Impressively deep and incredibly blue. The Corinth canal

The most popular holiday destination on the Greek mainland, Peloponnese, is known as a large peninsula in the South. However, technically, Peloponnese has been an island for almost 150 years. The Corinth canal separates this famous peninsula from the mainland of Greece as a narrow straight line of clear blue water.

Corinthea, Peloponnese

Natural / Architectural

1.5 hours

Free

Be careful

Yes

Location

The Corinth canal is at the border of the most southern peninsula of Greece, Peloponnese. Just one hour West of Athens Airport. The waterway cuts through the mainland in a straight line. From Isthmia in the East, on the coast of the Aegean Sea (Saronic Gulf). To Posidonia in the West, on the coast of the Ionian Sea (Gulf of Corinth). With this location, this man-made canal connects the two main seas of Greece.

History

Peloponnese reaches far South of Athens and has formed a dangerous detour for ships throughout history. The round around the famous peninsula put 185 nautical miles (340 km, 213 miles) in between the Aegean and the Ionian sea. And it comes as no surprise that even the Ancient Greeks understood that the two seas should be brought together.

Periander, who ruled Corinth in 602 BC, was the first to imagine the Corinth canal. He tried. But digging a 6.4 km (4 miles) long waterway turned out to be too advanced for his time. As an alternative, Periander created a diolkos. Dia means across in Greek, and the diolkos was a paved trackway to move boats across the land. This diolkos was in use for over two centuries.

The second attempt to create the Corinth canal happened in 67 AD. Emperor Nero and a group of 6.000 (!) of his slaves started work at the side of Corinth. Historians believe that during this attempt, almost a tenth of the waterway was constructed. However, Nero died long before completion, and construction came to a stop for centuries.

The idea of the modern waterway arose in 1830, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire when the Greek economy wasn’t strong enough to start. In 1882, with the help of an Austrian company, construction started. But soon came to hold (once more) due to financial issues related to the Panama canal. In 1890, and with the help of a Greek investor, the Corinth canal finally became reality. It opened in 1893, on October 28.

The Corinth canal in use

After more than two centuries of waiting for the Corinth canal to be opened, it turned out to be far from the success everyone had hoped for. The only 21 meters (70 feet) width at the bottom proved to be insufficient for larger ships. Big vessels do not fit, and many captains have difficulty navigating through. Not only the narrowness of the canal, but strong winds and currents as well, make the waterway a dangerous place, even for smaller boats.

Besides, the steep 90 meters (300 feet) tall canal walls have proven risky. Even for the most talented captains. Rock debris often falls down into the water. Closing the passage for weeks, months, or even years. Today, you can see many man-made fortifications of the walls. As well as wider parts that are a result of big land slides. Fully functional the waterway has never been in the 130 years it is open.

Visiting the canal

Despite the Corinth canal being a struggle for most boat owners, for us tourists, it is a spectacular place to visit. The canal walls are impressively tall and steep, and the water at the bottom is incredibly blue. The scale of this man-made project is unbelievable. And the fact that a big ship looks small here, makes you question your own size like nowhere else.

corinth canal white cliff walls with blue water at bottom and greenery around
The depth of the Corinth canal, seen from the old bridge
The old bridge

The best-known location to admire the Corinth canal is the old bridge. A steel structure, in the middle of the canal, on the main national road between Athens and Peloponnese. Here you can park your car and walk high over the water. In the middle of the bridge, you can feel the scale of this project, and seeing a ship passing underneath you in the clear blue water is exciting. 

For more excitement, there is an option to bungee jump, down along the canal walls. However, since my legs were already shaking of the height on the bridge, I will not be able to tell you about this experience. But if you’re not afraid of heights, please let me know how it is in the comments below!

What I can tell you, is that the famous old bridge is not the only place to experience the Corinth canal. It is the most popular one and makes the best Instagram picture, but it can be packed with tourists. I would really recommend you to visit Isthmia or Posidonia. The beginning and end of the waterway.

The submersible bridges

At the end of the 1980s, Greece constructed two unusual bridges at both ends of the Corinth canal. Reaching Isthmia and Posidonia, you might believe you have reached the end of the road. The clear blue water of the waterway blocks the passage to the other side, while a connecting bridge structure seems to be missing.

But when the last boat has passed through the canal, something incredible happens. Machines turn on, and from the depth of the crystal water, the silhouette of a structure appears. A wooden deck, complete with balustrades, emerges from the water. The bridge arrives. Cars, cyclists, and pedestrians can cross the water. Until the structure slowly dives back to hide at the bottom of the Corinth canal.

Isthmia is the perfect spot to have a coffee and enjoy the beauty of this tourist attraction without tourists, and in peace. The place is close to being abandoned. Which is hard to believe, coming from the over-crowded touristic old bridge, just 2 km (1.2 miles) away. Why have people stopped coming here? I think it’s a shame. At the old bridge, the canal is more impressive in size, but the best experience is found here. Besides, in Posidonia, the remains of the old diolkos are preserved! 

corinth canal at istmia big red ship towed by small blue boat in between rocks on blue water
A big ship passing through the Corinth canal at Istmia

Tips:

  • The Corinth canal is just an hour away from Athens and easily accessible by car from the highway. It is the perfect destination for a trip away from the city. Or as the start of a holiday in Peleponnese.
  • The Corinth canal is very close to two famous archeological sites on the UNESCO world heritage list. Combine your visit with Mykines (30 minutes) or Eupidaurus (1 hour).
  • During a hot summer day in Greece, it can be difficult to see clear blue water without being able to swim in it. But don’t worry. Around the site are many great beaches and beach bars perfect for a refreshing swim.
  • The name of the village Isthmia is chosen for a reason. Isthmia in Greek means a narrow piece of land connecting two larger areas across the water by which they would otherwise be separated.

