The historic sites in Greece span four millennia, encompassing both the legendary and the obscure, where a visit can still seem like a personal discovery. Greek beaches are parcelled out along a convoluted coastline equal to France’s in length, and islands range from backwaters where the boat calls twice a week to resorts as cosmopolitan as any in the Mediterranean.
Of course there are formal cultural greek activities as well: museums that shouldn’t be missed, magnificent medieval mansions and castles in Greece, as well as the great ancient sites dating from the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Minoan, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras. Greece hosts some excellent summer Greek festivals too, bringing international theatre, dance and musical groups to perform in ancient theatres, as well as castle courtyards and more contemporary venues in coastal and island resorts.
But the call to cultural duty will never be too overwhelming on a Greek holidays. The hedonistic pleasures of languor and warmth – going lightly dressed, swimming in balmy seas at dusk, talking and drinking under the stars – are just as appealing.
And despite recent improvements to the tourism “product”, Greece is still essentially a land for adaptable sybarites, not for those who crave orthopedic mattresses, faultless plumbing, Cordon-Bleu cuisine and attentive services. Greeks spend a lot of time socializing outside their homes, and sharing a meal is one of the chief ways of doing it.
The atmosphere in Greece is always relaxed and informal, and pretensions (and expense-account prices) are rare outside of the more chi-chi parts of Athens and certain major resorts. On many Greek islands and cities there will be both hotels and rooms for rent.
The latter will be in someone’s house. You’ll see references to pensions, which are supposed to refer to rooms for rent, but I’ve seen the name applied to low scale hotels as well.
Compared to hotels, rooms are much cheaper, may actually be bigger, and sometimes with kitchen facilities as well, but can be awkward to get at, not so private, or have less facilities and services. Greek hotels are rated. The classes, from best to worst, are Luxury hotels, A, B, C, D, and E.
The hotels classes are generally accurate, allowing that a given grade of hotel in the rural area will be less well equipped than the same class in Athens. A C class hotels will be simple, clean, neat, safe. Despite what the guidebooks say, I’ve found them to have bathrooms in suite.
They typically do not have air conditioning in hotels, sometimes will have in room phones and TVs. Breakfast will be simple, cost extra or not be available. The bathroom will be very small, the floor often doubling as the floor of the shower.
Rooms may only have a view of an interior air shaft. On the other hand, I’ve had them with a balcony and a view of the waterfront. The two beds will be small, the sheets and pillow minimal or slightly rough. The hotels desk may not be staffed other than during day time hours.
In the rural areas, the English of the staff may be basic. Greeks are not prodigious drinkers – tippling is traditionally meant to accompany food – though since the mid-1990s a whole range of bars and pubs has sprung up, both in tourist resorts and as pricey music halls at the outskirts of the major towns in Greece Except at the growing number of luxury facilities in new or restored buildings, Greek hotels and pension rooms can be box-like, campsites offer the minimum of facilities, and the food at its best is fresh and uncomplicated.
To attempt an understanding of the Greek people, it’s useful to realize just how recent and traumatic were the events that created the modern state and national character – the latter a complex blend of extroversion and pessimism, which cannot be accounted for merely by Greece’s position as a natural bridge between Europe and the Middle East.
Greeks, despite nearly three decades of democratic stability and the country’s integration into the EU. The poverty of, and enduring paucity of opportunity in, their homeland long frustrated talented and resourceful Greeks, many of whom emigrated.
Those who stayed were lulled, until the late 1980s, by a civil-service-driven full-employment policy which resulted in the lowest jobless rate in western Europe.
The downside of this was an occasionally staggering lack of worker initiative, but official attempts to impose a more austere economic line are still often met by waves of strikes.
Since the early 1990s, Greece has become fully integrated into the Western economy, privatization and competition have demolished state monopolies, and inevitably growing disparities in wealth have appeared.
Though younger Greeks are adaptable and cash registers ring happily, at least in tourist areas, visitors still need to be sensitive in their behaviour towards the older generation.
The mind boggles imagining the reaction of black-clad elders to nudism, or even scanty clothing, in a country where the Greek Orthodox church remains an all-but-established faith and the self-appointed guardian of national identity.
Although senior clerics have recently depleted a huge reservoir of respect with regressive stances on a number of issues, even the most worldly young Greeks, who never otherwise set foot in a church, are still likely to be married, buried and have their children baptized with Greek Orthodox rites.
Most places and Greek people are far more agreeable, and resolutely Greek, outside the peak period of early July to the end of August, when soaring temperatures, plus crowds of foreigners and locals alike, can be overpowering.
