Greece

 

Having exported chaos, drama, tragedy and democracy before most nations were staying up late enough to want souvlaki, Greece boasts an unrivalled legacy. But don't expect a visit there to be a sober study of the ancient world-the Greek propensity for partying dates back to Dionysos. Read more...

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Introduction

Having exported chaos, drama, tragedy and democracy before most nations were staying up late enough to want souvlaki, Greece boasts an unrivalled legacy. But don't expect a visit there to be a sober study of the ancient world-the Greek propensity for partying dates back to Dionysos.

Country parts

Roughly counterclockwise from the northeast:

Western Thrace (Θράκη) (Alexandroupoli, Komotini, Xanthi)

Macedonia (Μακεδονία) (ChalkidikiDramaEdessa, Katerini, Kastoria,KavalaKozanNaousaThessaloniki, Vergina, Veroia, )

Thessaly (Θεσσαλία) (  KarditsaLarissaTrikala, Volos )

Sporades Islands (Σποράδες) ( Skiathos, Skopelos, Skyros )

Epirus (Ήπειρος) (Ioannina)

Ionian Islands (Ιόνια νησιά) ( Corfu, Kefalonia, Zakynthos)

Central Greece (Στερεά Ελλάδα) (Athens, Delphi)

Peloponnese (Πελοπόννησος) (ArgosCorinth, SpartaKalamata)

Crete (Κρήτη) ( ChaniaHeraklion, Rethymno  )

Aegean Islands : (Aegina, Alonissos, AntiparosAstypalaia, KosKythnos, LerosMykonosPatmos, Rhodes, Sifnos)

Getting there

By plane

Athens' Elefthérios Venizélos International Airport http://www.aia.gr located near the Athens suburb of Spáta is the country's largest, busiest airport and main hub, handling over 15 million passengers annually as of 2006. Other major international airports in terms of passenger traffic are, in order of passengers served per year, Heraklion (Nikos Kazantzákis Int'l), Thessaloniki (Makedonia Int'l), Rhodes (Diagóras), and Corfu (Ioánnis Kapodístrias).

Athens and Thessaloníki handle the bulk of scheduled international flights. However, during tourism season, several charter and planned low-budget flights arrive daily from many European cities to many of the islands and smaller cities on the mainland.

Olympic Airlines http://www.olympicairlines.com/, the nation's flag carrier, offers service to Greece from several cities in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and North America. Aegean Airlines http://www.aegeanair.com/aegeanen/home/index.asp, which owns half the the domestic market, also operates a number of international routes to Greece from various European cities. Athens is also well-served by airlines from all over Europe, the Middle East, North America, and Southeast Asia, with flights to their respective hubs.

The presence of Discountairlinesin_Europe low-cost carriers in Greece's international market has increased tenfold within the past decade, offering service to Athens and Thessaloníki from several other European locations, such as Easyjet (from London Gatwick, London Luton, Milan, Paris and Berlin), SkyEurope (Vienna, Bratislava, Prague, Budapest and Krakow), Virgin Express (flying from Brussels), Transavia (Amsterdam), German Wings (Cologne/Bonn and Stuttgart), Hemus Air (Sofia), Sterling (Copenhagen, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Oslo), LTU (Düsseldorf), Alpi Eagles (Venice), Norwegian Air (Warsaw, Katowice and Krakow), Wizzair (Katowice and Prague), and FlyGlobeSpan (Glasgow).

By train

Thessaloniki is Greece's hub for international rail service. Trains connect Thessaloníki to Sofia, Bucharest, Budapest, Istanbul, and other international cities.

By car

Greece can be entered by automobile from any of its land neighbors. From Italy, ferries will transport cars to Greece. From western Europe, the most popular route to Greece was through Yugoslavia. Following the troubles in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, most motorists from western Europe came overland by Italy, and then took a trans-Adriatic ferry from there. Although the countries of the former Yugoslavia have since stabilized, and Hungary-Romania-Bulgaria form another, albeit a mugh longer, alternative, the overland route through Italy now remains the most popular option.

By bus

There is some, albeit limited, international bus service to neighboring Albania, Bulgaria, and Turkey.

By boat

From Italy, several ferries depart for Greece daily. Ferries to Patras (Pátra), Igoumenítsa, and Corfu (Kérkyra) leave throughout the year from the Italian port cities of Venice, Trieste, Ancona, Bari and Brindisi. For more information on Italy-Greece ferries, see www.greekferries.gr OR www.ferries.gr

From Turkey there are ferries from Marmaris to Rhodes, from Çesme to Chios, from Bodrum to Kos, from Kusadasi to Samos, From Cesme to Ancona or Brindisi see www.ferries.gr.

