The Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens
Greece: Sustainable tourism in the cradle of Europe
January 6, 2021
You many think of Greece as predominantly a sun, sea and sand destination, even if you like to soak up the culture too. But with its mild climate, history and beautiful landscape, Greece has a lot to offer all year round. It’s also taking great strides in sustainability, and by its very nature, its culture has some features that make it a hit with ecotourists.
“Organic produce markets and island seafood makes it an unintentional leader of the world’s most sustainable food,” explained Lonely Planet. This year, the travel platform has refocused its Best in Travel awards on “destinations that are making incredible contributions in the areas of sustainability, diversity and community,” and it named Greece as the Best Food Destination for 2021.
But with so many fantastic destinations in Greece, where should you go? We take a look at some of the ‘classic’ (pun intended) sights, and those mainland areas and islands offering a greener and more authentic holiday experience.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus
IMAGE: Y Skoulas
The Cradle of Civilisation
Greece is known as one of the cradles of civilisation; the birthplace of many of the organisational structures that underpin western civilisation and some of history’s greatest thinkers. It’s also home to 18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including some awe-inspiring historical landmarks.
On the Greek mainland, a visit to Athens isn’t complete without a trip to the ancient theatre of Dionysus, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the Arch of Hadrian, the Temple of Zeus, and of course, the Acropolis in Athens. This landmark comprises the iconic Parthenon, Propylaia, Erechtheion and the temple of Athena Nike on the ‘acropolis’ (the highest point of the city)., explaining why visitors to these impressive structures must first ascend a slope up a steep bluff. Other must-sees are the ancient ruins of Corinth and the Corinth Canal, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the 3,500-year-old ruins of Mycenae (home of Agamemnon) and the towering rock pillars of Meteora, topped with monasteries that seem to defy gravity.
Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora
Green and Beautiful Greece
Greece is blessed with a beautiful and diverse landscape. Rocky slopes and soaring mountains surround still blue lakes and green valleys. Gorges peppered with mysterious caves cut through endless forests, and thundering waterfalls plunge into scenic rivers. And of course, there are hundreds of idyllic islands and thousands of miles of coastline with dramatic cliffs and smooth, sandy beaches. It really does have it all.
This diversity makes it not just beautiful, but also a haven for wildlife. Around 50,000 species of animal make their home here, while many of Greece’s 10,000 caves have their own separate ecosystem. Around 700 animal species and over 900 plant species have protected status. So where can you go to see the best of green Greece?
Lakes and Lush Forests
Greece’s important wetlands are protected by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. There are also fifteen significant landscape areas listed as Preserved Natural Monuments and many others protected by the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea Against Pollution or the NATURA 2000 network.
The National Park of Messolonghi and Etoliko Lagoons is located at the southwest tip of Sterea Ellada where the Gulf of Patras meets the Ionian Sea. The Messolonghi-Etoliko lagoon is the largest in Greece and considered one of the most important lagoons in the Mediterranean. Spend time admiring the flamingos and the other wildlife species that visit or live here wander among the wooden huts that fringe the lagoons and explore Etoliko, a small, picturesque island connected to the mainland by two bridges. The beautiful Klisoura gorge is nearby, as is Fraxos Forest, one of Greece’s Preserved Natural Monuments. At the end of the day, find a place at the edge of the lagoon to watch the sunset: there are few better spots to do so!
The Steni forest in Evia is crisscrossed by numerous streams and gorges, while the petrified forest on the island of Lesvos is a very different experience. Here, petrified trunks, the result of intense volcanic activity over 20 million years ago, are scattered over an area of 150 km2. The petrification process has turned these trees to stone and, on some of them, produced amazing rainbow colours that you can see most clearly on the exposed stumps. It feels like the landscape has been frozen in time, and the effect is both eerie and beautiful.
