Ancient Greek Culture
When the Roman Empire assimilated Greece it did so with considerable respect and idealism. The Romans in many ways based themselves on the Ancient Greeks, absorbing their deities (and renaming them), literature, myths, philosophy, fine arts and architecture. So what made the Ancient Greeks so special? From thespians to philosophers, from monster-slewing heroes to a goddess born of sea foam, the Ancient Greeks were captivating.
The Golden Age
In the 5th century BC, Athens had a cultural renaissance that has never been equalled – in fact, such was the diversity of its achievements that modern classical scholars refer to it as 'the miracle'. The era started with a vastly outnumbered Greek army defeating the Persian horde in the battles of Marathon and Salamis, and ended with the beginning of the inevitable war between Athens and Sparta. It's often said that Athens' 'Golden Age' is the bedrock of Western civilisation, and had the Persians won, Europe today would have been a vastly different place. Like Paris in the 1930s, ancient Athens was a hotbed of talent. Any artist or writer worth their salt left their hometown and travelled to the great city of wisdom to share their thoughts and hear the great minds of the day express themselves.
The great dramatists such as Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides and Sophocles redefined theatre from religious ritual to become a compelling form of entertainment. They were to be found at the Theatre of Dionysos at the foot of the Acropolis, and their comedies and tragedies reveal a great deal about the psyche of the Ancient Greeks.
Across the country, large open-air theatres were built on the sides of hills, designed to accommodate plays with increasingly sophisticated backdrops and props, choruses and themes, and to maximise sound so that even the people in the back row might hear the actors on stage. The dominant genres of theatre were tragedy and comedy. The first known actor was a man called Thespis, from whose name we derive the word 'thespian'.
While the dramatists were cutting their thespian cloth, a trio of philosophers were introducing new trains of thought rooted in rationality and logic. Posthumously considered to be Athens' greatest, most noble citizen, Socrates (469–399 BC), was forced to drink hemlock for allegedly corrupting the youth by asking probing, uncomfortable questions. However, before he died he established a school of hypothetical reductionism that is still used today. Two of Socrates' most famous quotes are: 'The only true wisdom consists of knowing that you know nothing' and 'The unexamined life is not worth living'.
Plato (427–347 BC), Socrates' star student, was responsible for documenting his teacher's thoughts, and without his work in books such as the Symposium, they would have been lost to us. Considered an idealist, Plato wrote The Republic as a warning to the city-state of Athens that unless its people respected law and leadership, and educated its youth sufficiently, it would be doomed.
Plato's student Aristotle (384–322 BC), at the end of the Golden Age, focused his gifts on astronomy, physics, zoology, ethics and politics. Aristotle was also the personal physician to Philip II, King of Macedon, and the tutor of Alexander the Great. The greatest gift of the Athenian philosophers to modern-day thought is their spirit of rational inquiry.
Classical sculpture began to gather pace in Greece in the 6th century BC with the renderings of nudes in marble. Most statues were created to revere a particular god or goddess and many were robed in grandiose garments. The statues of the preceding Archaic period, known as kouroi, had focused on symmetry and form, but in the early 5th century BC artists sought to create expression and animation. As temples demanded elaborate carvings, sculptors were called upon to create large reliefs upon them.
During the 5th century BC, the craft became yet more sophisticated, as sculptors were taught to successfully map a face and create a likeness of their subject in marble busts. Perhaps the most famous Greek sculptor was Pheidias (c 480–430 BC), whose reliefs upon the Parthenon depicting the Greek and Persian Wars – now known as the Parthenon Marbles – are celebrated as among the finest of the Golden Age.
Some of the greatest tales of all time – and some say the wellspring of story itself – are to be found in the Greek myths. For many of us, the fantastical adventures of Heracles and Odysseus we heard as kids still linger in our imagination, and contemporary writers continue to reinterpret these stories and characters for books and films. Standing in the ancient ruins of an acropolis and peering across the watery horizon, it's not difficult to picture the Kraken (Poseidon's pet monster) rising from the Aegean, nor to imagine that fishing boat you see heading into the sunset as Jason's Argo en route to Colchis for the Golden Fleece.
The average Greek is fiercely proud of their myths and will love entertaining you with a list of the gods, but they'll love it even more if you know a few of them yourself.
The most celebrated, endearing hero of ancient Greece, the son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. After killing his family in a fit of madness induced by the jealous Hera (sister-wife of Zeus), Heracles seeks penance by performing 12 labours set by his enemy Eurystheus, King of Mycenae. These labours included slaying the Nemean Lion and the Lernian Hydra; capturing the Ceryneian Hind and the Erymanthian Boar; cleaning the Augean Stables in one day; slaying the arrow-feathered Stymphalian Birds; capturing the Cretan Bull; stealing the man-eating Mares of Diomedes; obtaining the Girdle of Hippolyta and the oxen of Geryon; stealing the Apples of the Hesperides; and capturing Cerberus.
The Athenian hero volunteered himself as one of seven men and maidens in the annual sacrifice to the Minotaur, the crazed half-bull, half-man offspring of King Minos of Crete. Once inside its forbidding labyrinth (from which none had returned), Theseus, aided by Princess Ariadne (who had a crush on him induced by Aphrodite's dart), loosened a spool of thread to find his way out once he'd killed the monster.
Along with Daedalus (his father), Icarus flew off the cliffs of Crete pursued by King Minos and his troops, using wings made of feathers and wax. His father instructed him to fly away from the midday sun, but Icarus became carried away with the exhilaration of flying…the wax melted, the feathers separated and the bird-boy fell to his death.
Perseus' impossible task was to kill the gorgon, Medusa. With a head of snakes Medusa could turn a man to stone with a single glance. Armed with an invisibility cap and a pair of flying sandals from Hermes, Perseus used his reflective shield to avoid Medusa's stare. He cut off her head and secreted it in a bag, but it was shortly unsheathed to save Andromeda, a princess bound to a rock and about to be sacrificed to a sea monster. Medusa's head turned the sea monster to stone and Perseus got the girl.
Oedipus was the Ancient Greeks' gift to the Freudian school of psychology. Having been abandoned at birth, Oedipus learned from the Delphic oracle that he would one day slay his father and marry his mother. On the journey back to his birthplace, Thiva (Thebes), he killed a rude stranger and then discovered the city was plagued by a murderous Sphinx (a winged lion with a woman's head). The creature gave unsuspecting travellers and citizens a riddle: if they couldn't answer it, they were dashed on the rocks. Oedipus succeeded in solving the riddle, felled the Sphinx and so gained the queen of Thiva's hand in marriage. On discovering the stranger he'd killed was his father and that his new wife was in fact his mother, Oedipus ripped out his eyes and exiled himself.
Ancient Greece revolved around careful worship of 12 central gods and goddesses, all of whom played a major role in the mythos (mythology), and none of whom can be commended for their behaviour. They frequently displayed pettiness, spitefulness, outright cruelty and low self-esteem that led to unworthy competitions with mortals which were always rigged in the gods' favour. Each city-state had its own patron god or goddess to appease and flatter, while on a personal level a farmer might make sacrifice to the goddess Demeter to bless his crops, or a fisherman to Poseidon to bring him fish and safe passage on the waves.
The Ancient Pantheon
Here’s a quick guide to the 12 central gods and goddesses of Greek mythology – their Roman names are in brackets.
- Zeus (Jupiter) The fire-bolt-flinging king of the gods, ruler of Mt Olympus, lord of the skies and master of disguise in pursuit of mortal maidens. Wardrobe includes shower of gold, bull, eagle and swan.