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Nature, religion, and a box of bones. The monastery of Timios Prodromes

The holy monastery of Timios Prodromes offers everything a culture-loving tourist in Greece desires. From the mountainous landscape to incredible architecture, fascinating stories, religion, and exclusivity. With just 50 reviews on Google, this monastery might be the hidden gem of Greece.

Location Overview

Arcadia, Peloponnese

Religion / Nature

2 hours

Free

Yes

No

Location

The holy monastery of Timios Prodromes lies just west of Argos, in the Arcadia region of Peloponnese. This region is known to hold the oldest signs of human life but is still an area filled with lush green mountains and a limited population today. Arcadia’s beauty made its name develop into a poetic term. The idyllic vision of unspoiled wilderness.

Driving to the monastery, you discover what poets mean with Arcadia. A small winding road leads you away from Argos. Over the mountains, along steep cliffs, and through old forests and small villages, you reach the monastery. Only the journey by itself is a beautiful adventure.

the monastery of timios prodromes from afar. three white buildings in steep grey and red cliff on green mountain
The monastery of Timios Prodromes from far

Architecture

Greeks have proven to be masters in the matter of the architecture of religious buildings. Churches and monasteries all around the country are built in the most surprising and remote places. The monastery of Timios Prodromes belongs to this category.

The monastery is located around a cave in the hollow of a cliff, 200 meters above the ground. From afar the religious site is an almost invisible structure in a giant gorge. Close by, however, the monasteries multiple story counting man-made buildings are revealed.

There is a central courtyard with a church, refectory, and guest rooms in the three surrounding buildings. Each of these buildings is integrated into the cliff, with at least one natural interior wall, the mountain itself. For the man-made part of the buildings, a similar rock is used. You can feel the connection this monastery has with nature everywhere.

the monastery of timios prodromes from the courtyard. stone building with wooden balustrade en pitched roof underneath a rocky cliff and blue sky
One of the buildings at the monastery of Timios Prodromes

History

The cave behind the monastery was used in ancient times to worship Pan. Pan is the God of the wild, shepherds, and flocks, with his homeland in Arcadia. In the 8th century, the cave started being used for the religion we know today, and in 930 the first monastery was built. Making the monastery of Timios Prodromes the oldest monastery in Greece. However, the entrance says that the opening was at 1126, and what happened in the 200 years in between is unclear.

What is clear is that the monastery has played a significant role in many wars due to its remote location. It has been a refuge for the civilian population, a military hospital, and a supply station for Greek soldiers. 

During the Second World War, German soldiers came to the monastery for food but offended the Orthodox faith. This made one of the priests very angry, and he forced a German soldier to the ground. The rest of the priests got afraid. “They will kill us all!” They ordered the priest to stop and offered food to the soldiers. The priest, however, became the high priest of the region due to this heroic attack on the German soldier.

Modern times

The monastery has been the main monastery in the area until the 1960s. Then, a nearby and better accessible monastery received the tears of the virgin Mary, something that is believed to only occur in the holiest places in Greece. People stopped coming to the monastery of Timios Prodromes. From 2004 till 2009, the monastery, as well as the road leading there, were renovated. An effortful job since materials still had to be brought up by hand. However, this did not increase the number of visitors. The monastery is mostly quiet, without tourists, both religious and cultural.

The experience

When entering the monastery, the place seemed deserted. There was no sound other than the rushing of the wind. The only sign of life was a black garden hose. Following this, lead to the courtyard of the monastery, where we first met father Germanos. He was watering his flowers, wearing capri pants, flip-flops, and sunglasses. We were afraid to disturb him or even see a priest without his religious attire. Father Germanos, however, was very pleased with our arrival. He greeted us friendly and spent the next two hours showing us around. Something very unique for Orthodox priests, who usually just mind their own business.

entrance of monastery timios prodromes with marble entrace and steel gate. A black lantern on curved ceiling light coming through hallway woman entering with backpack and long skirt
The entrance of the monastery of Timios Prodromes

The tour

The church

From the courtyard, he leads us to the church, where we light a candle and honor all the religious icons that are special to this place. In the church, some murals date back to the 18th century, and father Germanos tells a story about all of them. He describes how all Orthodox sanctuaries are located to the East but not here. This church is an exception and faces the South. Since it is built inside a cave, there wasn’t much to choose from in orientation, but the murals falsely claim the sanctuary does face East.

After the church, he takes us to a small staircase leading up to the cave where the history of this monastery started. But first, we enter the church’s attic. Here, he opens two wooden boxes, one filled with bones and the other one with skulls. The last resting place of the previous priests that served in this monastery.

The cave

The cave is extremely long and dark. He tells us how previous priests used to store food and fresh water here because it stays cool during the hot summer days. He takes out his mobile phone to turn on a flashlight and takes us to the back, where stalactites and stalagmites have grown over the years. A beautiful place!

The monastery

After the cave, he invites us to his current project, the renovation of the guest chambers. Small rooms, carved in the rock of the mountain, for his fellow priests from other monasteries. He renovates the rooms by himself, one by one, and he is very proud of his result so far. 

We climb to the roof of the monastery, where you can feel how small and vulnerable we humans are. Chunks of the cliff above have tumbled down on the roof. He proudly tells us that no one got injured from any falling rocks here. God protects all in this place.

