- Quick Facts
Full country name: Hellenic Republic
Area: 131,944 sq km (51,458 sq mi)
Population: 10.3 million
Capital City: Athens (pop approx. 3.7 million)
People: 98% Greek with minorities of Albanians, Turks and Slavic-Macedonians
Religion: 98% Greek Orthodox, 1.3% Muslim, 0.7% other
Government: parliamentary republic
Prime Minister: Lucas Papademos
GDP: US$143 billion
GDP per head: US$14,000
Annual Growth: 3.5%
Major products/industries: tourism, shipping, food and tobacco processing, textiles, chemicals, metal products, mining, petroleum products
Major trading partners: Germany, Italy, France, UK, USA
Member of EU: yes
Euro zone participant: yes
- Country Facts
January: Gynaikratia on 8 January is a day of role reversal in villages in northern Greece. Women spend the day in kafeneia (cafas) and other social centers, while the men stay at home to do housework.
February: The Greek carnival season, featuring fancy dress, feasting, traditional dancing and general merrymaking.
September: Hellenic Festival which hosts drama and music in ancient theatres.
euro (EUR), formerly Drachma (dr)
. Banks exchange all major currencies in cash, travelers cheques or Eurocheques. Post offices exchange cash but not travelers cheques, and usually charge lower commissions than banks. Travel agencies and larger hotels change cash and travelers cheques but usually charge higher commissions than banks. In restaurants the service charge is included in the bill but it is the custom to leave a small amount; rounding up the bill is usually sufficient.
There are 44 villages in the region of Zagoria, north of Ioannina. As with many inaccessible mountainous areas in Greece, these villages maintained a high degree of autonomy in Turkish times, so their culture flourished. The houses are built entirely of slate from the surrounding mountains, and the villages, with their winding cobbled and stepped streets, look as if they’ve leapt straight out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. The area is thickly forested with hornbeam, maple, willow and oak, and bears, wolves, wild boars, wild cats, wild goats and rare Rissos quadrupeds roam the mountains.
The people of the Mani claim to be direct descendants of the Spartans, the fierce warriors who chose to withdraw to the mountains rather than serve under foreign masters. Until independence, the Maniots lived in clans led by chieftains. With fertile land scarce, blood feuds were a way of life, so families constructed towers to use as refuges. To this day Maniots are regarded by Greeks as fiercely independent, royalist and right wing. Areopoli, the capital of the Mani, is aptly named after Ares, the god of war. In the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town, grim tower houses stand proud and vigilant. The Diros caves, 11km (6.8mi) south of Areopoli, were inhabited by Neolithic people and may extend as far north as Sparta. Visitors are taken on a boat trip along the subterranean river through narrow tunnels and immense caverns filled with myriad clusters of stalactites and stalagmites.
The powerful Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean maritime civilizations flourished during the Bronze Age (3000-1200 BC). 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. 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 rigors 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 invasions by Venetians, Catalans, Genoese, Franks and Normans.
In 1453 the 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 Greekness. A cultural revival in the late 18th century precipitated the War of Independence (1821-32), during which aristocratic young philhellenes such as Byron, Shelley and Goethe supported the Greeks in their battle against the 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 WW I, 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 Ataturk’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. Shantytowns spilled from urban centers, 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 polarized 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, though, with the abolition of the dowry system and legalization 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.
The arts have been integral to Greek life since ancient times. In summer, Greek dramas are staged in the ancient theatres where they were originally performed. Greek literature’s ancient heritage spans poetry, drama, philosophical and historical treatises, and travelogues. Western civilization’s mania for logic and ‘ideas’ can be traced directly back to the musings of ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and the West’s sciences, arts and politics are also deeply indebted to classical Greece. Rembetika music, with its themes of poverty and suffering, was banned under the junta but is becoming increasingly popular among young people.
The Greek language is probably the oldest in Europe, with a 4000-year oral tradition and a 3000-year written tradition. About 98% of Greeks are Greek Orthodox; the rest of the population is Roman Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. Religion is integral to life in Greece and the Greek year is centered on the festivals of the church calendar. Much of Greece’s culinary heritage can be sourced to the 400 years of Turkish rule, particularly appetizers such as tzatziki (cucumber and yogurt dip) and octopus pickled in lemon juice and olive oil.
Cheap snacks such as souvlaki (skewered, grilled meat in pita bread) and spanakopita (spinach and cheese pie) are easy to find. Popular main dishes include mousakas (eggplant baked with minced meat and bachamel sauce), stuffed tomatoes, and freshly grilled seafood. Typical Greek drinks include ouzo, tsipouro and raki.
Greece lies at the southern extremity of the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe. To the north, it has borders with Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Bulgaria, and to the east it borders Turkey. The peninsula, which constitutes mainland Greece, is surrounded by more than 1400 islands, of which 169 are inhabited. The islands are divided into six groups.
Greece has more than 6000 species of flora, some of which occur nowhere else, including more than 100 varieties of orchid. In spring, the Peloponnese and the mountains of Crete explode with the country’s best show of wildflowers, including crocuses, anemones, irises, poppies, lilies, rock roses and cyclamens.
Greeks are overly fond of hunting and fishing, resulting in the serious depletion of marine and bird life in some places. The human population that shares their mountain habitats considers wolves and bears pests rather than endangered species. Watching dolphins and porpoises as they follow the boats is one of the pleasures of island hopping, and the waters around Zakynthos and Kefallonia are home to the last large colony of sea turtles in Europe. The baby turtles, which are hatched on sandy beaches, now have to face not only natural hazards as they make their way out to sea, but also cars, discos and beach parties.
Greece has 16 international airports and has air links to every major city in Europe. In addition, there are direct flights to and from the USA, Canada, Australia and various Asian cities. By land, there are road connections from Turkey, Bulgaria, Albania and Macedonia. There are also trains from Macedonia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. There are ferries from Brindisi, Bari and Otranto in Italy, and from various Aegean ports in Turkey. There are also boats from Israel and Cyprus.