Birds and Butterflies
Over 450 species of birds can be found in Greece; more than half of them are endemic and the rest are migratory visitors looking for a great holiday destination! Greece has many bird observatories in both mountainous areas, where you may spot a majestic Booted Eagle, and in aquatic areas. Prespa National Park, which is shared with Albania and Macedonia, encompasses the Prespa Lakes, one of the most important wetlands in Europe. These lakes are home to hundreds of bird species, many of them endangered, including the Dalmatian pelican, cormorant and heron. At the Park’s Bird Observatory, members of the Hellenic Ornithological Society can lend you a telescope for a closer look, and help you identify and learn about the birds you spot. You should also visit Lake Kerkini in Northern Greece, 40km from the town of Serres, considered to be one of the top bird-watching destinations in all of Europe. Around 300 bird species have been observed here and there is no shortage of other fauna.
The ancient Greeks were fascinated by butterflies and even named them after their word for souls, 'psyche'. They imagined butterflies as actual embodiments of human souls enjoying freedom and flight. Greece is home to 236 species of butterflies, of which around 50 are unique to Greece. Find Kretania Psylorita on Mount Psiloritis or visit Mount Taygetus, the only place to see Polymatus Menelaus. Hike the Kynouria gorges to see beautiful red butterflies or admire the iridescent, deep blue wings of the species that live near the Gria Vathra waterfalls on the island of Samothrace.
Patitiri, northern Sporades
IMAGE: P Merakos
Greece’s European Destinations of Excellence
The EDEN awards for European Destinations of Excellence were established to promote sustainable tourism development models across the EU. Initially an annual award scheme, since 2011, it takes place every two years, focusing each time on a different sustainability theme. An award is given to the best emerging but less well-known destination in each candidate country, with four other destinations from that country receiving ‘honourable mentions’.
Greece last competed in 2017 when the theme was Cultural Tourism. EDEN was looking for destinations that “successfully implemented a tourism offer based on their local tangible cultural heritage assets,” providing authentic experiences and destination management that was socially, culturally, and environmentally sustainable. The Greek winner was the city of Patra its surrounding region, Achaia, and two neighbouring regions, Ileia and Aitoloakarnania.
Patra and Achaia
Patra (Patras in Greek) in the Peloponnese is the third-largest city in Greece and the regional capital of Western Greece. EDEN were impressed at the way in which Patra showcases its long and varied cultural history alongside authentic cuisine and experiences, and locally made goods. It also praised how the area promotes and provides all-year-round tourism with its 'Western Greece Collection: Inspirations' platform.
With its beautiful natural landscape, picturesque villages and plenty of activities on offer, this region has something to offer everyone.
History and Heritage
Patra is home to the spectacular Roman Odeon, built in 2 A.D., the Fortress of Rio, the Archaeological Museum and the 6th century Castle of Patra, which has spectacular views over the city. The Achaia region also boasts the Dymaean Wall, part of a fortress built around 1300 B.C. The Mega Spileo Monastery, founded in 362 A.D., is a dramatic sight, built against a sheer cliff 10km from the town of Kalavryta. Panagia Tripiti, one of Greece’s most important Orthodox shrines pilgrimage sites, can be found at Egio, Achaia’s second-largest city.
Rather more recent is the Cathedral of Saint Andrew, Patra’s patron saint. Built in 1974 in the Byzantine style, this colourful and impressive cathedral has the largest dome in the Balkans. Newer still is the Rio-Antirrio Bridge, opened in 2004. Its 2,880-metre length makes it the longest fully suspended multi-span cable-stayed bridge in the world. The bridge spans the Gulf of Corinth, shortening the previous journey time between the Peloponnese and the mainland considerably, and it’s an impressive feat of engineering worth seeing.
St Andrew's Cathedral, Patra
Culture and Cuisine
Patra hosts the International Festival of Patra, a celebration of music, theatre, dance, film and visual arts, and the International Film Festival. It’s also the home of the third-largest carnival in the world, which begins on 17th January and includes a treasure hunt, pantomimes and a special Children’s Carnival. It ends on the Sunday night before Clean Monday (the 7th Monday before Easter) with fireworks and the burning of the Carnival King’s float in Patra harbour.