The living quarters

At the end of our tour, father Germanos invites us into his house for fresh water and loukoumi, a traditional Greek sweet. He has a small home, with a living room and kitchen. And in his fridge is a small plate of fassolada. He explains how eating here is the same as anywhere else. Priests don’t eat meat, but do use a microwave to heat up his leftovers

Father Germanos seems sad when it is time to say goodbye and walks with us to the main entrance, continuing his storytelling. We are always welcome to come again, and may God protect us on the road home.

The buildings at the monastery of Timios Prodromes

Life at the monastery

Father Germanos lives most of his days in solitude. Or together with God but without other humans, as he calls it. He keeps himself busy with more than just praying since he has to take care of the monastery by himself. He waters the flowers, cleans the monastery, renovates the guest chambers, and gets his groceries from the villages around. 

Father Germanos has a friend in the village on the mountain on the other side. Another priest who helps him in the monastery when he asks. And he is happy when a visitor comes to see the monastery. However, father Germanos might get trapped for weeks during the winter months. Bad weather and cold can close down the road. He doesn’t worry or feel scared or alone when this happens. God will be with me and protect me, he says. His biggest fear seems to be an old cypress tree that grows in his garden. After 300 years, it started dying. He asks all his visitors how he can revive it. 

His life seems easy, and his calmness and contentedness add to the spirituality of the place. I am not religious, but the location and the openness of father Germanos at the monastery of Timios Prodromes made me feel something ethereal. Maybe not God, but at least thankful for nature and the opportunity to discover it. Grateful for my own life and happiness. Blessed with the experience of a place so pure.

Tips:

  • There are actually two monasteries with the name Timios Prodromos in Arcadia, Peloponnese. This is the one that we visited for this article.
  • Father Germanos is extremely welcoming but does not speak more than a few words of English and German. The best experience is, unfortunately, in Greek.
  • The monastery is not accessible by wheelchair or for people with difficulty walking. You can get to the entrance by car, but after you park, you have to climb some steep stairs to reach the entrance.
  • This is a monastery, meaning you can not enter with every type of clothing. Women need to wear a long skirt or dress, men can not wear shorts, and shoulders have to be covered. Read our tips for visiting religious sites.
  • Although father Germanos is really open, friendly, and even has some humor, he is also very religious. Don’t offend the Orthodox church and treat him with respect.
  • The holy monastery of Timios Prodromes is located in a beautiful mountainous landscape with many religious sites at amazing places. Combine with a visit to the small church inside an old church ruin just North of Nea Chora. Or the famous monastery of Panagia Melevi.
  • Not that much of a religious tourist? Go hiking in the beautiful mountains around, or enjoy the blue waters of the Argolic Gulf on the beaches around Astros.

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Experience the ancient theatre of Epidaurus

In the north of Peloponnese, close to Nafplion and just 2 hours away from Athens, lies the ancient city of Epidaurus. Epidaurus was a small city established in the sixth century B.C. Today, it is a big tourist attraction due to the most well-preserved ancient theatre. The site is on the list of UNESCO world heritage and is famous for its acoustics. Epidaurus is known as the most impressive ancient theatre in the world. But what is the true experience of visiting this place?

Argolis, Peloponnese

Archeological site

1 hour

€6 – 12,-
depending on age and time

Yes

Yes

History

The city of Epidaurus was not like the average ancient city. Since the sixth century B.C., it is known as the healing center of the classical world. Ill people from all over Greece would come here to visit the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Treatment would involve a cleansing diet and healing through dreams. But there are also records from performed surgeries and the use of medication.

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus was created as a part of the healing practice. It was believed that the observation of dramatic shows could increase not only mental but also physical health. The original theatre was completed in the fourth century B.C. with 34 rows. Later, in roman times (2nd century B.C.), 21 more rows were added. The complete theatre provides space for about 14.000 spectators.

Architecture

The theatre of Epidavros is an architectural masterpiece designed by the architect Polykleitos. It is built as part of the Cynortion mountain and looks over the lush landscape below. Impressive and giant gates mark the entrance on both sides of the theatre.

The gate at the entrance of the theatre, against the high walls that surround the theater’s koilon or cavea.

From the entrance, you first see the perfectly circular stage, the orchestra, with a width of about 25 meters. The center of the stage is the center of the entire theatre. This spot is marked by a small circular stone, the thymele or altar. This is the stone on which the actor in ancient Greek times would stand to reach all the spectators with his voice.

Around the stage are the 55 rows of seats, the koilon or cavea. With a radius of 60 meters and at a 26-degree incline, these rows make the theatre most impressive. The scale and the height, the perfect symmetry, and the excellent preservation. The theatre of Epidaurus is one of the few places that make you understand the scale of ancient Greek society.

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Theatre experience

The instructions for visiting the theatre of Epidaurus are clear. You leave your travel partner on the circular stone plate in the middle of the stage while you start to climb up. After approximately 110 steps, you sit down on the highest row. When your friend below speaks, and you can hear every word.

In reality, however, I was not surprised when I tried to communicate with my boyfriend on stage. I could vaguely hear some of his words, but my ears mostly caught the sound of crickets around. How could it be that I was finally at this famous architectural masterpiece, and all I felt was disappointment? Was the whole story about the theatre just a way to lure tourists?

Aggrieved, I climbed down the stairs and sat in a row halfway in the theatre. When putting my phone back in my pocket, I heard a coin drop. Where did my money fall? I searched around but couldn’t see it. Another coin drops. What is happening? How can I be losing money I did not know I had with me?

Confused, I looked at the stage. And at this moment I realized just how special the theatre actually is. A man, standing in the middle of the stage, was dropping his coins. The sound started 40 meters away, but according to my ears, it sounded right next to me. That’s impressive acoustics!

