The Acropolis bathed in the golden glow of sunset, the white-washed windmills of Mykonos set against a sapphire sky, Zorba dancing syrtaki on a rocky shore.
With such images, both ancient and modern, dwelling in our collective consciousness, Greece has become one of those iconic places that many people have been to unconsciously even without ever physically setting foot on the land.
Like an archaeological dig with many different layers, our knowledge of Greece accumulates over the years thanks to countless books, films, songs and history classes. And in this way, Alexander the Great and Aristotle Onassis, the Parthenon and feta cheese have become not only a part of everyone, but also timeless symbols of Greece.
Parthenon by Night
Living up to the billing of ‘great civilization’ has never been easy task. In this respect, Greece has performed exceptionally throughout the ages, inspiring one society after another to follow in its cultural footsteps.
Zorba Greek Dance
What makes the country’s formidable overseas image even more remarkable is the fact that even in Europe terms it’s a relatively small nation-11 million people have been squeezed into an area barely larger than most Americans states.
Greece also stands out geographically, a constant contrast between land and water, hundreds of islands and a deeply indented mainland surrounded by celebrated bodies of water from the Aegean Sea to the Gulf of Corinth and the Strait of Salamis.
Despite the waves of immigrations from the Balkans in recent years and an increasing number of retirees from northern climes, Greece remains one of the Europe’s most homogenous nations. More than 95 percent would consider themselves Greek Orthodox even it they don’t attend church on a regular basis.
Greece has attracted scores of travellers since the early 19th century, when Hellenism reached its peak and Athens became a regular stop on any grand tour of the eastern Mediterranean.
In spite of its romantic image, Greek tourism only truly took off in the 1960s when two very different sets of tourist began flocking to the Greek isles: the upscale jet-setting circle and bohemian hippie backpackers.
Almost overnight, Greece blossomed into a hip destination for two very different crowds. This momentum continued to build up during the 1970s, as increasing numbers of the global elite and adventurous youths whiled away their summers on islands such as Mykonos, Santorini and Rhodes.
It also became popular retreat for European royals, with Queen Victoria, German Kaiser Wilhelm II and Empress Elisabeth of Austria becoming regular visitors to Corfu.
Empress Elisabeth Palace in Corfu
While sun, sea and sand were undoubtedly the main attraction, Greece also earned a reputation for superb cuisine, wild nightlife and exquisite shopping. Cruise ships as well as posh private yachts arrived in no small numbers.
And while traditional waterfront tavernas endure, there is no shortage these days of chic restaurants and designer hotels. The resurgence of Greece’s tourist appeal reached a high point when the 2004 Summer Olympics sparked off extreme makeover throughout Athens, the capital city.