Celebrate these festivals, or any occasion at all, with feta cheese from Kalavrita and a glass of Moscato or Roditis wine from Achaia Clauss Winery, the largest exporter of Greek wine (and supposedly the second oldest business in Greece after the National Bank!). You’ll find plenty of restaurants and cafés serving both international and local cuisine, but while many offer vegetarian options, fewer provide vegan choices, and completely meat-free eateries are somewhat rare.
Patra has numerous bars, clubs and music venues in which to make the most of your evenings. You can also visit the Patras Municipal and Regional Theatre 'Apollon', a mini version of Milan’s La Scala in Milan and the oldest existing enclosed theatre of the same era.
Organic Farming in Lakonia, Peloponnese
IMAGE: P Merakos
Nature and Outdoor Activities
If you prefer the quiet life, at least in the daytime, then head to Chelmos mountain, the Cave of the Lakes, Lake Tsivlou, or the National Park of Kotychi and Strofylia Wetlands to appreciate the natural beauty of the Greek countryside. The forest of Strofylia is on a tiny peninsula separating Lake Prokopos from the Ionian Sea, forming a natural reserve where you can experience a woodland habitat alongside coastal sand dunes and the beautiful Kotychi Lagoon. There’s also the Vouraikos Gorge to be hiked, with its river and waterfalls, but you may prefer to view it from the historic narrow-gauge Diakopto–Kalavryta railway, which passes the gorge and the Mega Spileo Monastery on the way to Kalavryta.
In winter, Kalavryta has a bustling ski scene and you can enjoy hours of adrenaline-packed fun on the slopes of Helmos. In the summer, you can head to Drepano to try your hand at kite surfing. But if a day (or several) spent mainly on the beach is your thing, then the Blue Flag beaches of Kalogria and Lakopetra await you. The popular Kalogria is near Strofylia forest, while Lakopetra is a shallow sandy beach ideal for families with young children. If you want somewhere quieter and aren’t concerned about Blue Flag Status, a trip along a bumpy dirt track will lead you to pebbly and less commercialised Gianiskari beach.
Diving centres offer trips to sites such as the Nestos Wreck near Psathopyrgos village, the Drepano Tubes (ideal for beginners and night dives) and the reefs off Lampiri beach. There are also centres offering yoga, tennis and horseback riding, so you’ll always find plenty of things to do.
Panagia Evangelistria in Tinos
IMAGE: P Merakos
EDEN’s Honourable Mentions: Veroia, Larisa, Dodoni and Tinos
Veroia, Larisa, Dodoni and Tinos all received honourable mentions in EDEN’s 2017 awards and offer authentic yet disparate slices of Greek culture.
Veroia (Macedonia): The 48 Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches preserved in the centre of this historic city have earned it the nickname ‘Little Jerusalem’. Both the old Christian Quarter and the old Jewish Quarter are well-preserved areas worth a visit.
Larisa (Thessaly): Explore its ancient theatres, sample the local Rapsani wine and enjoy Carnival Bouloukia and the Pineios Festival. Larisa has an extensive network of bicycle lanes and ‘low-traffic’ areas that make eco-friendly exploration by foot or bike easy!
Dodoni (Epirus): Once the site of an oracle second only to Delphi, with links to the Homeric epics, this is now the site of multiple historical ruins and a well-preserved theatre.
Tinos (Cyclades): On Tinos (not to be confused with Tilos!), you can enjoy island-grown lemons, oranges, olives and figs, together with traditional sausages like louzes, made from pork rib meat matured in red wine. The spectacular Church of Panayia Evangelistria is a famous pilgrimage site.
Vikos Gorge, Zagori region
IMAGE: P Merakos
The Magic of Mainland Greece
Zagori (in Slavic, ‘the place behind the mountains’) is on UNESCO’s ‘tentative list’, under consideration for listing as a World Heritage Site. In this little-known, sparsely populated area near the Albanian border, roads were unknown until the 1950s. Anything not raised, grown or produced here had to come over the mountains, and this kept the cuisine local. Little has changed today. Local cheeses and meats are on the menu and most of the restaurants and hotels pick the fruit, vegetables and herbs they use from their own gardens.