Olympic Airways operates flights between many cities and islands at about three times the ferry fare. Buses are the most popular form of public transport as the train system is limited and confined to the mainland.
- When to Go
Spring and autumn are the best times to visit Greece. Conditions are perfect between Easter and mid-June – the weather is pleasantly warm in most places, but not too hot. Conditions are once more ideal from the end of August until mid-October as the season winds down.
- Explore Attractions
Athens is named after Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. It is an affable city enlivened by outdoor cafes, pedestrian streets, parks and gardens. The city is experiencing something of a European renaissance. EU-driven modernization is under way.
Area: 15 sq mi (39 sq km)
Population: 3.7 million
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +2
Telephone area code: 01
The Greek year is a succession of festivals and events, some of which are religious and some cultural. For three weeks before the beginning of Lent, Carnival in Athens celebrates with festivities involving eating, drinking and all-round merrymaking. Easter is the most significant festival in the Greek Orthodox calendar. But the city’s biggest event is the Athens Festival, from mid-June to the end of August. Ancient Greek drama is performed at the Theatre of Herodes Atticus.
The city is bounded on three sides by Mt Parnitha, Mt Pendeli and Mt Hymettos. Within Athens there are no less than eight hills, of which the Acropolis and Lykavittos are the most prominent. The hills provide a peaceful respite from the clamor of the city, and offer stunning views to the glistening waters of the Saronic Gulf – the city’s boundary on the south side.
Just about everything of interest to the traveler is within a small area surrounding Plateia Syntagmatos (Syntagma Square). This area is bounded by the districts of Plaka to the south, Monastiraki to the west, Kolonaki to the east and Omonia to the north.
Plateia Syntagmatos is dominated by the old Royal Palace and is the beating heart of the business district, with luxury hotels, banks and airline offices. Plaka, nestled below the Acropolis, is the old Turkish quarter and virtually all that existed when Athens was declared the capital of independent Greece. Though Plaka is packed with tourists in high season, it’s also one of the prettiest and most atmospheric areas of the city. Monastiraki is the market district and a fascinating part of town to wander. Spire, nearby, is brimming with stylish cafes and bars and makes a great place to stop for a spot of lunch.
When to go:
Spring and late autumn are the best times to visit Athens. The weather is pleasantly warm, making it ideal for exploring the city on foot. Fewer tourists means less crowded sites and museums and cheaper, more plentiful hotel rooms. Winter isn’t a bad time to visit, the occasional rainy day notwithstanding. Visitors in this season will discover a different city as Athenians retreat indoors; accommodation is also at its cheapest. Summer is probably the worst time to visit, particularly in July and August.
Stretching both east and west of Plateia Monastirakiou, the flea market is Athens at its noisiest, most colorful and chaotic. Although not what it used to be, it still has a distinctly festive atmosphere and is a must-see for visitors. It teems with shops, restaurants and cafes, and street vendors selling nuts, coconut sticks, fruit, treasure, trash and more. There’s everything from clocks to condoms, trombones to gramophones, tires to telephones, giant evil eyes to jelly-baby clones. It’s the place to test your haggling skills.
Anafiotika is the highest part of Plaka. Its little whitewashed cube houses and narrow winding streets are the legacy of the people from the small Cycladic island of Anafi who were used as cheap labor in the building of Athens after Independence. It’s a beautiful spot, especially in summer, when brightly painted olive-oil cans brimming with flowers bedeck the walls of tiny gardens.
In ancient times this hill was surrounded by countryside and its pine-covered slopes were inhabited by wolves (Lykavittos means ‘hill of wolves’). Pollution permitting, there are panoramic views of the city, the Attic basin, the surrounding mountains and the islands of Salamis and Aegina. A path leads to the summit from the top of Loukianou. Alternatively, you can take the funicular railway from the top of Ploutarhou. The Chapel of Agios Giorgios sits on the summit. It’s floodlit at night, and the streets below have a fairytale air.
There are a number of swimming beaches to cool down at. Hotel pools are the only other swimming option in Athens. Numerous agencies offer charters and sailing trips. Tennis and golf can be played at Glyfada Golf Club, among other places. Tenpin bowling is also popular. The nearest ski slopes are on Mt Parnassos, three hours northwest of the city. The season lasts from mid-December to March or April. Athens is a great city for walks, and most of the city’s hills are crisscrossed by trails. Folk-dancing workshops for amateurs are held in July and August.
Athens’ history is not one of continuous expansion; it is one characterized by glory, followed by decline and near annihilation, and then resurgence in the 19th century, when it became capital of independent Greece. Accounts of Athens’ early days are inextricably woven with mythology, making it difficult to be sure what really happened. We do know, though, that the hilltop site of the Acropolis, endowed with two copious springs, drew some of Greece’s early Neolithic settlers. Later, with the rise of city-states, the Acropolis provided an ideal defensive position, and by 1400 BC, it had become a powerful Mycenaean city.
Around 1200 BC Greece fell into a long dark age, of which very little is known, but in the 8th-century BC a peaceful Athens became the artistic center of Greece. Next came a period of social reform, followed by unrest and subsequent tyranny. Athens didn’t shake off oppression until 510 BC, when Sparta stepped in to help. Following the defeat of the Persian Empire, Athens’ power grew enormously. It established a confederacy on the island of Delos, demanding tributes from islands for protection against the Persians. The money was used to transform the city. This was Athens’ golden age: monuments were built on the Acropolis, and drama and literature flourished. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; sculptors Pheidias and Myron; and historians Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon all lived at this time.
Sparta, however, wasn’t prepared to play second fiddle, and increasing hostilities triggered the Peloponnesian Wars in 431BC. After 27 years of fighting, Sparta gained the upper hand, and Athens slid from its former glory. The century wasn’t a total loss, as it did produce three of the west’s greatest orators and philosophers: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
Under Roman rule, Athens continued to be a major seat of learning, and Roman emperors graced the city with many grand buildings. After the subdivision of the Roman Empire into east and west, the city remained a cultural and intellectual center, until its schools of philosophy closed in 529 AD. Between 1200 and 1450, Athens was overrun by a motley crew of opportunists, including Franks, Catalans, Florentines and Venetians. The Turks invaded in 1456 and settled in for 400 years.
