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Is Greece just one culture?

With well over a hundred inhabited islands and a territory that stretches from the south Aegean to the Balkan countries, Greece offers enough to fill months of travel. The historic sites span four millennia, encompassing both the legendary and the not so famous, where a visit can still seem like a personal discovery. Beaches are parceled out along a convoluted coastline equal to France's in length, and islands range from backwaters where the boat calls twice a week to resorts as cosmopolitan as any in the Mediterranean.

Modern Greece is the result of extraordinarily diverse influences. Romans, Arabs, Latin Crusaders, Venetians, Slavs, Albanians, Turks, Italians, not to mention the Byzantine Empire, have been and gone since the time of Alexander the Great. All have left their mark: the Byzantines in countless churches and monastaries ; the Venetians in impregnable fortifications in the Peloponnese; and other Latin powers, such as the Knights of Saint John and the Genoese, in imposing castles across the northeastern Aegean. Most obvious is the heritage of four centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule which, while universally derided, contributed substantially to Greek music, cuisine, language and way of life.

Significant, and still-existing, minorities - Vlachs, Muslims, Catholics, Jews, and Gypsies - have also helped to forge the hard-to-define but resilient Hellenic identity, which has kept alive the people's sense of themselves throughout their turbulent history. With no local ruling class or formal Renaissance period to impose superior models of taste or patronize the arts, medieval Greek peasants, fishermen and shepherds created a vigorous and truly popular culture, which found expression in the songs and dances, costumes, embroidery, carved furniture and the white Cubist houses of popular imagination. During the last few decades much of this has disappeared under the impact of Western consumer values, relegated to museums at best, but recently the country's architectural and musical heritage in particular have undergone a renaissance, with buildings rescued from dereliction and performers reviving, to varying degrees, half-forgotten musical traditions.

Of course there are formal cultural activities as well: museums that shouldn't be missed, magnificent medieval mansions and castles, as well as the great ancient sites dating from the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Minoan, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras. Greece hosts some excellent summer festivals too, bringing international theatre, dance and musical groups to perform in ancient theatres, as well as castle courtyards and more contemporary venues in coastal and island resorts.

But the call to cultural duty will never be too overwhelming on a Greek holiday. The hedonistic pleasures of languor and warmth - going lightly dressed, swimming in balmy seas at dusk, talking and drinking under the stars - are just as appealing. And despite recent improvements to the tourism "product", Greece is still essentially a land for adaptable sybarites, not for those who crave orthopedic mattresses, faultless plumbing, Cordon-Bleu cuisine and attentive service. Except at the growing number of luxury facilities in new or restored buildings, hotel and pension rooms can be box-like, campsites offer the minimum of facilities, and the food at its best is fresh and uncomplicated.


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