- Hera (Juno) Protector of women and family, the queen of heaven is both the embattled wife and sister of Zeus. She was the prototype of the jealous, domineering wife who took revenge on Zeus' illegitimate children.
- Poseidon (Neptune) God of the seas, master of the mists and younger brother of Zeus. He dwelt in a glittering underwater palace.
- Hades (Pluto) God of death and also brother of Zeus, he ruled the underworld, bringing in the newly dead with the help of his skeletal ferryman, Charon. Serious offenders were sent for torture in Tartarus, while heroes enjoyed eternal R&R in the Elysian Fields.
- Athena (Minerva) Goddess of wisdom, war, science and guardian of Athens, born in full armour out of Zeus' forehead. The antithesis of Ares, Athena was deliberate and, where possible, diplomatic in the art of war. Heracles, Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts fame) and Perseus all benefited from her patronage.
- Aphrodite (Venus) Goddess of love and beauty who was said to have been born of sea foam. When she wasn't cuckolding her husband, Hephaestus, she and her cherubic son Eros (Cupid) were enflaming hearts and causing trouble (cue the Trojan War).
- Apollo God of music, the arts and fortune-telling, Apollo was also the god of light and an expert shot with a bow and arrow. It was his steady hand which guided Paris' arrow towards Achilles' only weak spot – his heel – thus killing him.
- Artemis (Diana) The goddess of the hunt and twin sister of Apollo was, ironically, patron saint of wild animals. By turns spiteful and magnanimous, she was closely associated with the sinister Hecate, patroness of witchcraft.
- Ares (Mars) God of war, bloodthirsty and lacking control. Zeus' least favourite of his progeny. Not surprisingly, Ares was worshipped by the bellicose Spartans.
- Hermes (Mercury) Messenger of the gods, patron saint of travellers and the handsome one with a winged hat and sandals. He was always on hand to smooth over the affairs of Zeus, his father.
- Hephaestus (Vulcan) God of craftsmanship, metallurgy and fire, this deformed and oft-derided son of Zeus made the world's first woman of clay, Pandora, as a punishment for man. Inside her box were the evils of mankind.
- Hestia (Vesta) Goddess of the hearth, she protected state fires in city halls from where citizens of Greece could light their brands. She remained unmarried and a virgin.
Feature: Islands in Mythology
Greece is steeped in mythology and its many islands provided dramatic settings for its legends and interactions between gods and mortals.
Myrina, Limnos Believed to have been founded by Myrina, queen of the Amazons.
Crete Zeus' mother allegedly gave birth to him in a cave to prevent him from being eaten by his father, Cronos. Crete was also home of the dreaded minotaur.
Lesvos When Orpheus was killed and dismembered by the Maenads, the waves brought his head here and it was buried near Antissa.
Kythira Aphrodite is said to have been born out of the waves surrounding Kythira.
Delos This island rose up from the waves when the goddess Leto was looking for a place to give birth to Apollo and Artemis.
Mykonos Zeus and the Titans battled it out on this island and Hercules slew the Giants here.
Rhodes The island given to Helios the sun god after Zeus' victory over the Giants.
Feature: Top Five Mythical Creatures
Of the grotesque and fantastical creatures whose stories are dear to Greek hearts, these five are the most notorious.
Medusa The snake-headed one punished by the gods for her inflated vanity. Even dead, her blood is lethal.
Cyclops A one-eyed giant. Odysseus and his crew were trapped in the cave of one such cyclops, Polyphemus.
Cerberus The three-headed dog of hell, he guards the entrance to the underworld – under his watch no one gets in or out.
Minotaur This half-man, half-bull mutant leads a life of existential angst in the abysmal labyrinth, tempered only by the occasional morsel of human flesh.
Hydra Cut one of its nine heads off and another two will grow in its place. Heracles solved the problem by cauterising each stump with his burning brand.
Sidebar: Ancient Greeks
Exploring the World of the Ancient Greeks (2010), by archaeologists John Camp and Elizabeth Fisher, is a broad and in-depth look at how the Greeks have left their imprint on politics, philosophy, theatre, art, medicine and architecture.
Marcel Camus' film Black Orpheus (1959) won an Oscar for its reimagining of the Orpheus and Eurydice tale, set in a favela in 1950s Brazil to a bossa nova soundtrack. The lovers flee a hitman and Orfeu's vindictive fiancée.
Sidebar: Stephen Fry Books
British actor and author Stephen Fry brings his inimitable wit to his retellings of key Greek myths and legends in Mythos (2017) and Heroes (2018).
Sidebar: Sigmund Freud
From the Greek stories of Oedipus and the castration of Uranus by Cronos, Sigmund Freud drew the conclusion that myths often reflect strong, taboo desires that are otherwise unable to be expressed in society.
The Greek tragedy Medea, by Euripides, is about the sun god Helios' granddaughter who takes revenge on her estranged husband Jason by killing his new wife and her own children. It was turned into a fatalistic namesake TV film by Lars von Trier in 1988.
No original works by the celebrated classical sculptor Pheidias survive, though copies were made by Roman sculptors. Pheidias' colossal chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Zeus was one of the Wonders of the Ancient World.
The Greek Way of Life
Recent austerity measures to tackle Greece's economic problems have taken some of the shine off Greek's famously relaxed disposition. But it's not in the locals' nature to retreat into the gloom and their proud ways of life – which embrace family, hospitality and a rebellious, independent spirit – remain intact. Athens is bustling and it's business as usual on the Greek islands, where age-old social conventions and beliefs still hold sway.
Greeks have always shared good and bad times in the company of family and friends; they’ve danced when sad or defiant and sought solace in their country's rich culture and simple pleasures. Someone will always buy an unemployed youth a coffee, or their yiayia (grandmother) will give them hatziliki (pocket money) from her shrunken pension.
Greek values and the national character came under attack during the crisis – with locals universally characterised as lazy, leisure-loving, corrupt tax-evaders recklessly bringing Europe to the brink of economic collapse. The realities are far more complex – for every 'lazy' Greek there are hard-working people juggling two jobs to provide for their families.
Greeks pride themselves on their filotimo, a hard-to-translate Greek concept that underpins society's cultural norms. It encompasses personal and family honour, respect and loyalty to parents and grandparents, sacrifice and help for friends and strangers alike, pride in country and heritage, and gratitude and hospitality. Though some would argue it has been eroded, the concept remains an important part of Greek identity.
The Greeks also generously extend their filoxenia (hospitality). The average Greek will lavish you with free drinks, fresh cake from their kitchen and the warmth they have always been famous for. Curious by nature, as well as passionate, loyal and fiery, Greeks engage in animated personal and political discussions rather than polite small talk. Nothing is off limits for conversation, and you may find yourself quizzed on highly personal matters such as why you don't have children, why you're not married and how much you earn.
Greeks can also be fervently patriotic, nationalistic and ethnocentric. Issues are debated with strong will. Greeks are unashamed about staring and blatantly observing (and commenting on) the comings and goings of people around them. They prefer spontaneity to making plans and are notoriously unpunctual (turning up on time is referred to as 'being English').
Today's Greeks cherish the achievements of their ancient forbears, and so they should. Without the Golden Age of Ancient Greece (about 500–300 BC) the world would arguably not have developed its classical sculpture, mathematics, geometry, philosophy, democracy, drama and politics. Not to mention the rich tapestry that Greek myths brought to the well of story and imagination. Show just a little appreciation of this to the average Greek and they will love you for it.