The Vikos-Aoös National Park is quiet and beautiful, with the dramatic Vikos Gorge, the world’s deepest canyon, as its centrepiece—and it is truly dramatic, listed as the world's ‘deepest relative to its width’ gorge by the Guinness Book of Records. Whether you like lakes, caves, mountains, rivers or forests, it’s all here. Rafting, kayaking, hiking, climbing and mountain biking are popular here, and between December and March this mountainous region provides great terrain for lovers of skiing, snowboarding and other winter sports.
If you prefer your outdoor adventures to be tranquil rather than adrenaline-fuelled, take a mushroom-foraging trip through the woods—or even just a scenic walk. The cobbled roads, graceful stone bridges and traditional villages, densely packed around a central square that contains all the buildings of importance, add to the feeling you’ve gone back in time; a gentler and more pleasant one!
This small city in Thessaly won the ‘Smaller Municipalities’ category in the 2019 awards presented by the European Commission’s European Mobility Week campaign. The campaign provides towns and cities with an opportunity to test out sustainable transport alternatives. Karditsa offered financial benefits to companies introducing sustainable mobility measures, and employees who commuted by bicycle or on foot were given extra days off work.
Around 40% of all journeys in the city are carried out by bicycle, which has a bikeshare scheme and a wealth of bicycle lockers and cycling lanes, and city authorities have also started a carpooling platform. Why not hop on a bike to explore the city’s large and leafy Pafsilipo Park?
Samaria Gorge National Park, Crete
Crete is the largest island in Greece by quite some way, so it’s not surprising it has all the features you want in one place: wonderful weather and scenery, beautiful beaches, welcoming tavernas and a wealth of history.
Divided into Crete’s four prefectures, here are its highlights:
Wander through the charming Old Town of Chania and the White Mountains National Park, which encompasses the stunning Samaria Gorge. The Park is home to 450 species of plant and animal (including wild goats!), 70 of which are endemic to Crete. You can also visit the Boilea Olive Oil Estate, to see first-hand how the company uses large traditional stones to cold press olives and produce oil: a traditional but very sustainable process.
Rethymno has beautiful beaches, but many people come here to see Mount Ida, the highest mountain in Crete, and the Idaion Andron cave that lies on its slopes. Here, according to legend, Zeus, father of the gods, was born. The mountain sits in the Psiloritis UNESCO Global Geopark, which offers opportunities for swimming, hiking, caving and rock climbing in a stunning landscape.
The city of Rethymno was the first Greek city to host a Dockless Bike Sharing System (DBSS), so why not rent a bicycle to explore what the area has to offer? Thanks partly to its bike-sharing scheme, Rethymno was named as a runner-up in the European Mobility Week awards 2019 in the ‘larger municipalities’ category.
Lasithi’s unspoilt beaches include Vai, with crystal clear waters and a palm tree forest that give a Caribbean vibe. Try to tear yourself away to hike around the area’s gorges and picturesque villages and you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views.
Heraklion’s beautiful Kefalanthiro forest boasts rare orchids and you can’t miss the Minoan Palace of Knossos. The strong summer winds here make the coast ideal for windsurfing, kitesurfing and kiteboating.
The Chora of Astypalea Island
IMAGE: P Merakos
The Dodecanese Islands
Astypalaia lies in the southern Aegean and was previously known for little except its butterflies. However, this small island, with its very limited public transport, has now been chosen as the ideal site for a six-year plan to transition to renewable power generation and, with the help of the Volkswagen Group, electric vehicles.
