The Greek Islands: History's Stepping Stones
Leftheris, Hellenic Adventures
The Greek Islands: History's Stepping Stones
Greek Island with medieval fortress and picturesque harbor
Greek Islands usually have in common ancient temples and medieval fortresses on their highest points, overlooking snug, picturesque harbor towns.
Alison Gardner

As with anywhere in the world, inter-island travel can be a challenge. The most common culprits on my Greek Island exploration with cultural tour specialist, Hellenic Adventures, proved to be a couple of days of unseasonably blustery weather that played havoc with the timing of ship connections, and a 24-hour general strike. A sense of humor and a fast-thinking, creative tour guide saw us through these tests that quickly became sources of added adventure and some just plain funny, occasionally insightful, journal entries in our collective daily diary.

Greece and its islands embrace thousands of years of well documented history: the introduction of bronze sparked three remarkable civilizations about 3,000 BC: the Cycladic rule in the cluster of islands to the southeast, the Minoan rule on Crete and the Mycenaean on the Greek mainland.

The region's history reflects subsequent occupations by various regional rulers and city states, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, European Crusaders, Ottoman Turks, Italians and modern day Greeks who are numerous layers removed from their Greek brethren of the ancient world.

Minoan fresco at Knossos, Crete
Minoan fresco at Knossos, Crete. Alison Gardner
Notes from the Stepping Stones

Patmos, our first island sleepover, has long been a place of pilgrimage for Christians. Exiled by the Romans in 95 AD, a very elderly St. John the Apostle lived in a cave on what was then a desolate, uninhabited island while he wrote the biblical Book of Revelation. A thousand years later, a Byzantine emperor gave permission to build a formidable castle monastery that continues to be a central focus of island interest to this day, and the host for a stunning collection of religious murals, icons and architecture. Resisting the influx of mass tourism, the island has thus far declined to build an airport, so it is accessible only by boat. Once we actually got there, two days on the island restored all our tranquility.

Main entrance to Rhodes' medieval city

After an overnight cruise pointing southeast aboard a large ferry stuffed with people and vehicles, we stepped onto the island of Rhodes. It has been a prized possession of many rulers throughout Mediterranean history, not only coveted from earliest times for its strategic military and trading location just off the Anatolian (Turkish) coast but also for its school of public speaking and its outstanding athletic contributors to the Greek world.

Dating from the early 1300s, the famous walled crusader city of Rhodes invites exploration along impressive cobbled streets and intricate alleys. The Knights of St. John assumed ownership of Rhodes in the early 1300s, with a committed mission to serve those in need of hospitality or medical care with its doctors, nurses/nuns, and monks supported by this military, religious and very wealthy order.

Above Right: The Italian restoration of the main entrance to Rhodes' medieval city. Alison Gardner

Left: Hundreds of resident cats in Rhodes' old quarter mingle peaceably with appreciative visitors.Alison Gardner
Inside Rhodes' medieval city

The island was seized in 1522 by the Ottoman Turks and ruled as part of their vast empire until 1912 when the Italians and Greeks joined forces to show them the door. Alas, Italian authorities then took on the role of oppressor. In the 1930s, Italian dictator, Mussolini, mobilized a large army of architects, archaeologists and masons to completely restore (and even redesign parts of) the old city with an eye to making it a suitable summer palace for himself and the Italian king. World War II put a permanent stop to that great idea.

Our first glimpse of Crete was from an airplane, about the same distance as from Patmos to Rhodes, but achieved in 45 minutes flying time instead of 8 1/2 hours by ferry. Three days to explore such a large, intriguing, and geographically challenging island was far too short. However, the mighty Greek god, Zeus, would have been impressed with our efforts to see as much of his birthplace as we could cram in.

