Created | Updated Jan 10, 2012
Last Updated 19 May, 2006
Greece is a marvellous country in the southeast corner of Europe. It is divided between a mountainous mainland and thousands of islands, the most notable being Crete, the fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean.
Greece was one of the first civilised countries in Europe, leaving it littered with ancient ruins. The principles of Ancient Greek culture and philosophy have moulded Western Civilisation - they came up with ideas as diverse as democracy, formal proof and theatre. As a result, the country is flooded with millions of tourists every year who often know more about the Ancient Greeks than they do their own country's history.
In Athens, you can easily find a tourist who can tell you what Socrates said to one of his friends while visiting his aunt under an olive tree below the Acropolis. You should act very impressed and say something like 'Yes. Did not Plato write this?' You should then leave the place as fast as possible without running into the Ionic order architecture behind you.
On the other hand, Greece has sun, some sand, and a relaxed attitude to life, making it a perfect place to chill out for a more traditional sun holiday.
Greece's economy depends on tourism, but agriculture and manufacturing are also important. Because of the islands, shipping has always been an important industry. The country is on average one of the poorer countries of Europe, although considerably better off than the former communist bloc countries to the north of it.
Facts and Figures
Mainland Greece lies to the west and north of the Aegean Sea, a part of the Mediterranean. The Aegean is bounded on the east side by Turkey and on the south side by the long Greek island of Crete. In the Aegean lie literally thousands of islands, and all but a handful of them are part of the country of Greece. There are also a few islands on the west coast of mainland Greece, in the Ionian Sea.
The official name of the country is the 'Hellenic Republic' (or 'Ellás' in Greek). It is a member of the European Union since 1981. The monetary unit is the Euro, divided into 100 cents, but these small units are known as 'lepta' due to the difficulty of saying 'cent' in Greek. The country is a democratic multi-party republic with a President as Chief of State and a Prime Minister as Head of Government. The population of Greece is about 10 million, of which about 4 million live in the capital city, Athens.
The land area of the country is 132,000 square kilometres, of which about one fifth is in the islands and the rest in the mainland. There are 170 inhabited islands and about 2,000 islands altogether.
Greece was home to three different Bronze Age civilisations: the Cycladic Civilisation, in the Cyclades islands in the period 4000 to 2000 BC; the Minoans in Crete and Santorini, from about 3000 to 1400 BC; and the Mycenaeans, a Greek-speaking people, in the Peloponnese and Central Greece, from 2000 to 1200 BC.
The Cycladic Culture and the Minoans disappeared leaving only buried ruins for the archaeologists. It is possible that the Minoans were conquered by the Mycenaeans, although this is not entirely clear. Why the Mycenaeans civilisation itself collapsed in 1200 BC is not known; they left not only plenty of fortified cities, but also a whole host of legends and stories about gods and heroes which became the core of later Greek mythology.
The Classical Era
The Dorians, an Iron Age Greek-speaking people, invaded Greece from the North in some time around 1000 BC and conquered most of it. At about the same time, the Ionians invaded the islands from the east. Cities such as Athens and Sparta started to arise, and by about 800 BC, the country was controlled by a number of independent city-states, such as Corinth, Athens, Thebes and Sparta. In an effort to gain land for themselves, these would send colonising expeditions abroad, resulting in many parts of the Mediterranean region having Greek cities, such as Massalia (now Marseilles in southern France), Syracuse (modern Siracusa) in Sicily, Byzantium up near the Black Sea (now Istanbul) and Cyrene in Libya.
This was the time that most people think of as 'Ancient Greece', with bearded bald guys in flowing robes, massive temples and beautiful statues. The principles of philosophy, drama and politics were worked out by those same bald guys.
The city-states of Greece always fought among themselves, but they successfully united in the 5th Century BC to repel an invasion by the Persian Empire. Despite this, the inter-city rivalry came to a head with the Peloponnesian War (431 - 404 BC), in which every city sided with one or other of the two main contenders, Sparta and Athens. The whole of the Greek world was left weakened by the conflict.
In the 4th Century BC, Philip, king of Macedon, a small Greek-speaking country to the north, took the opportunity to gain control of the whole of what is now Greece, and his son Alexander (the Great) used Greek armies to take on and defeat the Persian Empire. He basically conquered it in its entirety, and it became a Greek Empire.
