Home to some of the most impressive archaeological sites in the world, Greece offers a unique experience to its visitors.
Greek myth tells us that when God created the world, he distributed all the available soil through a sieve and when He felt that every country had enough he threw the stones that were left over his shoulder creating Greece. The myth is centred around the fact that over two thirds of the country is classified as hilly and mountainous. But, most would admit that those who devised the legend were a little harsh. They omitted the fact that the country itself is one of the most picturesque in the world. Obviously, they didn’t know at the time that it was also to become a nation with one of the richest histories in the world but this is exactly what was in store for the southern point of the Balkan Peninsula.
In recent years a number of the Greek islands have been invaded by hoards of the dreaded package tourist. It is now the favoured destination of more than eleven million visitors each year. Yet despite the mass influx of fellow Europeans, the country still maintains so many of its traditions and its customs. Furthermore, the fact that only one hundred and sixty six of its three thousand islands and islets are inhabited means that for those of you who don’t fancy sharing your time there with a bunch of lager louts, there are plenty of places to hide.
A visit to a country with a history which is almost four thousand years old is guaranteed to provide a memorable trip and this is exactly what Greece will do. Walking through the streets in even the smallest towns and villages you will come across ruins and reminders of the country’s first inhabitants. What is particularly significant about Greece is that because it is so old, the ruins that are there date from so many periods throughout history.
And, of course coupled with the wonderful historical sights are the thousands of Mediterranean beaches. Scuba divers in particular are attracted to the seas around Greece because up until very recently diving in so many areas was prohibited for archaeological reasons. Now it provides an amazing experience as there is every possibility that you may even uncover a wreck for the very first time. As well as allowing you to do your own explorations, however, it also means that even for those of you who just want to swim in unspoilt waters, there are endless opportunities to do so.
Eating Out in Greece
Greeks regard eating out as one of their main forms of entertainment, and after doing so once, you will soon see why. The atmosphere they create is infectious. They eat late and al-fresco, it’s informal and fun and a very pleasant experience visitors to the country. As well as having their own distinctive way of enjoying an evening meal, they also have a number of local dishes which make up the meal. The following is a guide to some of the most popular Greek delicacies and you should try at least one of them during your stay.
For most, the highlight of the main meal of the day is the selection of hors d’oeuvres which begins your meal. They are served both hot and cold and are referred to in Greek as mezedes. In this selection, you can expect to sample specialties which include melitzanosalata which is a mashed eggplant with oil, lemon and garlic; kalamarakia, a deep fried squid; tzatziki – a cucumber, yoghurt and garlic spread; tyropitakia which is cheese wraped in strudel leaves and delmadakia which is meat or rice rolled in grapevine leaves. You can also expect stuffed peppers, tomatoes, pickled octopus, caviar spread and much more.
If, after your mezedes, you have any room for your main course the principal dishes served in Greece are usually casseroles and stews, which include pastitsio, kokinisto, stifadho and ladhera; grilled fish or the famous charcoal grilled lamb or pork known as souvlaki. Fresh fish and shellfish are particularly popular as they are excellent when caught and cooked on the same day. Your main course will usually come with salad and this can consist of anything from fresh vegetables to boiled dandelions. A traditional Greek salad known as Horiatiki is probably your safest bet consisting of cucumber, tomato, olives and feta cheese.
And, to finish you can either sample some of the variety of local cheeses which include the aforementioned feta which is a white, salted and semi-soft cheese, kasseri which is a yellow cheese, or manouri which is an unsalted creamy cheese. Or, those of you with a sweet tooth might prefer kataifi which consists of nuts wrapped in wheat and coated with honey or baklava which includes strudel leaves and walnuts. There is also a multitude of fresh fruit on offer, particularly in summer, so if you are a little worried about your calorie consumption you might want to avail of the delicious peaches, grapes, pears and watermelons on offer.
Finally here are some of the different types of establishments where you can eat all of the specialties detailed above. A taverna is an extension of the traditional rural eatery. The family who own the restaurant are often seen preparing and serving the food which always adds a nice touch. This is a good choice – the quality of the food and the service is excellent and rarely as expensive as the more deluxe restaurants or estitatorion. Another thoroughly enjoyable venue is the psistaria. This is a barbecue-style eatery, usually with a large spit in the centre of the entrance. Here you can inspect what you want to eat and pick a piece of meat which you think is the right size for you. Unusual to say the least, but delicious nevertheless. Finally, if meat isn’t really your thing, you could always visit a psarotaverna. Also know as fish tavernas, they are almost always found by the harbour or the sea. Serving exceptionally fresh fare, they are among the most popular restaurants in Greece and once you try them you will appreciate why.