There are also ferries connecting Piraeus and Rhodes to: Alexandria, Egypt ; Larnaca and Limassol, Cyprus ; and Haifa, Israel.

Getting around

By bus and train

Intercity buses are a very popular option for domestic travel. KTEL is the national government-subsidized network of independent businesses which cooperate together to form a dense route system serving almost the entire country. The system is efficient, reliable, and relatively inexpensive. It serves both long and short distances, including routes from major cities to islands near the mainland, such as Corfu and Cephalonia (in such cases, the ferry crossing is included in the price of the bus ticket).

Trains are another inexpensive way to get around, but the national rail system ( OSE) is extremely limited. This is due to neglect after the arrival of large scale automobile use and air travel, and also due to past technological difficulties in surmounting the country's difficult terrain. The importance of rail travel is now being rediscovered, and the national rail network is currently under major renovation. The project's completion is still a long way off, but visitors can already benefit from the first sections of the modernized rail system that have been inaugurated. An entirely new suburban/regional rail system, the Proastiakos, was opened in 2004 serving Attica and adjacent regions and is under further expansion. There has also been extensive (and continuing) modernization of the Athens-Thessaloníki corridor, with travel times being slashed.

By car

Exploring the country by automobile can be an extremely rewarding experience, allowing you to explore the incredibly scenic and varied terrain of the country's coastlines, interior, and islands, at your convenience. However, Greece does have a relatively high road fatality rate, among the highest in the European Union. Many Greek drivers tend to drive aggressively, and the nation's topographic reality poses challenges by forcing many narrow roads in mountainous regions to take several twists and turns. On the plus side, the road fatality rate has been steadily declining as a result of government campaigns, tougher policing, and lawmaking.

Roads are usually well-marked and well-maintained, and billions of Euros are being poured into expanding the nation's network of multi-lane freeways. Because of the rapid expansion and improvement of the nation's road system, it is advised to have the most updated road map(s) possible. Many of the newer motorways are toll roads, and fees can be expensive. Road signs in Greek are usually repeated with a transliterated version in the Latin alphabet.

For those used to driving in North America, secondary Greek roads, particularly in towns and villages, can seem surprisingly narrow. If cars meet on a narrow stretch of road it is customary for one driver to find a spot to pull over and let the other driver pass. At times, one driver will need to back up for the other. Adherence to this practice is expected and failure to do so will bring the ire of your fellow drivers. Because of this, and also because there are often pedestrians in the roadway, drive slowly through villages and small towns.

Another major difference between driving in North America and Greece is the range of speeds at which vehicles travel, particularly on the highways. While speed limits are as high as 120 kph (75 mph), some vehicles will be traveling as slowly as 60 kph (40 mph). Other vehicles will travel at speeds well in excess of the posted limits and can come up from behind very quickly. It is advisable to drive in the left-most lane only to pass slower vehicles.

Automobile rental agencies are present throughout the country, especially in major cities and in highly touristed areas. The automobiles offered are overwhelmingly manual transmission; automatics do exist, but it is advised to reserve one in advance. Gasoline/petrol prices are steep, but relatively inexpensive in comparison with many other EU countries. Some automobile rental agencies and insurance policies do not allow taking the car out of the country.

Drivers who do not hold an EU driver's certificate must carry a international driver's permit obtained in their home country. This may not be required when renting a car, but will certainly be required if involved in an accident or pulled over by the police for a traffic citation. Insurance policies may be void if the driver is a non-EU driver without an international permit.

Information about car rental rates for Greece is available online for visitors who wish to make their car reservation online.

By ferry

One of the most common ways to reach the islands is with a ferry. The frequency, reliability and availability of these ferries are largely dependent upon the time of year. For instance, during the winter off-season (January to March), the weather on the Aegean can be extremely rough and boats are often kept in port for days at a time. This type of delay is extremely unpredictable (it is not a decision of the ferry companies, but rather, that of the port authority) and determining when a harbored boat will actually set sail is near impossible. On the opposite end of the spectrum, ferries in August fill up due to the National Holiday (Aug 15), so travellers should plan ahead.

As for routes, during high-season there are extensive connections from Athens and quite a few in-between islands for hopping. Again, in the winter, some of these ferries run once, maybe twice a week.

There are three ports in Athens: the main port Piraeus and outlying Rafina and Lavrio port. These serve all islands, but central cyclades islands such as Tinos, it is better to leave from Rafina.