Alexander had no son. After his untimely death at the age of 32, his Empire started to fall apart. The Romans were at this time expanding their control of Southern Europe, and they gradually conquered the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean including what is now Greece. They were so impressed with Greek culture, however, that Greek continued to be spoken in the Eastern Roman Empire, although the Western Empire spoke Latin.
The Roman Empire became unwieldy and was split into two, the Eastern Empire being centred on Byzantium (now Istanbul). In the 4th Century AD, this was renamed Constantinople (City of Constantine), and in the 5th Century, when Rome was lost to the barbarian invasions, it became the capital of the whole Roman Empire, which gradually became known as the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines still considered themselves Romans, although they spoke Greek.
Fragmentation and Conquest
In around 1000 AD, the Byzantine Empire was weakening and was being pressed in from both sides. Sea-faring Italians took over many of the islands. Crusaders on their way to or from the Holy Land took bits of Greece for their own, and even occupied Constantinople itself for about 60 years. The Empire shrank to little more than a large city-state. This situation continued until about 1400 AD, when the Ottomans (Turks) invaded what is now Turkey, eventually taking Constantinople in 1453. Greece fell under Turkish rule and remained so for about 400 years.
Liberation and the Greek Nation
With help from western nations, who felt strongly about Greece as the birthplace of democracy and western thought, the Greeks rebelled against the Turks in the 1820s and set up the new country of Greece. Gradually they got back many of the Greek-speaking areas from the countries which held them. This process was a slow one - some of the islands only became part of the new country as late as 1947.
Greece had a hard time in the 2nd World War. When 'asked' by the Axis powers to allow Axis troops to occupy strategic locations, Greece refused, resulting in their being invaded. After the war, the country erupted into civil war, which lasted until 1949. There were many casualties. Then when everything seemed to be sorted out, a US-backed group of rebels known as 'the Colonels' deposed the democratically elected government and set up a fascist dictatorship in 1967. This lasted for seven years before democracy was restored in 1974.
General Info on Greece
Greek is an Indo-European language. This theoretically makes it related to just about every other language in Europe, but it hides it well. It sounds just like Spanish, unless you happen to speak Spanish, in which case you will realise that you don't recognise a word of it. Modern Greek is a direct descendant of Ancient Greek, the language spoken throughout the eastern Mediterranean 1,500 years ago, but that language has no other descendants, so Modern Greek is a bit of an outcast.
The most important features of the language:
Nobody except the Greeks can speak it, due to its highly complex grammar.
It uses an alphabet which is different from everybody else's, the Greek alphabet. This was the original alphabet from which both our own (Roman) alphabet and the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet evolved.
Greek is heavy on endings - the endings of words change depending on what you are using the word for. You'll notice this in Greek place names, where they can never decide whether a given town's name ends in -o, -os or -on, and in people's names where a guy may be called Spiros, but you address him as Spiro.
The most important Greek phrases are as follows. Here, the vowels a, e, i, o and u represent the sounds ah, ay, ee, oh, oo. The kh represents the ch sound in the Scottish word Loch. The accent indicates the vowel which is stressed:
- efkharistó - thank you
- parakaló - please
- singnómi - excuse me
- ne - yes
- ókhi - no
- yassu - hello (to one person)
- yassas - hello (to more than one person, or formally to a stranger)
- ti kánete - how are you, how's it going?
- kalá - fine
- polí kalá - very well
- kalimera - good day
- kalispera - good afternoon/evening
- kalinikta - good night (used as goodbye)
- andhío - goodbye
- yammas - cheers
You must try the pistachios. They are the best in the world.
Greek food is very similar to Turkish food, but don't tell them this. See the section below on the the Turks. Restaurants are well covered in the Eating Out in Greece entry.
If you're hungry you should try not to seem like a tourist looking for a traditional Greek tavern, because then every landlord will come running out of his restaurant to entice you to try authentic moussaka.
By European standards, Greek toilets are odd. They look just like any other toilets, except for the little bin beside them. You are supposed to put used toilet paper in the bin rather than dumping it in the bowl and flushing it away. This simple fact is the norm throughout Greece. You get used to it after a while.
Visitors to other parts of the world may have already encountered the bin system: it is commonplace anywhere where sewage systems are likely to be clogged up by toilet paper.