The truth about the acoustics

What they often forget to tell about the theatre is how the material contributes to the acoustics. The theatre’s benches are made of limestone, except for the first marble rows for special guests. Limestone has the ability to filter out low-frequency sound and amplify high-frequency. With this material, the noise of the crowd is absorbed while the higher tones from the stage travel from bench to bench, to reach even the spectators in the highest rows.

This is why my boyfriend was surprised when I spoke to him from the stage, but reversed, the acoustics failed. His, and many other men’s voices, are too low to be amplified. So when you plan on visiting Epidaurus with a male travel partner, remember to use a coin!

The limestone benches and the theatre of Epidaurus

How did the theatre work in ancient times?

The material’s acoustics made me wonder. Did men plan in ancient Greek theatres? Or was it just women and boys before the age of puberty? Or is it the aging of the limestone that changed the acoustic aspects of the material?

No. 

The limestone properties did not change. And strangely, ancient Greek actors were men. One man, actually, during the time of the completion of Epidaurus. And although the number of men on stage changed over time, actresses were never allowed on an ancient Greek stage.

However, this one man used costumes and masks to define the different roles he played. And it is these masks that are the key to good acoustics. Ancient Greek masks both amplify the actor’s voice and change its acoustical qualities. It was the mask that helped the actor’s voice to work together with the limestone material and travel through the entire theatre. Amazing!

Tips:

  • Attend a theatre at the summer festival of Epidaurus. For a unique experience, Epidaurus offers ancient theatre plays, performed at the ancient theatre during the summer months. After sunset, you can watch a play from the same spot the Greeks used to sit thousands of years ago. For more information and tickets, check https://aefestival.gr.
  • Combine with a visit to the museum and the rest of the site. At Epidaurus, not only the theatre is well-preserved. Instead, the whole site provides a unique look into ancient times. 
  • Epidaurus is close to Mycenae, another UNESCO world heritage site. Mycenae is famous for its lion’s gate and well-preserved tombs.
  • When visiting during summer, the temperatures at Epidaurus might ask for a refreshing swim afterward. At Palaia Epidaurus, a picturesque town on the coast, 15 km away from the ancient site, you can find the sunken city of Epidaurus. Here, you can swim around the ruins of an ancient villa, a rare and exciting experience. Don’t forget to bring water shoes and snorkeling or diving gear.
  • The site of Epidaurus is well accessible for people with a disability. Paths are paved or asphalt. However, the theatre and the paths between the ruins are not.
  • Bring water, sunblock, and a hat. Not unlike anywhere else in Greece, temperatures in summer can rise to 40 degrees Celsius. Be prepared and protect yourself. Drink lots of water while you explore the ancient site.

Frequently asked questions

How to reach the ancient theatre of Epidaurus?

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus is easiest to reach by (rental) car from Athens in about two hours. For tourists, there are also many organized day tours to the site from Athens and other towns around. However, when joining these tours in summer, be prepared for high temperatures since you will reach in the middle of the day.

Do I have to pay an entry fee at Epidaurus?

Yes. A ticket for the ancient site of Epidaurus, the theatre, and the museum costs 12 euros per adult and 6 euros for children in summer. From November till March, tickets are half-price. There are a couple of days each year on which entry is free. Examples are the 18th of April, International Monuments Day, and the 18th of May, International Museums Day.

What are the opening hours of the theatre of Epidaurus?

In general, the site is open when the sun is up. From 8 am to 8pm in the summer months, and from 8 am till 5 pm during the winter. In April, September, and October it is best to check the opening hours before your visit. During holidays the site is either closed or has adjusted opening hours.

What is the best way to experience the acoustics of the ancient theatre of Epidaurus?

Drop a coin in the middle of the stage, and check how many people start looking around for money. Many guides tell you to speak from the center point of the theatre, but the best and most impressive experience is dropping a coin. You can literally hear a pin drop at all the 14.000 seats. 

The many abandoned and unfinished buildings in Greece

During your stay in Greece, you might be surprised by the many empty or half-finished buildings you come across. You find them in cities, towns, villages, and even remote areas. They are everywhere, and as an architect, I wanted to understand the reason behind them. After talking with many Greek citizens and homeowners I created a list of the most common reasons for abandoned and unfinished buildings in Greece.

Economic crisis

Let’s start with the simplest reason for the amount of abandoned and unfinished structures throughout Greece. The economic crisis in 2008. The downfall in economics hit Greece hard after the start of an economic burst just 8 years before. People had loans to either build their house or own one when all of a sudden they could not afford their mortgage anymore.

These people lost their houses or had to leave their ongoing construction projects and since the crisis hit the whole country, the government could not sell the empty houses to anyone else, leaving many abandoned and unfinished buildings in Greece.

Building is a life-long project

Ownership of property is very important in Greek culture. It is the symbol of wealth for a family. But where people from other countries precisely plan and budget their future house before taking on the construction of it, the Greeks have a slightly different approach.

Greeks will start building their house, even if they know they do not have enough funds to complete it. They are super optimistic, or naive maybe, hoping that money will show up at one point. But it can take up to a whole generation before even completing the first floor.

They basically start building as soon as they have their land. And stop when money is finished. There can be 10 years between building the walls and putting in the windows. And of course, the economic crisis only made this worse. Siga, Siga.

Claiming the land as yours

In Greece, ownership of land is something not well registered. In fact, only since 2019, you are obliged to register your property or plot with the National Cadastre of Greece and even today this system is not fully functioning. Records about ownership get lost, and therefore you basically have to physically claim your land as yours.