You won’t miss out on warm weather if you come in June or September , excellent times almost everywhere but particularly in the islands. An exception to this pattern, however, is the north-mainland coast – notably the Halkidiki peninsula – and the islands of Samothraki and Thassos, which only really cater to visitors during July and August.
In October you will almost certainly hit a stormy spell, especially in western Greece or in the mountains, but for most of that month the “summer of Ayios DhimItrios” (the Greek equivalent of Indian summer) prevails, and the southerly Dodecanese and Crete are extremely pleasant.
Autumn in general is beautiful the light is softer, the sea often balmier than the air, and the colours subtler. December to March are the coldest and least reliable months, though even then there are many crystal-clear, fine days, and the glorious lowland flowers begin to bloom very early in spring.
The more northerly latitudes and high altitudes of course endure far colder and wetter conditions, with the mountains themselves under snow from November to May.
The mildest winter climate is to be found on Rhodes, or in the southeastern parts of Crete. As spring slowly warms up, April is still uncertain, though superb for wild flowers, green landscapes and photography.
By May the weather in Greece is more generally predictable, and Crete, the Peloponnese, the Ionian islands and the Cyclades (Mykonos, Santorini, Paros, Naxos, etc. ) are perhaps at their best for travel, even if the sea is still a little cool for swimming.
Note, however, that these are the historical patterns as observed until the early 1990s thanks to global warming, recent years have seen erratic climate, with unusually cold Mays, warm Octobers, little (and late) rain, plus very early spring flowering.
Other factors that affect the timing of your Greek travels have to do with the level of tourism and the amenities provided. Services standards, particularly in tavernas, slip under peak-season pressure, and room rates top out from July to September (as well as during Easter or Christmas week).
If you can only visit or travel during midsummer, reserve a package well in advance, or plan your itinerary off the beaten track: you might for example explore the less obvious parts of the Peloponnese or the northern mainland, or island-hop with an eye for the remoter places. Out of season , especially between late October and late April, you have to contend with reduced ferry services to the islands (and nonexistent hydrofoils or catamarans), plus fairly skeletal facilities when you arrive in Greece.
On secondary travel on roads they’re less regular, with long gaps, but even the remotest villages will be connected – at least on weekdays. The flying dolphins are hydrofoil boats that buzz over the water at a fine pace. They are the interurbans of Greece, like some “doodlebug” traveling the rails in rural America a generation ago.
The windows are always dirty, the noise is amazing, and the seats often sag. But they don’t require an enormous infrastructure to start and run. The crew mingles with the passengers, the pilots talk to the cabin crew, and occasionally some very grime-smattered worker emerges from the bowls with a huge air filter or something to put away.
It is appropriate technology: fast enough but not overdone, still human scale that does not destroy the environment. And, like steam engines, and many ships, they have a soul. Greece is a wonderful, relatively safe place with access to the modern conveniences. You will, however, find reasonable service on all main routes and at least one hotel and taverna open in the port or main town of all but the tiniest isles. On the mainland, winter travel poses no special difficulties except, of course, in mountain villages either cut off by snow or (at weekends especially) monopolized by avid Greek skiers.
The standard overland public transport in Greece is the bus. Greek train networks are usually slow and limited, though services on the Athens-Patra line and the northern mainland lines is improving. Buses, however, cover just about every route on the mainland – albeit infrequently on minor roads – and provide basic connections on the islands.
The best way to supplement buses is to rent a scooter, full-sized motorbike or (rent a car), especially in travel on the islands, where in any substantial town or resort you can find a rental outlet. Inter-island travel of course means taking ferries.
These again are extensive, and will eventually get you to any of the 166 inhabited isles. Greek planes are relatively expensive, at three to four times the cost of a deck-class ferry ticket and almost twice as much as the cheapest cabin berth. Buses. Bus services on the major routes , both on the mainland and islands, are highly efficient and frequent.
In Athens, the ordinary safety skills of large American cities are needed, including watching for pickpockets at the airport. Greece is a paradise for photographers, so load up. The bright sun and saturated colors allow work with the higher quality slower speed films.
New security measures are causing concern about film fogging in checked luggage by airport X-ray machines. We strongly recommend film be hand carried. There are ATM machines that take your bank cards just fine. The old standby of travelers checks are still good.
Tourism is a key industry in Greece. Like other countries that depend on it, they have a Minister of Tourism and government policy to tourism is of national political concern.