. Many shops stay open past midnight, the restaurants fill up, and the bars and discos make ice cubes as fast as they can. Ready to dive in? Begin your tour of Mykonos town (Hora) by starting out at its heart: Mando Mavrogenous Square.
A call at Souda Bay promises sparkling beaches, engrossing history and no shortage of proud Maritime tradition. You'll drift past the fortified walls of Leon and Souda islands as you enter this natural harbour, which gives you access to all of Crete’s wonders, including Chania’s collection of fascinating museums, uncovered archaeological sites, and glorious Venetian architecture. Souda Bay's strategic positioning means it’s long been an important naval base – and Greek and UN bases still operate here today, on the northern rim of the bay. So it’s well worth travelling a little further out, to find heavenly beaches like the famous Elafonissi Beach - where pink sand and fizzing waves of crystal clear water, converge. The port here dates back to antiquity, when it was used to access the ancient city of Aptera. Visit the extraordinary archaeological site, to see the ruins of mighty empires – from the Romans to the Minoans – gradually emerging from the dusty ground, as excavations continue.
Corfu town today is a vivid tapestry of cultures—a sophisticated weave, where charm, history, and natural beauty blend. Located about midway along the island's east coast, this spectacularly lively capital is the cultural heart of Corfu and has a remarkable historic center that UNESCO designated as a World Heritage Site in 2007. All ships and planes dock or land near Corfu town, which occupies a small peninsula jutting into the Ionian Sea.
Whether arriving by ferry from mainland Greece or Italy, from another island, or directly by plane, catch your breath by first relaxing with a coffee or a gelato in Corfu town's shaded Liston Arcade, then stroll the narrow lanes of its pedestrians-only quarter. For an overview of the immediate area, and a quick tour of Mon Repos palace, hop on the little tourist train that runs from May to September. Corfu town has a different feel at night, so book a table at one of its famed tavernas to savor the island's unique cuisine.
The best way to get around Corfu town is on foot. The town is small enough so that you can easily walk to every sight. There are local buses, but they do not thread their way into the streets (many now car-free) of the historic center. If you are arriving by ferry or plane, it's best to take a taxi to your hotel. Expect to pay about €10 from the airport or ferry terminal to a hotel in Corfu town. If there are no taxis waiting, you can call for one.
Backed by imposing mountains, tiny Kotor lies hidden from the open sea, tucked into the deepest channel of the Bokor Kotorska (Kotor Bay), which is Europe's most southerly fjord. To many, this town is more charming than its sister UNESCO World Heritage Site, Dubrovnik, retaining more authenticity, but with fewer tourists and spared the war damage and subsequent rebuilding which has given Dubrovnik something of a Disney feel.
Kotor's medieval Stari Grad (Old Town) is enclosed within well-preserved defensive walls built between the 9th and 18th centuries and is presided over by a proud hilltop fortress. Within the walls, a labyrinth of winding cobbled streets leads through a series of splendid paved piazzas, rimmed by centuries-old stone buildings. The squares are now haunted by strains from buskers but although many now house trendy cafés and chic boutiques, directions are still given medieval-style by reference to the town’s landmark churches.
In the Middle Ages, as Serbia's chief port, Kotor was an important economic and cultural center with its own highly regarded schools of stonemasonry and iconography. From 1391 to 1420 it was an independent city-republic and later, it spent periods under Venetian, Austrian, and French rule, though it was undoubtedly the Venetians who left the strongest impression on the city's architecture. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, some 70% of the stone buildings in the romantic Old Town have been snapped up by foreigners, mostly Brits and Russians. Porto Montenegro, a new marina designed to accommodate some of the world’s largest super yachts, opened in nearby Tivat in 2011, and along the bay are other charming seaside villages, all with better views of the bay than the vista from Kotor itself where the waterside is congested with cruise ships and yachts. Try sleepy Muo or the settlement of Prčanj in one direction around the bay, or Perast and the Roman mosaics of Risan in the other direction.