Typical travel times, slow boat from Piraeus:

Athens-Paros #4 hours, Athens-Mykonos 5.5 hours, Athens-Santorini #8 hours, Athens-Heraklion 9 hours,

Ferries are about the one thing in Greece that leave on time so BE PROMPT. New fast ferries are cutting distance times in half but prices are slightly more expensive. Sometimes, it is more practical to fly, especially to Crete or Rhodes. However, flights are usually more expensive. Santorini is 8 hour slow boat from Athens but the entrance view from the boat is spectacular.

The major ferry companies operating in Greece include:

Aegean Speed Lines (Cyclades) http://www.aegeanspeedlines.gr/index_en.html

ANEK Lines (Crete and international) http://www.anek.gr/english/index.html

Blue Star Ferries (Italy-Greece and Aegean Islands) http://www.bluestarferries.com/intro.htm

Euroseas (Saronic Gulf) http://www.euroseas.com/

Hellenic Seaways (Aegean Islands) http://www.hellenicseaways.gr

Minoan Lines (Italy-Greece and Crete) http://www.minoan.gr

SAOS Ferries (Aegean Islands and northern mailand) http://www.saos.gr/gr/

Superfast Ferries (Italy-Greece) http://www.superfast.com/site/splash.html

Ventouris Ferries (Italy-Greece) http://www.ventouris.gr

By plane

The nation's domestic air travel industry is dominated by state-owned Olympic Airlines http://www.olympicairlines.com/ and its growing competitor, Aegean Airlines http://www.aegeanair.com. Both airlines offer an extensive route network within the country, including service connecting several islands to the mainland.

Aegean Airlines and more recently, Olympic Airlines offer E-tickets, which only exist as an e-mail or a web page with booking confirmation. It should be provided printed at the check-in desk at the airport (no need to visit airline office).

By taxi

There are many taxis in Greece, but in the large cities, Athens in particular, getting one can be quite a challenge! Taxi drivers are known for being quite rude and not taking you if they feel like it. You hail taxis like in any other large city, but in Athens many taxis will refuse to take you if they don't like your destination. If you need a taxi during rush hour, it can be next to impossible to find one going outside the perimeter of Athens(they all say they are going home, or worse, they ignore you). If you want to go to a beach in the southern suburbs such as Glyfada, what I have found helpful in a moment of desperation is to find a hotel and get a taxi from there, much easier. 

A word about luggage and transport from the airport. Most taxis will not take more than three people but will load their trunks with luggage hanging out if need be since the cars can be very small. If you need a taxi from the ferry at night from Pireaus, well all I can say is good luck. The drivers who wait outside are looking to take at least three different individuals going in the same direction so they can charge three fares! I found if you are two or three people, only one person should hail the cab and then if he agrees to take you, have the other(s) jump in. The taxi situation has improved since the Olympics when they retrained all the drivers to be more polite, but getting a cab in Athens can still be a real pain in the neck!

Warnings

First, it should be emphasized that Greece is one of the safest destinations for the traveler: the vast majority of people you interact with will be honest and helpful. The detailed information below is intended to forewarn travelers of risks which they have a small, though not zero, chance of encountering

Crime and theft

Scams

The most commonly reported major Common scams scam against travelers is the Greek version of the old clip joint routine. This is reported primarily from central Athens, but also occasionally from other cities and even the larger island towns. A single male traveler will be approached, usually at night in a neighborhood where there are a lot of bars, by a friendly Greek who will strike up a conversation leading to an invitation to go to this really cool bar I know for a drink. Once at the bar, they are joined by a couple of winsome ladies who immediately begin ordering drinks, often champagne, until, at the end of the evening, the mark is presented with an astronomical bill, payment of which is enforced by the sudden appearance of a pair of glowering thugs. The reason this scam works is because most Greeks have a tradition of being friendly to visitors, and almost all Greeks who strike up a conversation with you will have no ulterior motives. But if you're a single male traveler approached by a Greek in the circumstances described above, it's safest to politely but firmly decline any invitations.

Photography restrictions

It is strictly forbidden to take photos of military installations or other strategic locations. Authorities will take violations quite seriously. Obey signs prohibiting photography. In fact, it would be best not to take photographs of anything of military significance, including Greek navy ships, or of airports or any aircraft, even civilian ones: Greek authorities can be very sensitive about such things. Many museums prohibit photography without a permit; some prohibit only flash or tripod photography, and many ask visitors not to take photos of objects (statues, etc.) which include people standing by them, as this is considered disrespectful. But these specific cautions shouldn't discourage visitors from otherwise taking photos in Greece, which is one of the most photogenic places in the world.