In the early stages of the War of Independence (1821-27), fierce street fighting saw the city change hands several times between Greek liberators and Turks. In 1834, Athens replaced Nafplio as the capital of independent Greece, and King Otho set about repairing the war-torn city. Bavarian architects created a city of imposing neoclassical buildings (most of which have since been demolished) and tree-lined boulevards.
The historical event, which, more than any other, shaped the Athens of today, was the compulsory population exchange between Greece and Turkey that followed the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. The population of Athens virtually doubled overnight, necessitating the hasty erection of concrete apartment blocks to house the newcomers.
Along with the rest of Greece, Athens suffered appallingly during the German occupation of WW II and in the civil war that followed. The expansion of Athens accelerated during the 1950s and 60s, when the country began the transition from an agricultural to an industrial nation. The colonels’ junta (1967-74) tore down many crumbling old Turkish houses and the neoclassical buildings, all the while failing to tackle the infrastructure problems resulting from the rapid, chaotic growth of the city. By the end of the ’80s the city had developed a sorry reputation as one of the most traffic-clogged and polluted in Europe.
Since the 1980s, fundamental changes have taken place, the most dramatic in the ’90s. The city’s failed bid to stage the 1996 Olympics served as a wake-up call to authorities, who launched an ambitious program to prepare the city for the 21st century. In 1997, the city’s bid to stage the 2004 games was successful. Although the Olympics created a momentum of its own, with confidence riding high as billions were poured into development, infighting and bureaucratic red-tape caused delays so great that in 2000 IOC chairman Juan Antonio Samaranch warned that the games were in danger.
Athens is a busy European hub, well serviced by flights from most parts of the world. With the opening of the swish Eleftherios Venizelos international airport at Spata, 21km east of Athens, air travel to and from Greece is now a far more pleasant experience than it used to be.
There are two main intercity bus stations: Terminal A, about 7 km northwest of Omonia at Kifissou 100 and Terminal B, 5 km north Omonia off Liossion. International coaches from Albania, Bulgaria and Turkey arrive and depart from Peloponnese train station.
Trains to other parts of Greece leave from Larisis station and Peloponnese station, conveniently located near each other about a km northeast of Plateia Omonias. Trains also depart Larisis for Turkey, Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and northern Europe.
Ferries, hydrofoils and catamarans bound for a bewildering array of islands depart from Athens’ nearby port, Piraeus. Cyclists will find Athens a nightmarish proposition, with manic traffic and serious air pollution.
Many of Athens’ ancient sites are within easy walking distance of Syntagma and many museums are close by on Vasilissis Sofias. So most probably you won’t have much need for public transport. But if you do, you’ll find that the city’s new metro system has made getting around the center of Athens far less painful than it used to be. Journeys that used to take an hour above ground take just minutes below ground. Suburban Buses (blue and white) operate every 15 minutes.
Driving is an exercise in aggravation. And that’s without mentioning the confusing signs, one-way street systems, cavalier attitudes to road laws and lack of car parks. As for cycling, don’t even think about it. Athens’ taxis are inexpensive but hailing one can be incredibly frustrating.
Patmos is a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea. One of the northernmost islands of the Dodecanese complex, it has a population of 2,984 and an area of 34.05 km2 (13.15 sq mi). The highest point is Profitis Ilias, 269 metres (883 ft) above sea level.
Patmos’ main communities are Chora (the capital city), and Skala, the only commercial port. Other settlements are Grikou and Kampos. The churches and communities on Patmos are of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. In 1999, the island’s historic center Chora, along with the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian and the Cave of the Apocalypse, were declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. The monastery was founded by Saint Christodulos. Patmos is also home to the Patmian School, a notable Greek seminary.
Patmos is mentioned in the Christian scriptural Book of Revelation. The book’s introduction states that its author, John, was on Patmos when he was given (and recorded) a vision from Jesus. Early Christian tradition identified this writer John of Patmos as John the Apostle, though some modern scholars are uncertain. As such, Patmos is a destination for Christian pilgrimage. Visitors can see the cave where John is said to have received his Revelation (the Cave of the Apocalypse), and several monasteries on the island are dedicated to Saint John.
Rhodes is an island in Greece, located in the eastern Aegean Sea. It is the largest of the Dodecanese islands in terms of both land area and population, with a population of 117,007, and also the island group’s historical capital. Administratively the island forms a separate municipality within the Rhodes regional unit, which is part of the South Aegean region. The principal town of the island and seat of the municipality is Rhodes. The city of Rhodes had 53,709 inhabitants in 2001. It is located northeast of Crete, southeast of Athens and southwest of the Anatolian coast in Turkey.
Historically, Rhodes was famous worldwide for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The medieval Old Town of the City of Rhodes has been declared a World Heritage Site. Today, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe.
Santorini , officially Thira, is an island in the southern Aegean Sea, about 200 km (120 mi) southeast from Greece’s mainland. It is the largest island of a small, circular archipelago which bears the same name and is the remnant of a volcanic caldera. It forms the southernmost member of the Cyclades group of islands, with an area of approximately 73 km2 (28 sq mi) and a 2001 census population of 13,670. The municipality of Santorini comprises the inhabited islands of Santorini and Therasiaand the uninhabited islands of Nea Kameni, Palaia Kameni, Aspronisi, and Christiana. The total land area is 90.623 km2 (34.990 sq mi). Santorini is part of theThira regional unit.