Nothing can prepare you for your first sight of Dubrovnik. Lying 216 km (135 miles) southeast of Split and commanding a jaw-dropping coastal location, it is one of the world's most beautiful fortified cities. Its massive stone ramparts and fortress towers curve around a tiny harbor, enclosing graduated ridges of sun-bleached orange-tiled roofs, copper domes, and elegant bell towers. Your imagination will run wild picturing what it looked like seven centuries ago when the walls were built, without any suburbs or highways around it, just this magnificent stone city rising out of the sea.
In the 7th century AD, residents of the Roman city Epidaurum (now Cavtat) fled the Avars and Slavs of the north and founded a new settlement on a small rocky island, which they named Laus, and later Ragusa. On the mainland hillside opposite the island, the Slav settlement called Dubrovnik grew up. In the 12th century the narrow channel separating the two settlements was filled in (now the main street through the Old Town, called Stradun), and Ragusa and Dubrovnik became one. The city was surrounded by defensive walls during the 13th century, and these were reinforced with towers and bastions in the late 15th century.
From 1358 to 1808 the city thrived as a powerful and remarkably sophisticated independent republic, reaching its golden age during the 16th century. In 1667 many of its splendid Gothic and Renaissance buildings were destroyed by an earthquake. The defensive walls survived the disaster, and the city was rebuilt in baroque style.
Dubrovnik lost its independence to Napoléon in 1808, and in 1815 passed to Austria-Hungary. During the 20th century, as part of Yugoslavia, the city became a popular tourist destination, and in 1979 it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the war for independence, it came under heavy siege. Thanks to careful restoration, few traces of damage remain; however, there are maps inside the Pile and Ploče Gates illustrating the points around the city where damage was done. It’s only when you experience Dubrovnik yourself that you can understand what a treasure the world nearly lost
Split's ancient core is so spectacular and unusual that a visit is more than worth your time. The heart of the city lies within the walls of Roman emperor Diocletian's retirement palace, which was built in the 3rd century AD. Diocletian, born in the nearby Roman settlement of Salona in AD 245, achieved a brilliant career as a soldier and became emperor at the age of 40. In 295 he ordered this vast palace to be built in his native Dalmatia, and when it was completed he stepped down from the throne and retired to his beloved homeland. Upon his death, he was laid to rest in an octagonal mausoleum, around which Split's magnificent cathedral was built.
In 615, when Salona was sacked by barbarian tribes, those fortunate enough to escape found refuge within the stout palace walls and divided up the vast imperial apartments into more modest living quarters. Thus, the palace developed into an urban center, and by the 11th century the settlement had expanded beyond the ancient walls.
Under the rule of Venice (1420–1797), Split—as a gateway to the Balkan interior—became one of the Adriatic's main trading ports, and the city's splendid Renaissance palaces bear witness to the affluence of those times. When the Habsburgs took control during the 19th century, an overland connection to Central Europe was established by the construction of the Split–Zagreb–Vienna railway line.
After World War II, the Tito years saw a period of rapid urban expansion: industrialization accelerated and the suburbs extended to accommodate high-rise apartment blocks. Today the historic center of Split is included on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.
One of the true jewels of the Mediterranean, Rovinj is a jaw-droppingly beautiful town, which juts out into sparkling Mediterranean. Dominated by the pencil-like bell tower of the Venetian Saint Euphemia Cathedral, pine tree forests flow to the borders of the quaint Old Town - which evokes the romantic, tangled backstreets of the Venice. Rovinj - or Rovino in Italian - is a city of split personalities, with two official languages - having been owned by the Kingdom of Italy between 1919 and 1947.
Venice is a city unlike any other. No matter how often you've seen it in photos and films, the real thing is more dreamlike than you could imagine. With canals where streets should be, water shimmers everywhere. The fabulous palaces and churches reflect centuries of history in what was a wealthy trading center between Europe and the Orient. Getting lost in the narrow alleyways is a quintessential part of exploring Venice, but at some point you'll almost surely end up in Piazza San Marco, where tourists and locals congregate for a coffee or an aperitif.
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