Social & Family Life
Greek life has always taken place in the public sphere, whether it’s men talking politics at the local kafeneio (coffee house) or the elderly gathering in neighbourhood squares while their grandchildren play into the evening. While entertainment spending has been seriously curtailed, the gregarious Greeks nonetheless enjoy a vibrant social and cultural life and infamously lively nightlife.
Rather than living to work, Greeks work to live. People of all ages take their afternoon volta (outing) along seafront promenades or town centres, dressed up and refreshed from a siesta (albeit a dying institution). On weekends they flock to the beach and seaside tavernas, and summer holidays are the highlight of the year – traditionally, the capital virtually shuts down mid-August as people take off for the islands, beach towns or their ancestral villages. A peculiarly Greek social talking point is how many swims you’ve had that summer.
Greek society remains dominated by the family, and while many men may appear soaked with machismo, the matriarchal domestic model is still very much commonplace, with women subtly pulling the strings in the background. These strong family ties and kinship are helping Greeks survive testing times. Greece’s weak welfare system means Greeks rely on families and social groups for support. Most Greek businesses are small, family-run operations and parents strive to provide homes for their children when they get married. Greeks rarely move out of home before they marry, unless they go to university or work in another city. While this was changing among professionals and people marrying later, low wages and rising unemployment have forced many young people to stay – or return – home.
Greeks retain strong regional identities and ties to their ancestral villages. Even the country’s most remote villages are bustling during holidays. Greece’s large diaspora plays a significant role in the life of many islands and villages, returning each summer in droves.
Personal freedom and the right to protest and protect their democratic rights are sacrosanct to Greeks. Trade-union activism, mass demonstrations and crippling general strikes are a routine part of life in Athens and other major cities, with police and property normally bearing the brunt of antiestablishment sentiment. This rebellious spirit came to the fore during antiausterity protests, as Greeks resisted economic reforms crucial to help curb Greece's soaring national debt.
The nation's capacity to overcome its economic woes has been stifled by systemic problems with Greece's political and civil life, aspects of society that Greeks have long criticised and perpetuated. A residual mistrust of the state and its institutions is a legacy of years of foreign occupation, while political instability fostered a weak civil society based on tax evasion, political patronage and nepotism, and a black-market economy. Merit has long taken second place to political interests when allocating coveted public-sector jobs or EU funds. Making headway with Greece's bloated and inefficient bureaucracy required meson (the help of someone working in the system). The infamous fakelaki (envelope of cash) became a common way to cut red tape. At its worst, the system fed corruption and profiteering.
Aversion to the perceived over-regulated approach of Western nations is also part of the national psyche. An undercurrent of civil disobedience extends to lax attitudes to road rules or parking restrictions (you will see motorcyclists carrying their helmets as they chat on their mobile phones).
Faith & Identity
While most Greeks aren't devout, the Orthodox Christianity – the official religion of Greece – remains an important part of their identity and culture. Families flock to church for lively Easter celebrations, weddings, baptisms and annual festivals, but it's largely women and the elderly who attend church services regularly.
Religious rituals are part of daily life. You will notice taxi drivers, motorcyclists and people on public transport making the sign of the cross when they pass a church; compliments to babies and adults are followed by the 'ftou ftou' (spitting) gesture to ward off the evil eye; and people light church candles in memory of loved ones. Hundreds of privately built small chapels dot the countryside, while the tiny roadside iconostases (chapels) are either shrines to road-accident victims or dedications to saints.
During consecutive foreign occupations the Church was the principal upholder of Greek culture, language and traditions, and it still exerts significant social, political and economic influence, though ongoing financial and sexual scandals have taken their toll.
Feature: Sporting Passions
If the streets are quiet, you can't get a taxi or you hear a mighty roar coming from nearby cafes, chances are there's a football (soccer) game underway. Greece's most popular spectator sport inspires local passions and often unedifying fan hooliganism.
Greece's Super League is dominated by big football clubs: Olympiakos of Piraeus and arch-rivals Panathinaikos of Athens, along with AEK Athens and Thessaloniki's PAOK. While the top clubs have won European championships, Greece has remained in the shadow of Europe's soccer heavyweights since its 2004 European Cup win; it last qualified for the European tournament in 2012.
Greece is also one of the powerhouses of European basketball. Panathinaikos has won six Euroleague championships, while Olympiakos claimed its third title in 2013. Nigerian-born Greek basketballer Giannis Antetokounmpo became the poster boy for Greece's immigrants in 2013 when he was picked for the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA draft (having had his Greek citizenship fast-tracked).
Feature: The New Greeks
Greece has long been a magnet for foreigners seeking an idyllic island lifestyle and an escape from the rat race – a trend only exacerbated by the sunny allure of movies such as Shirley Valentine and Mamma Mia!. Apart from those owning holiday houses, the small resident population of disparate xenoi (foreigners) have largely been somewhat-eccentric or retired Europeans, ex-hippies and artists or people married to locals. In recent years there has also been a steady stream of Americans, Australians and others with Greek heritage returning to their ancestral islands.
Sidebar: Greek Wages & Working Hours
Debunking the myth of the lazy Greek, OECD research suggests Greeks actually work longer hours than their European and US counterparts, though they have lower productivity and labour participation rates. Greek wages are among Europe's lowest and living costs among the highest.
The word xenos means both 'stranger' and 'guest', and Greeks see filoxenia (hospitality, welcome, shelter) almost as a duty and matter of personal pride and honour.
Sidebar: Alternative Currency
Showing solidarity in the face of austerity, enterprising locals in Volos have developed an alternative currency unit to the euro (the TEM), establishing a novel informal bartering system for goods and services, where participants exchange anything from olive oil to car repairs.
Sidebar: Name Days
The Greek year revolves around saints' days and festivals of the Orthodox Church calendar. Easter is bigger than Christmas, and name days (celebrating your namesake saint) are more important than birthdays. Most people are named after a saint, as are boats, suburbs and train stations.
Greece is revered for its artistic and cultural legacy, and the arts remain a vibrant and evolving element of Greek culture, identity and self-expression. Despite, or because of, Greece's recent economic woes, it has seen a palpable burst of artistic activity and creativity. While savage cuts in meagre state-arts funding have some sectors reeling, an alternative cultural scene is fighting back with low-budget films, artist collectives, and small underground theatres and galleries popping up in the capital.
Byzantine & Renaissaince Art
Until the start of the 19th century, the primary art form in Greece was Byzantine religious painting. There was little secular artistic output under Ottoman rule, during which Greece essentially missed the Renaissance.
Byzantine church frescoes and icons depicted scenes from the life of Christ and figures of the saints. The 'Cretan school' of icon painting, influenced by the Italian Renaissance and artists fleeing to Crete after the fall of Constantinople, combined technical brilliance and dramatic richness. The most famous Cretan-born Renaissance painter is El Greco ('The Greek' in Spanish), née Dominikos Theotokopoulos (1541–1614). He got his grounding in the tradition of late-Byzantine fresco painting before moving to Spain in 1577, where he lived and worked until his death.
Modern Greek art evolved after Independence, when painting became more secular, focusing on portraits, nautical themes and the War of Independence. Major 19th-century painters included Dionysios Tsokos, Theodoros Vryzakis, Nikiforos Lytras and Nicholas Gyzis, a leading artist of the Munich School (where many Greek artists of the day studied).
During the 20th-century Greek creatives drew inspiration from worldwide movements and developments in the art world, such as the expressionist George Bouzianis, the cubist Nikos Hatzikyriakos-Ghikas and surrealist and poet Nikos Engonopoulos. Other notable Greek 20th century artists include Konstantinos Parthenis, Fotis Kontoglou, Yiannis Tsarouhis, Panayiotis Tetsis, Yannis Moralis, Dimitris Mytaras and Yiannis Kounellis, a pioneer of the Arte Povera movement.
The National Sculpture & Art Gallery in Athens has the most extensive collection of Greek 20th-century art, with significant collections at the Modern Greek Art Museum on Rhodes and the Museum of Contemporary Art on Andros.
Greece's marble sculpture tradition endures on Tinos, birthplace of renowned sculptors Dimitrios Filippotis (1839–1919) and Yannoulis Halepas (1851–1938), as well as Costas Tsoclis (b 1930), whose work is showcased in the island's Costas Tsoclis Museum.
Contemporary Art Scene
Contemporary Greek art has been gaining exposure in Greece and abroad, with a growing number of Greek artists participating in international art events. The Greek arts scene has become more vibrant, less isolated and more experimental, and Athens' street art is gaining recognition.
Many Greek artists have studied and made their homes and reputations abroad, but a new wave is returning or staying put, contributing to a fresh artistic energy. Watch for work by street artists, Cacao Rocks and INO, the collages of Chryssa Romanos, painter Lucas Samaras, kinetic artist Takis, and sculptor Stephen Antonakos whose works often incorporate neon.
Greeks have had unprecedented exposure to global art through major international exhibitions held in impressive new art venues, small private galleries and artist-run initiatives such as the annual Hydra School Project. Since 2007, Biennales in Athens have put the capital on the international contemporary-arts circuit.
Modern Greek Literature
Greek literature virtually ceased under Ottoman rule, and was then stifled by conflict over language – Ancient Greek versus the vernacular dimotiki (colloquial language). The compromise was katharevousa, a conservative form of ancient Greek. (Dimotiki was made the country's official language in 1976.)
One of the most important works of early Greek literature is the 17th-century 10,012-line epic poem 'Erotokritos', by Crete's Vitsenzos Kornaros. Its 15-syllable rhyming verses are still recited in Crete's famous mantinadhes (rhyming couplets) and put to music.
Greece's most celebrated (and translated) 20th-century novelist is Nikos Kazantzakis (1883–1957), whose novels are full of drama and larger-than-life characters, such as the magnificent title character in his 1946 work Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas (better known as Zorba the Greek). Another great novelist of the time, Stratis Myrivilis (1890–1969), wrote the classics Vasilis Arvanitis and The Mermaid Madonna.
Eminent 20th-century Greek poets include Egypt-born Constantine Cavafy (1863–1933) and Nobel-prize laureates George Seferis (1900–71) and Odysseus Elytis (1911–96), awarded in 1963 and 1979 respectively.
Other local literary giants of the 20th century include Iakovos Kambanellis (1921–2011), Kostis Palamas (1859–1943) a poet who wrote the words to the Olympic Hymn, and poet-playwright Angelos Sikelianos (1884–1951).
Greece has a prolific publishing industry but scant fiction is translated into English. Contemporary Greek writers who have made small inroads into foreign markets, include Apostolos Doxiadis with his international bestseller Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture (2000) and award-winning children's writer Eugene Trivizas.
Greek publisher Kedros' modern-literature translation series includes Dido Sotiriou's Farewell Anatolia (1996), Maro Douka's Fool's God (1991) and Kostas Mourselas' bestselling Red-Dyed Hair (1996), which was made into a popular TV series.
The quirky, Rebus-like Inspector Haritos in Petros Markaris' popular crime series provides an enjoyable insight into crime and corruption in Athens. Che Committed Suicide (2010), Basic Shareholder (2009), The Late Night News (2005) and Zone Defence (2007) have been translated into English.
Carving a name for himself as the preeminent literary voice of contemporary Greece is Christos Ikonomou. In both his 2016 collection of short stories, Something Will Happen, You'll See (focusing on the lives of poor Athenians) and Good Will Come from the Sea (2019; four loosely connected tales set on an unnamed Greek island), the country's economic crisis provides the grim background.
Bypassing the translation issue and writing in English are Panos Karnezis whose books include The Maze (2004), The Birthday Party (2007) and The Fugitives (2015);and Soti Triantafyllou author of Poor Margo (2001) and Rare Earths (2013). Other notable contemporary authors available in translation include Alexis Stamatis, who penned Bar Flaubert (2000) and The Book of Rain (2015) and Vangelis Hatziyannidis, writer of Four Walls (2006) and Stolen Time (2007).
Plays by Yiorgos Skourtis (b 1940) and Pavlos Matessis (1933–2013) have been translated and performed abroad.
Greek movies have racked up multiple Academy Award nominations over the years, as well as two Palme d'Ors at Cannes for Missing (1982) and Eternity and a Day (1998) – the latter directed by Theo Angelopoulos (1935–2012), one of Greece's most critically acclaimed filmmakers.
The best known films about the country remain the 1964 Oscar-winner Zorba the Greek and Never on a Sunday (1960) for which Melina Mercouri won a Cannes festival award. Another classic is Nikos Koundouros’ 1956 noir thriller O Drakos (The Fiend of Athens) regularly voted top Greek film of all time by the Hellenic Film Critics’ Association.
In recent years, a new-generation of filmmakers have been gaining international attention for what some critics have dubbed the 'weird wave' of Greek cinema. Examples including the award-winning films of Yorgos Lanthimos, some of which are in English (Alps; The Lobster; The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenburg; Chevalier).
Ektoras Kygizos' extraordinary Boy Eating Bird Food (2012) is an allegory for Greece's recent economic plight, and emblematic of the small, creative collaborations largely produced in the absence of state or industry funding.
For most people, Greek music and dance evoke images of spirited, high-kicking laps around the dance floor to the tune of the bouzouki (a musical instrument in the lute family). Greece's strong and enduring music tradition, however, is a rich mosaic of musical influences and styles.
While many leading performers draw on traditional folk, laïka (popular urban folk) and rembetika (blues), Greece's vibrant music scene is also pumping out its share of pop, club dance music, jazz, rock, rap and hip-hop.
Traditional Folk Music
Traditional folk music was shunned by the Greek bourgeoisie after Independence, when they looked to Europe – and classical music and opera – rather than their Eastern or 'peasant' roots.
Greece's regional folk music is generally divided into nisiotika (the lighter, upbeat music of the islands) and the more grounded dimotika of the mainland – where the klarino (clarinet) is prominent and lyrics refer to hard times, war and rural life. The spirited music of Crete, dominated by the Cretan lyra (a pear-shaped, three-string, bowed instrument) and lute, remains a dynamic musical tradition, with regular performances and recordings by new-generation exponents.
Laïka & Entehna
Laïka (popular or urban folk music) is Greece's most popular music. A mainstream offshoot of rembetika (blues), laïka emerged in the late 1950s and '60s, when clubs in Athens became bigger and glitzier, and the music more commercial. The bouzouki went electric and the sentimental tunes about love, loss, pain and emigration came to embody the nation's spirit. The late Stelios Kazantzidis was the big voice of this era, along with Grigoris Bithikotsis.
Classically trained composers Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis led a new style known as entehni mousiki ('artistic' music) also known as entehna. They drew on rembetika and used instruments such as the bouzouki in more symphonic arrangements, and created popular hits from the poetry of Seferis, Elytis, Ritsos and Kavadias.
Composer Yiannis Markopoulos later introduced rural folk music and traditional string instruments such as the lyra, santouri and kanonaki into the mainstream, and brought folk performers such as Crete's legendary Nikos Xylouris to the fore.
During the junta years the music of Theodorakis and Markopoulos became a form of political expression (Theodorakis' music was banned and the composer jailed). Today, headline laïka performers include Yiannis Ploutarhos, Antonis Remos and Thanos Petrelis.
Rembetika: The Greek Blues
Known as the Greek 'blues', rembetika emerged in Greece's urban underground and has strongly influenced the sound of Greek popular music.
Two styles make up what is broadly known as rembetika. Smyrneika or Cafe Aman music emerged in the mid- to late-19th century in the thriving port cities of Smyrna and Constantinople, which had large Greek populations, and in Thessaloniki, Volos, Syros and Athens. With a rich vocal style, haunting amanedhes (vocal improvisations) and occasional Turkish lyrics, its sound had more Eastern influence. Predominant instruments were the violin, outi (oud), guitar, mandolin, kanonaki and santouri (a flat multistringed instrument). The second style, dominated by the six-stringed bouzouki, evolved in Piraeus.
After the influx of refugees from Asia Minor in Piraeus following the 1922 population exchange (many also went to America, where rembetika was recorded in the 1920s), the two styles somewhat overlapped and rembetika became the music of the ghettos. Infused with defiance, nostalgia and lament, the songs reflected life's bleaker themes and manges (streetwise outcasts) who sang and danced in the tekedhes (hash dens that inspired many songs).
In the mid-1930s, the Metaxas dictatorship tried to wipe out the subculture through censorship, police harassment and raids on tekedhes. People were arrested for carrying a bouzouki. Many artists stopped performing and recording, though the music continued clandestinely. After WWII, a new wave of rembetika emerged that eliminated much of its seedy side.
Rembetika legends include Markos Vamvakaris, who became popular with the first bouzouki group in the early 1930s, composer Vasilis Tsitsanis, Apostolos Kaldaras, Yiannis Papaioannou, Giorgos Mitsakis and Apostolos Hatzihristou, and the songstresses Sotiria Bellou and Marika Ninou, whose life inspired Costas Ferris' 1983 film Rembetiko.
Interest in genuine rembetika was revived in the late 1970s to early 1980s – particularly among students and intellectuals – and it continues to be rediscovered by new generations.
Rembetika ensembles perform seated in a row and traditionally play acoustically. A characteristic feature is an improvised introduction called a taxim.
Contemporary & Pop Music
While few Greek performers have made it big internationally – 1970s singers Nana Mouskouri and Demis Roussos remain the best known – Greece has a strong local music scene, from traditional and pop music to Greek rock, heavy metal, rap and electronic dance.
Some of the most interesting music emerging from Greece fuses elements of folk with Western influences. One of the most whimsical examples was Greece's tongue-in-cheek 2013 Eurovision contender, in which rembetika (blues) veteran Agathonas Iakovidis teamed up with the ska-Balkan rhythms of Thessaloniki's kilt-wearing Koza Mostra.
Big names in popular Greek music include Dionysis Savopoulos, dubbed the Bob Dylan of Greece, and seasoned performers George Dalaras and Haris Alexiou
Standout contemporary performers include Cypriot-born Alkinoos Ioannides, folk singer Eleftheria Arvanitakiis, ethnic-jazz-fusion artists Kristi Stasinopoulou and the Cretan-inspired folk group Haïnides. Also check out Imam Baildi (www.imambaildi.com) a band who give old Greek music a modern makeover.
The local pop scene sees a steady stream of performers creating a uniquely Greek sound. Listen for Σtella (http://stellawithasigma.com), Sarah P (one half of the Athenian chillwave duo Keep Shelley), and Marina Satti (a young Greek-Sudanese singer who does a terrific dance cover of the rembetika 'Koupes').
Classical Music & Opera
Despite classical music and opera appealing to an (albeit growing) minority of Greeks, this field is where Greece has made the most significant international contribution, most notably composers Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis and opera diva Maria Callas.
Dimitris Mitropoulos led the New York Philharmonic in the 1950s, while distinguished composers include Stavros Xarhakos and the late Yannis Xenakis. Leading contemporary performers include pianist Dimitris Sgouros, tenor Mario Frangoulis and sopranos Elena Kelessidi and Irini Tsirakidou. Teodor Currentzis (b 1972), is a Greek conductor who is Artistic Director of Russia's Perm Tchaikovsky State Opera and Ballet Theatre.
The country's concert halls and major cultural festivals such as the Hellenic Festival offer rich international programs, while opera buffs have the Greek National Opera and Syros' Apollo Theatre.
Greek Gig Guide
In summer Greece's leading acts perform in outdoor concerts around the country. In winter they perform in clubs in Athens and large regional towns.
Authentic folk music is harder to find. The best bet is at regional panigyria (open-air festivals) during summer. Look for posters, often around telephone and power poles, or ask around.
Athens' live-music scene includes intimate rembetika (blues) clubs and glitzy, expensive, cabaret-style venues known as bouzoukia. Second-rate bouzoukia clubs are referred to as skyladhika (doghouses) – apparently because the crooning singers resemble a whining dog. Bouzoukia are the venues for flower-throwing (plate-smashing is rare these days), wanton (and expensive) displays of exuberance, excess and kefi (good spirits or mojo).
Greeks have danced since the dawn of Hellenism. Some folk dances derive from the ritual dances performed in ancient temples – ancient vases depict a version of the well-known syrtos folk dance. Dancing was later part of military education; in times of occupation it became an act of defiance and a covert way to keep fit.
Regional dances, like musical styles, vary across Greece. The slow and dignified tsamikos reflects the often cold and insular nature of mountain life, while the brighter islands gave rise to light, springy dances such as the ballos and the syrtos. The Pontian Greeks' vigorous and warlike dances such as the kotsari reflect years of altercations with their Turkish neighbours. Crete has its graceful syrtos, the fast and triumphant maleviziotiko and the dynamic pentozali, with its agility-testing high kicks and leaps. The so-called 'Zorba dance', or syrtaki, is a stylised dance for two or three dancers with arms linked on each other's shoulders, though the modern variation is danced in a long circle with an ever-quickening beat. Women and men traditionally danced separately and had their own dances, except in courtship dances such as the sousta.
Folk-dance groups throughout Greece preserve regional traditions. The best place to see folk dancing is at regional festivals and the Dora Stratou Dance Theatre in Athens.
Contemporary dance is gaining prominence in Greece, with leading local troupes taking their place among the international line-up at the Athens International Dance Festival.
Sidebar: Athens Metro
Athens' metro stations feature an impressive showcase of Greek art from prominent artists including the late Yannis Gaitis (Larisa), the sculptor Giorgos Zongolopoulos (Syntagma) and Alekos Fassianos (Metaxourgio), whose work fetches record prices for a living Greek artist.
Sidebar: Patrick Leigh Fermor
British writer Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor (1915–2011) walked across Greece in his late teens, recounting the journey in The Broken Road – Travels from Bulgaria to Mount Athos (2013). His other classic Greek travelogues are Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958) and Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (2004).
Sidebar: Lament from Epirus
Learn all about the ancient Epirotic folk music of northwestern Greece and Albania in Lament from Epirus (2018) an inspired travelogue by Christopher King, a Grammy winning producer and avid record collector.
The sound of the bouzouki, immortalised in Mikis Theodorakis' 1960s soundtrack to Zorba the Greek, has become synonymous with Greece. The long-necked lute-like instrument became central to rembetika (blues) and dominates laïka (folk music).
Sidebar: Byzantine Music
Byzantine music is mostly heard in Greek churches these days, though Byzantine choirs perform in concerts in Greece and abroad, and the music has influenced folk music.
Men dance the often spectacular solo zeïmbekiko – whirling, meditative improvisations with roots in rembetika (blues). Women do the sensuous tsifteteli, a svelte, sinewy show of femininity evolved from the Middle Eastern belly dance.
Cast your eyes around most major cities and you’ll find various reinterpretations of classical Greek architecture. The Renaissance was inspired by the ancient style, as was the neoclassical movement and the British Greek Revival. For those with an eye to the past, part of the allure of Greece is the sheer volume of its well-preserved buildings. Stand in the ruins of the Parthenon and with a little imagination it's easy to transport yourself back to classical 5th-century Greece.
Most of our knowledge of Greek architecture proper begins at around 2000 BC with the Minoans, who were based in Crete but whose influence spread throughout the Aegean to include the Cyclades. Minoan architects are famous for having constructed technologically advanced, labyrinthine palace complexes. The famous site at Knossos is one of the largest. Usually characterised as 'palaces', these sites were in fact multifunctional settlements that were the primary residences of royalty and priests, but housed some plebs too. Large Minoan villages, such as those of Gournia and Palekastro in Crete, also included internal networks of paved roads that extended throughout the countryside to link the settlements with the palaces. More Minoan palace-era sophistication exists in Crete at Phaestos, Malia and Ancient Zakros, and at the Minoan outpost of Ancient Akrotiri on the south of Santorini.
Several gigantic volcanic eruptions rocked the region in the mid-15th century BC, causing geological ripple effects that at the very least caused big chunks of palace to fall to the ground. The Minoans resolutely rebuilt on an even grander scale, only to have more natural disasters wipe the palaces out again. The latter effected an architectural chasm that was filled by the emerging Mycenaean rivals on mainland Greece.
Grandeur of Knossos
According to myth, the man tasked with designing a maze to withhold the dreaded Minotaur was famous Athenian inventor Daedalus, father of Icarus. He also designed the Palace of Knossos for King Minos.
First discovered by a Cretan, Milos Kalokirinos, in 1878, it wasn't until 1900 that the ruins of Knossos were unearthed by Englishman Sir Arthur Evans. The elaborate palace complex at Knossos was originally formed largely as an administrative settlement surrounding the main palace, which comprised the main buildings arranged around a large central courtyard (1250 sq metres). Over time the entire settlement was rebuilt and extended. Long, raised causeways formed main corridors; narrow labyrinthine chambers flanked the palace walls (this meandering floor plan, together with the graphic ritual importance of bulls, inspired the myth of the labyrinth and the Minotaur). The compound featured strategically placed interior light wells, sophisticated ventilation systems, aqueducts, freshwater irrigation wells and bathrooms with extensive plumbing and drainage systems. The ground levels consisted mostly of workshops, cylindrical grain silos and storage magazines.
Thanks to its restoration, today's Knossos is one of the easiest ruins for your imagination to take hold of.
The Mycenaeans had a fierce reputation as builders of massive masonry. These war-mongering people roamed southern mainland Greece, picking off the choice vantage points for their austere palaces, fenced within formidable citadels. The citadels' fortified Cyclopean-stone walls were on average an unbreachable 3m to 7m thick. The immense royal beehive tomb of the Treasury of Atreus (aka Tomb of Agamemnon) at Mycenae was constructed using tapered limestone blocks weighing up to 120 tonnes. The palace at Tiryns has stupendous corbel-vaulted galleries and is riddled with secret passageways; the incredibly well-preserved Nestor's Palace, near modern Pylos, also illustrates the Mycenaeans' structural expertise.
The classical age (5th to 4th centuries BC) is when most Greek architectural clichés converge. This is when temples became characterised by the famous orders of columns, particularly the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.
In the meantime, the Greek colonies of the Asia Minor coast were creating their own Ionic order, designing a column base in several tiers and adding more flutes. This more graceful order's capital (the head) received an ornamented necking, and Iktinos fused elements of its design in the Parthenon. This order is used on the Acropolis' Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion, where the famous Caryatids sculptures regally stand.
Towards the tail end of the classical period, the Corinthian column was in vogue. Featuring a single or double row of ornate leafy scrolls (usually the very sculptural acanthus), the order was subsequently adopted by the Romans and used only on Corinthian temples in Athens. The Temple of Olympian Zeus, completed during Emperor Hadrian's reign, is a grand, imposing structure. Another temple design, the graceful, circular temple tholos (dome) style, was used for the great Sanctuary of Athena Pronea at Delphi.
The Greek theatre design is a hallmark of the classical period (an example is the 4th-century-BC theatre at Epidavros) and had a round stage, radiating a semicircle of steeply banked stone benches that seated many thousands. Cleverly engineered acoustics meant every spectator could monitor every syllable uttered on the stage below. Many ancient Greek theatres are still used for summer festivals, music concerts and plays.
In the twilight years of the classical age (from about the late 4th century BC), cosmopolitan folks started to weary of temples, casting their gaze towards a more decadent urban style. The Hellenistic architect was in hot demand for private homes and palace makeovers as wealthy citizens, dignitaries and political heavyweights lavishly remodelled their abodes in marble, and striking mosaics were displayed as status symbols. The best Hellenistic ancient-home displays are the grand houses at Delos.
Church-building was particularly expressive during the time of the Byzantine Empire in Greece (from around AD 700 to the early 13th century). The original Greek Byzantine model features a distinctive cross shape – essentially a central dome supported by four arches on piers and flanked by vaults, with smaller domes at the four corners and three apses to the east. Theologian architects opted for spectacular devotional mosaics and frescoes instead of carvings for the stylistic religious interiors.
In Athens, the very appealing 12th-century Church of Agios Eleftherios incorporates fragments of a classical frieze in Pentelic marble; the charming 11th-century Church of Kapnikarea sits stranded, smack-bang in the middle of downtown Athens – its interior flooring is of coloured marble, and the external brickwork, which alternates with stone, is set in patterns. Thessaloniki's 8th-century Church of Agia Sofia, with its 30m-high dome, is a humble version of its namesake in İstanbul. There are numerous Byzantine chapels in Mystras, many of which were originally private chapels, attached to enchanting 17th- and 18th-century arhontika (mansions once owned by arhons, wealthy bourgeoisie merchants).
Frankish Keeps & Venetian Strongholds
After the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204, much of Greece became the fiefdoms of Western aristocrats. The Villehardouin family punctuated the Peloponnesian landscape with Frankish castles, such as at Kalamata and at Mystras, where they also built a palace that ended up a court of the Byzantine imperial family for two centuries. When the Venetians dropped by to seize a few coastal enclaves, they built the impenetrable 16th-century Koules fortress in Iraklio, the very sturdy fortress at Methoni and the imposing 18th-century Palamidi fortress at Nafplio. The rambling defence at Acrocorinth is studded with imposing gateways, and the rock-nest protecting the enchanting Byzantine village at Monemvasia commands spectacular ocean views.
