Off The Beaten Path in Greece Part II
Welcome back! I hope you've enjoyed the first part of this series, covering all of the Peloponessian Peninsula. It is a fantastic, capitvating, and mythical place full of history, things to see, places to stay, and people to meet. That was just a small part of the charm of Greece. As always, if you feel I've missed or overlooked a special part of Greece, please let me know. Moving on to our next few regions, up in the mainland, here we go!
Heading West out of Athens, the first prefecture we come to is Boeotia, pronounced Viotia. The capital of this prefecture is Livadeia, about 56 or so miles northwest of Athens, so you can make it a quick day trip if you are staying in the city. Boeotia is full of monastaries, especially around the major towns of Livadeia, Thebes, and Arachova. Arachova is known for emboridery and woolen products, like flokati , these shaggy rugs that are unbelievably cozy to curl up on, especially during a cold winter. If you're in the area around the 23rd of April, stick around for the Fesitval of Agios Georgios, a 3 day celebration with the entire town dressed up, with the last day reserved for a massive feast with roast lamb and wine. LOTS of wine. The UNESCO World Hertiage site of Moni Osios Loukas Monastery is also in the area, about 23 kilometers south of Arachova, between the villages of Distomo and Kyriaki. The main church has some of the finest byzantine-era frescoes and icons.
Thebes was an ancient powerhouse, rivalling Athens, Sparta, or Mycenae. It's glory days during Greece's golden age ran from 400 BC to 335 BC, when it was sacked and destroyed by Alexander the Great for their siding with the Persians. The best place to view artifacts and learn more from this period is in the Thebes Archaeological Museum, if you are a history buff or fan of Ancient Greece, this place is worth the look, and is only an hour or so trek from Athens.
For you outdoorsy types, the Parnassos National Park and three of the tallest peaks in Greece are in Boeotia, with Mt. Parnassos being the tallest at 2457 meters high. Here, my snow bunnies will find the Parnasos Ski Centre, one of the first, and most popular ski/snowboard areas in Greece. With 13 lifts, one cannot get bored of the seemingly endless powder runs. Mt. Parnassos is also part of the elaborate European long-distance path E4, from Gibraltar to Cyprus, so all my hikers out there, strap up and get out there, it is worth the hike.
Pthiotida is further up the East Coast from Attica, and while the capital (and largest city) might be Lamia, there's a few places here that are definite must sees. I'm going to start off with Agios Konstantinos, a sleepy little seaside village worth stopping at for some of the very best seafood to be found anywhere in Greece. From here you can also catch ferries to the islands of Alonissos, Skiathos, and Skopelos. It is such a quaint and picturesque town, it really is worth a visit.
Another must visit place in Pthiotida (and one of my very favorite places in Greek mythology) is Thermopylae, where the fabled 300 Spartans held off the Persian hoardes for 3 days before they were betrayed and met their doom. Aside from the historical and mythological ties, Thermpylae (as it's name suggests) is known to the locals for the hot springs at the base of the mountains. A worthy place to stop along your journey in Greece.
In between Agios Konstantinos and Thermopylae lies Kamena Vourla, which is known throughout Europe for its thermal springs, but also in town is an 11th century monastery as well as the monument for the Battle of Thermopylae.
Heading West from Athens, past Boeotia is the prefecture of Phokida, one of the smallest and least populated in the entire country (roughly 40,000 people call Phokida home). The world famous UNESCO Heritage Site, the Archeological Site of Delphi is here, with visitors flocking from far and wide to come see the Oracle and other ruins. There are many itineraries that include a stop in Delphi, or you can undertake one of your own, as a day trip from Athens, just a few hours drive away.
On the coast, one of the best places in Greece to go sailing, or spend a day on the beach is at Galaxidi. It has recently been noted as having one of the greatest Maritime museums in Europe as well. This is one place on my bucket list for my next visit to Greece.
Next up is Itea, on the coast stradling the Crissaean Gulf. Most travelers think Santorini or Mykonos has some of the best beaches in Greece, I'm here to tell you, they are just wrong. Yes, the islands have some great sun spots and waters, but Itea's beaches have been awarded the Blue Flag by the European Union for having the clearest water in Europe.
