Where to go?
The Country today
The Country today
Travellers to Greece expect to discover and enjoy the country’s intriguing traces of past civilisations. In doing so, they encounter the Greeks of today, a warm and welcoming people who are remarkably friendly and open to visitors. Who are they, the Greeks of today, and how do they live? Answers lie not just in the past, but in the present: in Greek music, crafts and popular arts, and in the delectable Greek cuisine.
The constitution of 1975 confirmed Greece as a parliamentary republic. The Prime Minister is the head of government, and of a multi-party system, with a president with largely ceremonial functions. The President is elected by the Parliament for a five-year term and can only enjoy two terms in office. The next presidential election will be in 2010. The party system is dominated by two main parties: the right-wing New Democracy and the socialist Panhellenic Socialist Movement. A New Democracy government won power in the 2004 elections, for the first time in 11 years, and in the 2007 elections won the largest share of votes, 42%, followed by the Panhellenic Socialist Movement with 38%. Although both parties lost around 15% of the votes that they had collected in 2004, New Democracy managed to secure an absolute but narrow majority of 152 out of the 300 parliament seats. The Communist Party increased their share of the vote by 10% in 2007 but the election also saw the emergence of the Popular Orthodox Rally party, a nationalist grouping of the far-right led by a controversial journalist Georgios Karatzaferis after he was expelled from New Democracy in 2000.
Konstantínos Alexandrou Karamanlís remained prime minister of the country, as leader of the New Democracy party which his uncle Constantine Karamanlis had founded. Regional government is organised around 13 administrative districts, further divided into 51 prefectures called the nomoi.
Greece became a member of the EU in 1981.
Greece remains a predominantly rural country, especially in Boeotia, Macedonia, Thessaly and Thrace. Farms are generally small (except in the north); the main crops are olives, citrus fruits, maize, cotton, sugar beet, barley and rice. Agriculture and associated activities employ around 20% of the workforce; half this number work directly in farming.
Greece has several hydroelectric and thermal power schemes. There is an active bauxite mining industry around Mount Parnassos (the raw material is used to make aluminium); the building sector is also significant to the economy.
The nation’s two greatest sources of income are merchant shipping and tourism. Greek shipping is world class, with over 3 200 vessels registered. The tourist industry, evident everywhere across the country, accounts for 17% of GDP. With nearly 20 million visitors a year, Greece has more tourists than inhabitants. The excellent weather, warm sea, beautiful countryside and countless historic sites account for this success.
Greece is part of the European single currency area or ‘Eurozone’ and interest rates are governed by the Central European Bank. The organisation of the Olympic Games held in 2004 led to substantial modernisation of the country’s infrastructure, with aid from the European Union, and the result was an increase in income levels for many Greeks. The Greek economy grew by nearly 4% per year between 2003 and 2007.
The conservative governments that have been in power since 2004 are pursuing economic reforms in the areas of social insurance, welfare, and the labour market. Such measures, say the ruling politicians, will encourage further investments, lower the country’s high unemployment and promote growth and economic stability. Opposition politicians and trade unionists dispute this free-market approach to the economy and in 2005 there was vigorous opposition to reform of the insurance system for bank employees. Laws liberalising working hours in retail trade and employment and providing for public–private financing initiatives have followed in the teeth of opposition and the present political climate of the country is largely influenced by arguments over the best way to manage the national economy. One particular area of contention lies with the level of subsidy to Greek agriculture by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the EU. The present heavy levels of subsidy are likely to be reduced over the coming years and this is bound to provoke heated debate. Immigrants make up nearly one-fifth of the country’s work force, mainly in agricultural and unskilled jobs, and as in other European countries this has provoked some extreme responses from right-wing, nationalist groups.
As aspect of Greece’s economy that may grow in importance over the coming years arises from its access to the sizeable emerging markets in the Balkan, Black Sea, eastern European and eastern Mediterranean regions. One healthy economic statistic points to the existence of over 3,000 export and investor Greek companies and a growing proportion of these are concerned in trade with Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Albania, and the Republic of Macedonia (though the fact that Macedonia is also the name of a region in northern Greece is a source of contention between the two countries).
Population and language
Greece’s population, approaching 11 million, is spread out unevenly across the country’s nomi; some of these administrative regions are vast and almost void of people, others cover a tiny area but are crammed with inhabitants. The Athens metropolitan area, composed of the two nomi of Athens and Piraeus, continues to extend its sprawl and is now home to around a third of all Greek citizens; Thessaloníki in Macedonia has a population of 700 000. At the other extreme, an exodus from agriculture means that the mountain areas and some of the islands now have less than 10 inhabitants per km2.
