Having exported chaos, drama, tragedy and democracy before most nations were staying up late enough to want souvlaki, Greece boasts an unrivalled legacy. But don't expect a visit there to be a sober study of the ancient world - the Greek propensity for partying dates back to Dionysus.
From smoggy Athens to blindingly bright islands, ancient fragments abound - the belly button of the cosmos at Delphi, fallen columns galore on the sacred island of Delos, frescoed Minoan palaces on Crete and even, quite possibly, the remnants of Atlantis at Santorini.
Greeks are fierce guardians of tradition, but that doesn't mean they don't know how to have fun. In addition, hot sun and limpid seas conspire to make Greece a perfect place to relax. Whether you're supping in a beachside taverna, sipping coffee in a shady plateia or disco-dancing till dawn, chances are the gods already have you ensnared.
Full country name: Hellenic Republic
Area: 131,940 sq km
Population: 10.66 million
Capital City: Athens
People: The government does not recognise any ethnicity other than Greek. However, a foreign population does exist.
Religion: 98% Greek Orthodox, 1.3% Muslim, 0.7% other
Government: parliamentary republic
Head of State: President Karolos Papoulias
Head of Government: Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis
GDP: US$203.3 billion
GDP per capita: US$19,100
Major Industries: Tourism, shipping, food and tobacco processing, textiles, chemicals, metal products, mining and petroleum products
Major Trading Partners: Germany, Italy, France, UK, USA
Member of EU: Yes
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Visas: Nationals of Australia, Canada, Cyprus, EU countries, the European principalities of Monaco and San Marino, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, the USA and most South American countries are allowed to stay in Greece for up to three months without a visa; most others can enter Greece for up to two months without a visa; Greece will refuse entry to anyone whose passport indicates that, since November 1983, they have visited North Cyprus.
Health risks: sunburn, (A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required from travellers over 6 months of age coming from infected areas)
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +2 (Eastern European Time)
Dialling Code: 30
Electricity: 220V ,50 Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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The Greek year is a succession of festivals and events, some of which are religious, some cultural, others an excuse for a good knees-up. Gynaikratia on 8 January is a day of role reversal in villages in northern Greece. Women spend the day in kafeneia (cafes) and other social centres where men usually congregate, while the men stay at home to do housework. The Greek carnival season runs through February-March over the three weeks before the beginning of Lent, and features fancy dress, feasting, traditional dancing and general merrymaking. Easter is the most significant festival in Greece, with candle-lit processions, feasting and fireworks displays. Emphasis is placed on the Resurrection rather than on the Crucifixion, so it is a joyous occasion. There are numerous summer festivals across the country, the most famous being the Hellenic Festival (mid-June to late September), which hosts drama and music in ancient theatres.
1 Jan - New Year's Day
6 Jan - Epiphany
Feb - 1st Sunday in Lent
25 Mar - Greek Independence Day
Mar/Apr - (Orthodox) Easter Sunday
1 May - Spring Festival/Labour Day
15 Aug - Feast of the Assumption
28 Oct - Ohi Day
25 Dec - Christmas Day
26 Dec - St Stephen's Day
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Redolent with mythology, smeared with grime, Athens is an affable city enlivened by outdoor cafes, pedestrian streets, parks, gardens and urban eccentrics. If you get into the Athenian mindset, you might not even notice the layer of nefos (smog) overhead.
Modern tourists have the ancient Athenians to thank for the ease of getting to major landmarks around the city. Old Athens was miniscule compared to today's sprawling metropolis, which means that all the must-sees are conveniently huddled together in a fairly easy-to-manage rectangle.
Steeped in Homeric history and culture, scented by wild fennel and basil, Crete welcomes and overwhelms visitors with its wealth of myths, legends and history, a blessed and dramatic landscape, an extraordinary fusion of past and present, and an abundance of choices and experiences.
Crete was the birthplace of one of Europe's oldest and most fascinating civilisations, the Minoan. Iraklio, the capital, has some fine musuems in which you can learn more about the island's history, or you can visit the ancient Minoan site of Knossos. Hania has a beautiful old Venetian quarter.