Santorini is essentially what remains after an enormous volcanic explosion that destroyed the earliest settlements, on a formerly single island, and created the current geological caldera. A giant central, rectangular lagoon, which measures about 12 by 7 km (7.5 by 4.3 mi), is surrounded by 300 m (980 ft) high, steep cliffs on three sides. The main island slopes downward to the Aegean Sea. On the fourth side, the lagoon is separated from the sea by another much smaller island called Therasia; the lagoon is connected to the sea in two places, in the northwest and southwest. The caldera being 400m deep makes it possible for all but the largest ships to anchor anywhere in the protected bay; there is, however, a newly built marina in Vlychada on the southwestern coast. The principal port is called Athinias. The capital, Fira, clings to the top of the cliff looking down on the lagoon. The volcanic rocks present from the prior eruptions feature olivine and have a notably small presence of hornblende.
It is the most active volcanic centre in the South Aegean Volcanic Arc, though what remains today is chiefly a water-filled caldera. The volcanic arc is approximately 500 km (310 mi) long and 20 to 40 km (12 to 25 mi) wide. The region first became volcanically active around 3-4 million years ago, though volcanism on Thera began around 2 million years ago with the extrusion of dacitic lavas from vents around the Akrotiri.
The island is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history: the Minoan eruption (sometimes called the Thera eruption), which occurred some 3600 years ago at the height of the Minoan civilization. The eruption left a large caldera surrounded by volcanic ash deposits hundreds of feet deep and may have led indirectly to the collapse of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, 110 km (68 mi) to the south, through a gigantic tsunami. This theory is not, however, supported by chronology, in that the collapse of the Minoan civilization did not occur at the date of the tsunami, but some 90 years later. Another popular theory holds that the Thera eruption is the source of the legend of Atlantis.
Delphi is both an archaeological site and a modern town in Greece. In Greek mythology, Delphi was the site of the Delphic oracle, the most important oracle in the classical Greek world, and a major site for the worship of the god Apollo after he slew the Python, a dragon who lived there and protected the navel of the Earth. Modern Delphi is situated immediately west of the archaeological site and hence is a popular tourist destination. There are many hotels and guest houses in the town, and many taverns and bars. The main streets are narrow, and often one-way.
The idyllic Ionian group of islands – Corfu, Paxi, Lefkada, Kefallonia, Ithaki, Zakynthos and Kythira – are far more lush than those barren Aegean islands, and tinged with a distinctly Italian flavor. The Ionians are the only west coast Greek island group, and are an easy sail from Brindisi on Italy’s southern tip. Each island has its idiosyncrasies of culture and cuisine, and differing dollops of European and British influences.
Area: 2307 sq km (891 sq mi)
Regional capital: Corfu Town
Time: GMT/UTC +2 (+3 April-Sept)
Telephone Country Code: 30
The February/March pre-Lenten Carnival is a particularly big deal on Kefallonia and Zakynthos, with all the expected feasting, dancing and mayhem. Greek Easter (March-April) is huge everywhere in Greece but particularly so on Corfu, where the mummified body of the town’s patron saint, Saint Spyridon, is given an airing on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Candlelit processions take place in towns and villages throughout the Ionians on Good Friday, and the next evening’s Resurrection Mass is marked by fireworks and more candlelit processions. The islands celebrate their Unification Day on 21 May with wreath laying, marches and military parades.
When to go:
Prime time in the Ionians is late spring to early summer and autumn – that’s Easter to mid-June and September-October. The winter off-season months (November to early April) aren’t too bad weather wise, but most hotels and restaurants are closed, and bus and ferry services are nigh nonexistent.
Scattered like forgotten stepping stones to Italy, this cluster of little-known and rarely visited islands lies a day trip away from Corfu’s northern tip. Of the five islands, only Ereikousa, Mathraki and Othoni are inhabited, and even these are depopulated as most residents have high-tailed it to New York City. Ereikousa is the most popular of the three inhabited islands, and closest to Corfu. It’s not quite the deserted island getaway of its promotional literature, although its beaches are great and you can count the accommodation and eating possibilities on one hand. Mathraki is wild, wooded and peaceful, with some great solitary walks and a lovely long beach. Othoni is the greatest distance from Corfu, and popular with Italian yachties – there’s even an Italian restaurant on the island.
The most remote of the Ionian islands, Antikythira is draw card for independent travelers wishing to notch up a visit to a remote destination. The island was fortified by the Venetians in 1207, but piracy remained a huge problem for the inhabitants, who today are mainly descended from Cretan colonists who settled here from 1792. The island’s sole major settlement is Potamos, whose facilities can similarly be counted on one finger. Even yachties give the port a wide berth, as the harbor is unsafe if the weather is unsettled – which it usually is. Ferries making the trip from Crete to Kythira stop here twice weekly, but only if weather permits. Kythira’s port of Agia Pelagia is 38km (23.5mi) away.
The pretty fishing village of Vasiliki, on Lefkada, is said to have the best windsurfing beach in Europe, and is an especially good place to learn the sport. All the islands apart from Kefallonia and Ithaki have water-skiing facilities. Snorkeling is especially good off Paleokastritsa, on Corfu’s west coast, and there’s also a diving school there and on Lefkada, Kefallonia and Zakynthos (independent diving is strictly forbidden in the Ionians). Trekking around the islands can be hugely enjoyable – but avoid July-August, as it’s just too darn hot.
Homer wrote that the kingdom of Odysseus (Ulysses) consisted of the Ionian islands of Ithaki, Kefallonia, Zakynthos and Lefkada. Homer’s legendary hero left his beloved home on Ithaki to fight in the Trojan Wars, and the island has consequently come to symbolize the end of a long journey. Homer also wrote that the Ionian Islands were prominent in Mycenaean times, but the archaeological evidence dating from this period amounts to only a couple of tombs, with nary a magnificent palace or even a humble village emerging from the depths. Earthquakes have been a constant headache for the islands’ inhabitants, so who knows what evidence lies buried beneath the foundations.
What surely cannot be disputed is the fact that a ridiculous number of foreign entities have claimed the Ionian Islands as their own. By the 8th century BC the islands were held by the mighty city-state of Corinth, and were valued as stepping-stones en route to Sicily and Italy. A century later Corfu was powerful enough to mount a successful revolt against the Corinthian stranglehold, but the ensuing Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 BC) left the island depleted and impoverished.
