General Information about Greece

Greece  is a country in southeastern Europe.  Although we call our country Hellas or Ellada  and its official name is Hellenic Republic, in English the country is called Greece, which comes from Latin Graecia as used by the Romans and literally means ‘the land of the Greeks’; however, the name Hellas is sometimes used in English too.
Greece has land borders with Albania, the Republic of Macedonia and Bulgaria to the north, and Turkey to the east. The Aegean Sea lies to the east of mainland Greece, the Ionian Sea to the west, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. Greece has the twelfth longest coastline in the world at 13,676 km (8,498 mi) in length, featuring a vast number of islands (approximately 1,400, of which 227 are inhabited), including Crete, the Dodecanese, the Cyclades, and the Ionian Islands among others. Eighty percent of Greece consists of mountains, of which Mount Olympus is the highest at 2,917 m (9,570 ft).

Greece’s total population is around 11,500,000.

Greece is today relatively homogeneous in linguistic terms, with a large majority of the native population using Greek as their first or only language.

Almost two-thirds of the Greek people live in urban areas. Greece’s largest metropolitan centres and most influential urban areas, are those of Athens and Thessaloniki, with metropolitan populations of approximately 4 million and 1 million inhabitants respectively. A number of cities that also form influential urban centres around the country include those of Patras, Heraklion, Larissa, Volos, Rhodes,Ioannina, Chania and Chalcis with urban populations above 100,000 inhabitants.

Modern Greece traces its roots to the civilization of ancient Greece, generally considered the cradle of Western civilization. As such, it is the birthplace of democracy,Western philosophy, the Olympic Games, Western literature and historiography, political science, major scientific and mathematicalprinciples, university education, coinage, and Western drama, including both tragedy and comedy. This legacy is partly reflected in the seventeenUNESCO World Heritage Sites located in Greece, ranking Greece 7th in Europe and 13th in the world. The modern Greek state was established in 1830, following the Greek War of Independence in 1821.

A developed country with an advanced, high-income economy and very high standards of living (including the 22nd highest Human Development Index in the world as of 2010),Greece has been a member of what is now the European Union since 1981 and the eurozone since 2001,NATO since 1952, and the European Space Agency since 2005. It is also a founding member of the United Nations, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation.

Athens is the capital and the largest city in the country (its urban area also including Piraeus, Greece’s most significant port).

RELIGION
The Greek Constitution recognizes the Orthodox faith as the “prevailing” faith of the country, while guaranteeing freedom of religious belief for all. The Greek government does not keep statistics on religious groups and censuses do not ask for religious affiliation. According to the U.S. State Department, an estimated 97% of Greek citizens identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church.

Education

The Academy of Athens is Greece’ s national academy and the highest research establishment in the country.

Compulsory education in Greece comprises primary schools ( Dimotikó Scholeio) and gymnasium . Nursery schools,( Paidikós Stathmós) are popular but not compulsory. Kindergartens ( Nipiagogeío) are now compulsory for any child above 4 years of age. Children start primary school aged 6 and remain there for six years. Attendance at gymnasia starts at age 12 and last for three years.
Greece’s post-compulsory secondary education consists of two school types: unified upper secondary schools ( Eniaio Lykeio) and technical–vocational educational schools (“Techniko Lykeio“). Post-compulsory secondary education also includes vocational training institutes ( “IEK”) which provide a formal but unclassified level of education. As they can accept both Gymnasio (lower secondary school) and Lykeio (upper secondary school) graduates, these institutes are not classified as offering a particular level of education.

The Faculty of Education ofAristotle University of Thessaloniki.

Public higher education is divided into universities, “Highest Educational Institutions” (Ανώτατα Εκπαιδευτικά Ιδρύματα,Anótata Ekpaideytiká Idrýmata, “ΑΕΙ”) and “Highest Technological Educational Institutions” (Ανώτατα Τεχνολογικά Εκπαιδευτικά Ιδρύματα,Anótata Technologiká Ekpaideytiká Idrýmata, “ATEI”). Students are admitted to these Institutes according to their performance at national level examinations taking place after completion of the third grade of Lykeio. Additionally, students over twenty-two years old may be admitted to the Hellenic Open University through a form of lottery. The Capodistrian university of Athens is the oldest university in the eastern Mediterranean.