Transport in Greece
Most visitors to Greece fly into one of its sixteen international airports. The country has air links to every major city in Europe as well as direct flights to and from Australia, Canada, the US and several Asian cities. Quite a few tourists also arrive by ferry. Greece has connections with various Agean ports in Turkey, with Bari, Brindisi and Otranto in Italy and with various Israeli and Cypriot ports. And, your final option for entering Greece is overland. There are road connections from Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Turkey and train connections from Macedonia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. If you do avail of the European pass on either train or bus you will either enter via Macedonia or take a ferry from Italy, the price of which is included in the pass.
While it is cheap, the public bus system in Greece is also prone to overcrowding. On most of the islands the stops are central and destinations are displayed clearly on the front of the bus. There is a long distance bus service called KTEL which is an association of regional operators. These usually leave from central points in the major city and you will find information about them from the Greek Tourist Organisation. You can also get an express bus between the major city and these can be booked through the various travel agencies. The final way in which you can see the country from a bus is by going on a guided bus tour and there will be information about these wherever you are staying.
The train system in Greece is slow and confined to the mainland. Despite this, second-class fares are almost fifty per cent cheaper than bus fares and it is a much more comfortable way to check out the scenery. It is worth noting that if you are taking the train you are advised to book your ticket in advance as tickets bought on board can almost double in price.
Finally, when it comes to visiting the islands, an extensive ferry network connects them to the mainland. Of course, there are a wide variety of vessels completing the sailings from those of the more luxurious variety complete with discos and bars, to those which well let’s just say they’re not quite so sleek. There are also dozens of companies and each has its own schedule so try to get your hands on either Hellenic Travelling or the Greek Travel Pages. Your tour guide should be able to provide you with one of them
Things To See in Greece
If you are spending any time in Athens during your trip it is impossible to avoid the Acropolis and the historical buildings which are built on the hill which overlooks the city. Known as the ‘Sacred Rock’ of the city, evidence of its first habitation dates back to the Neolithic period. Since then the rocky hill has been used as a place of worship or simply a place to live or as a combination of both. Remains of the three most important of these buildings – the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the Temple of Nike – can still be seen today and so too can the Propylaea, the monumental entrance to the Acropolis. All of these ruins date from between 450 and 330BC.
The Parthenon is the most important monument of the ancient Greek civilization and has remained its international symbol since its completion in 432BC. It is built in the Doric style which was popular at the time and is made almost entirely of marble. Dedicated to the patron goddess of Athens, it has retained its religious character throughout the centuries and has served as both a Byzantine and a Latin church as well as a Muslim mosque. Despite some damage when it was bombed in the late sixteen hundreds and the fact that its main decoration was stolen and sold to the British museum (it can still be seen there) it is a magnificent building which is guaranteed to amaze you.
Palace of Knossos, Crete
Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, is home to the most luxurious palace built by the Minoan civilization. One of the world’s most famous archaeological sites, this palace had to be rebuilt about 1700BC but the result was an even more impressive construction than its three hundred year old predecessor. Unfortunately about 1500BC the second palace was destroyed, probably by a volcano, and it lay buried until 1900 when the English archaeologist, Arthur Evans, carried out his excavations and proceeded to reconstruct certain parts of the ruins. If you’re looking for history, you won’t get much more impressive than this.
With the Olympic games returning to its birth place in 2004, a trip to ancient Olympia on the Peloponnese peninsula where the very first games took place is a topical excursion at the moment. As well as being topical, however, it is also a trip that you will thoroughly enjoy. Excavations which have been taking place since the beginning of the last century have uncovered some remarkable artefacts including several temples and the stadium as well as the hippodrome, the crypt, the baths and twelve statues of Zeus.
Also situated on the Peloponnese, Mycenae was the most powerful influence in Greece for over three hundred years. With evidence suggesting that it was settled as early as 6000BC, there is still a great deal which lies in wait for the archaeologists who have already discovered the Lion Gate, Europe’s oldest monumental sculpture, as well as the royal tombs. It was in these burial places that the Mask of Agamemnon was found as well as several gold objects – these artefacts are now ranked among the world’s greatest archaeological finds and can be seen in the National Museum in Athens. But, you really should visit the site where they were found too. You could also combine your trip with a visit to the nearby Epidaurus or Corinth, two more of Greece’s myriad of historical areas, each housing their own particular archaeological treasures.
Delphi, Central Greece
In ancient times Delphi was the political and religious centre of classical Greece. This was the case mainly because it was home to the god Apollo and the world famous Delphic oracle. Today the ruins of the Temple of Apollo are among the best preserved in the country allowing the visitor to get a clear insight into how amazing the ancient Greece actually was.