The new cutting-edge mobility system will include an all-electric year-round ridesharing service, while a vehicle sharing service will offer e-bikes and e-scooters from the Group’s SEAT brand and electric cars. Commercial vehicles from local businesses and utility vehicles (e.g. police vehicles, emergency services transport and public sector fleets) will also be electrified. Ride and vehicle sharing will significantly reduce the island’s vehicle numbers, replacing 1,500 combustion engine vehicles with around 1,000 electric vehicles. Volkswagen will also install about 230 private charging points and several public ones across the island. Astypalaia will be using energy primarily generated from local solar and wind infrastructure, installed by the government.
This project is integral to Volkswagen's ‘goTOzero’ strategy for carbon neutrality by 2050, and will serve as a blueprint for the total decarbonisation of mobility. The Hellenic Republic supports this transformation within the framework of its National Energy & Climate Plan, and will be subsidising the purchase of private electric vehicles.
The first e-vehicles (expected to be government vehicles), plus the car-sharing and ride-sharing services, will be deployed on Astypalaia in the first half of 2021.
Tilos Island, Dodecanese
Tilos only has about 500 inhabitants, but despite not being a well-known tourist trap, it attracts around 13,000 visitors a year (3,000 in high season). This peak in visitors brings about a simultaneous peak in energy demand and the island’s supply (via an undersea pipeline from Kos) was often not enough, resulting in frequent, prolonged blackouts. Not only did this affect light and air conditioning, but also freezers, forcing restaurants to throw away food.
The island of Tilos was the first of 80 projects chosen to receive funding under the Horizon 2020 programme, which has allowed the island to build a hybrid power station, with wind and solar farms, and batteries for storage. Tilos now has complete energy self-sufficiency and has significantly reduced its carbon footprint, while bringing practical and financial benefits to locals and tourists.
Votsi Bay, Alonissos, Sporades
On Alonnisos, individuals, producers’ associations and ecotourism agencies have worked hard to enhance environmental awareness, save energy and preserve cultural and architectural traditions. As a result, Alonnisos is now on the List of the Top 100 Sustainable Destinations in the World, and last year the island won the gold award at the 1st Greek Travel Awards for the Best Green Eco Destination in Greece.
The Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal (MOM) and the Alonnisos National Marine Park—the Mediterranean’s largest marine park—work to raise environmental awareness and protect the local marine environment. Thanks to a programme run by MOM, the Thalassa Foundation and Mediterranean SOS, the island began to eliminate plastic bags back in 2012. The focus here is now on using recycled and reusable materials, and it is paying off. These days the island is famed for its exemplary cleanliness and sustainable practices.
Once you’ve visited the Marine Park in Patiri, head to the edge of the town to experience traditional cuisine. Here, the Women’s Association of Alonissos cooperative is open all day and all year round. Sample home-baked cheese or spinach pies, almond sweets, pickled tuna, olives and pasta, all cooked and prepared using traditional recipes.
Kedros Beach, Donousa, Cyclades
Sikinos and Donousa
Sikinos and Donousa are two lesser-known islands of the Cyclades working towards greater sustainability.
Water scarcity is a serious issue on Sikinos, but in 2014, the Coca-Cola Community Water Partnership Programme helped the island install collection grates and a storage tank for water, which is delivered to key locations around the island by a municipal tanker. In the same year, the ELLINIKI ETAIRIA Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage undertook the marking and restoration of the island’s traditional pathways.
Almost 70% of Sikinos is part of a Natura 2000 protected area, and in 2018, as part of the new ecological ‘Sea Change’ program, it became the first Aegean island to ban plastic straws. To replace them, reusable or biodegradable alternatives were donated by the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation.
You shouldn’t leave without sampling traditional local fare. Sample melitinia, a local mini-pie made with mild myzithra cheese, sugar, vanilla, flour, eggs and semolina flour, and visit the environmentally friendly Manalis Winery, where only renewable energy is used. Here, Giorgos Manalis cultivates long-forgotten native grapes grown from a few branches salvaged by old-timers to produce four wines. If you prefer spirits, you’ll find traditional taverns to offer you a glass of Greece’s most famous one: aromatic ouzo, flavoured with aniseed and served chilled or over ice to release its flavours. The perfect way to cool down if the day has been hot!