POLITICS
Greece is a parliamentary republic. The nominal head of state is the President of the Republic, who is elected by the Parliament for a five-year term. The current Constitution was drawn up and adopted by the Fifth Revisionary Parliament of the Hellenes and entered into force in 1975 after the fall of the military junta of 1967–1974. It has been revised twice since, in 1986 and in 2001. The Constitution, which consists of 120 articles, provides for a separation of powers into executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and grants extensive specific guarantees (further reinforced in 2001) of civil liberties and social rights. Women’s suffrage was guaranteed with a 1952 Constitutional amendment.
According to the Constitution, executive power is exercised by the President of the Republic and theGovernment. From the Constitutional amendment of 1986 the President’s duties were curtailed to a significant extent, and they are now largely ceremonial; most political power thus lies in the hands of the Prime Minister.The position of Prime Minister, Greece’s head of government, belongs to the current leader of the political party that can obtain a vote of confidence by the Parliament. The President of the Republic formally appoints the Prime Minister and, on his recommendation, appoints and dismisses the other members of the Cabinet.

Legislative powers are exercised by a 300-member elective unicameral Parliament. Statutes passed by the Parliament are promulgated by the President of the Republic. Parliamentary elections are held every four years, but the President of the Republic is obliged to dissolve the Parliament earlier on the proposal of the Cabinet, in view of dealing with a national issue of exceptional importance. The President is also obliged to dissolve the Parliament earlier, if the opposition manages to pass a motion of no confidence.

The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature and comprises three Supreme Courts: the Court of Cassation , the Council of State and the Court of Auditors . The Judiciary system is also composed of civil courts, which judge civil and penal cases and administrative courts, which judge disputes between the citizens and the Greek administrative authorities.
MILITARY
The Hellenic Armed Forces are overseen by the Hellenic National Defense General Staff and consists of three branches:

  • Hellenic Army
  • Hellenic Navy
  • Hellenic Air Force

The civilian authority for the Greek military is the Ministry of National Defence. Furthermore, Greece maintains the Hellenic Coast Guardfor law enforcement in the sea and for search and rescue.

Greece has universal compulsory military service for males, while females (who may serve in the military) are exempted from conscription. As of 2009, Greece has mandatory military service of nine months for male citizens between the ages of 19 and 45. However, as the armed forces had been gearing towards a complete professional army system, the government had promised that the mandatory military service would be cut or even abolished completely.

Greek males between the age of 18 and 60 who live in strategically sensitive areas may be required to serve part-time in the National Guard. Service in the Guard is paid. As a member of NATO, the Greek military participates in exercises and deployments under the auspices of the alliance.
ECONOMY

Maritime industry

Piraeus is the largest port in Greece.

The shipping industry is a key element of Greek economic activity dating back to ancient times. Today, shipping is one of the country’s most important industries. It accounts for 4.5% of GDP, employs about 160,000 people (4% of the workforce), and represents 1/3 of the country’s trade deficit.

During the 1960s, the size of the Greek fleet nearly doubled, primarily through the investment undertaken by the shipping magnates, Aristotle Onassis andStavros Niarchos. The basis of the modern Greek maritime industry was formed after World War II when Greek shipping businessmen were able to amass surplus ships sold to them by the U.S. government through the Ship Sales Act of the 1940s.

According to a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report in 2010, the Greek merchant navy is the largest in the world at 15.96% of the world’s total capacity. This is a drop from the equivalent number in 2006, which was 18.2%.The total tonnage of the country’s merchant fleet is 186 million dwt, ranked 1st in the world. In terms of total number of ships, the Greek Merchant Navy stands at 4th worldwide, with 3,150 ships (741 of which are registered in Greece whereas the rest 2,409 in other ports). In terms of ship categories, Greece ranks first in both tankers and dry bulk carriers, fourth in the number of containers, and fourth in other ships. However, today’s fleet roster is smaller than an all-time high of 5,000 ships in the late 1970s.Additionally, the total number of ships flying a Greek flag (includes non-Greek fleets) is 1,517, or 5.3% of the world’s dwt (ranked 5th).

Tourism

An important percentage of Greece’s national income comes from tourism. According to Eurostat statistics, Greece welcomed over 19.5 million tourists in 2009, which is an increase from the 17.7 million tourists it welcomed in 2007. The vast majority of visitors in Greece in 2007 came from the European continent, numbering 12.7 million,while the most visitors from a single nationality were those from the United Kingdom, (2.6 million), followed closely by those from Germany (2.3 million). In 2010, the most visited periphery of Greece was that of Central Macedonia, with 18% of the country’s total tourist flow (amounting to 3.6 million tourists), followed by Attica with 2.6 million and the Peloponnese with 1.8 million.Northern Greece is the country’s most-visited geographical region, with 6.5 million tourists, while Central Greece is second with 6.3 million.