The island of Rhodes offers a unique mix of medieval and modern attractions which never fail to fascinate its visitors. In a country with such a wealth of ancient monuments, and Rhodes too has its fair share, the medieval aspect is unusual and surprising. Walking through the town you will encounter the trademark buildings, arches, vaults and rows of little shops which have become synonymous with medieval towns throughout Europe. And, in the middle of all of this you come across traces of the Temple of Venus which dates from the third century BC and the kneeling Venus of Rhodes from the first century BC. Add to this the multitude of unspoilt beaches for which the island is famous and you have the perfect destination for any type of holiday.
Thirty nine islands, twenty four of which are inhabited, form the Cyclades and if you came to Greece for the wealth of beaches, this is where you will find some of the best in the world. Once such island, Mykonos, offers swimming locations which look like something taken straight from a travel brochure. With its emerald green water and white sandy beaches, it is said to have been a gift from Apollo. As soon as you get there, you will understand why. Of course, there are numerous others which compare quite strongly to those on Mykonos – one thing you will not be short of when you’re in Greece is places to swim.
Monastiriki Flea Market, Athens
If you feel like a change from trekking to monument after temple after museum, then check out Greece’s biggest flea market. Taking place every Sunday, there really is not much in the line of junk that you won’t find. The people selling their wares are from all over the world, many are refugees from the former Soviet Union, Albania, Bulgaria and Eastern Europe, others are local gypsies. Be prepared to haggle and don’t expect to find any treasures because there aren’t any but one thing you are guaranteed is an eventful afternoon.
Entertainment in Greece
Summer Light & Sound Shows on the Acropolis
If you are in Athens between April and October, and most visitors usually are, then you are fortunate enough to have the chance to catch one of the summer light and sound shows on the Acropolis. Every evening during this period hundreds of floodlights are directed at the hill and the Parthenon. As well as the lights you will receive a commentary in English detailing Athens’s eventful history. While the Acropolis is impressive at the best of times, this is a particularly good time to see it as it is truly spectacular.
Theatre is still very popular in Greece. Athens alone has almost fifty permanent theatres where you will see every time of drama you can possibly imagine. In summer, there are some performances in English but at most other times of the year, the performances are almost entirely in Greek. Of course, they are still enjoyable in their originality. But it is at the various summer festivals that you will get to see the classics performed with exceptional enthusiasm and talent. The best-known festival is the Epidaurus Festival. The picturesque setting in an ancient amphitheatere makes the shows at this celebration of theatre really special. There are also performances in some of the other ancient theatres at Dodona, Thassos and Phillipi.
Greece’s biggest rock festival takes place for two days in July and takes over the capital while it’s on. Thousands of young, and not so young, avid fans make their way to the city to immerse themselves in the atmosphere which Rockwave creates. Attracting leading international bands, the event has gone from strength to strength since its inception in 1996 and if you are in the region, it is well worth checking out. The fact that it takes place in glorious sunshine should be welcome to any of you who have ever attended any of Europe’s outdoor concerts in the rain, not a pretty sight.
Traditional Greek Dance Festival
From the beginning of May to the end of the September you can experience true, down to earth Greek culture in the form of the country’s native music and dance. If you make your way to the Hill of Philopappou you your thousand or so fellow spectators will be enthralled by this unique display of Greek culture. The performers dressed in the traditional costume worn for this particular form of entertainment perform songs and dances which have been in existence for up to two and half thousand years. Not your every day stuff but can you see people doing the Macarena in two thousand years time. Didn’t think so.
October 28th is one of Greece’s public holiday and commemorates the day that Mussolini’s request to allow Italian troops into the country at the beginning of World War II was refused. In memory of this significant day in Greece’s history, celebrations take place all over the country with lavish parades of soldiers, tanks and armoured vehicles showing their spirit and pride and the resistance that will exist for the generations to come. It is a unique manifestation of Greek pride an is a must see for visitors in the country at the time.
Easter Celebrations, Corfu
Greece is renowned all over the world for its unusual Easter celebrations and the island of Corfu is where you will find the pick of the festivals. The best bands in Greece entertain the residents and visitors, the mummy of the island’s patron saint, Spryidon, is paraded through the island’s capital and locals throw clay pots out of their windows. All pretty normal if you happen to be one of the residents but slightly bizarre and scary if you’re not. Apparently the tradition arose as a result of writings in the Bible where people promised to smash all their pottery if Jesus rose from the dead. The only people in the world to carry out the promise were those living on Corfu, and so the tradition has remained.
Regardless of how much energy you burn up during your days in Greece, it’s imperative that you reserve some for your nights. For any of you fortunate enough to visit the country, it is worth noting that every part from the big cities to the little islands has a very vibrant social scene. On the latter, the atmosphere is superb as quite a lot of the time you’re sampling the local beverages in open air under the stars – just watch out for the mosquitos. Idyllic! In the larger cities, the club scene is one of the best in Europe. So, whether it’s a quiet drink with a close friend or a noisy one with fifteen close friends, all desires are catered for.
