Your own Greek odyssey

Soak up some epic history and culture as well as glorious sunshine when you holiday in the Mediterranean

Travel anywhere in the Mediterranean and it’s impossible not to feel the influence of the past. In Malta, marvel at prehistoric temples, Roman catacombs and the legacy of the crusading Knights of St John. Visit Venice and be enchanted by Gothic palazzos, a bridge crossed by Casanova, and a Titian altarpiece that lights up the Frari basilica. Dubrovnik's gems include medieval city walls, Renaissance facades and reminders of the ‘Golden Age’ of maritime trade and exploration. And as for Rome (from Civitavecchia), it’s an open-air museum of antiquities, including the mighty Colosseum, where 2,000 years ago gladiators battled lions and the crowds roared their approval (or not…).

Even the landscapes of the Med – the sheltered, glittering bays that have harboured Phoenician traders or Thracian pirates, the sleeping volcanoes that once engulfed thriving Roman cities with molten ash, the ancient olive groves so essential to the region’s prosperity – all serve to remind us that we are following in the footsteps of some mighty powerful and influential cultures.

A walk through history

Nowhere is this reminder of a glorious past more evident than the Greek capital Athens. This bustling, cosmopolitan city is served by Piraeus port and is a regular stop-off on many Mediterranean cruise holidays. It’s a vibrant mix of ancient and modern, and you can experience both by walking all or part of the Grand Promenade, a pedestrianised walkway (a legacy of the 2004 Olympic Games) that meanders beneath the Acropolis and connects many of the prime archaeological sites that grace central Athens, as well as dipping into upscale shopping destinations (Ermou Street) and trendy districts such as Gazi-Kerameikos.

Don’t miss the Acropolis Museum for some background info, then take the marble path up Filopappou Hill for sweeping views of the ‘high city’ with the iconic Parthenon perched on top (a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, patron of the city), before heading down to the Plaka, a delightful neighbourhood where you can find a shady spot, sip an ouzo with accompanying meze or tuck into a Greek salad or moussaka. If you have time, try to catch the perfectly choreographed changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It happens in front of the Voulí, the Greek National Parliament on Syntagma Square, and the strangely dignified soldiers with their highly symbolic kilts, woolly leggings, tasselled garters and huge pom-poms on their clogs are something to behold.

Talking of tradition and Olympic legacies, Greece is where the games began. Specifically Olympia, on the west coast, which is served by the port of Katakolon. In 776BC, this tranquil site in a fertile valley hosted the first Olympics, a series of athletic competitions between representatives of the Ancient Greek ‘city-states’, held in honour of Zeus, god of the sky and thunder. Feeling fit? You can retrace the early Olympiads’ sprints on the racetrack in the 6th-century BC arena, where amazingly the marble starting blocks are still intact.

Katakolon itself is a pretty port town with plenty to keep you busy for the day – boutiques, cafés and restaurants as well as a lovely sandy beach nearby, or you can explore the lush agricultural region inland, on a shore experience with wine and olive oil tastings.

Island hopping

No Greek cruise holiday would be complete without stopping by some of the islands. Whether sweet Santorini in the Cyclades, with its blue and white churches, Rhodes in the Dodecanese (its walled Old Town is the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe), or pine-scented Corfu – they all have immense charm and, beyond their tranquil facades, fascinatingly complex histories that can be discovered by delving into their architecture, geography and cuisine.

One of our favourite Greek islands is Mykonos, a key trading post in the Mediterranean up until the 18th century and a jumping-off point for the UNESCO-listed island of Delos, supposed birthplace of Apollo. Nowadays, enjoy renowned golden-sand beaches and peaceful churches, as well as a party atmosphere in glamorous Mykonos town. The colourful houses of the Little Venice neighbourhood and the row of whitewashed windmills with the Aegean as their backdrop are particularly memorable.

While sun, sea and sand are the building blocks of a happy Mediterranean holiday, add in a rich seam of archaeological and artistic wonders to explore and you have the makings of something truly special. As you enjoy glorious holiday moments, take a moment to reflect on all those colourful characters from the past that have ridden the waves before you.