The Greek Islands: History's Stepping Stones

Most of Greece’s 1,400 islands are scattered haphazardly across the Aegean Sea, bordered by the Greek mainland to the west and north, Turkey to the east, and Crete, Greece’s largest and most southerly island. A good many islands are so close to the Turkish shoreline that residents definitely should be going there for groceries or fun night out – they are a very long way from Athens!

These islands are home to Europe’s largest network of passenger vehicle and freight ferries lacing all inhabited islands together. The ferry collection ranges from state-of-the-art super ferries carrying many hundreds of passengers and vehicles over long distances to small open-deck ferries whose age and condition is better left unknown. In additional a surprising number of islands boast regular, if not daily flights most of which use Athens as the hub.

As with anywhere in the world, inter-island travel can be a challenge. The most common culprits on my Greek Island exploration 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 humorous, 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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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 one thousand 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!

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.

Follow Up Facts

On its sightseeing, soft adventure (hiking and sailing), and family itineraries, Hellenic Adventures Inc.,, specializes in taking travelers behind the scenes and beyond the obvious in Greece and Turkey. "Our formula is simple," says owner Leftheris Papageorgiou: "small groups, marvelous meals and sheer passion for Greece and Turkey." 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!

Hellenic Adventures offers two Greek Island tours: the "Saints, Knights and Ancient Mysteries" exploration of island culture and history (May and September), and a land/sea combo featuring a five-night motor-sailer cruise around the Cyclades group of islands to the southeast of mainland Greece plus three nights in Athens and three on Santorini (June and September). The 2002 land-based itinerary features some location and accommodation changes from the 2001 tour shared in these website articles - with a choice of so many islands and experiences, there's always room for something new!

References: Two Lonely Planet guidebooks, Greece (4th edition 2000) and Greek Islands (1st edition 2000) provide an excellent foundation for navigating both the mainland and islands of this always-fascinating country.

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. Email: