Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Some Hard and Fast Truths about Greece July/Aug 2023

My family is returning from a three week vacation in Greece.  I spent nearly a year and countless hours preparing for this trip during which we traveled from the ancient ruins of the mainland to the beauty of the islands.  I was terrified to finally embark on our journey.  I had traveled to Greece only once before.  I was 16 and remember very little.  I had concerns and preconceived notions about travelling to a country where we did not speak the language.  Well, when you spend three weeks in a foreign country, you really start to learn some things about how life is lived.  These are my "facts about Greece" I learned over the last 21 days.  I hope that they will be helpful for anyone planning their own Greek vacation.

1.  ENGLISH IS THE DEFAULT LANGUAGE.  Everyone speaks English and MOST, especially the 35 and under crowd, speak it really well.  No matter what your country of origin, you will likely be addressed in English first.  At no time did we have any trouble communicating, not at restaurants, not with our lodging hosts, not with anyone, seriously.  Signage is in English is everywhere, often ONLY English signage.  Though I tried to order in Greek and use it when I could, it was really unnecessary.  When we were on a Catamaran cruise on Naxos, I asked a family from Amsterdam how in the world does everyone speak English so well (her kids were 19 and 15).  She said that all the television is in English and that is how they learn.  SOOOO you really don't need to worry about speaking Greek.  That being said, however, brings me to #2.

It's all English here!

Movie in English, subtitles in Greek!

2.  IT IS VERY HELPFUL TO HAVE SOME ELEMENTARY KNOWLEDGE OF THE LANGUAGE:  Before I left I had been doing daily Greek Duolingo for 6 month.  This gave me a rudimentary knowledge of easy words---foods, please, thank you very much, excuse me, good morning, numbers, where is the toilet--but almost more importantly, the alphabet.  This came in handy in the local grocery stores, when reading street signs in more remote areas, when reviewing our restaurant receipt and when deciphering script in churches.  The locals do appreciate efforts to use whatever words you can.

This very rare Greek sign says "Zeus' Peak"

The writing tells you this is St Nicholas Planas,
not the St Nick known as Santa Claus

3.  THE GREEKS EAT DINNER LATE AND PARTY EVEN LATER.  This is no joke.  I was aware of this and made all of our dinner reservations at 8 pm or later.  We found that if you go earlier than that, you just wind up looking dumb-or old-or American.  On at least three occasions, we went to dinner after 10pm and there was no trouble getting good food at that hour.  Just a word on reservations...I made them for about half of the dinners we had, especially at the more highly recommended restaurants, but I would say they were not always necessary.  Most hosts will do whatever they can to get you in, frequently moving and setting new tables to accomodate unexpected guests.  We were never turned away, even at highly recommended Tamam in Chania, Crete, and Skolarchio in Athens.  The restaurant experience is a bit different in Greece.  Usually, you will be brought bread and cold bottled water without having asked for it and this will appear as a charge on your bill.  On the flip side, freebies, such as dessert and after dinner drinks are common.  We returned to one restaurant a second night in a row on Naxos and they brought us an extra liter of house wine and several extra desserts.  We never ordered dessert because it was so often provided.  Many dishes are served in a way that it is easy to divide them and share.  Nightly we ordered an appetizer, frequently a delicious fried cheese known as 'Saganaki', a Greek salad (Horiatiki), and three entrees, all of which we shared.  More would have been too much. Another bonus--tipping is not expected anywhere and is only an expression of really appreciating your service.  It is not even an option most of the time you charge a meal to your card.  We tipped about 8-10% usually and sometimes a bit more.  It was a joy to give even a few euros to our wine hostesses or tour guides as they were so gracious in the receiving, not like in the US where now kids want 22% after serving you a cup of coffee!  But I digress.  One more thing about eating in Greece.  When you are ready to leave, you need to ask for your bill.  They will not bring it until you ask for it.

Seated at Scholarchio without a reservation

Also seated at Tamam without a reservation
Free baklava and raki!

Did I mention the partying?? Omigoodness!  We had a bar under our apartment in Chania that carried on until 5am.  When we went to hike Samaria Gorge our meeting time was 6am.  We stumbled sleepily through the streets that we shared with the kids that were returning home from the bars...

4.  NO MATTER HOW NERVOUS IT MAKES YOU, AND HOW MUCH OF A HASSLE IT IS, OUTSIDE OF ATHENS, YOU NEED A CAR.  Driving in Greece is no picnic.  The roads can be narrow, and everyone seems to want to to push the limits of how many "objects" (cars, parked cars, mopeds, motorcycles, pedestrians, etc.) will fit across any given street.  The fact of the matter is, if you do not have a car, you are dependent on public transportation. This works fine in Athens, but it took exactly one hour on the island of Naxos before we decided we needed a car for the entirety of our stay, once our airport transfer driver reported to us the price of taxis and the overcrowding of buses that come around only twice an hour.  Our car afforded us the luxury of driving to wineries out of town, to out of town beaches and to out of town ancient sites such as Mycenae and Epidavros.  The only other time we did not have a car was in Kastraki in the Meteora, and we were literally stuck within walking distance of the hotel.  

How is this going to end?

Anyway, the driving is not THAT bad.  The roads are well signed and are in pretty good shape.  Free parking is readily available. We made sure that our accommodations came with a parking space.  One note...finding a large car that fits five adults and five people's luggage is expensive and cars few and far between.  Our last car was so tight we had to strap one suitcase to the roof.  Book early.

We were thrilled with this ginormous car!!

But not quite as happy with this one!

5.  THE GREEKS DON'T SMOKE AS MUCH AS THEY USED TO, BUT SMOKING IS STILL ALIVE AND WELL  The last time I came to Greece in 1984, the country literally stewed under a constant veil of cigarette smoke--airports, hotel lobbies, restaurants, taxis--everywhere.  Good gracious it was bad.  Now you can really only smoke outdoors, and many take advantage of this opportunity. Cigarette smoking has largely been replaced by vaping, especially among the young crowd.  I was shocked by how many interrupted their meals to suck on those vape pens!  One of the worst instances of smoke is at the beach clubs, where if you are unlucky enough to park yourself next to a pair of smokers, you are inhaling their second hand pollution all day long.

6.  GREEK PLUMBING  Well , this could almost be its own blogpost.  Yep this a real thing and a tough one for Americans to get used to.  Pretty much across the board, no matter if you are in the airport, on the ferry, in a restaurant, or in your own rented AirBnB, it is forbidden, and I mean forbidden, to put any paper of any kind (yes, this does include TP) into the toilet.  Every bathroom is equipped with a pedal operated trash can for the deposit of your potty paper after cleaning up your business.  While I mentioned that not only do old habits die hard, the bigger reality is that if you are in a rental without maid service for days on end, that can is gonna stink, and fast!  We did our best, but generally if we were staying in our own place, we tossed the paper into the toilet.  In public, we used the can-but NEVER EVER did #2 paper go anywhere but down the pipes.  Anyway, public restrooms in Greece are better than they used to be.  They were generally free, clean enough, and readily available.  A few of the previously ubiquitous "squatters" still remain, but most public restrooms have been updated with more civilized facilities.

7. GREECE IS SAFE  It really is. This was really where my preconceived notions got the best of me.  I really had visions of pickpockets everywhere and little gypsy children distracting you with bracelets while their cousin sliced open your back pack and made off with the spilled contents. Yeh, well, it really wasn't like that at all.  On the metro and the bus and in crowded places in Athens, such as the Monastiraki Market, it is advisable to watch your personal belongings by keeping a hand on your purse or your backpack. I also would not advise a late night visit to the area north of Omonoia Square or near the Central Athens Rail station.   Otherwise, there's just no problem.  In Athens, we felt perfectly safe walking at night to our lodgings. On the islands we were advised not to leave belongings on the beach and all go for a swim, so we did not.  There are a few homeless (though far more in California).  Men in general are also far less aggressive than I remember them being.  Shop and taverna owners are also far less aggressive-they don't follow you or resort to tricks to get you into their store. Quite refreshing actually.

One thing that is unsafe in Greece is the uneven slick surfaces!!!  These stones have been worn down by years and years of wear and are slippery as can be!  This is pretty universal.  I saw people totally bite it in broad daylight. Mars Hill was like climbing a glacier. Bring sturdy shoes!  NO JOKE!  Many staircases in the ancient sites do not have safety railings.  If you misstep on the side of a staircase, you might be taking a nice 10-12 foot tumble.  This added to the fact that you really can walk wherever you want, can be potentially the most unsafe aspect of Greece.

Actually another potential hazard is that they'll pretty much let you do whatever you want.  If your car fits, park it.  You want to dangle your legs over the fortress wall?  Go ahead.  Want to ride a motorcycle in your bikini, walk on the highway with a flashlight, run in front of a bus?  Have at it.  They really don't care.  It's your life.  In Greece they are definitely not focused on being sued by tourists.

If your car fits, park it!!

8.   GREEKS BEACH DIFFERENTLY:  You know how in Hawaii you have to get down to your pool chair at like five in the morning to lay your towel down to reserve the chair for the day?  Well, while you can bring your own umbrellas to the beach and spread out wherever you like, it is far more common to spend your day in a lounge chair under a fixed thatched umbrella.  The sunchairs and umbrellas are owned by the local businesses usually behind the beaches, usually delivering food and drinks to hungry and thirsty sun worshippers. They are first come first served and they do fill, but more likely by 11am, AND they come with a price.  A pair of sunbeds in the first row may run you about 50 euros, but they are generally fluffier and with better sun coverage.  We wound up buying four sun chairs about 5 times and we usually paid about 20 E for two chairs further back. Once we paid like 12 and it came with 2 beers!  Nice! The choice is pretty obvious, the sun is extremely intense and you need some shade, otherwise, it can be quite miserable. It is nice to have a seat with a back and have ice cold beers delivered without having to leave your seat.  The vibe in the beach clubs is fun.  There's usually music playing and generally people are just having a good time.

More about the beach.  We brought our own sunscreen because we heard 50 SPF was not available-not true.  Another biggee is that nudity/toplessness is just not a thing anymore.  We saw hundreds and hundreds of beach goers on 6 different beaches and saw about three pair of naked boobs.  I was relieved that this was the case.  When we went to Mykonos in 1984, there were more bare breasts than covered ones. 

The beach club at Falasarna Beach, Crete

And joining the party at Agios Prokopios

Agios Prokopios

9.  IT IS PRUDENT TO HAVE SOME CASH  Before we left I took a stab at how many euros we would need on each day and my husband ordered euros from Bank of America free of charge and had it mailed to our house.  This meant Craig carried about $1300. This avoided the hassle of trying to find ATMs and all the transaction fees that would have been incurred.  Though a credit card is accepted just about everywhere, and the connections to the servers are lightning fast, there are definitely times when cash is preferred.  Most credit card transactions do not give the option to add a tip, so most of our gratuities were left in cash.  Cash was also great for paying for donations to churches, entrances to monasteries, ferry fees, tolls, public transportation, and dropping a few coins to the little boy playing the accordion in the restaurant.  We had more than we needed, but we just used it at the end of the trip.

10.  IF YOU ARE GOING TO GREECE FOR THE FIRST TIME, PLEASE DON'T JUST GO TO THE ISLANDS, AND PLEASE DON'T JUST GO TO SANTORINI.  You would never guess how many people asked me 1) if we were going on a cruise and 2) if we were to Santorini (as if Santorini was the only Greek island).  My answers were no and no.

There is so much to see in Athens and throughout the mainland, and this may best be where the culture and beauty of Greece is best discovered.  Go to Nafplio (highly recommended by our friend Rick Steves), Delphi, Olympia, Thessaloniki, and Meteora.  On our trip we stayed in Athens, Nafplio, the Meteora, Naxos (island), and Crete (also technically an island but a lot to see).  I thought our trip of three weeks was the bare minimum.  I hope to maybe write about planning your trip so I won't get into too much here.

I can understand why someone might need to see Greece on a cruise.  A cruise takes the entire planning aspect out of the works.  It also provides security and safety for those that might need more assistance.  For the able bodied though, why a cruise, why??  Port, boat, bus into town, dumped off in town for sightseeing or a shore excursion and back to the boat for dinner.  Same this next day on another island. You really miss Greece and see a lot of Holland America.

Why not Santorini?  I know I'm goin to catch grief here. Rick Steves loves Santorini and lists it as not to be missed, but Rick can go in the off season!  Santorini is the most expensive commercialized island in the entire country.  The port teems with cruise ships and yachts.  Santorini is crowded with rich Europeans.  One of our wine hosts told us that going to Santorini is like not going to Greece at all.  Santorini might be worthwhile during the off season, but during July and August stay away!  Yeah it's beautiful.  It's not the only island that is beautiful.  I am not alone..just Google 'why not Santorini.'

This blog is getting pretty long winded so I will try to be a little less wordy on a few remaining facts:

WATER GENERALLY IS DRINKABLE, AVAILABLE AND NEEDED. Ice is harder to come by.  I debated bringing my Hydroflask and wound up bringing it and I am really glad I did.  The only place we were advised to not drink the water from the tap was Naxos.  In the Samaria Gorge in Crete, you can drink the water right from the stream.

ONCE YOU GET HERE IT IS CHEAP.  Our accommodations were about half of what they would have cost in the US, and there were none of those pesky taxes that make your $100 per night room suddenly $200.  A beer is like 3 euros, a gyro 5 euros, breakfast for five 10 euros, a hearty snack for my son 2 euros, dinner for 5 with drinks for all, under 100$ across the board.  Gas is expensive, so are cocktails.

This is long! I must stop now.  Going forward I will tell you all about the sights and give you my thoughts and advice!


  1. Really enjoyed reading your post! Sounds like a great trip. Id love to take our kids one day, just like you did!!!

    1. This is Tiffany Tomkowitz btw… I showed up as anonymous :)


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