In 2010, Lonely Planet ranked Greece’s northern and second-largest city of Thessaloniki as the world’s fifth-best party town worldwide, comparable to other cities such as Dubai and Montreal.In 2011, Santorini was voted as “The World’s Best Island” in Travel + Leisure. Its neighboring island Mykonos, came in fifth in the European category.

Night view of Fira, Santorini.

Practical Information about your trip to Greece

We’ve compiled the practical travel information you need during the planning of your trip and your stay in Greece.

Money

Greece has been using the euro currency since the beginning of 2002 ( previous to that we had  the Greek drachma (dr)) , fixed at a rate of 340.75 dr to €1.

ATMs and Credit cards

ATMs are to be found in every town large enough to support a bank – and certainly in all the tourist areas. If you’ve got MasterCard or Visa/Access, there are plenty of places to withdraw money. Cirrus and Maestro users can make withdrawals in all major towns and tourist areas.

The main credit cards are MasterCard, Visa (Access in the UK) and Eurocard, all of which are widely accepted in Greece. They can also be used as cash cards to draw cash from the ATMs of affiliated Greek banks in the same way as at home. Daily withdrawal limits are set by the issuing bank.

American Express and Diners are usually accepted as well, not in every place though, so make sure not to bring along ONLY one of these two cards.

Cash

Nothing beats cash for convenience especially in Greece. However,it’s best to carry no more cash than you need which means working out your likely needs whenever you change travellers cheques or withdraw cash.
Note that Greek shopkeepers and small business owners (even taxi drivers sometimes!) have a perennial problem with small change. They rarely have any! If buying small items it is better to tender coin or small denomination notes as the seller will inevitably never have any change.

Tipping

In restaurants a service charge is normally included in the bill and while a tip is not expected (as it is in North America), it is always appreciated and should be left if the service has been good. The locals usually give a small tip between 1-3 euros.  Taxi drivers normally expect you to round up the fare, while bellhops who help you with your luggage to your hotel room or stewards on ferries who take you to your cabin normally expect a small gratuity of between €1 and €3.

Insurance

If you’re an EU citizen, a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC; formerly the E111) covers you for most medical care but not emergency repatriation home or non-emergencies. It is available from health centres, and post offices in the UK. Citizens from other countries should find out if there is a reciprocal arrangement for free medical care between their country and Greece. If you do need health insurance, make sure you get a policy that covers you for the worst possible scenario, such as an accident requiring an emergency flight home. Find out in advance if your insurance plan will make payments directly to providers or reimburse you later for overseas health expenditures.

Recommended vaccinations

No vaccinations  are required to travel to Greece, but a yellow-fever vaccination certificate is required if you are coming from an infected area.

Dangers & annoyances

Bar scams

Bar scams continue to be an unfortunate fact of life in Athens, particularly in the Syntagma area. The basic scam is always some variation on the following theme: solo male traveller is lured into bar on some pretext (not always sex), strikes up conversation with friendly locals, charming girls appear and ask for what turn out to be ludicrously overpriced drinks, traveller is eventually handed an enormous bill.
Fortunately, this practice appears only in Athens at this stage.

Theft

Crime, especially theft, is low in Greece, but unfortunately it is on the increase. The worst area is around Omonia in central Athens – keep track of your valuables here, especially on the metro and at the Sunday flea market.
The vast majority of thefts from tourists are still committed by other tourists; the biggest danger of theft is probably in dormitory rooms in hostels and at camping grounds. So make sure you do not leave valuables unattended in such places. If you are staying in a hotel room, and the windows and door do not lock securely, ask for your valuables to be locked in the hotel safe – hotel proprietors are happy to do this.

Visas

The list of countries whose nationals can stay in Greece for up to three months without a visa includes Australia, Canada, all EU countries, Iceland, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and the USA. Other countries included are the European principalities of Monaco and San Marino and most South American countries. The list changes – contact Greek embassies for the full list. Those not included can expect to pay about US$20 for a three-month visa.

Visa extensions

If you wish to stay in Greece for longer than three months, apply at a consulate abroad or at least 20 days in advance to the Aliens Bureau (210 770 5711; Leoforos Alexandras 173; 8am-1pm Mon-Fri) in the Athens Central Police Station. Take your passport and four passport photographs along. You may be asked for proof that you can support yourself financially, so keep all your bank exchange slips (or the equivalent from a post office). These slips are not always automatically given – you may have to ask for them. Elsewhere in Greece apply to the local police authority. You will be given a permit that will authorise you to stay in the country for a period of up to six months.
Most travellers get around this by visiting Bulgaria or Turkey briefly and then re-entering Greece.

