7 Things to Know Before Traveling to Greece
Since I was a little girl, my father emphasized the importance of our Greek roots. Whether or not this came from a slight ethnocentric perspective, I found myself lost in the wonder of brightly-colored pages of my favorite Greek mythologies and felt a sting of pride upon realizing how much of the Western world’s foundation could be traced back to the timeless philosophers of our origin. It seems quite rare today for many of us Americans to be drawn to our background enough to want to venture to it, as a large emotional piece is lost within the melting pot of our culture.
Recently, I had the chance to visit the land of my heritage twice in one year. First, as a part of a larger Eurail trip that encompassed most of Western Europe, and secondly, after settling in Switzerland in a last minute decision to catch my Grandmother there while she mourned the loss of my grandfather on the island of Santorini, a favorite place in their youth. Both trips were heartfelt for obvious reasons. I love Greece, and call me ethnocentric if you may, but here are some things to know if you plan on traveling there one day (which I highly recommend).
1. Things in Greece are usually late, unreliable, and sometimes nonexistent.
You have to expect delays and grumpy, non-English speaking drivers. Never make the mistake of buying anything in advance, but rather show up the morning or night before your departure to purchase your bus ticket on the spot (to confirm a bus will truly leave at that date and time).
When I was in Greece a year ago, the majority of the trains did not run, and I was given the advice to avoid most trains in the Balkan region for their reputation of being cramped, late, and a bad idea in general. The Mediterranean and Balkan people move at a different pace. Eventually, after you ease your frustrations, you begin to see the beauty present when one is not in a rush…
2. Due to the recent economy crisis, and especially in major cities such as Athens, many forms of transit such as subway, taxis, buses, tend to go on strike at random.
Don’t miss two flights like I did, and give yourself five extra hours to get anywhere instead of two. Always expect a massive delay, and you’ll be pleasantly over-prepared (in a good way.)
This same economy crisis is a heavy shadow over the well-being of the culture. A taxi driver told me a disheartening story of his family’s tragic loss of the land they’ve own for centuries. Try to be extra empathetic to the locals, and try not to take it personal if they seem a bit sour because many lost more than we can imagine in the past few years.
3. The islands! See them, and you will find more smiles there I promise.
Explore the Cyclades, hundreds of islands in the Aegean Sea within hours to the south east of the mainland, and soak up the glistening sun, stand in blue-painted doorways. Ride quads to multi-colored beaches (some are red, some are white, and others are black), watch melting sunsets and donkeys meander through old cobblestone paths as you follow the smell of fresh calamari down to hidden fishing villages tucked under the cliffs. This is a description of my time in a very well-known island called Santorini, where I swear I left a piece of my heart, but you can find less inhabited islands with the same charm, or more party-favored islands such as Mykonos, as well.
4. You may be crammed on a ferry.
Expect to pay a lot more in high season (spring/summer) than during low season (fall/winter), and many Eurail passes offer a discount for ferries. Seeing as you will not use it for train travel, take advantage of this discount. Our ferry from Patras, the closest ferry port next door to Athens, was about 9 hours and left around 7 am, so make sure to get a brilliantly and scary strong Greek coffee on the way. But also bring warm and comfortable clothes to sleep on board in. I rode about 6 different ferries in my time there, and the cheapest tickets fluctuate between bench seating, comfy larger seats. My best ferry memory was sleeping on the dining room floor, practically elbow to elbow with lots of Greek families on an overcrowded night ferry. I was never so happy to have squished an airport blanket into my pack at some point. Just remember it’s all worth it for the beauty of these gems.
5. It’s historically profound. It’s the center from where Western culture radiated from.
You should watch the sunset from the Parthenon, as Athena herself once did, because there is no other feeling like it. And all those tidbits in your guidebook are definitely worthy to invest time to visit until you get overwhelmed, because the night life is great too (and you should probably save some energy). As amazing as Athens was, it was also sad and scary at times, with crime and poverty on the rise in relation to the same dramatic crisis. I would not recommend walking anywhere at night alone. There is a sense of unrest about the city, so take in the beauty of it and avoid the seedy parts at all costs, such as the Omonia district, which is infamous for drug dealers and other debauchery.
6. Mountains are a rich part of the landscape.
There’s mountains lined with lakes and dusty olive trees, ruins such as ancient Delphi, where the Oracle was said to have lived in those crazy mythology books I enjoyed, and my grandma’s favorite—Meteora, a cluster of monasteries built atop of dramatic, steep rock formations to escape Turkish invasion. It is one of the most unique places I ever went, and from here, you are pretty close to Thessaloniki, another major city to visit if so inclined. A lot of hype is placed on the south of Greece, but there is truly so much rich land to see up north, and the country folk are very hospitable and charming. Lodging and dining is muchcheaper and more authentic out of the major cities.
7. You must eat at least one large, crispy, and Kalamata olive and feta-laden Greek salad every day.
Compliment this with a cold delicious pint of Alpha or Mythos as you watch a sunset melt into the mountains or ocean, or anywhere.
On my next trip to Greece I hope to travel to the village where my Grandpa was born in the farthest south area of the mainland called the Peloponnese. If you can invest in getting to know your ethnic background, not only do you have some innate inspiration to travel (hey, I’m also Irish too), but you can connect to a culture possibly lost in your present life, giving it value and flavor. Possibly you could even relate this to your own children one day, and watch their eyes light up as they dream of traveling beyond.
7 Things to Know Before Traveling to Greece