Most of us will be familiar with the stereotypical Greek island setting, with traditional stone buildings glowing against an azure sky. And while this beautiful backdrop is well loved for a reason, there’s a whole different side to this ancient, mythical land that you might not have seen yet.

Take, for example, the mountain village of Nymfaio on Mount Vernon, in West Macedonia. Not only is it recognised by Unesco as one of the most picturesque villages in Europe for its stone houses and cobbled paths surrounded by beech forest, it’s also the home of the Arcturos Environmental Sanctuary. The sanctuary is working to solve the continuing problem of bear and wolf imprisonment, and ex-captive bears live in a fenced area that imitates their natural habitat. Elsewhere, there’s a lake for laid-back boat rides, and in winter, the snow-covered village develops a magical air. In short, no matter when you visit, Nymfaio is like a village from a fairytale.

For another wildlife wonderland, visit the wetlands at Lake Kerkini, one of Europe’s top bird watching destinations. Home to 300 species of bird, this is the place to spot protected species like the pelican and the pygmy cormorant. For a more active adventure, head out on a bike or by boat and you might just be lucky enough to spot flamingos and water buffalos.

If you’re more about myth and legend, head out on a steam train up the slopes of Mt Pelion, home of the centaurs. After a breathtaking journey you’ll find the town of Milies, filled with guesthouses and taverns.

Out on the islands, head to Melissani Cave on Kefalonia for a day of stunning natural beauty. Not only is this underground lake a unique geological phenomenon, but its beauty is such that it was an ancient place of worship dedicated to the god Pan and the nymph Melissani, who committed suicide and fell into the lake because Pan didn’t return her love. Take to the water with a guided boat tour and you’ll see the ruins of Pan’s sanctuary on a tiny islet.

The underground lake at Melissani Cave, Greece

Over on the island of Lesvos is the Petrified Forest, a unique natural monument. Here, intense volcanic eruptions millions of years ago covered a section of woodland, preserving the trees all the way from their roots to their fruit, leaves and seeds. You’ll see hundreds of standing and fallen red, yellow and black conifer tree trunks, including the tallest petrified tree in Europe. A visit here is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to get an insight into 20 million years of history.

And for an island that offers leisurely walks through pine forests, olive groves and orchards and a rich tapestry of history, look no further than Alonissos. It’s home to the National Marine Park of the Sporades, the place to spot Mediterranean monk seals, rare seabirds and dolphins. As you’d expect from such a beautiful Greek island, it’s surrounded by crystal-clear waters that are perfect for cruising. Head out on a boat trip that’ll take you to the neolithically inhabited stalactite cave that was home to Homer’s Cyclops and the romantically remote and deserted island of Psathoura.

If all that’s whet your appetite for more under-the-radar Greek culture, make sure you track down some utterly delicious fouskakia donuts, cheese pie and fresh local figs with honey.

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