Friday, May 21, 2010

Italy: Holiday on a high

Holiday on a high

From a full-day hike linking five medieval villages to a stroll through one of Italy's largest botanical gardens, walking is the best way to experience the beauty of coastal Liguria. Here are three walks, going west to east along this arc-shaped slice of Italy, from the border with France to Tuscany's coast.

Giardini Hanbury (garden)

In the late 19th century, northern Europeans flocked to get health treatments at seaside resorts on the westernmost stretch of Liguria. One visitor, Thomas Hanbury, an Englishman who made a fortune in silk and tea trade from China, devoted a promontory to a collection of exotic plants, now managed by the University of Genoa.

The botanical garden on a terraced hillside is now home to 6,000 plant species and also offers wide views of the sea and horizon. A series of trails cascade from Hanbury's stately villa down to the sea, passing by a papyrus-fringed fountain, through a cypress-lined path and in between a wild assembly of plants ranging from azaleas to eucalyptus, from aloe to olive trees.

Punta Chiappa (trailhead and swimming spot)

Punta Chiappa, the rocky point where the forest-covered Monte di Portofino meets the sea, is one of the best swimming spots on the Italian Riviera. It's also a pool-size harbour if you want to cheat and come by boat; a long sliver of gray rocks jutting into deep water; and the end of a breathtaking 45-minute downhill trail.

From the church of San Rocco, high above the fishing town of Camogli and the departure point of many trails on the mountain, there is a view encompassing the sprawling city of Genoa and the curving Riviera di Ponente. On the way down, you'll pass fig orchards and terraces crawling with jasmine vines.

Sentiero Azzurro (trail)

This 14km "azure trail" links the five villages of Cinque Terre and provides a way to experience them as something other than a series of postcard views and touristy offerings.

The hardest and most rewarding stretch is from Monterosso to Vernazza and on to Corniglia. Climbing nearly 500 vertiginous metres up the dark-green hills, the unpaved, rocks-strewn trail meanders among olive trees, fragrant shrubs, and gnarled pines. AP

Lifted from TODAY, Travel - Thursday, 06-May-2010
Holiday on a high

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The other Greece

The other Greece
Go west to Peloponnese to see another side of Greece - sans the crowd

by Mark Malby

Residents of Greece these days may well be fingering their komboloi, those Greek "worry beads" so often seen in their hands. With headlines shrilling about debt and default, job losses and harsh cutbacks, it's definitely no Elysian field.

Of course, no one likes to see a nation foundering, but sometimes one country's cloud can be a traveller's silver lining. There's probably no better time to visit Greece than right now. With a depressed euro and fierce competition for tourist dollars, it's not so much a question of when to go, but where.

Ask your friends about Greece and they'll likely trundle out the usual postcard line-up. The white villages of Santorini, Crete's sunshine, Athens' Acropolis, and parties on Mykonos. These are all well and fine - until you consider all the other tourists with the same brilliant thought of visiting Greece too.

Holiday In GreeceSo if you'd rather sidestep the madding crowd, like I did, consider another side of Greece - one that's just as interesting but a little more off the beaten path. Look west, to Peloponnese.

Compared with the stereotypes of Greece, this large peninsula south-west of Athens is a world apart. Pine forests and green valleys, ruined castles and jaggedly scenic coastlines. Here the road signs sport legendary names - Mycenae, Argos, Olympia and Sparta - and you can gaze at dawn across the red roof-tiles of a Venetian town or the world heritage beauty of Mystras.

This quality of "otherness" has marked Peloponnese since ancient times, when its main city, Sparta, battled with Athens for control of the region. It also claims the mythical birthplace of Zeus, head of the gods. And the fertile, green hills of Arcadia are where Pan and his retinue of nymphs and dryads frolicked, said to be the inspiration for C S Lewis' Narnia.

For today's traveller, bent more on the real-world pleasures of what to see and do, here are a few of the highlights.

Lonely Planet Greece (Country Guide)Nafplio

Nafplio has been a wealthy centre of commerce since the 1600s, when it was part of the Venetian empire. Even today, it is the most bustling and interesting town in Peloponnese - it's hardly a surprise to learn that it served as modern Greece's first capital. There's nothing quite like the view of Nafplio's red rooftops to feel like you're in Italy or Renaissance Europe.

Excellent bakeries, alfresco restaurants, and quirky winding streets make it easy to spend a few leisurely days just drinking in the atmosphere. Nafplio also plays host to artisans and culture, like shadow puppet stories, or the National Komboloi museum, with its historic survey of these Greek curiosities, curated by the ever-passionate Aris Evangelinos who has written extensively on the subject.

The town's most prominent feature is the fortress of Palamidi, which overlooks it from a high perch. If you're in shape, climb the 999 steps to the top. It looks spectacular at night, too. The Greeks really know how to light up their monuments.


The ruins of Mycenae rest on the slopes Mount Euboea, with a pastoral view of hills and olive groves. This is where European civilisation was founded, say historians, long before the more familiar picture of Athenian Greece. This once far-reaching empire also launched the Trojan war, all for the love of a beautiful woman. But in its jumble of stones and collapsed walls today, interspersed with wildflowers, not much of that eminent past remains. It's a humbling experience.


Holidays In Greece - HellasArcadia has become a byword for the utopian ideal of harmony with nature. Sitting in the mountainous centre of Peloponnese, its natural delights range from the ski resorts of Kalavytra to hillsides dotted with grazing sheep. Driving these winding mountain roads holds a beauty unto itself. Explore the subterranean fairyland of the Dirou caves, or ride the antique rack-and-pinion train along the steep Vourakos gorge. You can almost hear the pan-pipes of yore drifting across the hills.

As in the past, Peloponnese offers a different side of Greece, insulated from the world's storms. There may be no better time to see it. Peloponnese is, to paraphrase Aristotle, "a whole much greater than the sum of its parts."


Getting there

Athens is the usual starting point for most travellers, and served by many airlines. Don't be fooled by the map - Peloponnese is not as far as you think. It's just a few hours by car or train. Self-drive gives you the freedom to go where and when you like. Sites like Mycenae are difficult to reach otherwise.

One way to avoid Athens' congested roadways is taking the train to Corinth and hiring a car there. Be aware that rail routes only circle Peloponnese via its major towns, skipping the interior altogether. Another option is to stay in Tolon in the north, which organises bus tours across Peloponnese.


Holiday In GreeceIn Greece, atmospheric hotels are preferable to generic high-rise luxury. (Indeed, you're hard pressed to find a Hyatt or Hilton anywhere outside Athens or Thessaloniki.) Peloponnese offers comfort in old world style - from the elegance of the Aetoma Hotel in Nafplio to the mountain ski lodges of Kalavytra.

For the budget or spontaneous traveller, there is no shortage of comfortable pensions and B&Bs, with rates ranging from ?18 ($32.30) upwards.

A comprehensive list of boutique options can be found at

Lifted from TODAY, Travel - Thursday, 06-May-2010
The other Greece

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