Travel insurance

If you’re an EU citizen, a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC; formerly the E111) covers you for most medical care but not emergency repatriation home or non-emergencies. It is available from health centres, and post offices in the UK. Citizens from other countries should find out if there is a reciprocal arrangement for free medical care between their country and Greece. If you do need health insurance, make sure you get a policy that covers you for the worst possible scenario, such as an accident requiring an emergency flight home. Find out in advance if your insurance plan will make payments directly to providers or reimburse you later for overseas health expenditures.

When To Go

The high season for Greece tourism is Mid-June to the end of August . It’s party time on the islands and everything is in full swing. However, it’s  very hot – in July and August the temperature can go up to 40°C (over 100°F) in the shade just about anywhere in the country. Moreover, the beaches are crowded and the ancient sites are swarming with tour groups. In many places you cannot find any decent accommodation as everything is fully booked .
During Winter tourism goes into hibernation especially on the islands. Some of the smaller islands close completely and some islanders head off to their winter homes on the mainland for a few months. Most hotels, cafés and restaurants close their doors from the end of November until the beginning of April. Bus and ferry services are either drastically reduced or cancelled.

Everything reopens for Orthodox Easter (usually around April),  when the first tourists start to arrive. Conditions are perfect between Easter and mid-June, when the weather is pleasantly warm in most places. The  beaches and ancient sites are at that time still relatively uncrowded. Public transport operates at close to full schedules and there’s a bigger variety of accommodation options to choose from. (one can find amazing travel deals at that time of the year)
The high season starts to wind down in September and conditions are once again ideal  until the end of October. By November however  the endless blue skies of summer have disappeared. November to February are the wettest months and it can get surprisingly cold. Snow is common on the mainland, occasionally it snows in Athens as well.
Having said all that, we believe that Spring and Autumn are the best times to visit Greece; specifically May, June, September and October.

We will not give you any advice on how to get to Greece! There are thousand of sites on the web where you can easily arrange that.

However, we will tell you a few things about GETTING AROUND in our country.
Greece is an easy place to travel around thanks to a comprehensive public transport system.
Buses are the mainstay of land transport, with a network that reaches out to the smallest villages. Trains are a good alternative, where available. To most visitors, though, travelling in Greece means island-hopping on the multitude of ferries that crisscross the Adriatic and the Aegean. If you’re in a hurry, Greece also has an extensive domestic air network.

Getting Around in Greece

Sea Transport

Boat

Greece has a vast and complex ferry network covering every inhabited island. Services are more frequent from May to October and drop back to often quite limited services in between. The fleet is changing and travel is now quite comfortable.

Catamaran

High-speed catamarans have become an important part of the island travel scene. They are just as fast as hydrofoils – if not faster – and more comfortable. They are also less prone to cancellation in rough weather. Fares are the same as for hydrofoils.

Hellenic Seaways is the major player. It operates giant, vehicle-carrying cats fromPiraeus and Rafina to the Cyclades, and smaller Flying Cats from Rafina to the central and northern Cyclades and on many routes around the ­Saronic Gulf.

Blue Star Ferries operates its Seajet catamarans on the run from Rafina to Tinos,Mykonos and Paros.
Dodekanisos Seaways (22410 70590; www.12ne.gr; Afstralias 3) runs two luxurious Norwegian-built passenger catamarans between Rhodes and Patmos in theDodecanese.

Most services are very popular; book as far in advance as possible, especially if you want to travel on weekends.

High-speed ferries

These supermodern leviathans can slash travel times on some of the longer routes.
NEL Lines (22510 26299; www.ferries.gr/nel) leads the way with its futuristic-looking F/B Panagia Thalassini and Aeolos Kenteris II, which operate from Piraeus to Syros,Tinos, Mykonos, Paros, Naxos, Lavrio, Kythnos and Amorgos. In addition, there is a high-speed service with the F/B Aeolos Kenteris I to Rethymno on Crete. These services cost roughly twice as much as standard ferries.
Blue Star Ferries (210 891 9800; www.bluestarferries.com) is almost in the same league as NEL Lines, and its fleet of modern boats serves many destinations in the Cycladic and Dodecanese islands, cutting down travelling time considerably. It charges about 20% more than the regular ferries.