Mosaic floor from Knossos, Crete Mosaic floor from Knossos, Crete
Knossos mosaic floors lay protected beneath volcanic ash until excavations began in 1900 AD.Alison Gardner

Excavation of the extensive Minoan palace complex of Knossos, with structures dating from 1900 BC, has produced some of the most recognizable frescoes and mosaics of the ancient world. Among the treasures discovered intact was a modest-sized throne for the mighty Minoan king, dating from 1400 BC. Today, a copy of this oldest known throne in the world is used by the High Court Justice at the International Court of The Hague.

Chania Venetian quarter, Crete Chania 's Venetian harbor, Crete
The restored and invitingly strollable Venetian quarter of Chania, Crete's second city and former capital, reveals tiny streets with finely-restored mansions, historic hotels, and restaurants full of Cretan delectables. During its 300-year Venetian occupation beginning in the 13th century, Chania's highly defensible harbor boasted 17 covered waterfront dockyards for maintenance of large and small sailing ships, frequently mobilized to fight Turkish pirates like Barbarossa.

Our last island three-night stop before returning to Athens was picture-postcard Santorini. After a two- hour ferry ride from Crete, we docked at the bottom of a shear 1,000-foot cliff on the stroke of midnight and switchbacked our way to the top in a stream of vehicle tail lights under sparkling stars in a black velvet sky. Arrivals don't get more dramatic than that!

Santorini view of the bay below
Now defining the edge of a huge volcanic caldera (crater formed by a collapsed volcanic cone), Santorini remains an active volcanic zone with the low island in the middle still spewing lava and steam. Such bird's-eye vistas are mesmerizing from each private terrace of Homeric-Poems Studios.
Alison Gardner

However, Santorini is much more than a pretty face. Between 2000 and 1650 BC, it was influenced and occupied by the Minoans from Crete. It boasted sophisticated towns like Akrotiri, whose present-day excavation continues to generate plenty of excitement in the archaeological world and with visitors. About 1650 BC, one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions on earth blew the center out of Santorini (up to then, known as Round Island), leaving only a thin circle of land above the sea's surface, and effectively triggering the decline of Minoan influence in the eastern Mediterranean. Many scholars today believe that the watery grave to which most of Santorini was consigned 3,600 years ago gave birth to the romantic myth surrounding the lost continent of Atlantis.

For more tales about the people and places that past and present-day Greece inspire, be sure to browse two related articles hotlinked from their photo buttons below.

On its European sightseeing, soft adventure (hiking and sailing), and family itineraries, Hellenic Adventures Inc.,, takes travelers behind the scenes and beyond the obvious in Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Turkey. "Our formula is simple," says owner Leftheris Papageorgiou: "small groups, customized itineraries, marvelous meals and sheer passion for the places we travel." The Los Angeles Times and Anne Waigand, editor of The Educated Traveler newsletter have flagged their itineraries among the Top Ten Tours for the Thinking Person - that includes Travel with a Challenge readers!

References: Two Lonely Planet guidebooks, Greece Travel Guide (2016) and Greek Islands (2016) provide an excellent foundation for navigating both the mainland and islands of this always-fascinating country as well as its distinctive cuisine.

Interested in exploring the Greek Mainland too? Be sure to read our delightful feature article by Barney Jeffries about his visit to the Orthodox monasteries of Meteora, defying architectural common sense while perched as invisibly as possible on rock pinnacles to escape the notice of the invading Turks.

Greece Villa Vacation Rentals
Make a vacation rental or villa in Greece your home in this wonderland of ancient sights and gorgeous beaches. On Corfu (Kerkira), guests of Ionian Islands vacation rentals can follow in the footsteps of Homer's Odyssey.

If you are looking to enjoy the relaxing ethos of island life this year then holidays in Rhodes are a great choice.

More Greek Island Articles

Click on the picture for a gallery of Greek icons by our talented artist/guide.

Click on picture for a humorous daily journal from our eventful Greek Islands tour.

Link to article on icon artist/tour guide Button link to journal article on the Greek Islands tour

Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine.

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