Greek Music and Dancing
Greek traditional music uses many different instruments, but only one is ever shown to the tourists - the bouzouki. All tavernas catering for tourists feature piped bouzouki music, and some even have live bouzouki players, often specially imported from Athens for the tourist season. The bouzouki in Greece is like the bagpipes in Scotland - it is a part of the folk tradition, but probably not as prominent a one as is presented to the tourists.
Try dancing in Greek taverns. Traditional Greek dancing relies on a lot of footwork. Tourists are encouraged to try it. If you try and succeed, you are either a genius or a Greek yourself. If you fail, you will do so with your legs in a knot.
Driving in Greece
If you try to drive a car in Athens you should forget everything you have ever heard about traffic regulations. Just start your car and follow any other road user who might know what he is doing and to where he is going.
Outside of Athens, roads are poor. Even motorways can have seriously bad surfaces, limiting speeds to 80km/h (50mph) in places. Other roads can be very winding, so allow yourself plenty of time. On wider roads, it is normal to drive half way into the road margin, to allow the Greeks (who don't keep to the speed limits) to pass you.
Greek Attitudes to Life
Philoxenia and Officialdom
The Greek attitude to foreigners, except Turks (see below), is a welcoming one. This is embodied in the word Philoxenia, which means 'love of strangers'. The Greeks genuinely like strangers to come to their country, and to welcome them as friends. Stories abound of Greeks welcoming in complete strangers and offering them food and hospitality, with no expectation of anything in return. This genuine warmness is the heart of the tourist industry and more than makes up for any minor inadequacies in hotels, food or plumbing.
The complete opposite attitude is also present in Greece in the form of government officialdom. All Greek official departments display a complete lack of interest in tourists. Even the official tourist information offices are surprisingly unhelpful, being unable to provide such simple information as location of hotels, timetables of buses etc.
Although my ticket into the antiquity site entitled me to a free one-page guide, the woman at the ticket booth refused to give me one. She only had one left, she said, and if she gave me that, she wouldn't have any at all! Eventually I sent my daughter up to ask, in the hope that she would feel bad and give in to the pleadings of a child.
Greece was 'occupied' for 400 years by the Turks, and the Greeks are not going to forget it in a hurry. They hate the Turks with a vengeance. Greece became independent from Turkey in the 19th Century, but there were still a lot of Greek-speaking people living along the Turkish coast. Relations between the countries was not improved when, in the 1920s, the Turks evicted every person in Turkey of the Greek Orthodox religion, deciding they were Greek. About a million refugees arrived in Piraeus, the port of Athens, and turned the place into a shanty town. The Greeks responded by packing all Greek Muslims off to Turkey.
The Greeks and the Turks have a huge amount of shared culture, but they do not like to be told this. For example, never make the mistake of calling the coffee 'Turkish coffee'. It is 'Greek coffee', although the two are exactly the same.
The Role of Women
Greeks are traditional when it comes to the roles of men and women. Women look after the children. Men work to earn a salary. Or when they can't get work, they sit around and do nothing. They do not help out at home. The traditional place for men to sit around is the Kaffeinion, the Greek Coffee Shop. This is an exclusively male establishment, generally with minimal decoration. Men sit and drink coffee, smoke and play backgammon or chess together.
The Greeks were converted to Christianity almost as soon as it was invented - St Paul was preaching to the people of Thessaloniki and Corinth within about 30 years of the death of Christ. They've remained staunchly Christian ever since, despite a 400-year period when, as part of the Ottoman Empire, the official religion was Islam. Greek Christianity split from Western Christianity about a thousand years ago, and hasn't recognised the authority of the Pope since then. It is a very traditional religion, with lots of gold and incense, praying to saints rather than directly to God, and lots of fasting, droning chants and black clothed, bearded priests. The Greeks take their religion seriously, and are more likely to celebrate their saint's feast day than their own birthday.
A Whistle-Stop Tour: the Mainland
Our tour starts with Mainland Greece.
Athens, the biggest city and capital is described in the Athens Entry.
Central Greece includes the area around Athens (known as Attica) and the area to the west of this, along the north of the Gulf of Salamis and the Gulf of Corinth. The most important tourist destination in Central Greece is Delphi, home of the ancient Oracle.