By the end of the 3rd century BC, the Ionian Islands were Roman, and they successively became part of the Eastern Roman Empire and eventually that of the Byzantine. Life on the edge of the Byzantine Empire was anything but stable, and the islands endured repeated attacks by passing Vandals, Goths, Saracens and Normans. Finally Venice stepped in, shaking off stubborn Norman and Angevin claims to rule the roost for 400 years. Aside from Lefkada, which was ruled by the Turks for 200 years, the Ionian Islands were the only part of Greece to escape being subsumed into the Ottoman Empire. Venice milked the islands of their wine, fruits, silk and cotton, and transformed the towns of Corfu, Argostoli, Lefkada and Zakynthos with the distinctive beauty of Venetian architecture. The Venetians also introduced olive trees to the islands, notably on Corfu and Paxi.
In 1350 Venice was the undisputed sea power in the Mediterranean, but by 1716 the Ionians were Venice’s sole remaining overseas possession. Venice fell to Napoleon in 1797, and the islands were allotted to France. In 1815, when the little general’s star had waned, the islands became a British protectorate under the jurisdiction of a series of Lord High Commissioners. The British employed their usual infrastructural genius, building roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, but their rule was oppressive. Calls for the islands’ political union with Greece were increasingly raised, and in 1864 the Brits finally heeded the call. To this day the islands celebrate their Day of Unification on 21 May.
Corfu and Kefallonia were invaded by Italy during WW II, as part of Mussolini’s grand plan to resurrect the mighty Roman Empire. When Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, the Germans massacred the thousands of occupying Italians and sent some 5000 of Corfu’s Jewish population to Auschwitz. The troubles continued when earthquakes devastated Lefkada in 1948, and Kefallonia, Ithaki and Zakynthos in 1953. The damage was so bad that rebuilding was not an option, and the islanders were encouraged to emigrate, predominantly to Australia. In more recent times package tourism has been an equally transforming force, and nowadays it appears to be the islands’ sole raison d’Ãªtre.
There are airports on Corfu, Kefallonia, Zakynthos and Kythira, but traffic is limited to charter rather than international flights. Olympic Airways flights from Athens to the four islands are frequent in summer, and Corfu receives stacks of charter flights from the UK and northern European cities. You can catch a bus from Athens to Corfu, Kefallonia, Zakynthos, Lefkada and Paxi. Thessaloniki also has a bus service to Corfu, and as Lefkada is joined to the mainland by a causeway there are services to Patras.
The Peloponnese has several ports of departure for the Ionian Islands: Patras for ferries to Kefallonia, Ithaki, Paxi and Corfu; Kyllini for ferries to Kefallonia and Zakynthos; and Piraeus, Neapoli and Gythio for Kythira. You can also sail from Crete to Kythira, from Igoumenitsa (in Epiros) to Corfu and Paxi, and from Astakos (Sterea Ellada) to Ithaki and Kefallonia.
Getting around the island group means catching a ferry as there are no direct inter-island air services. But even peak-time ferry schedules can be limited to only one or two inter-island services per day, so it pays to plan a little. Important connections include: Corfu-Paxi (3.5 hours; one hour by hydrofoil), Lefkada-Kefallonia (one hour), Lefkada-Ithaki (two hours), Lefkada-Meganisi (45 minutes) and Kefallonia-Zakynthos (1.5 hours). All the ferries take cars – a great way to get around and off the beaten track.
Getting around each island is a matter of bus, boat, feet or wheels. Ithaki and Kythira are the only islands, which lack a reasonable bus service. Corfu’s bus system concentrates on the island’s coastal destinations. The Corfu-Paxi ferry stops in at Lakka on Paxi’s northern tip before heading south to the island’s major port, GaÃ¯os, and five buses make the Lakka-GaÃ¯os run daily. Frequent buses travel from Lefkada Town to Karya and Vlyho via Nydri; five per day run to Vasiliki and two to Poros. Kefallonia’s Sami and Fiskardo are linked by an early-morning boat service, and frequent ferries link Lixouri and Argostoli in the east of the island.
Most of the Dodecanese Islands start with K. Whitewashed walls, deep blue sky, olive groves, fig trees, azure Aegean waters… the Dodecanese Islands have all this and more. If you want to drop out for a while in pursuit of traditional island life, you can. If bars and beaches are your thing, there are plenty of resort areas to cater for your every need. Ancient history is there for the taking, as is a positively holiday-flavored cuisine.
Main city: Rhodes City
Area: 2663 sq km (1028 sq mi)
Time zone: GMT/UTC+2 (GMT/UTC+3 April-Sept)
The Greeks have kefi (passion for life) in abundance and you too can share in this lust for life by throwing yourself into the mix of religious, cultural and just plain celebratory events that make up the Greek calendar. One of your key opportunities for fun is the Greek carnival season, which takes place three weeks before the Lenten fasting period starts. Don a mask, and feast and dance with the locals.
When to go:
Late spring/early summer and autumn are the best times to hit the Dodecanese Islands. Between Easter and mid-June is possibly the best time of all: the weather is pleasantly warm but not too hot, beaches and ancient sites aren’t too crowded, public transport is close to full schedule, and accommodation is cheaper and easy to find. Mid-June until the end of August is high party season and, unless you have the patience of a saint and the cooling capabilities of a deep freeze, is best avoided.
If you really want to play Robinson Crusoe and escape the tourist hordes, push off to Kastellorizo. The most eastern of the Greek Islands, this tiny, rocky islet is just 2.5 km from the Turkish coast. Kastellorizo’s remoteness has ensured it has a character all its own and that tourism is low-key. It doesn’t have any beaches, but there are rocky inlets from where you can swim and snorkel in crystal-clear sea.
