Where to go?
The combination of sea and mountains, the many peninsulas and deep bays all contribute to Greece’s unusual geography; no stretch of coastline is far from a mountain.
A mountainous peninsula and thousands of islands
Lying at the southern end of the Balkan peninsula, Greece is a mountainous country with a land mass of 131 944km2/50 944sq mi (a little over half the size of the United Kingdom). Its geography gives it a feeling of vastness: the mainland broken up by mountain ranges, and its many islands scattered across the sea. A total of 1 000km separate Corfu from Kastéllorizo, and the eastern end of Crete is 800km from the northern boundaries of Thrace.
The country, with its highest point at Mount Olympos (2 917m/9 577ft), presents a fragmented and complex topography, with numerous peaks over 2 000m (notably Mount Smólikas in the Pindus range at 2 637m, Mount Parnassos at 2 457m, Mount Ida on Crete at 2 456m, Mount Taíyetos in the southern Peloponnese at 2 407m, and Mount Falakró in Macedonia at 2 182m).
The country’s geology forms two main zones. In the east, an ancient primary substratum has been raised by movements of the earth’s crust: this includes the mountain ranges of Thrace and Macedonia, Mounts Olympos and Pelion, and Euboia; the Aegean Islands are traces of a continent (the mythical Atlantis) submerged at the end of the Tertiary era by earthquakes. Volcanic activity is still evident, especially on Níssiros in the Dodecanese, and Santorini in the Cyclades, where a catastrophic eruption was the most likely cause of the disappearance of the Minoan civilisation.
In the west, a tertiary chain, the Balkan Dinaric Alps, continues south to form the spine of Greece, composed mainly of karst, a limestone rock eroded by running water to form caves, chasms and swallow-holes (katavóthres). This mountain range includes the peaks of the Pindus, Mount Parnassos (2 457m/8 061ft), the Peloponnese and terminates in the mountains of Crete.
Central Greece and Euboia
The heart of historic Greece, Attica is a promontory consisting of low hills and plains. Population density is high, even outside the Athens metropolitan area.
To the north of Attica, between Mounts Parnes and Parnassos, lies Boeotia; its main towns, Thebes and Livadiá, are important agricultural markets. The land once flooded to form Lake Copaïs is now a huge cotton plantation.
The island of Euboia (Évia) lies parallel to the east coast of the Attic peninsula to which it is linked by a bridge. Like the mainland, it is very mountainous.
Phocis, the region lying between Boeotia and Etolía, is dominated by Mount Parnassos with its ski resorts; to the west lies the lake formed by the dam on the Mórnos, which supplies water to Athens. Phocis is particularly famous for the sanctuary at Delphi and the sea of olive trees which fills the Ámfissa basin.
Etolía on the west coast comprises a cool mountainous district clothed with holm oaks round the huge reservoir, Lake Trihonída, and the River Ahelóos expanding into the Agrínio basin; the gleaming lagoon at Messolónghi (salt marshes) lies on the north coast of the Gulf of Patras.
The wooded highlands of Eurytania in the north of central Greece are still impenetrable in parts. Karpeníssi, dominated by Mount Timfristós, is the main town in the region, where forestry is the principal activity. On the western boundary with Etolía lies the vast Kremastón reservoir formed by the dammed waters of the River Ahelóos, which has a great energy production capacity.
To the northeast of Phocis, the region of Pthiotis is largely agricultural and is bisected by the beautiful Sperhiós Valley. The only large town, Lamía, is an important road and rail junction.
The Peloponnese, linked to Attica by the Isthmus of Corinth (now breached by the Corinth Canal), is a mountainous peninsula made up of high peaks, inland basins caused by subsidence and irrigated coastal plains.
The eastern coastal plain is known as the Argolid. To the north lies a fertile coastal strip between the mountains and the gulf of Corinth; this area comprises Corinth (east) and Achaia (west). Patras, which is the third largest city in Greece and an important centre for wine merchants, is also a popular port.
Down the west coast extends the verdant agricultural plain of Elis.
The southern coast is split into three promontories: the longest, an extension of the Taígetos massif, is Máni, a wild limestone region. Taígetos is flanked by two alluvial plains: Lakonía and Messinía.
At the centre of the Peloponnese lie the pasturelands of Arcadia (between 600m and 800m/1 968ft and 2 625ft above sea level), home to the town of Tripoli.
Between the Ionian Sea and the western border of Thessaly rise the mountains of Epirus; the landscape is majestic and harsh, furrowed by valleys and gorges.
The capital, Ioánnina, is situated by a lake. To the northeast rise the limestone heights of Zagória. To the south extends the plain of Árta.
Thessaly, which has two main centres at Lárissa and the port of Vólos, is composed of a rich agricultural basin, watered by the River Piniós and surrounded by high peaks: Pindus, Olympos, Pelion and Timfristós. The region is cold and damp in winter and very hot in summer.
At the foot of Mount Pelion lies the port of Vólos providing maritime communications. Road and rail links with Macedonia to the northeast pass through the famous Vale of Tempe at the foot of Mount Óssa; the road to Ioánina and Epirus in the northwest climbs over the Métsovo Pass (1 705m/5 594ft), the highest road pass in Greece. As it rises into the Pindus range the road passes the curious pillars of rock created by erosion which are known as the Metéora.
This vast province stretches along the border with Albania and Bulgaria. At the centre of the province lies the alluvial plain of the River Axiós, also known as the Vardar. East of the mouth of the Axiós lies the port of Thessaloníki (Salonica), the capital of Macedonia and the second largest city in Greece.
Chalcidice (Halkidikí), the region southeast of Thessaloníki, consists of three wooded peninsulas, the most easterly of which is the site of the famous monasteries of Mount Athos.