Hydrofoil

Hydrofoils used to be popular on the Greek transport scene but have seen their heyday come and go. They have been replaced in the main by more comfortable and just as fast catamarans and jet boats. They now just exist in isolation in some of the remoter parts of the Aegean archipelago.

Aegean Flying Dolphins (210 422 1766), based on Samos, links that island with Kosin the Dodecanese and islands in between. Other hydrofoil routes operate between Kavala and Thasos in the Northeastern Aegean, and from Alexandroupoli to Samothraki and Limnos. Hellenic Seaways operate hydrofoils on some of itsSporades services.
Tickets cannot be bought on board hydrofoils – you must buy them in advance from an agent.

Water taxi

Most islands have water taxis (taxi boats) – small speedboats that operate like taxis, transporting people to places that are difficult to get to by land. Some owners charge a set price for each person, others charge a flat rate for the boat, and this cost is divided by the number of passengers. Either way, prices are usually quite reasonable.

Mainland Transportation
Hitching
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and should let someone know where they are planning to go. Greece has a reputation for being a relatively safe place for women to hitch, but it is still unwise to do it alone. It’s better for a woman to hitch with a companion, preferably a male one.

Some parts of Greece are much better for hitching than others. Getting out of major cities tends to be hard work and Athens is notoriously difficult. Hitching is much easier in remote areas and on islands with poor public transport. On country roads it is not unknown for someone to stop and ask if you want a lift, even if you haven’t stuck a thumb out.

Bus & tram

Bus

All long-distance buses, on the mainland and the islands, are operated by regional collectives known as KTEL (Koino Tamio Eispraxeon Leoforion). Every prefecture on the mainland has a KTEL, which operates local services within the prefecture and to the main towns of other prefectures. Most can be found on the internet atwww.ktel.org. Fares are fixed by the government.
The network is comprehensive. With the exception of towns in Thrace, which are serviced by Thessaloniki, all the major towns on the mainland have frequent connections to Athens. The islands of Corfu, Kefallonia and Zakynthos can also be reached directly from Athens by bus – the fares include the price of the ferry ticket.

The KTEL buses are safe and modern, and these days most are air-conditioned – at least on the major routes. Some buses are double-deckers. In more-remote rural areas they tend to be older and less comfortable.

Most villages have a daily bus service of some sort, although remote areas may have only one or two buses a week. They operate for the benefit of people going to town to shop, rather than for tourists. They normally leave the villages very early in the morning and return early in the afternoon.

On islands where the capital is inland rather than a port, buses normally meet boats. Some of the more remote islands have not yet acquired a bus, but most have some sort of motorised transport – even if it is only a bone-shaking, three-wheeled truck.

Larger towns usually have a central, covered bus station with seating, waiting rooms, toilets, and a snack bar selling pies, cakes and coffee. It is important to note that big cities like Athens, Iraklio, Patra and Thessaloniki may have more than one bus station, each serving different regions. Make sure you find the correct station for your destination.
In small towns and villages the ‘bus station’ may be no more than a bus stop outside a kafeneio (coffee house) or taverna that doubles as a booking office. In remote areas, the timetable may be in Greek only, but most booking offices have timetables in both Greek and Roman script. The timetables give both the departure and return times – useful if you are making a day trip. Times are listed using the 24-hour clock system.

When you buy a ticket you will be allotted a seat number, which is noted on the ticket. The seat number is indicated on the back of each seat of the bus, not on the back of the seat in front; this causes confusion among Greeks and tourists alike. You can board a bus without a ticket and pay on board, but on a popular route, or during high season, this may mean that you have to stand. Keep your ticket handy for checking.

It’s best to turn up at least 20 minutes before departure to make sure you get a seat, and buses have been known to leave a few minutes before their scheduled departure. Buses on less-frequented routes do not usually have toilets on board and they don’t have refreshments available, so make sure you are prepared on both counts. Buses stop about every three hours on long journeys. Smoking is prohibited on all buses in Greece.

Costs

Bus travel is very reasonably priced, with a journey costing approximately €4 per 100km. Some major routes include Athens–Thessaloniki (€31, 7½ hours),Athens–Patra (€16, three hours), Athens–Volos (€20, five hours) and Athens–Corfu(€44 including ferry, 8½ hours).

Bus

Most Greek towns are small enough to get around on foot. All the major towns have local buses, but the only places you’re likely to need them are Athens, Patra,Kalamata and Thessaloniki.