Kastellorizo Town is the only settlement on the island, but it is largely a ghost town – most people emigrated in the mid-20th century in response to oppression and war. Behind a lively waterfront lie back streets of abandoned houses overgrown with ivy, crumbling stairways and stony pathways. The impressive Knights of St John Castle, standing above the Kastellorizo Town quay, is the island’s signature monument.
West of Rhodes, Tilos is another quiet island that doesn’t see a lot of tourists. Go for its uncrowded beaches, evocative abandoned villages and picture-postcard Greek island feel. If you’re the poetic type you might like to see the place where Irini, one of the greatest of ancient Greece’s female poets, lived in the 4th century BC. Tilos is a walker’s paradise, with vistas of high cliffs, rocky inlets, the sea, valleys of cypress, walnut and almond trees, and bucolic meadows with well-fed cattle. Livadia, with its long pebble beach, has most tourist facilities and accommodation.
Windsurfing, water-skiing, snorkeling, diving and swimming are the activities de jour in the Dodecanese – what else would you do when you’ve got the warm azure waters of the Aegean rippling in front of you? Windsurfing is the most popular water sport in the whole of Greece. You’ll find sailboards for hire all over the place, and if you’re a novice, most outfits that rent gear also give lessons. Rhodes, Karpathos and Kos are the best places. Water-skiing nuts will need to head to Rhodes or Kos to get their fix. Make sure your insurance is up to date!
Snorkeling, on the other hand, is enjoyable almost anywhere, and the Dodecanese offer some of the best spots in the Greek islands. Strap on your mask and fins at AmmoÃ¶pi on Karpathos, Telendos Islet near Kalymnos, Lipsi and anywhere off the coast of Kastellorizo. Diving is a slightly different matter. To protect the many underwater antiquities throughout the Aegean, you can only explore the depths with a diving school. Luckily, Rhodes has one.
Like the rest of Greece, the Dodecanese islands have a long history – they have been inhabited since pre-Minoan times. Rhodes and Kos, still today the most developed islands of the group, had emerged as the dominant islands by the Archaic period. Distance from Athens gave the entire archipelago considerable autonomy and the islands were, for the most part, free to prosper unencumbered by the imperial capital. One of the group’s early claims to fame is its conversion to Christianity – the first in all of Greece. The islands’ religious epiphany happened thanks to the tireless efforts of St Paul, who visited twice, and St John, who was banished to Patmos, where he wrote his famous Revelation.
The early Byzantine era saw the islands prosper, but by the 7th century they were plundered by a string of invaders. The early 14th century was the turn of the crusaders – the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, a religious order of the church of Rome founded in Amalfi in the 11th century. Through some wheeling and dealing with Rhodes’ Genoese admiral they became the possessors of the island, transforming it into a mighty bulwark that stood at the easternmost point of the Christian west, safeguarding it from the Muslim infidels of the east. The Knights may have had God on their side but it wasn’t enough to keep out Suleyman the Magnificent and his troops, who in 1522 finally overthrew them after a long siege. Four hundred years later, in 1912, the Turks in turn were ousted by the Italians during a tussle over possession of Libya.
Inspired by Mussolini’s vision of a vast Mediterranean empire, the islands’ new rulers made Italian the official language and prohibited the practice of Orthodoxy. The Italians also constructed grandiose public buildings in the Fascist style, the antithesis of archetypal Greek architecture. More beneficially, they excavated and restored many archaeological monuments. After the Italian surrender of 1943 the islands became battlegrounds for British and German forces, with much suffering inflicted on the local population. In 1947 the Dodecanese were formally returned to Greece.
Flying to the Dodecanese Islands from the Greek mainland is fairly straightforward. Astypalea, Karpathos, Kassos, Kos, Leros and Rhodes all have flights to Athens. From Rhodes you can also fly to Iraklio and Hania on Crete, Thessalonika, and in summer to Mykonos and Santorini (Thira) in the Cyclades. Ferry schedules to the Dodecanese, on the other hand, are incredibly complicated – mainly because the islands are so far from the mainland. While there are some daily ferries between the mainland and the island group, boats to some islands only depart weekly or even every two or three weeks.
If time is of the essence you can fly between Rhodes and Kastellorizo, Karpathos and Kassos. Otherwise, get into the spirit of things and island-hop by boat. The principal islands have daily connections by ferry or excursion boat. Some of the more remote islands only have a twice-weekly ferry service. You can also catch hydrofoils from Rhodes to most islands in the group. Yachting is another excellent way to get around. Once you’re on an island, you can get around by car (driving is on the right-hand side). Most towns – and some islands – are small enough to get around on foot or bike, although cycling hasn’t really caught on yet because of the hills.
These islands glow with bare sun baked rocks, spectacular sunsets, blindingly white houses and dazzling aquamarine seas. Mykonos, Santorini and Ios offer hedonism and hangovers. But sidestep just a little to Andros, Serifos or Sifnos and be rewarded with unspoilt shores, countryside paths, whitewashed villages and lip-smacking traditional fare.
Island hopping in the Cyclades is easy and rewarding, as the islands are closely grouped together yet idiosyncratic. The islands are so named because they form a circle (kyklos) around the World Heritage-listed island of Delos, one of the country’s most significant archaeological sites.
Population: 95,600; Amorgos 1630, Anafi 250, Andros 8781, Antiparos 819, Folegandros 650, Ios 2000, Kythnos 1632, Little Cyclades 624, Milos 4390, Mykonos 6170, Naxos 18,000, Paros 9591, Santorini 9360, Serifos 1020, Sifnos 2900, Sikinos 287, Syros 19,870, Tinos 7747
Area: 2572 sq km (993 sq mi)
Regional capital: Ermoupolis (Syros)
Time Zone: GMT/UTC+2 (+3 in summer)
Telephone Country Code: 30
January: Feast of Agios Vasilis, a church ceremony followed by a gift swap, singing, dancing and plenty of pigging out.
May: On May 1 (May Day), there is a mass exodus from towns to the countryside, where people picnic and collect wildflowers to make into wreaths.
August: The whole population is on the move on August 15 for Assumption Day family reunions.