The only minority in Greece that has some degree of legal recognition is a Muslim one in Thrace that accounts for less than 1% of the total population. Its members are predominantly of Turkish and Roma ethnic origins. The country, though, is also home to minorities of Armenians and Jews, as well as speakers of non-Greek languages. The latter include Arvanites, who speak a form of Albanian known as Arvanitika, and Aromanians and Moglenites ( known as Vlachs) who speak a language related to Romanian. In northern Greece there are also Slavic-speaking groups.
Non-EU immigration accounts for over 15% of the population in and around Athens, with Albanians making up more than half the total. Smaller numbers of Bulgarians, Georgians and Romanians contribute to the racial mix and these minorities are mostly employed as cheap labour by better-off Greeks.
Greek is the official language of the country and, because it is spoken by just about everyone, Greek society is linguistically homogeneous to a remarkable degree. Even more remarkable, though, is the fact that the language has an unbroken literary tradition that goes back almost 3,000 years, a unique achievement among European languages.
Arts and traditions
For centuries the social and political situation in Greece ensured that a large number of traditions and practices with roots going back to Ancient Greece were preserved, but rural folk traditions have now almost entirely disappeared because of the combined effect of modernisation of agriculture and the revolution in means of communication, which has brought the villages out of isolation. Many of the Greek customs and traditions have their roots in the Greek Christian Orthodox religion and as long as the church continued to play an important part in people’s lives customs and traditions were preserved accordingly. Gradually, however, the influence of the church is declining, a process inseparable from the increasing modernisation of the country, and the result is a notable decline in traditional practices. Two aspects of cultural life – music and weddings – are proving resistant to this seemingly inevitable process and for many families events like the birth of a child or the coming of Easter remain occasions for the observance of centuries-old customs. Superstitions are also testimony to the continuing hold of the past on the increasingly modern consciousness of Greeks.
During the last decade a craft revival has been promoted by government organisations and private associations. Schools and workshops have been set up throughout the country and about 100 workshops produce carpets in beautiful designs, reviving the making of flokáti from shaggy wool, which was formerly widespread in Thessaly. In the country practically all households had a loom in the past and weaving is still a common pursuit. The methods, materials (wool, silk or cotton) and designs (floral or geometrical) vary from region to region; bags, cushions and bedspreads are the most common articles produced.
Embroidery, which enhances garments, curtains and bed valences, is highly decorative and red is usually the dominant colour; the floral designs denote the oriental influence of Greeks from Asia Minor; in Epirus, Skíros and Crete, scenes from everyday life are also included. Weavers and lacemakers are often seen at work on their doorstep. Ceramics remain a male preserve except for decoration. Huge jars made in Crete, Attica and the western Peloponnese that were used in the past to store oil or cereals now serve as garden ornaments. The richly decorated glazed pottery found in the eastern Aegean Islands and Rhodes recalls the influence on Greek art of Asia Minor. Skíros has beautiful decorative plates; Aigina and Siphnos have produced high-quality pottery for centuries.
Wood carving remains a special tradition in Epirus, Skíros, Thessaly and Crete (pews, iconostasis, wedding chests). Votive offerings and painted shop signs are popular forms of naïve art.
Traditional dress is hardly worn except for patronal festivals or feasts of the Virgin (processions), at weddings, during the carnival or, in a simpler form, on market day. The women are resplendent in embroidery and chased ornaments chiefly displayed on their bodices and skirts. A few men still wear the heavy pleated kilt (foustanélla), which is the uniform of the soldiers (évzoni) of the Guard, as well as the pompom shoes (tsaroúhia). Local costumes are most common at Métsovo in Epirus, on Leukas, in the northern Sporades, in the Peloponnese, on Kárpathos and Astipálea in the Dodecanese and also in Crete; women spinning are often to be seen in the country districts. Costumes are also displayed in the museums of traditional art such as those of Nauplion, Thessaloníki, Chios and Athens.
The Evil eye– the most famous of all Greek superstitions, with a lineage stretching back 2 millennia (ancient Greek paintings of Greek triremes show an eye painted on them), the Evil Eye is able to strike anywhere without notice and the best defence is to wear or carry an eye painted into the middle of a blue charm (a clove of garlic is helpful too in warding off the bad luck associated with the evil eye).
