I’ve had the opportunity to visit Greece twice—in the mid 1980’s and very recently (May-June 2011). The country has changed a lot over the past 25 years. I recall when I visited the first time that the country felt quite poor, and for a visitor, it was inexpensive. Now that Greece is on the Euro, prices are much higher, and there is more evidence of prosperity—many nice homes and BMW’s speeding past us on smooth highways.
The current government debt problems are definitely a concern, and during our stay in Athens we ended up in the middle of a huge protest on Syntagma Square (an almost daily occurrence we understand). The protests are not violent and almost have a festive atmosphere.
Here is some information that I hope will be helpful in planning a visit to Greece.
Places to Visit
Greece is a large country, including about 2,000 islands. When planning to visit, one must decide how much of the country to cover, which will depend on time and budget. The mainland can be divided into roughly two parts–north of the Corinth Canal and south–the Peloponnese peninsula. The islands are quite varied in landscape and features, and very dispersed over the Aegean Sea. Since my first visit was focused on some sights of the Peloponnese peninsula and Thessalonki, we decided this time to visit 3 islands and a few other sites on the northern mainland. We chose the islands of Rhodes, Santorini and Naxos. These islands provided a great variety of natural and historic sights, and were relatively easy to get to. In future posts, I will review each of these islands. On the mainland, we rented a car and drove up to Delphi and then on to Meteora, which is about 5-6 hours by car from Athens. Delphi is an ancient Greek and Roman site, and Meteora has the famous monasteries dating from the 1300’s perched on rock pinnacles. Both sites were outstanding, and I will share more information on each in separate posts. Our final day was spent in Athens.
Our itinerary provided a good mix of beautiful beaches, ancient Greek and Roman sites, medieval sites, natural scenery, and quaint towns.
Another option is to take a cruise through the islands and to some mainland ports. If you don’t mind large crowds, having just one day in a port, and missing the quiet evenings on shore, a cruise could be a good option, and saves the hassle of the transportation logistics between islands.
Suffice it to say that we loved the Greek food. It is outstanding, especially if you like meat and seafood. Most restaurants and tavernas offered a variety of Greek dishes and some Italian fare (pasta and pizzas). It was hard to go wrong with a restaurant choice. We loved the grilled meats (slouvaki), meatballs, moussaka and gyro sandwiches.
We also couldn’t resist ordering Greek salads (tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, olives with a slab of feta cheese and a dash of olive oil) at every meal. We found great gelato most places too!
As might be expected, in all the main tourist areas, English was widely spoken. What surprised us was that even in non-tourist locations like Lamia (3 hours north of Athens), we found storekeepers who were thrilled to see a tourist and spoke English quite well. We did learn a few Greek phrases which is always considerate and fun.
In spite of what many guide books and websites say, driving in Greece was no problem. On the highways, just stay to the right and let those that want to drive 150 km/hour pass you. Even in Athens the traffic was quite orderly. We found most road signs in Greek and English, sometimes the English sign would be separately posted (Greek sign first, then 50 yards later an English sign). Some signs for small towns and other locations were only in Greek. Driving on the islands was very easy; there is little traffic outside the main towns. Gasoline was extremely expensive, almost $8 US per gallon. Around Athens there are tolls on the highways (most are 2 Euros or more), so be prepared for them.
Getting Around the Islands
We flew to Rhodes from Athens, and then to Santorini (via Athens). Flights on Aegean or Olympic Airlines are not cheap (between $90-200 per person per destination). We took the ferry from Santorini to Naxos. Ferries are cheaper, but take longer and may be held up by weather.
Places to Stay
Except for Athens, we stayed in small hotels, and found the recommendations in the Lonely Planet guidebook and online at Booking.com to be very good. The hotel staffs were very helpful and friendly. The only thing we didn’t like about most rooms was the hard beds! They seem to be standard in Greece. Most of the little hotels also included free wireless internet access, and breakfast was included in a few. Room rates varied from €34 per night (2 people) on Naxos to €100 per night on Santorini (for a hotel that was right on the edge of the caldera—worth it!).
Information on Greece
I used three guidebooks: Eyewitness Travel for the Greek Islands, Lonely Planet and Frommer’s. Each guidebook provides a unique perspective and was helpful. Matt Barrett’s website on Greece also has a lot of information.