Antiquities

Greece also has very strict laws concerning the export of antiquities, which can include not only ancient objects but coins, icons, folk art, and random pieces of stone from archeological sites. Before buying anything which could conceivably be considered an antiquity, you should become familiar with the current laws regarding what can be taken out of the country.

Drugs

Greece has some of the strictest, and most strictly enforced, drug laws in Europe, and tourists are not exempt. No matter what anyone tells you, it is most definitely not cool to do drugs in Greece, including marijuana.

Traffic

The greatest danger to travelers in Greece is probably in the simple process of crossing the street: traffic can be bad even in smaller towns and horrendous in Athens and other Greek cities, and accident rates are high. Caution should be exercised by pedestrians, even when crossing with a walk light.

Health

Despite a loud call for health care reform from both the voters and the political establishment, the nation's health care system has received very high marks from the World Health Organization (WHO), a branch of the UN. However, many citizens prefer private health care for longer-term hospital stays. Depending on the age and nature of a particular hospital or clinic, services range from adequate to excellent. Health care is free and universal for all citizens, as well as for all EU nationals upon presentation for E111 form. For non-EU nationals, only emergency care is provided for free.

A network of helicopter ambulances serves the islands, transporting patients who need immediate attention to the nearest island or city with a major hospital.

The country's pharmacies and medications are of top quality, and pharmacists are highly trained experts in their field. Many medications that can only be acquired by prescription in the US and UK, can be purchased without prescription in Greece. When sick with a simple, common illness, a visit to the pharmacist will provide you with the medication you need. If you are looking for a specific medication, be sure to know its generic name, as brand names might be different. Most pharmacies close on Sundays, but a sign will be posted on the door indicating the nearst pharmacies that are open.

In late spring and summer, the government runs public service announcements on television reminding Greeks to wear their sunblock at the beach. The Mediterranean sun tends to get quite strong, and can burn skin that has not been exposed to the sun for a long time. Any excessive daily sun exposure can also cause long-term damage to skin. Sunblock and sunscreen are widely available throughout Greece at supermarkets, grocery stores, pharmacies, and special stores selling beach-related items.

During the hottest months, while visiting archaeological sites, wear tank tops, carry umbrellas, and carry water. Daily high temperatures stay at about 95-100 F. The sun is merciless. Athens in recent years has been subject to periodic summer heat waves where the temperature can reach above 100 F., posing a risk of respiratory problems and heat stroke for some people. Be aware that many islands, especially in the Cyclades, have very little shade to ameliorate the summer heat; if hiking around such islands, including going by foot to distant beaches, it's especially important in hot weather to wear a hat and sunscreen, to take water, and to avoid being caught walking during the hottest part of the day.

Jellyfish periodically infest some beaches and their stings can be severe.

It's inadvisable to go hiking cross country in Greece alone: even in popular places, the countryside can be surprisingly deserted, and if you get in trouble while you're out of sight of any houses or roads, it could be a long time before anyone notices you.

There are no required inocculations for Greece and the water is perfectly safe. The tap water on some of the islands is desalinated sea water, which may taste awkward; locals on such islands prefer to drink bottled water, which is widely available throughout the country at supermarkets, grocery stores, and kiosks.

History

During the Bronze Age (3000-1200 BC) the powerful Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean maritime civilisations flourished. According to Homer, this was a time of violence and wars based on trade rivalries, although it is thought that Minoan culture was generally peaceful and harmonious. By the 11th century BC the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures had collapsed due to changing patterns of trade and a Dorian invasion from the north, and a 'dark age' ensued.

By 800 BC Greece was undergoing a cultural and military revival, with the evolution of city-states, the most powerful of which were Athens and Sparta. Greater Greece was created, with southern Italy as an important component. This period was followed by an era of great prosperity known as the classical (or golden) age. During this time, Pericles commissioned the Parthenon, Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King, Socrates taught young Athenians the rigours of logic, and a tradition of democracy (literally, 'control by the people') was ushered in. The classical age came to an end with the Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 AD) in which the militaristic Spartans defeated the Athenians.

While embroiled in the Peloponnesian Wars, the Spartans failed to notice the expansion of Philip of Macedon's kingdom in the north, which enabled him to easily conquer the war-weary city-states. Philip's ambitions were surpassed by his son Alexander the Great, who marched into Asia Minor, Egypt (where he was proclaimed pharaoh and founded the city of Alexandria), Persia and parts of what are now Afghanistan and India. The reign of the Macedonian empire, which lasted in the form of three dynasties after Alexander's death at the age of 33, is known as the Hellenistic period, due to the merging of Greek ideas and culture with the other proud cultures of antiquity, creating a new cosmopolitan tradition.