At the very westernmost coast of Greece is Aetolia-Acarnania, with the cities of Messolongi, Agrinio, and Nafpaktos. It's also the largest prefecture in Greece, as well as the only connection to the Peloponnese outside of Corinth, with the Rio-Antirrio bridge connecting the two land masses. The absolute best time to visit this part of Greece is Autumn, after the summer crowds have gone, and nature itself is on full display and the colors start changing.
The first place to check out is the ancient arched bridges crossing the Achelous River. The effort that people made since antiquity to connect bridges with rapid rivers and deep gorges resulted in a road-network that helped the movement of the population. These bridges were thought to be a priceless kind of infrastructure and people used to repair and replace them as needed for generations.
The Achelous River still has some of its traditional arched bridges, some of them built in medieval times and some dating long before that. While in the region of Aetolia and Acarnania, do not miss your chance to explore some of the gorges nearby and immerse yourself in the wild, lush forests and crystal clear rivers.
Lake Trihonida and Lake Kremasta are unique natural habitats for the migratory birds of Europe, Asia and Africa. With many settlements, villages, and towns around them, visitors have plenty of options to choose from. The region of the lakes are surrounded by mountains covered with maple forests, cypress and pine trees. More than 200 bird species can be found all year long in the region, making it the ideal place for nature lovers and birdwatchers. The waters of the lakes are incredibly clean hosting many fresh-water species which local inhabitants rely on, such as fresh-water fish, eels and more. In addition, there is a species of a small fish found nowhere else on Earth. While in the area, do not miss the chance to visit the Voukatio in Paravola, one of the most ancient fortresses of the region.
Messolonghi is a small city of approximately 35,000 people in the southern part of Aetolia-Acarnania. Cited in the middle of a large lagoon, life in Messolonghi was always orbiting around maritime and fishing activities. The name of the city derives from the combination of two Italian words ‘’mezzo’’ and ‘’Laghi’’ meaning the place which is surrounded by lakes. Originally founded by the Venetians as a trading centre, the inhabitants of Messolonghi mostly relied on fishing in the large lagoon the surrounds the city. During the 18th century, commercial activities and trading gave quite a boost to the Messolonghian economy resulting in a prominent city of high importance. This city came to be one of the main centres of the Greek War of Independence from Turkey. Many of the heroes of the War originated from the city and its people with their courage and perseverance got immortalised after the Exodus of the Guards in 1826. Most of its inhabitants died during the siege of the city, mainly out of starvation and continuous warfare . Because of their courage and sacrifice, the city is known even today as the Sacred City of Messolonghi.
The city of Nafpaktos is located at the southeastern part of Aetolia on the northern shores of the Corinthian Gulf. It's history stretches from ancient times up to today. The name Nafpaktos means the place where you build ships, and this was the main industry the city had in ancient times. In 1104 BC, the Dorians settled in this area and made some primitive ships in order to cross the sea to Peloponnese. During classical times, the city was under the influence of Athens and many Messinians settled it after a skirmish with the Spartans. In the coming years, the city was conquered first by the Macedonians and then by the Romans. Because of its strategic location, the city flourished, becoming a highly important trading centre of the region. Even during the Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman eras, Nafpaktos was a bustling harbor bringing wealth and hosting military forces. When the Greek War of Independence broke out, the Nafpaktians immediately joined the rest of Greece offering ships and money to the war effort.
Today, visitors have the chance to wander this small picturesque city and relive parts of its vast history onsite. Some of the most famous attractions are the imposing castle on top of the hill dominating the city. Its traditional architecture with the pebblestone alleys and streets, the old mansions of the prominent families of the city, and the small jewel-like Venetian port.
From high mountains, deep gorges, fast-flowing rivers, open lagoons, pristine beaches to traditional architecture, vast history and significant culture, the regions of Aetolia and Acarnania are a corner of Greece definitely worth visiting.
Well, that's my look at the South and Southwestern portion of Mainland Greece. I know I've missed out a lot, this is just a VERY brief overview of these areas. If you have any others you'd like me to notice, please get in touch with me either in the comment section, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on social media. I look forward to hearing from y'all!