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Visit Greece

Updated on January 6, 2012

The Greek Mainland

The Dinaric Alps of Yugoslavia continue through Albania and into the Pindus Mountains of western Greece and the Taygetus Range in the western Peloponnesus. Gashed by ravines and often flanked by precipices, these mainly limestone ranges are about 50 miles wide as they run southward to Parras and Corinth, rising to heights of more than 8,000 feet.

Streams cross the folded and fractured ranges through deep, narrow gorges, fed in their descent by springs at the foot of the steep scarps. But in summer, drought reduces these torrents to dry beds of gravel. Southwest of the Pindus Mountains are the rugged "Alps of Attica", drained to the Ionian Sea by the Achelous or Aspropotamos River, the longest river in Greece (137 miles).

The coast of Epirus, more regular than most Greek coasts but harborless, is broken by the 25 mile Ambracian Gulf, bordered by the fertile Arta plain. Southward the landscape resembles the limestone "karst" regions of Yugoslavia with its flat-bottomed depressions (poljes) and many subterranean streams. Off the coast are rocky islands like Corfu, Leukas, and Cephalonia, that are fragments of a submerged north-south mountain system.

The heart of ancient Hellas lies east of the Pindus Mountains and extends from Corinth to the plains of southern Thessaly. Seaward-facing, it is a rugged, broken region of small lowlands and basins. In the south, the dazzling white limestone hills rising behind the Corinth coast contrast sharply with the intensely blue waters of the gulf. To link the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf, the Corinth Canal was cut (1881-93), 4 miles long and 72 feet wide between its bare limestone walls. From Pendelikon 3,639 feet, 10 miles north of Athens, the narrow plain of Attica slopes down to the Saronic Gulf, terminating in the limestone promontory of Cape Sounion. The plain of Marathon, where Militiades routed the Persians in 490 BC, borders on the Bay of Marathon. There are a few other plains and the hills are either limestone or the marble that was used in classical times for the Parthenon in Athens, the temple of Athene at Cape Sounion, and other buildings.

North of Attica lies the Copais depression, a former lake fed by underground streams that was drained and reclaimed for agriculture in 1886. Limestone ridges isolate this depression from the sea, except in the west where the historic pass of Thermopylae provides a route northward to the Sperkhios valley and so across the Othrys Mountains to the plains of Thessaly.

Running parallel to the northeast coast of Attica is the 90 mile-long island of Euboea which was separated from the mainland by subsidence. The island has been tilted to the southwest, so raised beaches 410 feet high extend along its east coast. Islands off the west coast are the result of partial submergence. The interior mountains, composed of limestones, marls, and schists, rise to 5,718 feet. The basins between these ranges have lignite deposits.

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Eastern Greece

Eastern Greece consists of western Macedonia and the greater part of Thessaly lying to the south. It is drained eastward to the Aegean by two of the longest rivers in Greece, the Aliakmon and the Pinios. Western Macedonia is mainly hill and mountain country with little flat land. North of the fertile plain of Thessaly is a range, entering from Central Macedonia, that contains Greece's highest peak, Mount Olympus (9,570 feet), in Greek mythology the home of the gods. The prolongation of this range includes Mounts Ossa (6,489 feet) and Pelion (5,416 feet). All these crystalline mountains are within sight of the Gulf of Salonika.

The northern Aegean shores provide a contrast. The coastal plains of Thrace are flat and marshy, and are fringed by lagoons and offshore bars. Inland lies the rough hill country of the Thracian massif, from which the lower Vardar and Struma rivers drain to the sea. Since 1923 large sections of their marshy valleys and deltas have been drained and reclaimed. None of Greece's rivers is navigable.

Crete

Crete is the largest Greek island and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean. Long and mountainous, it lies 60 miles south of Cape Matapan. Its mountains have clear-cut limestone crests and ridges, deep gorges and dramatic precipices. Several peaks reach more than 8,000 feet.

Westward the Levka Ori (White Mountains) form a massive block south of Khania. In the south, the Mesani depression is drained by the Yeros River. Eastern Crete is less spectacular and is mainly karst limestone country whose surface is pitted with large circular hollows (doline).

Aegean Islands

The Greek Islands of the Aegean comprise four groups. In the north are the coastal islands of Thrace (Thasos, Samothrace and Lemnos) which are remnants of the sunken part of the Thracian massif. These islands have provided marble for building stone since classical times, and also metals (zinc, copper, and iron ore). To the south lie the Northern Sporadhes, rising from a submarine ridge to heights of 2,230 feet. Skiros is the largest island.

The Cyclades, the largest and central group, include the islands of Paras, Naxos, and Mykonos. Many islands in the group are bare and rocky, with mountainous cores and narrow valleys opening to steep and sometimes precipitous coasts. Streams flow intermittently and water supplies come from springs. Several islands yield minerals as well as sulfur and marble. The most spectacular of the Cyclades is Santorini, crescent-shaped, with high cliffs of lava and ash, and still actively volcanic. The eastern Greek islands lie off the Turkish coast and include Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Ikaria and the Dodecanese. Samos is volcanic and Chios is famed for its marble.

Rhodes is the chief island of the Dodecanese, was once the fortress of the Knights of St John and is now a major resort center.

The Peloponnesus

The Peloponnesus is a large peninsula that was made an island by the cutting of the Corinth Canal. The Elis district in the northwest has a narrow but almost continuous coastal plain, and there are other isolated plains (Messina, Laconia, and Argolis) in the southeast opening to the sea. But much of the region is highland, with long, parallel ranges running northwest-southwest such as the Taygetus Range.

These ranges terminate in rocky limestone headlands separated by deep inlets, such as Capes Matapan and Malea.

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