Interestingly, remarkably few monuments are left to catalogue after four centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule (16th to 19th centuries). Though many mosques and their minarets have sadly crumbled or are in serious disrepair, some terrific Ottoman-Turkish examples still survive. These include the prominent pink-domed Mosque of Süleyman in Rhodes Old Town. The Fethiye Mosque and Turkish Baths are two of Athens' few surviving Ottoman reminders, and the architect for the 16th-century Koursoun Tzami in Trikala also designed the Blue Mosque in İstanbul. The Turkish quarter of Varousi in Trikala, and the streets of Thessaloniki and of Didymotiho, near the Turkish border, showcase superb Turkish-designed homes with stained-glass windows, wooden overhangs on buttresses, decorated plasterwork and painted woodwork.
Regarded by experts as the most beautiful neoclassical building worldwide, the 1885 Athens Academy reflects Greece's post-Independence yearnings for grand and geometric forms, and Hellenistic detail. Renowned Danish architect Theophile Hansen drew inspiration from the Erechtheion to design the Academy's Ionic-style column entrance (guarded over by Apollo and Athena); the great interior oblong hall is lined with marble seating, and Austrian painter Christian Griepenkerl was commissioned to decorate its elaborate ceiling and wall paintings. In a similar vein, the Doric columns of the Temple of Hephaestus influenced Theophile's solid-marble National Library, while Christian Hansen (Theophile's brother) was responsible for the handsome but more sedate Athens University, with its clean lines.
Meticulously restored neoclassical mansions house notable museums such as the acclaimed Benaki Museum in Athens.
Many provincial towns also display beautiful domestic adaptations of neoclassicism. In Symi, the harbour at Gialos is flanked by colourful neoclassical facades (still striking even if a little derelict) and Nafplio is also embellished with neoclassical buildings.
Modern & Contemporary Ideas
Recently, Athens has embraced a sophisticated, look-both-ways architectural aesthetic to showcase its vast collection of antiquities and archaeological heritage (witness the Acropolis Museum), and to beautify landscapes for pedestrian zones to improve the urban environment. Examples include the well-designed facelift of the historic centre, including its spectacular floodlighting (designed by the renowned Pierre Bideau) of the ancient promenade, and the cutting-edge spaces emerging from once-drab and derelict industrial zones, such as the Technopolis gasworks arts complex in Gazi.
Built for the 2004 Olympics, the Athens Olympic Complex was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrata. It has a striking, ultramodern glass-and-steel roof, which is suspended by cables from large arches. The laminated glass, in the shape of two giant leaves, is capable of reflecting 90% of the sunlight.
Even more impressive is Renzo Piano's Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) which generates in summer 100% of its energy needs from the 5400 photovoltaic panels on its roof.
Feature: The Columns of Ancient Greece
Columns are columns are columns, right? Recognising the differences between them is, in fact, the easiest way to differentiate between the three distinct architectural orders of Ancient Greece.
Doric The most simple of the three styles. The shaft (the main part of the column) is plain and has 20 sides, while the capital (the head) is formed in a simple circle. Also there's no base. An obvious example of this is the Parthenon.
Ionic Look out for the ridged flutes carved into the column from top to bottom. The capital is also distinctive for its scrolls, while the base looks like a stack of rings.
Corinthian The most decorative and popular of all three orders. The column is ridged; however, the distinctive feature is the capital's flowers and leaves, beneath a small scroll. The base is like that of the Ionic.
Feature: Top Five Provincial Originals
Considering the historical mishmash of cultural influences peppered across Greece, alongside a varying landscape, it's hardly surprising to find unique variations in architectural design.
Pyrgi See the medieval, labyrinthine, vaulted island village of Pyrgi in Chios, for its unique Genoese designs of intricate, geometric, grey-and-white facades.
Zagorohoria Gaze at the slate mansions of the Zagorohoria: schist-slab roofs, stone-slab walls and fortified courtyards.
Vathia Explore this lovely village in Lakonian Mani, home to startling meercat-esque stone tower houses with round turrets as sentry posts.
Oia Squint at the volcanic rock–hewn clifftop village of Oia in Santorini, with its dazzlingly whitewashed island streetscapes and homes.
Lefkada Town Discover the strangely attractive wooden-framed houses of Lefkada Town: the lower floors are panelled in wood, while the upper floors are lined in painted sheet metal or corrugated iron.
Feature: Best Contemporary Architecture
Despite its massive contribution to ancient architecture, Athens is not stuck in the past. Its modern architects are innovative and fearless. Three of the best buildings are:
Acropolis Museum Designed by Bernard Tschumi and opened in 2009, the museum features an internal glass cella (inner room) mirroring the Parthenon with the same number of columns (clad in steel) and a glass floor overlooking excavated ruins in situ.
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center Pritzker Prize–winning architect Renzo Piano designed the SNFCC, which opened in 2016. A multifunctional arts and entertainment venue, it houses the National Library of Greece and the National Opera amid a beautiful and sustainably designed park with both city and sea views.
Onassis Cultural Centre French firm, Architecture Studio designed this performance and exhibition space that opened in 2010. The building's facade is wrapped in strips of marble across which images can be projected.
Feature: The Captain's House
During the 17th century, Greek ship captains grew increasingly prosperous. Many of them poured their new-found wealth into building lofty homes that towered over the traditional village houses. These captains' houses are now dotted throughout the islands and many have been given a new lease on life as boutique hotels or restaurants.
While the size of the house often reflected the wealth of a captain, some of the smallest of these 400-year-old homes are the most grand. Captain's houses didn't need to be large as they spent so much time at sea. Whitewashed walls stretch upward to the soaring resin ceiling, often intricately painted with elaborate, colourful patterns. The windows are sea-facing and placed very high, often with wooden lofts to reach them. This was to let the heat out in summer and also so the captain's wife could watch the sea for the arrival of her husband's ship. The traditional pyliones (stone doorways) are hand-carved with symbolic pictures. Corn means good harvest, birds mean peace, the cross brings safety and the sunflowers sunlight. The number of ropes carved around the perimeter of the door shows how many ships the captain had.
Some of the finest examples of these houses are found in Lindos, on Rhodes.
Sidebar: Cycladic Architecture
The distinctive blue-and-white Cycladic-style architecture most associated with the Greek islands was pragmatic and functional. The cuboid flat-roofed houses, huddled together along labyrinthine alleys, were designed to guard against the elements: strong winds and pirates.
According to myth, the man tasked with designing a maze to withhold the dreaded Minotaur was famous Athenian inventor Daedalus, father of Icarus. He also designed the Palace of Knossos for King Minos.
Sidebar: Apartment blocks
The predominant motif of late 20th century urban Greek architecture is the polykatoikia (multiresidence) apartment block. In Athens alone around 35,000 five-storey cement blocks with awning shaded balconies were erected between the 1950s and 1980s.
The mother of all Doric structures is the 5th-century-BC Parthenon, the ultimate in ancient architectural bling. To this day, it's probably the most obsessively photographed and painted structure in all of Greece.
Sidebar: Byzantine Monasteries
Several Byzantine monastic sites have made it to the Unesco World Heritage register, including the katholikon (main churches) of Osios Loukas, significant for their late-Byzantine multidomed style, and the 11th-century Moni Dafniou, which stands on the site of an ancient Sanctuary of Apollo.
Nature & Wildlife
Greece is an ideal location for getting up close to nature. Hike through valleys and mountains covered with wildflowers, come eye to eye with a loggerhead turtle or simply stretch out on a beach. Environmental awareness is beginning to seep into the fabric of Greek society, leading to slow but positive change. However, problems such as deforestation and soil erosion date back thousands of years. Live cultivation, goats, construction and industry have all taken their toll.