When a Greek finds a plot, perfect for his or her future house. Buying it and then leaving it empty for years could result in losing the land as well as the money it cost to buy. To avoid this, the Greeks build frames for future houses. This structure can be owned while you barely have to pay taxes.

Building rules change continuously

Another benefit of putting up the structure of the house before actually building it is the fact that you’ll later be able to build the size of house you wanted in the first place.

Building regulations change quickly in Greece, as a counter-act on basically everything described before. When you buy land in Greece today, wanting to build a mansion in thirty years, there is a chance you might not be able to build more than a shed. However, if the structure already exists and has the size of a mansion, your volume is safe. No matter what rules will come in the future, they will not be able to decrease the size of your property.

But the structure is not only put up to avoid rules that will come in the future. The Greeks even try to avoid the rules that are existing today. Only in Greece, it is possible to buy land on which you can not build a house, and legally build a house afterward.

What happens, in this case, is that first the structure of the house is built. Then, the Greeks go to the municipality, saying that since they already built this structure, it should be legal to build a house. Often, the municipality decides to make it legal to build and hands out a building permit. But when they don’t, you have an extra abandoned unfinished structure. And of course, the Greeks blame the government for this.

Read more about illegal buildings in Greece here, where a political engineer advertises to make money by legalizing illegal buildings or building parts. According to him, ” all the buildings that were built in the previous years – and I mean all!!- have some type of arbitrary building.”

Family inheritance

The final reason for the number of abandoned buildings in Greece is heritage. As I said before, homeownership is important in Greek culture. And because of this, a house is not really a tradable thing for the Greeks. It is a family legacy.

This made sense until the second world war, when most of the Greeks lived in the villages, in their family legacies. But things started changing after the 50’s. When the economy started growing, the Greeks started moving toward the cities, driven by work and money. The generation after moved even further away, this generation spread out over Europe and the US in search of a better life. However, they still own their family houses in the villages.

The Greeks today don’t use the family house anymore, but still recognize the value this house has to the family. They don’t want to sell, they want to own. To make things more complicated, many of the houses are not owned by one person but instead by the whole family.

Selling the family house means agreeing with the whole Greek family. And trust me, there will always be someone who will not agree. Even if the whole family knows they will not live in the house, they will not find an agreement on selling it. Maybe they will use it to celebrate Easter together once a year, just to have a reason to keep it.

Myths, culture, and future

Tax evasion

There are many stories about the Greeks not finishing their houses to avoid taxes. However, nowadays this is more than a myth than it is reality. Years ago, there was a rule in Greece that when you would not finish your house, you would pay fewer taxes. As a result, many Greeks just left a little part of their house unfinished, to avoid the normal tax rate. However, this rule does not exist anymore and has not for a long time. The only way to avoid a higher tax is for buildings that are unfinished, uninhabited, never been inhabited, and are not connected to electricity.

Perception & culture

As a Dutch architect who knows Greece, I believe it is not just the structures that are actually unfinished that I perceive as such. Yes, there are quite a few abandoned and unfinished buildings in Greece. However I believe that cultural differences play a big part here as well. It happened often to me that I thought a building was either abandoned or unfinished while it turned out to be a family home.

Greece doesn’t know a municipal beauty committee, nor do the Greeks actually follow the rules of building. Making the cities look a bit like a mess. Besides, the Greeks are very practical. They want to be able to easily add an extension or extra floor to their house, or they leave the ground floor completely open so they can park cars between the concrete columns. They care about function more than about design and this might cause some confusion.

Future

Walking through a Greek city today, you can see that the Greeks started doing something about the many abandoned buildings. Renovation starts to become popular, especially in the big cities. Hopefully soon, the number of abandoned and unfinished buildings in Greece will become something from the past.

Read more about buildings in Greece

Building amongst archeological sites

Around 50 years ago, Thessaloniki decided to do something about the endless traffic jams in the city. The idea was a metro, connecting the rectangular-shaped city center underground. Today, however,…

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Siga, Siga

During your stay in Greece, while sipping coffee in front of the sea, you will hear the phrase, “siga siga” all around you. But what does it mean? Is it…

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Whoever believes that time in Greece is EET, Eastern European Time, is wrong. Although the Greek clock may tick according to EET, real Greek time is a totally different concept.…

Building amongst archeological sites

Around 50 years ago, Thessaloniki decided to do something about the endless traffic jams in the city. The idea was a metro, connecting the rectangular-shaped city center underground. Today, however, not one station opened. Why? Because building amongst archeological sites is nearly impossible.

The tunnel for Thessaloniki’s metro resulted in the largest archeological dig in northern Greece. While construction of the metro quickly came to a stop, 300 archeologists had 20 square kilometers of Byzantine structures to be unearthed. With over 10 years of delay, the metro is still not functional today, but archeologists found a real treasure.

Although I fully agree that the archeological findings in Greece are valuable and do need to be preserved. I want to show you a different side of this story. Because while living in a country with ancient stones in every back garden might sound romantic to you. It is actually not as great as it seems. Building amongst archeological sites actually causes big problems all throughout Greece.

As soon as construction starts, it stops

Whenever someone wants to build something, somewhere in Greece, there is one main rule he or she has to follow. Stop when there is a sign of any kind of old object in the ground.

But imagine that you bought a piece of land in your favorite region in Greece. The plans for your dream house are ready, construction starts with digging for the foundation, and then… it stops. Either you will have months or even years of delay. Or archeologists will tell you after this time that you can forget all about your dream house. You instead bought yourself an archeological site. Yay..?