Curses – a parent’s curse is said to be a dangerous thing and showing respect to one’s parents is considered the best way to minimise the afflictions it may bring.
Don’t sneeze – if you sneeze then somebody may be talking about you and the best remedy is to think about who that person may be and say their name aloud; if the sneezing stops your guess was a correct one.
Food and drink
The Greek soil seems to have been blessed by the gods, who since Antiquity have ensured a plentiful supply of grapes for wine, olives for oil, goat’s and sheep’s milk for cheese. The influence of the Venetian occupation can still be tasted in the cuisine of the Ionian Islands, while the flavours of the Ottoman Empire remain in the sweet pastries and the use of spices. The island of Crete in particular is renowned for its supremely healthy dishes.
Greek cuisine is simple but full of flavour. The main elements are Mediterranean: olive oil, tomatoes, lemons, herbs and aromatic spices (oregano, mint, sesame). The pastries and cakes, which are very sweet and flavoured with honey and cinnamon, evoke the Orient. Authentic but inexpensive Greek dishes are to be found in the tavernas and some more modest restaurants (estiatório) in the towns and the country.
A favourite aperitif and the national drink is a colourless aniseed spirit (ouzo), served in tiny glasses accompanied by a glass of water or diluted in a glass of water which turns cloudy.
Aperitifs are usually accompanied by mezédes or meze. These include vine leaves stuffed with meat and rice (dolmádes), spit-roasted offal sausages (kokorétsi), aubergine purée with black olives (melidzanosaláta), yoghurt with chopped cucumber and garlic (tzatzíki), purée of fish roe and breadcrumbs or potatoes (taramosaláta), rice with tomatoes (piláfi), stuffed tomatoes, peppers and aubergines (gemistá).
When in season, melons and watermelons are popular starters, as is the famous Greek salad, which contains tomatoes, cucumbers, fetacheese, onionsand olives, all generously doused in olive oil.
Main courses are usually selected from a board or direct from the kitchen. If you want your dishes to arrive in sequence rather than all at once, it is best to specify this. On the coast, fish dishes are weighed prior to cooking and sold at cost per pound. It is sadly not uncommon now for frozen fish to be used; this should be described as such (katepsigmenos) on the menu. The staple seafood dishes include prawns (garídes), swordfish (ksifías), squid (kalamári), octopus (oktapódia), and sardines (sardéles).
The food resources of mainland Greece are ample: in Thessaly and the Peloponnese there are countless orchards and farms producing tomatoes, aubergines, pistachios, chestnuts and olives. Pelion is renowned for its meat and especially game sausages. Against this backdrop, it is easy to forget that Greece is essentially a frugal country. Dishes are predominantly seasonal, and meat can be roasted, grilled or fried. Vegetable dishes are often stuffed or fried.
The Greeks eat a lot of cheese. The best known is goat’s or sheep’s milk cheese (féta) which may be served with olive oil and olives; also popular is a sort of Gruyère (graviéra) and a mild cheese similar to Cheddar (kasséri).
Desserts tend to be eaten separately, often as a mid-afternoon snack. These include millefeuilles with walnuts or almonds and cinnamon (baklavá); rolls of thread-like pastry with honey and walnuts or almonds (kadaïfi); mini doughnuts with honey and sesame or cinnamon (loukoumádes); flaky pastry turnover with cream and cinnamon (bougátsa); almond or sesame paste (halva).
What to eat
Dolmádes: vine leaves stuffed with meat and rice.
Tzatzíki: yoghurt with chopped cucumber and garlic.
Kokorétsi: spit-roasted offal sausages.
Melizanosaláta: aubergine purée with black olives.
Moussaká: aubergine and minced lamb with a béchamel sauce.
Piláfi: rice with tomatoes.
Taramosaláta: purée of fish roe and breadcrumbs or potatoes.
Psarosoúpa: fish soup.
Soupa avgolemono: broth with rice, egg and lemon.
Fish (psari) is served boiled (vrasto), fried or grilled (psito).
Meat can be roasted, grilled (sharas), boiled or braised (stifado). The words tis oras next to a dish mean that it will be cooked to the client’s wishes; most dishes are prepared in advance.
Arni and arnaki: mutton and lamb.
Bifteki: minced beef.
Soutzoukakia: meatballs, tomato sauce.
Souvlákia: meat on a skewer served with tomatoes and onions.