Tiny Donousa has also taken part in the Sea Change initiative and gone a step further, banning all plastic bags, straws, cups, plates and cutlery in 2019—the first Greek island to do so.
Traditional Greek windmills near Chora, Amorgos
This unspoilt island, dotted with windmills, is a place of infinite tranquillity and popular with those interested in outdoor activities such as walking, hiking, diving and geocaching. Diving opportunities are increasing here too as tourist numbers gradually rise, and the island has plenty of wrecks and reefs to explore, and an amazing array of marine life to discover.
The island is also a great destination for those interested in food! Amorgos is known for its self-sufficiency and when you eat here, you’ll know that the majority of your food—the meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables and even olive oil and honey—will have been grown, reared or produced on the island. The Aegialis Hotel and Spa, which holds a Green Leader Award, has its own organic garden and makes its own olive oil and raki. As a leader in local sustainability initiatives, the hotel invites visitors to get involved, if they wish, in green island projects. These include reforestation, restoration of the traditional dry-stone terraces that prevent land erosion, and organic herb cultivation.
Lithaios Central Bridge, Trikala
Greece’s First Smart City
Trikala, ‘Greece’s first smart city’, is set in the countryside north-west of Thessaly. It has around 70,000 residents, with many more people commuting in from rural areas in the municipality.
To reduce traffic, pollution and CO2 emissions, the city has introduced several measures. The Smarta 2 app shows users carpooling options alongside real-time public transport services between Trikala and the rural areas of Megala Kalyvia and Megarchi. The app also allows users to request on-demand bus service and taxis, or to book storage lockers, bikes and wheelchairs scooters, which are accessible at Trikala’s main square.
Lockers of different sizes are now available in the city centre, thanks to the EU project Cities 4 People and the Citizen Mobility Community. These lockers make it easier for tourists and residents alike to drop off heavy shopping or belongings and explore the city on foot, bike or public transport. Greener transport options include two driverless electric buses that serve passengers travelling between Trikala’s intercity bus (KTEL) stations, free-to-use shared bikes and electric personal transport—5 e-tricycles and 5 e-quadricycles—managed by EU initiative Elviten. Smart parking is also making things easier in the city.
Technology has improved energy efficiency too. Sensor-equipped streetlights, integrated with a wireless control system that detects malfunctions, schedules inspections and intuitively adjusts lights, have helped reduce electricity usage by 70%. Another smart system uses sensors to inform the waste collection centre about waste levels in rubbish bins, allowing for optimisation of collection vehicle routes.
Ancient Corinth and Acrocorinth
The Future of Sustainable Tourism in Greece
So, what lies ahead for Greece, a country perhaps more synonymous with tourism than any other—but also increasingly threatened by over-tourism, as seen in places like Santorini?
The experience of visitors during the pandemic may offer helpful hints. Some tourists—returners to Greece—have commented that their experience of its famous sites this summer was enhanced by the restrictions put in place when compared to previous visits. Online ticket purchase, booked time slots, one way systems, longer opening times, and set maximums for visitors in a room or tour guide group, helped them have more time and space to appreciate attractions and ask questions of guides. Prior closures also meant some sites had the opportunity to make improvements and design new displays.
If Greece is to protect its environment and tourist industry, the sustainable mobility initiatives seen in some areas must be rapidly rolled out throughout the country. In many areas, fossil fuel buses are often the main or only means of transportation, although Athens has started trials of electric buses.
Luckily, Greece is acting on this already, and a law drafted in September 2020 includes a requirement for medium-sized municipalities to prepare sustainable urban mobility plans (SUMPs), including the promotion of micro-mobility such as Segways and electric scooters, by the end of March 2021, with smaller authorities given another year to complete them. Local authorities will also be required to install at least one charging point per 1,000 inhabitants, with finance from the Green Fund. These initiatives can only make this amazing country, steeped in a rich European history and culture, more appealing.
We have only been able to discuss a fraction of what Greece has to offer here, so visit as soon as you can to discover what we missed!
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