The notion of the Hellenic Republic, like its flag, is dressed in vivid hues of azure and white. Even a murmur of “Greece” from the lips is enough to conjure the emblematic islands of the Cyclades to life. The voluptuous domes and luminous rooftops of Santorini rise from their caldera, trimmed by flocks of Instagram sirens, each flapping away at her chiffon boho skirt. Maybe Mykonos springs to mind, with its row of windmills adorning the charred pebbled coastline like a kouros’s archaic smile.
On “the island of the winds,” late September marks the end of the season, when the clubs stack their chairs for good, Kylie makes her last tour around the stereos, and the sunseekers pack away their swimsuits and abs and depart Super Paradise. In the main town, a zen-like calm spreads through the narrow alleys of Little Venice, riding on the rustles of the kitchen banters that waft through open windows. The villagers reclaim their island as the Mykonian summer slips coolly into an autumnal lull. Everything enters stasis, though out on the rocks by Elia’s nude beach, a few seamen remain, tending a smoldering hearth. The cruise ships have long set sail, but the cruisers linger on.
The Peloponnese Peninsula
Leaving the plush pastels of the Aegean Sea behind, other colors emerge. Beneath the imposing Palamidi Fortress of Nafplio, the nation’s former capital, the brush of the Peloponnese paints a different portrait. Mainland Greece adds dashes of bougainvillea to the palette, roasted coffee grounds to the bottom of the demitasse, and a dozen swatches of aubergine—fried, stuffed, mashed together with lemon and garlic and olive oil.
Near the cobbles of ancient Sparta, the medieval settlement of Mystras preserves the distinguished history and unmistakable ochre arches of the Byzantine Empire. And at tiny Limeni, where boats seemingly float in midair over tinted pebble fields, coves of turquoise and teal make a dazzling introduction to the beauty of the Ionian Sea.
Of the seven Ionian Islands, southerly Zakynthos—or Zante, as the Greeks’ maritime neighbors call it in Italian—has made the biggest name for itself in the era of social media owing to its notorious Navagio. An excursion to the shipwreck’s lofty limestone viewpoint or its final resting place on a jagged beach of shale appears both romantic and adventurous, though fame has bequeathed it neither. What is truly undeniable, however, is the power of Zante’s waters. By the Blue Caves, the scintillating waves and slapping ocean spray promise a wild, transcendent dive for those who dare. On the opposite side of the island, the sheltered inlet of Porto Limnionas is lucid and crystalline, a sanctum for snorkeling and thalassotherapy. Yet, the holiest place in all of Greece is far from Poseidon’s trident.
Past the bridge of Patras leading out of the Peloponnese and deep in the Hellenic heartland, the ancient region of Thessaly has more than one tale to tell. Here was the home of Achilles, where centaurs roamed the land aeons ago, and where the Olympian gods waged war against the Titans for control of the universe.
On the edges of the Thessalian Plain is a parting gift from mythology to reality. Moody Meteora—which takes its name from the ancient Greek metéōros, meaning “lifted high in the air”—is as otherworldly as its celestial cognate. From afar, looming monoliths appear like vertical bridges linking heaven and earth, or so must have thought the first hermits to scale its pinnacles. Mornings are the most magnificent and atmospheric, when the slumbering clouds still have yet to rise from their sandstone crèches.
But long before the dawn, before Meteora’s first monasteries and the genesis of Orthodoxy, in God’s place was a woman. Seated in a small, enclosed shrine in Delphi’s Temple of Apollo, the high priestess Pythia delivered prophecies under divine possession. She conveyed Apollo’s messages in a trance, induced by musky sweet fumes wafting up through a chasm in the ground. According to legend, they came from the decomposing body of the giant serpent Python slain by Apollo; more recent research attribute the vapors to the hallucinogenic gas ethylene carried by the waters of the underground spring Kassotis.
For over a thousand years, the oracle at Delphi was classical antiquity’s most important religious institution. Wars were launched and colonies were founded on the heels of her words. Amongst the polytheistic Hellenes, it was common knowledge that Delphi was the navel of the world. Today, tucked between olive groves and cypress spires, it is but another tessera in the mosaic of a vibrant Greece.