Domates gemistes: tomatoes with rice.
Domatosalata: tomato salad.
Salata horiatiki: classic Greek salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, oregano, onions, olives, green peppers and féta.
Féta: goats’ or sheep’s cheese normally served with olive oil.
Graviéra: similar to Gruyère.
Kefalotiri: a sweeter version of Parmesan cheese.
Kasseri: Mild cheese similar to Cheddar.
Eliés: olives (those from Vólos, Kalamáta and Amfissa are especially good).
Baklavá: millefeuilles with nuts.
Bougátsa: flaky pastry turnover with cream and cinnamon.
Halva: almond or sesame paste.
Kataífi: rolls of thread-like pastry with honey and walnuts or almonds.
Loukoumádes: mini doughnuts with honey and sesame or cinnamon.
Rizogalo: rice cake.
Kourabiedes: almond cakes.
Loukoum: pâté with sugar glaze.
Mezes: snacks, including olives, almonds, seafood, eggs, and cheese, best enjoyed with a glass of ouzo.
Spanakópita:spinach in a pancake wrap.
Souvlakopita: grilled meat in a pancake wrap.
Tirópita: cheese in a pancake wrap.
Yaoúrti me meli: yoghurt with honey.
Tap water is generally safe in Greece.
Frape: frothy coffee.
Lemonada: freshly pressed lemon drink or lemonade.
Pagoto: ice cream.
Ouzo is the national drink; aniseed-flavoured, it is either consumed neat or diluted with water.
Wine from the vat (krassí híma) is served in carafes or copper pitchers.
Coffee and liqueurs
Coffee is usually served with a glass of water. Greek coffee leaves a grainy deposit at the bottom of the cup which should not be consumed. Order it gliko (plenty of sugar), metrio (a little sugar), or sketo (no sugar).
Samian wine is normally drunk as a liqueur at the end of the meal, as is the Greek brandy Metaxas.
The Cretan raki, a very strong spirit (not to be confused with Turkish raki which is similar to ouzo), and mastika, a sweet resin drink from Chios.
Apart from obviously formal restaurants of the kind to be found in the better hotels the general rule is one of relaxed informality. It is not rude to go to the kitchen and see what is cooking and, if necessary, you may point out to a waiter what you wish to eat. Service tends to be an easy-going process as well and if you want something it is usually up to the customer to attract the waiter‘s attention.
Wine is common at both lunch and dinner and an often used toast is kalymata (‘good health’).
Waiters in tourist areas are keen to attract customers into their restaurant (their pay is often related to the number of customers and the amount they spend) and work persuasively to entreat you to take a table. When the bill arrives it is not always itemised and there is scope for being overcharged. Greeks are hospitable people and guests are often treated generously when it comes to eating out and sharing a meal. If invited to a meal by Greeks treat the scheduled time with some leeway; turning up punctually may well cause some surprise.
Wines and spirits
With its dry, warm climate and limestone or volcanic soil Greece is an excellent country for producing wine; the main wine regions are the northern Peloponnese, Attica, Crete, Rhodes and Sámos. Twenty-six regions now have recognised status as winemaking districts. Elsewhere matters are less strictly controlled, and the wine is sold under the name of the grower or a cooperative. The best-known Greek wine is probably retsina, a white wine to which pine resin has been added as a preservative; served chilled as it usually is, it is very refreshing without being heavy.
Among the unresinated wines (aretsínato), some have earned a particular reputation: the full-bodied reds from Náoussa in Macedonia, the fruity reds from Neméa in the Argolid, the scented rosé from Aráhova near Delphi, the well-rounded dry white wines of Hymettos and Palíni in Attica, the sparkling dry white wine of Zítsa in Epirus, the white wines of Chalcidice, which preserve their quality well, and the popular white wines of Achaia (Demestica, Santa Laura, Santa Helena).
In the islands there are the generous reds and rosés from Crete, dry whites from Lindos in Rhodes, the heady and scented wines from the Cyclades, particularly Náxos and Santorini, and from the Ionian Islands: Zakynthos (Verdéa, Delizia), Cephallonia (Róbola, fruity and musky) and Leukas (Santa Maura).
Greek coffee is always drunk with a glass of water. It has a strong aromatic flavour.
Samian wine can be drunk as a liqueur; Métaxas is the brand name of Greek brandy. Cretan rakí is a fruit brandy, and mastíka a sweet liqueur flavoured with mastic gum.