From 205 BC there were Roman incursions into Greece, and by 146 BC Greece and Macedonia had become Roman provinces. After the subdivision of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western empires in 395 AD, Greece became part of the illustrious Byzantine Empire. By the 12th century, the Crusades were in full flight and Byzantine power was much reduced by invading hordes of Venetians, Catalans, Genoese, Franks and Normans.

In 1453 the Ottoman Turks captured the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, and by 1500 almost all of Greece had also fallen under Turkish control. The lands of present-day Greece became a rural backwater, with many merchants, intellectuals and artists exiled in central Europe. It was traditional village life and Orthodox religion that held together the notion of Hellenism. A cultural revival in the late 18th century precipitated the War of Independence (1821-29), during which aristocratic young philhellenes such as Byron, Shelley and Goethe supported the Greeks in their battle against the Ottoman Turks. The independence movement lacked unity, however, and in 1827 Russia, France and Britain decided to intervene. After independence, the European powers decided Greece should become a monarchy, with a non-Greek ruler to frustrate Greek power struggles, and installed Otto of Bavaria as king in 1833. The monarchy, with an assortment of kings at the helm, held on despite popular opposition until well into the 20th century, although George I established a new constitution in 1864 that returned democracy and pushed the king into a largely ceremonial role.

During WWI, Greek troops fought on the Allied side and occupied Thrace. After the war, Prime Minister Venizelos sent forces to 'liberate' the Turkish territory of Smyrna (present-day Izmir), which had a large Greek population. The army was repulsed by Atatürk's troops and many Greek residents were slaughtered. This led to a brutal population exchange between the two countries in 1923, the resultant population increase (1, 300, 000 Christian refugees) straining Greece's already weak economy. Shanty towns spilled from urban centres, unions were formed among the urban refugee population and by 1936 the Communist Party had widespread popular support.

In 1936 General Metaxas was appointed as prime minister by the king and quickly established a fascist dictatorship. Although Metaxas had created a Greek version of the Third Reich, he was opposed to German or Italian domination and refused to allow Italian troops to traverse Greece in 1940. Despite Allied help, Greece fell to Germany in 1941, leading to carnage and mass starvation. Resistance movements sprang up and polarised into royalist and communist factions, and a bloody civil war resulted, lasting until 1949, when the royalists claimed victory. During the civil war, America, inspired by the Truman Doctrine, gave large sums of money to the anticommunist government and implemented the Certificate of Political Reliability, which remained valid until 1962. This document declared that the wearer did not hold left-wing sympathies; without it Greeks could not vote and found it almost impossible to get work.

Fearing a resurgence of the left, a group of army colonels staged a coup d'etat in 1967, said by Andreas Papandreou to be 'the first successful CIA military putsch on the European continent'. The junta distinguished itself by inflicting appalling brutality, repression and political incompetence upon the people. In 1974 the colonels attempted to assassinate Cyprus' leader, Archbishop Makarios, leading to Turkey's invasion and occupation of Northern Cyprus. This is still a volatile issue for the Greeks, and tensions with Turkey are easily inflamed.

In 1981 Greece entered the European Community (now the EU), and Andreas Papandreou's socialist party (PASOK) won elections. PASOK promised removal of US air bases and withdrawal from NATO, but these promises were never fulfilled. Women's issues fared better, with the abolition of the dowry system and legalisation of abortion. In the end, scandals got the better of Papandreou and his government was replaced by an unlikely coalition of conservatives and communists in 1989. Elections in 1990 brought the conservatives to power with a majority of only two seats and, intent on redressing the country's economic problems, the government imposed unpopular and severe austerity measures. A general election in 1993 returned the ageing, ailing Papandreou and PASOK to power.

Kostas Simitis was appointed prime minister in early 1996 when it became clear that Papandreou's time was drawing nigh-Greece's elder statesman died mid-1996. Simitis was re-elected by the skin of his teeth in April 2000, with a victory margin of one percentage point. Greece adopted the euro currency in 2002. In 2004 the country hosted the Olympic Games and in 2005, much to Greece's surprise and delight won the Eurovision Song Contest. Simitis and PASOK found themselves on the opposition benches following a heavy loss in the 2004 election that saw Costas Karamanlis and his conservative Nea Dimokratia party take power. Karamanlis still leads the country, but ever-rising prices and stationary salaries coupled with a continually increasing consumer credit squeeze is making life just a shade more edgy for most Greeks these days.

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