General Info about Greece
The currency used in Greece is the Euro which is made up of 100 Cent. Notes come in denominations of €100, €50, €20, €10 and €5 and the coins in use are €2, €1, 0.50C, 0.20C, 0.10C, 0.05C, 0.02C and 0.01C.
The official language is modern Greek but English, French, German and Italian are widely spoken in the tourist areas.
Thanks to its geographic location, Greece is fortunate to experience a climate that brings with it mild winters and warm summers. Even in summer, however, it never becomes unbearably hot thanks to the cool seasonal breezes which keep everyone comfortable. The weather usually stabilises in early summer and brings bright sunshine and very little rainfall. From April to October the weather is more changeable as the winds vary from area to area.
Greece is two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.
It is difficult to give a guide to opening hours in Greece as they are somewhat erratic. What follows is an extremely general guide. Most shops still remain closed on Sundays but tourist based stores are now beginning to do Sunday trade. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, opening hours are between 9.00 and 3.00pm and from Tuesday to Friday they are between 9.00am and 2.00pm and 5.00pm and 7.00pm. The traditional siesta usually takes place between 3.00pm and 5.00pm but again in tourist centres, this is usually not the case. In fact, some tourist shops remain open from 8.00am until 10.00pm. Office hours are open from Monday to Friday between 8.00am and 3.00pm but you also need to check the particular office beforehand to confirm.
Electricity in Greece is 220V – 50Hz, AC
Unless otherwise state, all accommodation prices include a service charge which usually amounts to about 12%. In most restaurants the service charge is 13%. Again this should be included in the price. Purchases include VAT of between 4 and 18%. If you are a non EU national and purchase an item costing more than 40,000dr then you are entitled to most of the money back if you export it within 90 days of purchase. In order to do this, you should shop in places that display the ‘Tax Free for Tourists’ sign or obtain a Tax-Free Check Form which you complete in the store.
American, Canadian, Australian, Israeli, New Zealand and EU nationals can stay in Greece for a period of up to ninety days without a visa. All you will need is a valid passport. After this period, you should apply to the Aliens Bureau or the local police for an extension at least twenty days before your original stay expires. Residents from all other countries should check with the Greek Embassy in their home country before travelling.
There are two organisations in Greece which oversee the tourism trade – the Greek National Tourist Organisation (GNTO) and the tourist police. The GNTO, or EOT in Greek, supply general tourist information about the country and their main office is in Athens at No. 2, Amerikis Streeet (Tel: 01 322 41 28). The tourist police deal with more specific issues such as bus timetables, lost passports etc and their phone number is 171 if you’re in Athens, or 922 77 77 if you are outside the capital.
In Greece, traveller’s cheques can be cashed at all banks and also in a number tourist agencies and shops. Banks are normally open between 8.00am and 2.00pm from Monday to Thursday and from 8.00am until 1.30pm on Fridays. Certain branches in the major cities and tourist areas offer exchange facilities later in the afternoon and on Saturday mornings. Commissions can vary considerably, banks usually charge between 400 and 600dr while travel agencies may give a less competitive rate.
As well as traveller’s cheques, you can use your credit card or your ATM card. Again, this is most applicable in the resort areas and in the case of the latter you will have to ensure that your card is compatible. This is usually stated clearly on the ATM and on the back of your card. The most convenient way of obtaining money, this is usually the cheapest too, despite the fact that you pay a minimum fee each time you withdraw cash.
The country code for Greece is 30 but if you are calling from abroad you need to dial 00, followed by 30, the local area code and the local number. The same instructions apply when you are making an international call from within Greece.
All public phones use phone cards which can be purchased at OTE telephone offices and kiosks. Cards come in three denominations – 100, 500 and 1,000 units priced 1,300, 6,000 and 11,500dr respectively. The phone system is modern and efficient and has a facility which explains all the instructions clearly in English. You can also make direct long distance and international calls from all public phones. When you are on some of the more remote islands some travel agencies will allow you to use the phone but you should be aware that you will pay a rather costly rate.
Although a service charge of between 10% and 15% is included on all restaurant bills, it is customary to leave a further 10% as a tip. Even if the bill is quite small you should leave change up the nearest 100dr. You should also tip taxi drivers about 10% or leave them any small change that you might be owed.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In Greece they take place on January 1st, 6th, the first Monday during Lent, March 25th, Good Friday, Easter Monday, May 1st, Pentecost, August 15th, October 28th and December 25th and 26th. It is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.