Whitewashed walls, deep blue sky, olive groves, fig trees, azure Aegean waters...the heavenly Dodecanese Islands have all this and more. In this diverse group of islands you can experience the traditional life without the tourist trappings.
This Dionysian group of islands is perched on the easternmost edge of the Aegean, where ancient history jumps out at you at every turn. Island-hop your way to heaven, or just indulge in a spot of people-watching in the bar and beach scene of the big resorts.
Give into temptation and succumb to the lure of the idyllic Ionian group of islands - Corfu, Paxi, Lefkada, Kefallonia, Ithaki, Zakynthos and Kythira - far more lush than those barren Aegean islands, and tinged with a distinctly Venetian flavour.
Each island has its idiosyncrasies of culture and cuisine, and differing dollops of European and British influences. Their surfeit of charms include mountainside monasteries, Venetian campaniles, unspoilt villages, ancient olive groves, famous wines, white beaches and ludicrously blue-heaven waters.
The monasteries of Meteora are one of the most extraordinary sights in mainland Greece. Built into and on top of huge pinnacles of smooth rock, the earliest monasteries were reached by climbing articulated removable ladders. Later, windlasses were used so monks could be hauled up in nets, a method used until the 1920s.
The monasteries provided monks with peaceful havens from increasing bloodshed as the Byzantine Empire waned at the end of the 14th century.
Apprehensive visitors enquiring how often the ropes were replaced were told 'When the Lord lets them break'. These days access to the monasteries is by steps hewn into the rocks and the windlasses are used only for hauling up provisions.
Northeastern Aegean Islands
There are seven major islands in the northeastern group: Samos, Chios, Ikaria, Lesvos, Limnos, Samothraki and Thasos. Huge distances separate them, so island hopping is not as easy as it is within the Cyclades and Dodecanese. Most of these islands are large and have very distinctive characters. Samos, the birthplace of Pythagoras, is lush and humid with mountains skirted by pine, sycamore and oak-forested hills. Egg-shaped Samothraki has dramatic natural attributes, culminating in the mighty peak of Mt Fengari, which looms over valleys of massive gnarled oak and plane trees, thick forests of olive trees and damp dark glades where waterfalls plunge into deep icy pools.
Greece's southern peninsula is rich in history and scenically diverse. Packed into its northeastern corner are the ancient sites of Epidaurus, Corinth and Mycenae. The ghostly Byzantine city of Mystras clambers up the slopes of Mt Taygetos, its winding paths and stairways leading to deserted palaces and fresco-adorned churches.
Further south, you can explore the Mani, a region of bleak mountains and barren landscapes broken only by austere and imposing stone towers, mostly abandoned but still standing sentinel over the region. Other attractions in the region include ancient Olympia and the beautiful medieval town of Monemvasia.
Saronic Gulf Islands
The five Saronic Gulf islands are the closest of all to Athens, and Salamis is virtually a suburb of the capital. Aegina, Hydra, Spetses and Poros are all surprisingly varied in architecture and terrain, but they all receive an inordinate number of tourists and are expensive. Hydra, once the rendezvous of artists, writers and beautiful people, is now overrun with holiday-makers but manages to retain an air of superiority and grandeur. Motor vehicles, including mopeds, are banned from the island: donkeys rule.
There are four inhabited islands in this mountainous and pine-forested northern archipelago: Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonnisos and Skyros. People go to Skiathos for the exquisite beaches and the nightlife; if you're there for anything else, you'll probably leave quickly.
Skopelos is less commercialised than Skiathos, but is following hot on its trail. There are some lovely sheltered beaches, but they are often pebbled rather than sandy. Alonnisos is still a serene island, partly because the rocky terrain makes building an airport runway impossible. The water around Alonnisos has been declared a marine park and consequently is the cleanest in the Aegean, and every house has a cesspit so no waste goes into the sea. Skyros is less developed than the other three, designed to attract posers rather than package tourists.
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