As a long-time fan of the television show, Golden Girls, Sicily was at the top of my travel list even before I officially formulated a travel list. From a young age, my favorite way to start a story was, “Picture it, Sicily, 1922…” the same way the acerbic matriarch Sophia prefaced hers.
For many cruisers, a voyage to Greece is highlighted by phenomenal beaches and legendary ruins. But this extraordinary country, with its strong cultural and historical identity, is the birthplace of mythological deities that continue to fascinate. Sweeping tales, from Pandora’s infamous box to Icarus’ ill-fated flight, were born in the early days of Greek civilization and have been passed down through the generations and remain prominent today—not only in Greece, but around the world. As you explore this wondrous country, you will inevitably encounter remnants of those stories and icons in the art and architecture, as well as in the names of its cities, from Athens to Crete.
Below find a few of my favorite cities and the origin stories of their names.
The Perfect Gift
A historian’s delight, Athens is home to such magnificent wonders as the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Temple of Athena Nike. Its name, of course, is a tribute to the city’s patron goddess, Athena—but according to legend, this was not the city’s original name. Athens was once known as Cecropia, named after its king, Cecrops, an odd creature, thought to be half-man half-snake. Athena was chosen as the patron deity of the city, giving rise to celebrations and festivals, and eventually its name was changed in her honor.
A Nymph’s Island
Legendary Corfu is a lush and romantic island, written about by Homer in his famous Odyssey. The island’s history is full of battles, indicative of Corfu’s turbulent position that lasted until modern times with unification with modern Greece in 1864. While the rest of the world knows this magical island as Corfu, locals refer to it as Kerkyra, named after the daughter of river god Aesop. Legend states that Kerkyra, an irresistible nymph whose beauty seduced Poseidon, birthed the first inhabitants of the island.
Guardians of Greece
The name Crete in Greek means mighty, strong and powerful—named after the first guardians of the island, the Curetes. The capital city of Greece’s largest island, Heraklion, however, has Roman roots, derived from the ancient Roman port of Heracleum. There are fascinating places to visit here, including the Palace of Knossos, a center of Minoan power that dates back to 2000 BCE and revered as the location of the mythic Minotaur’s Labyrinth.
The Sun’s Grandson
Steeped in Greek mythological history, Mykonos was named after Apollo’s grandson, Mykons. Today, this island is one of Greece’s most adored destinations due to its picture-perfect postcard setting and the gateway to the archeological dig at Delos. In fact, the history of Mykonos is very much connected to the history of the neighboring Delos. It is there that, according to mythology, Hercules defeated the Giants and, having killed them, he threw them in the sea where they petrified and turned into huge rocks, forming the island of Mykonos.
A Name Fit for a Colossus
Renowned as the site of the former Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Rhodes was home to the Knights of St. John from the 12th to 16th centuries. But why that name? In mythology, the name of the island derives from the nymph Rhodos who bore seven sons to the sun god Helios.
If your voyage across the Eastern Mediterranean includes calls on Grecian ports, revel in the picturesque Cycladic architecture, the seemingly endless beaches and the opportunity to walk in the mythical footsteps of gods and heroes. Greece really does offer something for everyone, mortal or Minotaur.
On your travels throughout the Mediterranean, you will undoubtedly come across a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Italy alone is home to the most places with that designation at 58, and Spain and France are close behind with 49 and 48, respectively. The icons, like the historic center of Rome, the works of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, and the Acropolis in Athens only begin to scratch the surface of the treasures this region holds. Below are four destinations where you can explore UNESCO Sites that may not be as well-known as their aforementioned siblings, but are awe-inspiring nonetheless and play an equally important role in preserving our shared history.