The same thing can happen even when you inherit the family house. Maybe the foundation needs to be strengthened or maybe you want to make an extension to fit the whole family. Well even if the house and garden have been in family for years, chances are big that you as well, will stumble upon some artifact that either leaves you with an unhabitable house or a big delay.

It is too expensive to build

During countless construction projects in Greece, both big and small, something valuable is found. Resulting in delays, higher costs, or loss of invested money. The Thessaloniki metro, for example, went from a budget of 1.1 billion euros to costing over 3.5 billion. With an additional 132 million euros spent on archeology, of which the budget was just 15 million. But where this project was able to continue because of funding, many Greeks are not able to pay 3x more as planned for a simple house.

Do they stop at every stone?

As a result, many building sites are left abandoned and unfinished. And although ancient ruins are not the main reason for the abandoned structures, it is one that seems so surreal to me.

I can imagine the frustration of developers when again an ancient wall is found by a bulldozer. I wonder if they would really stop at every single stone or just throw away a few to speed up the process. It is not easy, building amongst archeological sites when they are litteraly everywhere.

It reminds me of the projects I worked on in Germany, where it is very common to have either a bomb or a bunker underneath your plot. A different kind of history but one that prevents architectural growth as much as the ancient ruins in Greece do. Funny.

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The Greeks are famous for their architecture and even invented this type of art. Look at the Parthenon, the Temple of Apollo, or the ancient theatre of Epidaurus. All great examples of architecture and now on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. Also, on the Greek islands, architecture resembles art. The idyllic villages with narrow stone streets, surrounded by whitewashed walls and blue roofs that match the color of the sky. The Greeks knew what they were doing, but what happened with architecture in modern Greek cities?

A quick history of Greek Architecture

The Greeks invented the elements needed to turn a structure into art. The formulas they invented, as early as the sixth century B.C., have influenced the architecture of the past two millennia. All around the world. Greek temples and theaters have been the inspiration for many architects, and even The White House is inspired by Ancient Greek Architecture.

After Ancient Greece, architecture continued to evolve in the land that is now Greece. With influences from the Byzantines, the Venetians, and the Ottomans, many cities became a combination of beautiful churches, mosques, and castles. On the islands, the protection against plunderers created the idyllic white and blue villages. But unfortunately, history does not end there. After the Second World War, the country was in ruins. And when, years later, Greece was finally in an economic situation to rebuild. The Greeks seemed to have forgotten about architecture.

Rapid expansion after the war

In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, the economy in Greece was booming. There were plenty of new jobs in the Greek cities, and the Greeks decided to leave their houses in the villages in search of a better life. 

Quickly, the cities got full, and there were still enough vacancies to be filled. Greek cities needed more houses, and they needed them fast. Whoever had enough money to invest in a piece of land built a new apartment building in the city. These investors were just random people without knowledge of construction and instead solely looking for an easy way to make a profit. 

Instead of letting architects design the housing for modern Greek cities, an enormous amount of apartment buildings were built and designed by engineers. Buildings are cheaper without an architect who prefers form over function. Besides, during this time, there was no municipal “beauty committee” to control the aesthetic part of the new-build areas in the cities. Everyone could do what they wanted, as long as a building did not exceed the maximum of six stories to make the city safe during possible earthquakes.

As a result, the cities got packed with uninspiring six-story high concrete apartment blocks, the polykatoikias.

The polykatoikias brought life to the Greek cities

Although the look of the concrete apartment blocks in the Greek cities is far from great, this housing type turned the Greek cities into the lively places they are today. 

Every apartment block had a mix of apartment types on the inside. Poor farmers who had just entered the city would live on the bottom floors, and richer people lived in the penthouses on top. There was no division between rich and poor neighborhoods, and everyone was allowed to start a business from their apartment. The result was an interesting mix of functions within each block, which made the cities pleasant and vibrant. 

Besides, every apartment building has a generous balcony on the side of the street. These balconies have two advantages. Firstly, they prevent the houses from overheating in the summer. The concrete slabs shadow the windows of the apartments and prevent the sun from directly entering the house. Secondly, the balconies turn each street into a lively place. You can hear family gatherings and neighbors chatting above the streets. Creating a more friendly environment.

The problem of ownership and aging

Before the expansion of the modern Greek cities, the land was owned by whoever inherited it. Often, these people did not have enough money to invest in an apartment building. Neither did the government have the funds to buy their land for the city. So in order to expand, investors took the land, and in return, the owners got a couple of apartments in the future polykatoikia.

As a result, each apartment block had many owners. In the first decades of their existence, this was not a problem. However, when the buildings started to age, maintenance became difficult. Today, one building can have over 70 owners! So who is responsible for which part of the building?

Time revealed that many buildings were constructed with profit in mind. Plumbing and insulation often fail, and paint crumbles off. However, none of the residents feels responsible for fixing the problems of the building. The Greeks don’t want to pay anything for their neighbor, so if 30 people own one block, and one of them does not have enough money to remove, for example, the graffiti on the entrance, no one will do it, and the graffiti remains. 

As a result, many people choose to leave a not-well-maintained apartment block. When a homeowner had money to afford renovation, but his neighbors did not, he would move to a place with people who shared his standards. Poor people stayed together in poorly maintained houses and could not afford the renovation. Some of the apartment blocks were even abandoned completely.

The old, the empty, and the ugly

In the ’90s Greece became a part of the European Union, and with this came money. The Greeks were again ready to invest in housing. As a Dutch, I would say great! Time to upgrade the concrete blocks that did not age well and make our cities great again. But unfortunately, this is not what the real Greeks wanted to do with their money.