It is also absolutely necessary to go to Delphi; not just for the Temple of Apollo or the Stadium, but because of the outlook on the bay. Pity for you if it is not a completely clear day on the day you visit.
The island of Evia (in ancient times known as Euboia) is one of the biggest of Greek islands. It is so close to the mainland (only 35 metres) that a bridge was built as long ago as the 5th Century BC, and it has effectively become part of the mainland, so it is listed here. It is a favourite haunt of Athenian holiday homes.
The Peloponnese is a giant peninsula to the south of Central Greece, made into an island since the cutting of the Corinth Canal at the end of the 19th Century. The Peloponnese was the heartland of Ancient Greece and probably has more ancient monuments per square mile than any other part of the country. These include the Mycenaean cities of Mycenae, Tiryns and the palace of Pylos, the Classical Period sanctuaries of Olympia and Epidavros, the Roman city of Corinth and the medieval cities and fortresses of Mystras and Monemvasia. The Peloponnese is described in detail in the Peloponnese Entry.
You might go to Nafplio, a small town in the south of the Peloponnese, with an impressive Venetian Castle on top of a nearby hill. This castle is called Palamidi and at night you don't have to pay the entry fee, provided you get over the surrounding walls after climbing up all 911 steps to the top of the hill. There you can see more stars in the night sky than from any other vantage point in the world.
Northern Greece is dominated by the massif of the Pindos Mountains, which cut the west side off from the east. To the east of the mountains lies Thessaly, a low-lying agricultural area. It was famous in ancient times for its horses. The most visited site in Thessaly is Meteora, where lots of monasteries are built on the tops of giant pillars of rock.
Further north is the region of Macedonia, which should not be confused with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia still further north, which is a separate country. The capital of the Greek region of Macedonia is Thessaloniki, which is Greece's second city. Macedonia stretches around the north end of the Aegean Sea past the peninsula of Mount Athos as far as the city of Kavala.
Mount Athos itself is an oddity: an independent 'Theocratic Republic' with its own laws. It is run by the Greek Orthodox Church, has 17 monasteries and operates a strict 'no women' rule - even female farm animals are forbidden. Men are allowed enter the peninsula with a permit, if they can show that they are interested in the Greek Orthodox Religion.
Continuing along the north coast of the sea to the east is Thrace, with its biggest town of Komotini. Thrace was famous in antiquity for its red-haired people.
The area to the west of the mountains is called Epirus: it is little frequented and has very little of interest to the tourist.
A Whistle-Stop Tour: the Islands
Our tour continues with the islands. With 170 inhabited islands, we're not going to be able to list them all, but here are the major groups.
Crete is the biggest island by far. It is about 250km long, although as narrow as 12 km in places. Crete was the home in the 2nd Millennium BC of the Minoan Civilisation. Crete is described in the Crete Entry.
The Cyclades are a group of about 30 main islands and a thousand smaller ones centrally located in the Aegean, directly north of Crete and south of Athens. The most important of them are Siros, Naxos, Andros, Paros, Santorini, and Mykonos. Delos, although one of the smallest islands, was an important religious centre in the Classical Era, and ranks along with Athens, Delphi and Olympia in terms of ancient ruins.
These islands are in the Eastern Aegean Sea, near the coast of Turkey. The most important is Rhodes, with its famous medieval fortifications and home in ancient times to the Colossus. Other islands include Cos and Patmos, home of St John, the writer of the Book of Revelations (part of the Christian Bible).
Islands of the East Aegean
Lesvos is the third biggest Greek island after Crete and Evia. In former times it was called Lesbos. Its most famous resident was the poet Sappho; her erotic poetry in praise of women has given us the English word 'lesbian', which originally meant 'someone from Lesbos'.
Chios and Samos are two other large islands that lie just off the coast of Turkey. Samos is the closest island to the Turkish coast.
The Ionian Islands
These are the only Greek islands which are not in the Aegean Sea. They are in the Ionian Sea between Greece and Italy. The most important are Corfu, Kephalinia, also known as Cephalonia (famed from Captain Corelli's Mandolin), Zakynthos and Lefkadha.
There are many other islands, too many to list them all here. Each one will mean something special to somebody:
You should not fail to visit Aigina, a wonderful, small island situated to the southwest of Athens. The Aphaia Temple there is quite probably the most beautiful building you will ever see in your life.