The sun-soaked beaches offer some stiff competition, but history is by far the biggest lure for those cruising the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. From rich food and licorice-tinged drink to the foundations of modern democracy, Greece has made countless contributions to civilization. No wonder, considering that human settlement in the region began as early as the Paleolithic Era, around 11,000 B.C.

Greece gave rise to the world's first complex societies. Crete, Mykonos and Santorini, all favorite stops for cruise ships, were home to the Minoans between 2700 and 1450 B.C.; the Mycenaeans, meanwhile, perched on the Peloponnese peninsula outside of Athens between 1600 and 1100 B.C. While monuments built by both groups still stand, their exploits were captured in part by Homer's writings in the eighth century B.C.

Homer, along with writers and philosophers like Sophocles, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, marked the "Golden Age" of Greece between 1000 and 323 B.C. The first Olympic Games, held in the shadow of Mount Kronos in 776 B.C., and the Parthenon, completed around 432 B.C., also serve as testaments to the strength of ancient Greece. Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world in the forth century B.C.; his death often is cited by historians as the end of Greece's classic period and the start of the decline of a mighty empire.

Conquering armies made many contributions to Greek history over the centuries. The Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires were particularly influential, especially in the development of local language and evolving architectural styles. Greece eventually won its independence in the late 20th century and adopted a democratic government -- the nation's own invention, developed more than 5,000 years earlier -- in 1975.

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