NEED TO KNOW
Capital City: Athens
Population: 10.7 million
Area: 51,000 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 30
Electricity: 230V, 50 Hz
Currency: As of Nov 22, 2011:
1 Euro = $1.36 US Calculate Other Amounts
Greece, a member of the EU, does not require visas for citizens of the United States. A valid passport is sufficient for a three-month stay.
GOOD TO KNOW
Books and Movies
The Greeks practically invented literature, and while the ancient texts don't say much about modern Greece, Homer's The Odyssey serves as an excellent example of how to stretch a two-week trip through the Greek islands into a ten-year journey. Among the many guidebooks to Greece, a classic, first published in 1885, is The Cyclades, or Life Among The Insular Greeks, by James Theodore Bent, where modern readers will be entertained, but not necessarily enlightened, by learning, for instance, that on Sifnos pigs were long called Frenchmen because a traveler of that nationality was once observed, upon hearing a Sifnian pig grunt, to exclaim, "Finally, a language I can understand." A 20th-century look at a changing Greece can be found in Louis de Bernières's novel (later made into a film), Captain Corelli's Mandolin, a captivating WWII-era love story set on the Ionian isle of Cephalonia. Also track down Mediterraneo, a 1992 Oscar winner (Best Foreign Film), set on the island of Kastelorizo. The 2008 blockbuster Mamma Mia! is not so much about Greece as it is an ode to ABBA songs. Yet the film certainly put the spotlight on pine-clad Skopelos, in the northern Aegean.
Greek cuisine is simple, its basis being olive oil, bread, wine, and the ability to express, at table, an opinion contrary to any other put forward. A meal, for the Greeks, is not so much a way to fuel the body as the conversation, which is why the thing above all others that will mark you as a foreigner is to eat out alone. To impede the conversation as little as possible, Greek dishes are often served as mezes. Commonly misunderstood to be appetizers, they more appropriately constitute the entire meal. Standards include grilled octopus, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), tzadziki (yogurt, cucumber, and garlic dip), taramasalata (creamy roe, garlic, and olive oil dip), and moussaka, layers of ground lamb and eggplant. That Greece makes wines other than retsina comes as a pleasant surprise. Look for wines of the Naoussa region, the Nemea of the Peloponnese, and Santorini. The frappé, a cold concoction of instant coffee, milk, and sugar, has essentially replaced ouzo as the Greek national drink. Its chief virtue is that it can sit on the table in front of you at an outdoor café all afternoon while you observe and pronounce judgment on the world and imagine that everyone is probably taking you for a Greek, which, unless there's a wreath of cigarette smoke encircling your head, they are not.
In Athens, many of the upscale retailers are those you will find in any major city, but the somewhat wild shopping bazaars still survive. In Athens, start your hunt at the flea markets in Monastiraki and Plaka, below the Acropolis, for the best lace, metalwork, pottery, leather, and local wines at prices below the fancier districts. But be prepared to bargain. Half of what they first ask you for—assuming they clock you as tourist—is what you want. Visitors to other parts of the country should keep an eye out for: silver in Ioannina, ceramics in Sifnos, embroidery and alabaster in Crete, and fur in Kastoria. Just be sure not to purchase any genuine antiques, anything older than 100 years needs a special permit for export.
A value-added tax (VAT) of up to 19 percent is added to every purchase in Greece, but tourists can get a refund at the airport or by mail. Most restaurants and bars will add a service charge to your bill. For good service, add 6 to 8 percent on top of that. If there's no service charge, a 12 to 15 percent tip is the norm.
January: 1, New Year's Day; 6, Epiphany March: 25, Independence Day May: 1, May Day August: 15, Assumption October: 28, The Ochi (celebrates Greece's refusal to yield to the Axis powers in 1940) November: 17, Polytechneio (anniversary of the student protests against the junta in 1973) December: 25, Christmas Day; 26, Boxing Day Winter: Eleven days before Lent, Burnt Thursday; first day of Lent, Clean Monday Spring: Friday before Easter, Good Friday; Easter; day after Easter, Easter Monday; eighth Monday after Easter, Pentecost Monday