Travel to Greece
Have you ever wanted to make a pilgrimage to Greece to see the holy sites? Popular guidebooks aren’t always enough. Some places are hard to find, or you might be unsure of what to see when you’re there. So below you will find tips, advice, experiences, etc. from other Hellenic pagans who have been to Greece already. Hope you find it helpful! If you have anything to add, or any questions, please contact us. You also might find this site helpful – Matt’s Greece Travel Guide.
Submitted by Oinokhoe
First, some general notes. It’s best to go in the spring or fall, when there are less tourists and more moderate weather. I highly recommend the guidebook Let’s Go, which is written for independent travellers on a low budget. While some books and websites will say there are no good hotels under $50/night, I never paid more than $35, for two of us. If you eat from markets and travel light, you can save money and trouble. It’s worth it to at least learn the Greek alphabet and modern pronounciation, to read signs and such, but most people there speak enough English to get by.
Athens, in my experience, can be unpleasant – it is large, loud and smog-ridden. However, it is definitely worth spending a day or two to check out the major attractions, then get out of there and head to the fresh air of the countryside! The Acropolis is a must-see, of course, but don’t miss the famous Theatre of Dionysos at its base – you can climb upwards from there. Beware of the very slippery marble, worn down from centuries of visitors. The Kerameikos cemetery is somewhat neglected but beautiful, and not a tourist trap. TheArchaeological Museum could take days to fully appreciate. Plakais the modern shopping area, and a lot of fun – interestingly, it occupies virtually the same area as the ancient Agora, meaning that people have been meeting and walking and shopping there for millenia! Be careful on the streets of Athens, and never cross against the light – the drivers are reckless, especially the ones on motorbikes.
Eleusis is a short bus ride away from Athens, and is a great daytrip. It can be tricky to find, because it isn’t much of a tourist destination. Catch the bus that says to “Elefsina” – the modern name of Eleusis. As you leave Athens, notice that most of the route follows a street called Hiera Odos – the Sacred Way! Once in Elefsina, disembark at the main bus stop there, where you can see the ocean to your left, and shops and a park off to your right. Head right and look for signs to the Archaeological Site. It might take some wandering, but you’ll find it. There is a hill on the site, with a small church and Greek flag atop, so that’s a good landmark. Signs in the site will identify the major things – the Telesterion, the Ploutonion, etc. Incredible to be where thousands of Greeks experienced the Mysteries….
Delphi is probably my favorite place in the world. Both times I have been there, I have changed my itinerary to fit in a few more days there. You can feel why the ancients believed it was the center of the world. It’s about a three hour bus ride from Athens…the last hour or so is through the mountains, and quite stunning. You will actually pass the archaeological site on your way into town. From the bus stop, make your way back down the street you just came down, which is lined with hotels and tavernas. I especially recommend the Hotel Sibylla – we had a nice, clean room with a balcony overlooking the mountains, for only $20/night! If you keep going down that road in the direction of Athens, you will come upon the road to the Temple of Apollon on the left. There is definitely a presence there, huge and awe-inspiring, where the Pythia gave oracles for so many centuries….take the time to experience it. Note that bay trees still grow there. Further down that road you will come to the Kastalian Spring, though access was forbidden due to dangerous terrain the last time I was there. Keep going and you will see the signs downhill towards the sanctuary of Athene, which is quite beautiful, and still surrounded by olive trees.
One of the best places I’ve been in Greece is little-known and little-visited, but worth the trouble. Far up the slopes of Mt. Parnassos(the mountain behind the Temple of Apollon) is the Korykian Cave,sacred to the nymphs, Pan, Hermes and some say Dionysos. It is a huge cavern inside, filled with amazing rock formations, that goes even further back through twisting passages. When I was there, I saw old candles that seemed to suggest others paying homage to the nymphs there before us. However, it is not easy to find. Here’s what we did. First we bought a map of the mountain and its trails at the bus stop store in Delphi. Then we took the daily bus back towards Athens to the next town over, Arahova. From there, we hired a taxi driver to bring us as far up the mountain on roads as possible, which was most of the way. (By the way, the cave is called Korykio Antron in Greek, or sometimes Sarantavli.) He dropped us off at the beginning of a dirt path traversed only by hikers and jeeps, and we walked the rest of the way until we came to the end of the path, and right above us was the cave mouth. It is possible, if you’re in good shape, to hike all the way from Delphi up to the cave, but it takes at least four hours and is rather treacherous at points. In fact, even the hike down (we spent the night up there and returned the next morning) was rather trying – even with the map, we got lost a number of times, and some parts of the descent were almost entirely vertical – we got back to Delphi five hours later, sunburned and dehydrated, but it was completely worth it. That cave is one of the most sacred places I’ve ever been.