The country farther east round Kavála is composed of broad valleys and inland depressions overlooked by high plateaux and Mount Pangaion with its famous gold mines. In the mountains of western Macedonia there are some fine lakes, particularly Préspa, a nature reserve on the border with Albania.
Reunited under the Greek flag after the Second World War, Thrace is the easternmost province of mainland Greece, flanked by Bulgaria and Turkey. The country consists of hills and cultivated plains. There is still a Muslim minority particularly round Komotiní, Álexandroúpoli and Souflí where Turkish is taught in primary schools
The sea and the islands
The sea is never far away in Greece; its long coastline is extended by countless bays and gulfs. The lack of tide, the transparent blue water and the excellent visibility are favourable to navigation.
Strung out in the Ionian Sea off the west coast of Greece and not far from Italy, these islands are as Latin as they are Greek. There are seven main islands: Corfu, Paxós, Leukas, Cephallonia, Ithaca, Zakynthos, also known as Zante, and Kythera which falls within the Attica administrative region and lies off the southern tip of the Peloponnese.
Although some form part of regions administered from the mainland, these islands strung out towards Turkey are a world apart from the rest of Greece.
In the Cyclades and the Dodecanese the cuboid houses under their dazzling whitewash contrast starkly with the barren rock-strewn land. Close to the Turkish coast, the Dodecanese is a group of 12 islands, the principal one being Rhodes. The islands of the northern Aegean – Lemnos, Lesbos, Chios and Sámos – are green and fertile.
Dominated by three mountain ranges, and ringed by fabulous beaches, Crete is the largest island in the Greek archipelago. Although the north coast is relatively flat, sheer cliffs plunge into the sea along the south of the island.
Europe’s most Mediterranean country
The Greek climate is hot in summer and mild in winter (except in the mountains). Inland, particularly in northern Greece, the climate is more continental: stifling in summer, cold in winter, with some areas experiencing sudden and heavy rainfall. At altitude, snow is frequent between November and April
Bathed in brilliant light, the islands of the Aegean are exposed to the prevailing wind, which blows from the north. In winter it is known as the voriás but in spring and summer it becomes the meltémi which can blow for two or three days at a time, roughening the sea but refreshing the air. The sea temperature is warm and swimming is possible everywhere between May and October; the water is warmest in September.
Average temperatures (January and July, degrees Celsius): Athens 12 and 32, Corfu 10 and 25, Herakleion 11 and 27, Lesbos 9 and 26, Rhodes 13 and 27.
A land of villages
In the mountains of the north the building style, typified by stone houses with sloping roofs, has not changed for centuries. Greece’s most beautiful villages, are found on the islands of the Aegean. Most of them have a port or a landing place called skála (steps) in a sheltered bay, a town called hóra (place) on a hill out of reach of marauders and a fortified site (kástro), which may have begun as an Ancient Greek acropolis and subsequently became a castle or citadel.
Greece boasts over 6 000 botanical species, of which about 600 are unique to Greece including 130 in Crete alone. More generally, it is the island of Crete and the Peloponnese, where the visitor will encounter the largest variety and profusion of wild flowers. The country boasts over 100 varieties of orchids and violets, anemones, peonies, narcissus, primroses and anemones abound from early March onwards.
The native forests that once covered much of the country have now largely disappeared other than for disparate areas in the far north. Here you will see various pine trees as well as fir, white poplars, spearheaded cypresses and chestnut. The tree most commonly seen in the village squares across Greece is the Cyprus plane tree.
Cultivated trees are found on farmland, in the plains and on the lower slopes of the hills, grown in plantations: olives more or less everywhere up to 600m/1 969ft, citrus fruits on irrigated land, almonds in sheltered spots and mulberries, figs and pomegranates.
Olive trees have been cultivated since antiquity and have always had a special place in Greek culture. Highly drought-resistant and easily propagated by cuttings, ovules or by grafting (a technique perfected in ancient times), the tree’s olives are harvested in autumn and winter and processed for table-olives and oil (in their raw state they are inedible). The popularity of the olive, however, carries a high ecological price. In order to profit from the oil, large tracts of native forest were cut down to make way for olive groves and this led to the gradual disappearance of the surface root systems of the native trees. The consequence was massive soil erosion.
Here in the land of Dionysos, the vineyard is ubiquitous, either cultivated for winemaking (as in the Peloponnese, Attica, Macedonia, Sámos, Euboia, Crete and Santorini) or grapes.
Foxes, squirrels, weasels and the suslik, a relatively rare type of ground squirrel, are common on the mainland. There are several species of snakes and while most of them are poisonous they do not pose any danger if not interfered with.
Resident birds include thrushes, swallows, bee-eaters and wagtails and there are a large number of migratory birds passing though on their way to Africa and Europe. The largest one you are likely to see is the stork. Herons, cormorants and the rare Dalmatian pelican are to be found in inland waters in northern Greece. Contact the Hellenic Ornithological Society (www.ornithologiki.gr) for more information.
Bears and Wolves– The habitats of the brown bear and the wolf are to be found in central and northern Greece. A good source of information for the problems facing these large carnivores is the website of Arcturos, a Greek organisation founded in 1992 and working for the conservation of the country’s bears and wolves (www.arcturos.gr). Another organisation is Callisto (www.callisto.gr), founded in 2004 and also striving to protect the natural environment of Greece and its flora and fauna.
Europe ’s rarest mammal, the monk seal, exists in small numbers in the waters around Greece.
The loggerhead turtle, with nesting sites on Crete, Zakynthos, Kefaloniá and around the coast of Peloponnese, is also endangered. The turtles need clean and undisturbed beaches to lay their eggs and the development of tourist facilities on the islands has proved to be a major hazard. Contact The Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece (ww.archelon.gr) for more information.