Why invest money in someone else’s leftovers if you can build something that is your own? While the polykatoikias were falling apart, new concrete was added to the city by engineers. Until the crisis hit Greece in 2008.

After 2008, not only were many buildings left unfinished, many companies, as well as people, lost their houses. I stayed last February in a hotel in the city center of Thessaloniki. On the corner in front of the hotel I stayed in, there was one abandoned building, one unfinished structure, and one apartment building with only a few residents, ready to fall apart. The hotel itself, however, was a beautifully renovated building from the early 1900s.

It makes an interesting scenery, architecture in modern Greek cities! The combination of ancient architectural masterpieces with the complete lack of design in modern buildings. Every time I visit a Greek city, the architect in me imagines the potential of all the beautiful old empty buildings. As well as parks and skyscrapers, in the sites now occupied by the concrete, earthquake-proof engineer blocks. But will Greece ever make her cities beautiful again?

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When a monk makes camp. Panagia Kakaniotissa

Just a few kilometers West of Myrina, on the island of Lemnos, is a church that is unlike any other. Panagia Kakaniotissa. A small church without a roof but covered by the tip of the mountain it was built in. This small church is one of the most unique churches in the world.

one of the most unique churches in the world inside a cave on top of a mountain
Panagia Kakaniotissa, image from greekcitytimes.com

History

The church was built in the 13th century, when the Ottomans took over the island of Lemnos. A few monks were able to escape from the Turks. Trying to find a place to hide, they found a secluded and inaccessible cave. Covered by the roughness of the volcanic landscape around, they felt safe enough to make camp.

But what would a monk in a camp be without a church? Nothing. So the monks built the Panagia Kakaniotissa church and were able to survive here throughout time. Not being found by the occupants of the island.

Experience

Today the church is still in use and made accessible to the public. Well, for as far as possible on its very remote location. Just north of the church is a parking lot, accessible by a dirt road. From here a poorly constructed path leads you through the volcanic landscape, up to the cave.

On the way, you will be surprised by the beauty of the landscape around. Although the area seems pretty dry, there are so many different colors around you. The volcanic stones in the area are like sculptures while the sea is visible on the horizon. You’ll visit not only one of the most unique churches in the world, but you will hike through a special landscape as well.

Volcanic rock shows the face of an angry man on the path toward the church.

Tips:

  • When going to this church, make sure to navigate to the parking lot. Navigation might make a mistake when you try to drive directly towards the church.
  • The hike to the church takes about 20 minutes.
  • Bring enough water and sunscreen with you. And when visiting in summer, it is better to go either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. But make sure to be back before it’s dark, because the path, as well as the dirt road, can be dangerous in the night.
  • Although the stairs of the path are not very well constructed, it does make this hike safe for children.
  • Don’t try to visit during Easter, or maybe do if you want to explore the Greek culture. To this day, the church is still in use to celebrate this important Greek Orthodox holiday.
  • Halfway the path towards the church is a little seating area from which you can enjoy the view over the mountains and the sea.
  • Combine with a visit to the castle of Myrina or the traditional windmills in Kontias
Volcanic landscape on Lemnos overlooking the sea

Much more than a beach. Paralia Mikro Fanaraki

In the East of the island of Lemnos, there is a small beach called Mikro Fanaraki. A small lantern. The beach is probably named after the little lighthouse on the rocks closeby. Although Mikro Fanaraki itself is small as well, there is so much to see and do around that it deserves a visit during your stay on the island.

Location Overview

Lemnos
Natural site
3 hours
Free
Yes but be careful
No

Beach & Sea

Because the beach is almost completely enclosed, the sea will be clear, blue, and smooth, almost every day. A sea like oil is what the Real Greeks would say. Besides, the water is shallow making it the ideal beach for families with younger children. And with the whole beach being surrounded by white rocks, it feels like you enter a paradise.

But there is so much more on this beach!

The rocks in mikro Fanaraki – by google’s local host Apostolos Petalotis

Rocks

Swimming a little bit to the left coming from the beach, there are some small rocks in the water that make for a perfect playground. The rocks here are easy to walk on, steady, and go into the water like a ramp. Amazing for older kids to play on but even adults can enjoy themselves here.

Since the beach of Mikro Fanaraki itself is pretty small and busy, these rocks make the perfect place to enjoy the beauty of this area. You can pick your own spot, away from other people. Spend some time enjoying the scenery, cooling off with a swim in the crystal clear water.

little blue clear bay with white cliffs and green
Abandoned estate in the cliff close to mikro Fanaraki in Lemnos.
Almost invisible between the surrounding nature.

Abandoned estate on the cliff

Following the rocks, you will end up at a small bay with its own little sand beach. This beach was once owned by a rich man, who build an estate in the cliff above. After building, the man was forced to leave because of economic reasons. And now the beach, as well as the property, are abandoned and open for a visit.

First I have to say, as an architect, the house is an amazing design. From the sea it is nearly impossible to distinguish the house from the cliff it is built on. The color of the stones matches perfectly with the rocks around and the greenery in front makes it part of nature. Only a big round window in the front of the house reveal’s its presence. It is not often in Greece that villas are so polite to the nature they’re built in.

Coming back to the beach below. From here you can take a path with stairs up to the house that is part of a giant abandoned estate. Walk around but definitely take the paved walkway all along the cliffs. The view is marvelous and it is easy to walk. This path will eventually take you back to the mikro fanaraki beach.

Seal’s cave

Seal’s cave – by google’s local host Lucian Bagia

Coming back to the beach, there is one more thing you should do, swimming to the right side. Or go for a hike, whatever you prefer! Seal’s cave is a place with beautiful stone structures where you can swim through. The stone’s here are volcanic, meaning that many have beautiful colors and textures. Although the water in the caves can get a bit dirty and it smells like sulfide, the cave is a beautiful creation of nature.