On my first trip to Greece, almost six years ago, I went to Crete and saw Knossos. Later I was disappointed to learn that much of what I saw at Knossos was “reconstructed” by Arthur Evans mostly according to his whims, and not very historically accurate. However, it is an incredibly ancient site, and it’s pretty amazing to be where the famed labyrinth of the Minotaur once stood, if only in myth. The ferry trip is 12 hours each way, so if I were to go again I would probably see more of the island to make it worth the long trip.
On my more recent trip, we went to Naxos, which I enjoyed thoroughly. The ferry ride was about 6 hours long, and quite nice as we saw the sun set from the boat. We actually took a risk with our hotel there – it was so late and dark we didn’t want to search through the town for the hotel we’d picked out from the book (we never made reservations, never needed to) so instead we tried the booths that are lined up at the docks, advertising for hotel rooms. They actually got us a great place, right in town, and the hotel van came and picked us up, so the risk paid off. Naxos is Dionysos’ holy island, so an obvious point of pilgrimage for a Dionysian like myself! The water is so blue and warm it’s heavenly. What I loved best were most of the streets of Naxos Town (also called Chora), which are for pedestrians only, and wind around labyrinth-like so that you can get lost rather quickly. In the center of this maze is the old Venetian castle, which is now a lovely Cycladic museum. The most striking thing there is the Portara, the doorway to an unfinished temple of Apollon, which is situated on a little outcropping of land stretching to the ocean. It is incredible at sunset, though crowded with other tourists, and open all night long. Naxos was the most relaxing place I have been to in Greece. I am not the type of tourist to spend all my time on the beach or anything, but on Naxos I just wanted to float in the water, or nurse a drink in a waterfront taverna, it was so peaceful.
The one place I’d recommend even though it has no pagan history at all is Meteora. Five hours by train north from Athens, it rises above an unremarkable town called Kalambaka. If you’ve never heard of Meteora, search the internet for pictures and you will be convinced. These amazing towers of rock rise from the landscape, and monasteries are perched at their tops. A thousand years ago, monks rock-climbed up, and then hoisted up supplied by rope until they built entire monasteries. You can visit inside some of them, but really just the exteriors are worth it. From Kalambaka, a bus leaves twice a day, goes up to the highest monastery, and then you can walk back down from there, stopping wherever you choose. Really an unbelievable combination of natural and man-made beauty.
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Submitted by Harper Meader
I have lots of thoughts, have done pilgrimages to Greece twice, and will send more as I think of them. First off, Olympos is a long day’s drive and back from the Athens or even the Delphi area. It’s kind of a “gottasee” site in my opinion, and doing it again, I’d plan to stay a night nearby, leaving more exploring time. Second, most guidebooks don’t tell you this, but the temple of Apollo at Delphi is only “almost” the coolest experience there; the foundation wall just beneath it, which greatly predates it, and was never dismantled or rebuilt, is superb. Take the time to hug it and listen to the voices! In Delphi, we found a Hotel that isn’t in many guidebooks, is very affordable, with continental, with FABULOUS views if you get a back room, since the hotel is parked on the edge of the cliff at the edge of town. It’s called the Hotel Acropole, or Acropoli, the signs spell it variously in non-greek characters. Trust me.
In Athens, the student and traveller’s inn in the Plaka district is right on Kydathinion square, is almost free, with good clean rooms (showers and toilets down the hall).
A very cool and undervisited site, believe it or not is Eleusis, which is called Elefsina these days. The bus from Athens is good but stops several blocks away from the site, and we weren’t sure how to get to it. Checking online for a very good street map of the town would be good thinking ahead. The cave where Persephone returned to earthis there, is actually a deep horizontal cleft in the rock under an overhang. People do leave offerings there; don’t forget to bring something! The bad news there is that there is a church exactly above this that rings its bells with distressing frequency. Makes it harder to stay in the pre-Christian mind-set.
The guidebooks tell you that they don’t take speed limits seriously; don’t believe it! Nothing brings down your mood like a scowling uniform vehemently telling you “Pyo Sigo! Pyo Sigo!” while visions of rotting in a Greek jail dance before your eyes.
Mount Helikon is not a specific peak, but rather a range of low peaks in unspoiled lovely country. Fans of the Muses (aren’t we all?) will want to visit, but since it is in no way a tourist destination, don’t count on accurate road maps or speakers of English. Or French. Or even German. Gas up, give yourself several hours, bring good hiking shoes and sturdy jeans. We found a nice peak with nothing on it but sheep-tracks, climbed up, and sang praises to a countryside empty of anything but the presence of the nine. What an off-the-track itinerary item! We did this on the way back toward Athens from Delphi.
Do not rent a large car. Rent a tiny car. Ask for something with rearviews that fold in for parking. Not kidding. Also, in many of the little towns, which are just about anything outside of the Athens region, streets are narrower than you can imagine, two-way in spite of it, and you have to move sidewalk planters to park ON the sidewalk. Don’t be shy; the locals all do it this way.