When to go:
The Cyclades have a typically Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and milder winters. The October-February off-season period can be a great time to visit more popular islands such as Mykonos, as they’re completely different places without the crowds.
Delos is one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece. The sacred island is the mythical birthplace of famous twins Apollo and Artemis, and it developed as a center of Apollo worship in the 8th century BC. During Hellenistic times it was one of the three most important religious centers in Greece, and became populated by wealthy merchants and bankers. Most of the significant historical finds from the island are in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, but the site museum does have a modest collection, including the originals of the much-photographed plaster-cast lions that grace the Terrace of the Lions near the Sanctuary of Apollo.
Amorgos is an enticing option for those wishing to venture off the well-worn Mykonos-Paros-Santorini route. Its principal port, Katapola, is a pretty town occupying a large, dramatic bay in the most verdant part of the island. A smattering of remains from the ancient Cretan city of Minoa, as well as a Mycenaean cemetery, lie above the port. Hora (Amorgos), the beautiful, unspoilt capital, is 400m (1312ft) above sea level, and is often shrouded in clouds when the rest of the island is sunny. For breathtaking views, walk from the town down the steep hillside that leads to Moni Hozoviotissis, a dazzling-white 11th-century monastery that clings precariously to the cliffside.
If you like your islands quiet and unspoilt, you’ll find Sikinos fits the bill perfectly. There’s not even a bank or petrol station on the island – but plenty of nice beaches and beautiful terraced landscapes dropping down to the sea. The Kastro is a cute and compact place with some lovely old houses and a fortified monastery above the town. The main excursion on this island is a one-hour scenic trek southwest to Episkopi and its church and monastery. Beaches to hit include Agios Georgios, Malta, Karra and Katergo.
Most visitors to the Cyclades spend much of their time lying in the sun, beach-hopping and recovering from too much nightlife. For something a little more active, check out water sports such as windsurfing. If you want to try a little boating, yachts and sailboats can be chartered on Paros and Syros. Paros also offers excellent water-skiing. Snorkeling is enjoyable just about anywhere in the Cyclades – an especially good place is Monastiri on Paros. Diving is another story: to protect antiquities, any underwater activity involving breathing apparatus is forbidden, unless you’re supervised by a diving school.
The Cyclades have been inhabited since at least 7000 BC, and there’s evidence that Milos’ obsidian (volcanic glass used to create sharp blades) was being collected as early as 7500 BC. The Cycladic seafaring civilization appeared in around 3000 BC. During the Early Cycladic period (3000-2000 BC) there were settlements on Keros, Syros, Milos, Naxos, Sifnos and Amorgos. It was during this period that the famous Cycladic marble figurines were sculpted.
Many of the islands were occupied by the Minoans in the Middle Cycladic period (2000-1500 BC); a Minoan town has been excavated at Akrotiri on Santorini. The Cyclades were taken by the Mycenaeans at the beginning of the Late Cycladic period (1500-1100 BC), and the Dorians followed in the 8th century BC.
Most of the Cyclades joined the Delian League in 478 BC, and by the middle of the 5th century the islands were members of a fully-fledged Athenian empire. In the Hellenistic era (323-146 BC) the islands fell under the control of Egypt’s Ptolemies and, later, the Macedonians. In 146 BC the islands became a Roman province and trade links were established with many parts of the Mediterranean, bringing prosperity to the Cyclades.
After the division of the Roman Empire into western and eastern entities in 395 AD, the Cyclades were ruled from Constantinople. Following the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, the Franks gave the Cyclades to Venice, which in turn parceled the islands out to opportunistic aristocrats. The most powerful of these nabobs was Marco Sanudo (self-styled Duke of Naxos), who acquired Naxos, Paros, Ios, Santorini, Anafi, Sifnos, Milos, Amorgos and Folegandros.
The islands came under Turkish rule in 1537 and became neglected backwaters, prone to pirate raids. The labyrinthine, hilltop character of their towns dates from this period, as the mazes of narrow lanes were designed to confuse invaders. The impact of piracy led to massive depopulation; in 1563, only five out of 16 islands were still inhabited.
In 1771 the Cyclades were annexed by the Russians during the Russian-Turkish War, but were reclaimed by the Ottomans a few years later. The Cyclades’ participation in the Greek War of Independence was minimal, but they became havens for people fleeing islands where insurrections against the Turks had led to massacres. During WW II the islands were occupied by the Italians.
The fortunes of the Cycladic islands have been hugely revived by the tourism boom that began in the 1970s. Until that time, many islanders lived in abject poverty and many more gave up the battle and headed for the mainland in search of work.
Olympic Airways links Athens with Naxos, Syros, Santorini, Mykonos, Paros and Milos. Santorini has direct flights to/from Mykonos, Thessaloniki, Iraklio (Crete) and Rhodes; Mykonos has flights to/from Thessaloniki and Rhodes. Ferry routes tend to separate the Cyclades into western, northern, central and eastern subgroups. Most ferries serving the Cyclades connect one of these subgroups with Piraeus, Lavrio or Rafina on the mainland. The central Cyclades (Paros, Naxos, Ios and Santorini) are the most visited and have the best links with the mainland, usually Piraeus. In summer, there are daily hydrofoils from Piraeus to Kythnos, Serifos, Sifnos, Milos and Kea; there are daily hydrofoils from Iraklio (Crete) to Santorini. Large high-speed catamarans are very popular. Cats travel daily between Piraeus, Syros, Mykonos, Paros and Naxos.
Olympic Airways flights between Mykonos and Santorini provide the islands’ only inter-island air link. There are usually relatively good ferry connections within each of the western, northern, central and eastern subgroups. In summer, there are daily hydrofoils between Kythnos, Serifos, Sifnos and Milos, as well as frequent connections between Mykonos, Naxos, Paros and Syros.
