A land of myths, legends, beautiful coasts, and ancient remnants of its golden age and earlier civilizations, Greece is far more than holiday islands, ouzo, and sculptures. As one of the world’s top 20 travel destinations, its mainland and islands shimmer in the summer sun and echo to the sound of traditional Greek music. Crammed with attractions and things to do, Greece still sees 90 percent of its high season visitors from Europe, but is fast becoming a major destination for travel aficionados across the world.
Its premier attractions are world famous for their association with the Minoan, Mycenaean, and Ancient Greek periods, immortalized in the works of great poets, playwrights, and philosophers almost 2,000 years ago. Exploring Knossos on Crete, Mycenae in the Peloponnese, and the treasures of Athens are all-time favorites with visitors. The country’s not all ancient ruins, however, and modern draws such as great beaches, fun water sports, adventure and outdoor activities, and waterside tavernas all have their place in the perfect Greek getaway.
The Greek people are among the worlds most welcoming, friendly and helpful, dispensing their renowned hospitality to all with open arms and hearts. Whether you’re staying in a five-star resort or a locally-owned beachside b & b with a few rooms to rent, you’ll be immersed in the community in no time. Eating out and accommodation are both a good value for the money.
Inevitably, summer is the best time to visit for beach-lovers, although dedicated sightseers may find the high heat levels distracting. Spring in Greece is a stunning time, the land carpeted with flowers before the parched, dry summer season sets in. For outdoor activities such as hiking, the shoulder seasons are best, and party animals should remember that many hotspots close during the low season between October and May. At the beginning and end of the high season, bargain accommodation can be had, and prices rise dramatically in the peak holiday months of July and August.
Currency: the Euro
Official language: Greek
The history of Greece must be one of the best-known in the world as its innovative city state, at its height over 2,000 years ago, set the stage for the development of the whole of Modern Europe. However, advanced civilization in the region didn’t begin with Classical Greece: it began in the Cycladic Islands, continued with the Minoan civilization on Crete, and migrated to the Peloponnese mainland at Mycenae in around 1900 BC. Writing was practiced via the yet-to-be-deciphered Minoan Linear A script and the Mycenaean Linear B, an early version of Classical Greek.
The cradle of Western civilization began forming around 600 BC, and flowered with dramatic advances in science, astronomy, philosophy, drama, art, and mathematics. In 508 BC, the first democratic government in the world was instituted in Athens, and great monuments and landmarks took shape in forms never seen before. Athens spread its tentacles across the Mediterranean coastlines and Asia Minor, although several Persian invasions from the north during the Greco-Persian Wars threatened its stability. Rising conflicts between the non-unified Greek states resulted in the Peloponnesian War between 431 and 404 BC, which weakened the Athenian Empire and cause it to lose its premier position in the region.
By 27 BC, Greece was in Roman hands. Christianity took hold early on although some regions remained pagan for another thousand years. Byzantine control began in the 9th century, followed by rule by the Franks in the 13th century. By the 15th century, the country was part of the Ottoman Empire and the Dark Ages had begun, although Venice mopped up a few islands. The Ottoman period was a harsh time for the Greek population although the invaders did not force Orthodox Christians to renounce their religion. The Greek War of Independence began in 1821 and saw fierce fighting, as well as involvement by Russia, England, and France until 1830, when the Greek state was finally recognized.
Greek culture in the present day is a glorious mix of great classical and maritime heritage, music and dance, myth and legend, and a lifestyle that has developed over centuries. Even the ultra-modern, urbanite Athenians are still Greek to the core, and in rural districts and less-touristy islands, the local lifestyle is as laid back as they were at the beginning of the century. Although Greece has been heavily influenced by other cultures, it should be noted that Western cultures were equally influenced by the Classical Greek period, especially in the fields of literature, art, and architecture.
The famous Greek folk dances are still an integral part of modern-day life here, as evidenced in tavernas across the country on weekends, when locals get up and dance for any opportunity. These dances originated in the Mycenaean era and were used in rituals on religious occasions as part of a belief that the gods were the first to have danced. Even the Greek language has its origins in the Mycenaean Linear B script, and Classical Greek became a foundation for several of the European languages including English.
Greece is part of the Schengen Agreement, which means there are no border controls for nationals of EU countries. EU citizens only require a valid national identity card or passport to enter Greece. Non-EU citizen require a valid passport and possibly a visa if you intend on a longer visit.
Taxi travel in Athens is generally less convenient than the metro due to the high number of traffic jams the city sees on any given day. Taxis are inexpensive, and most drivers make an honest living, but visitors should watch out for overcharging at airports, harbors, and popular tourist destinations. All taxis are metered, and the meter should be turned on and set to ‘1’ before your journey begins. The ‘2’ setting only applies between 12:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. or on longer trips outside city limits. Surcharges apply to trips from harbors and rail or bus stations. Calling taxis are often the fastest way to get a cab and useful firms include Athina (+30-2-10-921-7942) and Parthenon (+30-2-10-532-3311) in Athens.
It’s quite possible to arrive in Greece via ferry, with Patras and Corfu served by Italian ferries from Venice, Bari, Brindisi, and several other port cities. Athens’ port of Piraeus sees ferries from Alexandria (Egypt), Larnaca and Limassol (Cyprus), and Marmaris (Turkey). Bodrum, Turkey, ferries run to Kos and the majority of the Greek Islands archipelago can be reached by ferry from Piraeus.
At present, it’s not possible to arrive in Greece via its international rail service, as all international routes were suspended in February 2011. Train travel is the cheapest way to get around the mainland, but is also the slowest and least convenient by far. The country’s excellent KTEL long-distance bus services are comfortable and inexpensive, using modern, air-conditioned coaches on routes spanning all the mainland regions and major destinations. Bus travel has its uses on the Greek Islands, as well with local services linking the main towns and villages.
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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