Tips:

  • Mikro fanaraki is one of the most popular beaches on Lemnos and in summer it can get very crowded. Come early in the day or late in the afternoons to have a more peaceful experience. Or leave the beach itself and find a spot around on the cliffs in the afternoon.
  • There is quite a big parking near the road. From here you walk down to the beach through the sand, making it difficult for disabled people to get there.
  • The sunbeds on the beach are owned by the beach bar here and using one means buying something to eat or to drink from here. They are slightly overpriced. But we had just two coffees and spend the whole afternoon exploring the area. Meaning it was worth the price.
  • If you visit the beach at the end of the day. Move to paralia fanaraki (the beach on the other side) to watch the sunset. This is super beautiful because you will see the sun go down behind the mountains of the western part of the island.
Did you see the abandoned house in the picture? Or do you know another beach house that truly blends in with its surroundings? Let me know in the comments below.

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Meteora

Breathtaking and magical. Six monasteries on top of huge rock pillars that seem surreal. No words nor pictures can capture the beauty and impressiveness of this Greek landmark, where history, spirituality, nature and architecture truly come together. No wonder Meteora is on the UNESCO world heritage as well as the Natura 2000 list. Definitely visit this place when you’re around in Greece!

Location Overview

Thessaly, Central Greece

Nature / Religion

3 hours
to 3 days

Free
€3,- p.p. per monastery

Be careful

Average

Landscape

Meteora is located in central Greece, in the Thessaly region. Thessaly’s landscape is extreme. From the highest mountain in Greece, Mount Olympus, to endless cultivated plains around Trikala and Larissa. The most unique part of Thessaly’s landscape is Meteora. Where giant rock columns rise from a lush green forest.

How the rock pillars at Meteora are created remains kind of a mystery. The rocks consist of a mixture of sandstone and something called conglomerate. Conglomerate consists of small rounded pebbles and sand, created from sediment deposited by fast-flowing rivers or by waves on beaches.

There are multiple theories about how nature was able to create the pillars of Meteora. They could have been created by the sea, rivers, earth-movement, or extreme weather conditions. Most probably, Meteora is a result of a combination of all of the above. However, a real scientifically proven origin is yet to be found. What is known, is that the pillars date back about 60 million years ago and are a true natural wonder.

religious site Meteora with monastery on a rock pilar with a lush forest below
View from one monastery to another between the rock columns

Mythology

Like all unexplainable or unique natural locations, Greek mythology has a story to explain the existence of Meteora. The Olympian Gods, led by Zeus, fought a war against their ancestors, the Titans. The fight flattened the earth, creating the large valley around Meteora. However, the Titans who lost the battle turned into stone and stand in the landscape as large rock pillars.

History

The rock pillars of Meteora have always been a special place for humans. In the most famous cave in the area, the Theopetra cave, signs of the transition from Neanderthals to modern humans have been found. As well as the change from hunter-gatherers to farmers.

The history of Meteora as a holy place for the Greek Orthodox church starts in the Byzantine era. In the 9th century A.D., monks searched for the caves in the rock pillars to practice their faith in peace and solitude.
Later, from the 11th century, the caves of these hermits became the place to hide from Turkish occupants. In the 14th century, the first of the twenty monasteries on top of stone pillars were constructed.

Access to the monasteries was originally difficult and required a literal leap of faith. A long ladder or large net was the only way to reach this religious site. Since the 1920s, improvements in accessibility have opened the monasteries up to the public.

During the Second World War, Meteora was bombed. And in the 1950s an earthquake shook the famous rock pillars. Fortunately, this marvelous and unique place still exists today.

The monasteries

In the 14th and 15th century, a total of twenty monasteries at the tops of the stone pillars are constructed in Meteora. Six of them still remain standing today. The other fourteen have unfortunately become inaccessible ruins, taken over by nature.

Experience:

Today, there are multiple ways to explore the unique and beautiful area of Meteora. You can visit the monasteries by car, or with a guided tour. A concrete road takes you through the area of Meteora. Along this road are various viewpoints are well as parking areas from which you can easily access the monasteries by bridges and steps.

But you can make the experience of Meteora as religious or adventurous as you want. It is possible hike up the rock pillars from the village of Kalabaka and in the area are various hiking trails with different levels of difficulty.

No matter how you choose to discover the unique landscape of Meteora, be prepared to be blown away by the beauty of the area. During every season and every time of day, this landmark is marvelous.

The Great Meteoron Holy Monastery

Tips:

  • The name Meteora comes from the ancient Greek word meteoros. This means, raised from the ground, which is exactly what the monasteries at Meteora look like.
  • Have you seen Game of Thrones? Real images of Meteora were used in the view from Tyrion’s cell in the castle Vale, above the clouds.
  • The Thessaly region is known as the hottest part of Greece. During summer, temperatures can easily rise up to 35 or even 40 degrees. Bring enough water and plan your visit early in the morning. Even better is to visit in spring or fall.
  • Even when you’re not able to climb these, due to physical reasons or fear of heights, the area is still worth your visit, you don’t actually have to get inside one to be impressed by this landmark.
  • Monasteries in Greece often close early and have one day a week on which they do not open at all. When you want to visit one of the six monasteries in particular, make sure to check the opening hours before planning your trip. A tip for visiting in summer is to wear appropriate clothing, covering your shoulders, upper arms and knees. Read our guide for visiting religious sites in Greece before your visit.

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