The relatively small island of Crete has given the world Europe’s first advanced civilization; the mythical Minotaur and its labyrinth; King Minos himself (the semi-fictitious sacrificer of maidens and youths); the palace of Knossos; El Greco; an enduring linguistic mix-up between Cretans and cretins; the ultimate definition of ‘family vendetta'; and a traditional costume of baggy pants tucked into high boots which the New Romantic movement foisted on an unsuspecting public back in the 1980s.
Steeped in Homeric history and culture, scented by wild fennel and basil, and possessing stunning natural beauty and long, sandy beaches, Greece’s largest island now plays host to a quarter of all visitors to Greece. Many come to spend time in the overdeveloped north, but it’s still possible to find some peace by visiting the undeveloped west and south coasts or the ruggedly mountainous interior.
Main city: Iraklio
Area: 8259 sq km (3038 sq mi)
Time: GMT/UTC +2 hours
Electricity: 220V, 50 Hz
There are cultural and wine festivals throughout Crete during summer and each town celebrates the day allocated to their patron saint. The most important cultural festivals include: the Renaissance Festival in Rethymno, the Kyrvia Festival in Ierapetra, Sitia’s Kornaria Festival, Iraklio’s Summer Arts Festival and the Lato Festival in Agios Nikolas. Easter is taken much more seriously than any other religious holiday.
When to go:
The best times to visit Crete are late spring to early summer and autumn, when the tourist infrastructure has geared up but you won’t have to contend with the crowds of summer tourists. The weather is usually pleasantly warm during this time, but not too hot, and swimming is possible.The best times to visit Crete are late spring to early summer and autumn, when the tourist infrastructure has geared up but you won’t have to contend with the crowds of summer tourists. The weather is usually pleasantly warm during this time, but not too hot, and swimming is possible.
This small town, on the southwest coast of Crete, was discovered by hippies in the 1960s. From then on its days as a quiet fishing village were numbered, but it remains a relaxing place favored by backpackers. On summer evenings, the main street is closed and the taverns (traditional restaurants) move onto the road. It is reachable by boat from Paleohora is tiny Elafonisi, which has one of the loveliest sand beaches in Crete.
The village of Zakros in eastern Crete is a lively place where cafes are always animated and busy with locals and there’s rarely a tourist in sight. A visit to nearby Zakros Palace and Kato Zakros combines an intriguing archaeological site and a long stretch of under-populated beach. The best way to get to the palace and beach is via spectacular Zakros Gorge.
Crete is a veritable paradise for trekking, provided you don’t come during the hot summer. Options for hikes include spectacular gorges such as the Samaria Gorge, across mountains and plains, and visiting remote villages. Crete’s mountainous terrain isn’t ideal for cycling but traveling on two wheels through the escarpment villages and valleys of the north coast, the Mesara Plain of the south and on and down from the plateaus, is popular. Water-based activities include swimming, parasailing, water-skiing, jet skiing, canoeing, yachting and windsurfing.
The earliest Cretans can be traced back to 5700 BC, when they lived in caves. These people were hunter-gatherers who also farmed and raised livestock. The Minoans arrived in Crete about 3000 BC from North Africa or the Middle East, bringing with them the skills necessary for making bronze. The Minoans thrived, as their use of bronze allowed them to build better boats and thereby expand their trade opportunities. Around 2000 BC, they built their first palaces and produced fine pottery and excellent jewellery. The Minoans became the first advanced civilization to emerge in Europe.
The ‘golden age’ of the Minoans lasted upto 1450 BC. Some fabulous frescoes and other expressions of the fine arts were created during this period. A cataclysm in 1450 BC brought Minoan civilization to an abrupt halt. Crete then underwent over three millennia of occupation by various forces – Mycaeans, Dorians and Romans.
In 27 BC Gortyn (present-day Gortyna) became the capital of (and most powerful) city of Crete. When Rome’s power declined at the end of the 4th century AD, Crete became part of the Byzantine Empire and was ruled from Constantinople (Istanbul). The Arabs conquered Crete in around 824; the Byzantines reclaimed it in 960 and sold it to the Venetians in 1204; it fell to the Turks in 1669 and became part of the Ottoman empire; it was given to Egypt in 1830; and returned to the Ottomans in 1840. In 1898 the Turks were removed from Crete, which was then ruled by an international administration. Greece and, in particular, the world powers of the time resisted Crete’s desire to be unified with Greece until 1913.
In the final washout of WW II, Greece was overrun by the Germans and, after the bloody and gritty Battle of Crete in 1941 (waged on the Cretan side by peasants with pitchforks ), the Third Reich occupied the island until defeat in 1945. Post-WW II, Cretans tended to favor all things British so there was little of the communist-versus-colonial tug-of-war that plagued the rest of Greece. However, the island did get caught up in the subsequent Colonel Coups of 1964 – a military junta, popularly thought to be supported by the CIA and US interests, determined to stop the country going anywhere near the center or left of the political spectrum.
Postwar politics in Greece resembled nothing more than a fast-moving car with a drunk driver at the wheel: left, right, left, down the middle. By the ’80s, Greeks and Cretans were fed up with right-wing governments, and Papandreou’s left wing socialist party (PASOK) hit the jackpot with promises of reform and a decrease in US military numbers.
Many visitors fly first to Athens on the mainland, which is well served by international flights, and then travel to Crete by air or boat. It’s also possible to fly directly to Crete from Europe, although most direct flights are offered by charter companies during the busy summer months. Most ferries to Crete depart from Piraeus harbor, just to the south of Athens, but there are also departures from Thessaloniki, Rhodes, Kalamata and Glythio, plus some of the Cyclades islands and Kythira.
Crete is easy to travel around due to its comprehensive bus system. There are frequent buses traveling along the length of the north coast. Ferries link towns along the south coast and islands; some towns can only be accessed by sea. Many ferries operate only during the summer months, though. Those planning to bring their own car to Crete (or rent a car) should be aware that Greece has the highest road fatality rate in Europe.
Time: Summer is 3 1/2 hours behind India and Winter is 4 1/2 hours behind India
Electricity: 220V, 50 Hz