Experiencing the Outdoors
Greek Geography & Geology
No matter where you go in Greece, it's impossible to be much more than 100km from the sea. Rugged mountains and seemingly innumerable islands dominate the landscape, which was shaped by submerging seas, volcanic explosions and mineral-rich terrain. The mainland covers 131,944 sq km, with an indented coastline stretching for 15,020km. Mountains rise over 2000m and occasionally tumble down into plains, particularly in Thessaly and Thrace. Meanwhile, the Aegean and Ionian Seas link together the country's 1400 islands, with just 169 of them inhabited. These islands fill 400,000 sq km of territorial waters.
During the Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous and even later geological periods, Greece was a shallow, oxygen-rich sea. The continuous submerging of land created large tracts of limestone through the whole submarine land mass. Later, as the land emerged from the sea to form the backbone of the current topography, a distinctly eroded landscape with crystalline rocks and other valuable minerals began to appear, marking the spine that links the north and south of the mainland today. Limestone caves are a major feature of this karst landscape, shaped by the dissolution of a soluble layer of bedrock.
Volcanic activity regularly hits Greece. In 1999 a 5.9-magnitude earthquake near Athens killed nearly 150 people and left thousands homeless. Since 2006, the country has had seven quakes ranging from 6.4 to 6.9 in magnitude. None caused major damage. To check out Greece's explosive past, visit the craters of Santorini, Nisyros and Polyvotis.
Greece is short on rivers, with none that are navigable, although they've become popular locations for white-water rafting. The largest rivers are the Aheloös, Aliakmonas, Aoös and Arahthos, all of which have their source in the Pindos Mountains of Epiros.
The long plains of the river valleys, and those between the mountains and the coast, form Greece's only lowlands. The mountainous terrain, dry climate and poor soil leave farmers at a loss, and less than 25% of the land is cultivated. Greece is, however, rich in minerals, with reserves of oil, manganese, bauxite and lignite.
Wildflowers & Herbs
Greece is endowed with a variety of flora unrivalled in Europe. The wildflowers are spectacular, with more than 6000 species, including more than 200 varieties of orchid. They continue to thrive because most of the land is inadequate for intensive agriculture and has therefore escaped the ravages of chemical fertilisers.
The regions with the most wildflowers are the Lefka Ori (White Mountains) in Crete and the Mani area of the Peloponnese. Trees begin to blossom as early as the end of February in warmer areas and the wildflowers start to appear in March. During spring, hillsides are carpeted with flowers, which seem to sprout even from the rocks. By summer the flowers have disappeared from everywhere but the northern mountainous regions. Autumn brings a new period of blossoming.
Herbs grow wild throughout much of Greece and you'll see locals out picking fresh herbs for their kitchen. Locally grown herbs are also increasingly sold as souvenirs and are generally organic.
The lush forests that once covered ancient Greece are increasingly rare. Having been decimated by thousands of years of clearing for grazing, boatbuilding and housing, they've more recently suffered from severe forest fires. Northern Greece is the only region that has retained significant areas of native forest – there are mountainsides covered with dense thickets of hop hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia), noted for its lavish display of white-clustered flowers. Another common species is the Cyprus plane (Platanus orientalis insularis), which thrives wherever there's ample water.
National parks were first established in Greece in 1938 with the creation of Mt Olympus National Park. There are now 10 national parks and two marine parks, which aim to protect Greece's unique flora and fauna.
Facilities for visitors are often basic, abundant walking trails are not always maintained and the clutch of refuges is very simple. To most, the facilities matter little when compared to nature’s magnificent backdrop. It’s well worth experiencing the wild side of Greece in one of these settings.
Mt Olympus National Park Home to Greece’s tallest mountain, rich in flora and considered the home of the gods.
Mt Parnitha National Park Very popular wooded parkland north of Athens; home to the red deer.
National Marine Park of Alonnisos Northern Sporades Covers six islands and 22 islets in the Sporades and is home to monk seals, dolphins and rare birdlife.
Parnassos National Park Towering limestone and scenic views down to Delphi.
Prespa Lakes One of Europe’s oldest lakes, steeped in wildlife and tranquillity.
Samaria Gorge Spectacular gorge in Crete and a refuge for the kri-kri (Cretan goat).
Cape Sounion A cape with panoramic views and home to the Temple of Poseidon.
Northern Pindos National Park Excellent hiking with caves, canyons and dense forest.
National Marine Park of Zakynthos An Ionian refuge for loggerhead turtles.
Iti National Park Tranquil stretches of forest, meadows and pools; home to eagles, deer and boars.
Ainos National Park The only island park, on Kefallonia, the stand of forest here is home to a single species of endemic fir and small wild horses.
Watching for Wildlife
On the Ground
In areas widely inhabited by humans, you're unlikely to spot any wild animals other than the odd fox, weasel, hare or rabbit. The more remote mountains of northern Greece continue to support a wide range of wildlife, including wild dogs and shepherds' dogs, which often roam higher pastures on grazing mountains and should be given a wide berth.
The brown bear, Europe's largest land mammal, still manages to survive in very small numbers in the Pindos Mountains, the Peristeri Range that rises above the Prespa Lakes and in the mountains that lie along the Bulgarian border. It's estimated that only around 150 survive; your best bet for seeing one is at the Arcturos Bear Sanctuary in Macedonia.
The protected grey wolf is officially classified as stable with an estimated 1020 surviving in the wild. It's believed up to 100 are killed annually by farmers' indiscriminate (and illegal) use of poison baits in retaliation for the occasional marauding of their flocks. The Greek government and insurance companies pay compensation for lost livestock but it doesn't appear to slow the killings. The surviving wolves live in the Pindos Mountains and the Dadia Forest Reserve area. Head to the Arcturos Wolf Sanctuary (www.arcturos.gr) in Agrapidia, near Florina, which houses wolves rescued from illegal captivity.
The golden jackal is a strong candidate for Greece's most misunderstood mammal. Although its diet is 50% vegetarian (the other 50% is made up of carrion, reptiles and small mammals), it has traditionally shouldered much of the blame for attacks on stock and has been hunted by farmers as a preventative measure. Near the brink of extinction, it was declared a protected species in 1990 and now survives only in small clusters in the Peloponnese, Phocis, Samos Island, Halkidiki and northeastern Greece.
Once roaming across all of mainland Greece, the graceful red deer is now restricted to the Sithonia Peninsula, the Rhodope Mountain bordering Bulgaria and Mt Parnitha north of Athens. As the largest herbivore in Greece, its population is under constant threat from illegal hunters, making attempts at population redistribution unsuccessful.
Originally brought to the island of Skyros in the 5th century BC by colonists, the diminutive Skryrian horses are an ancient breed that became wild once they had been replaced by agricultural mechanisation. You'll also see these horses featured in the Parthenon friezes. Around 190 survive on the island, approximately 70% of their global population. Mouries Farm is home to 45 Skyrian horses.
Greece has an active snake population and in spring and summer you will inevitably spot them on roads and pathways around the country. Fortunately the majority are harmless, though the viper and the coral snake can cause fatalities. Lizards are in abundance too.
In the Air
Birdwatchers hit the jackpot in Greece as much of the country is on north–south migratory paths. Lesvos (Mytilini) in particular draws a regular following of birders from all over Europe, who come to spot some of more than 279 recorded species that stop at the island annually. Storks are more visible visitors, arriving in early spring from Africa and returning to the same nests year after year. These are built on electricity poles, chimney tops and church towers, and can weigh up to 50kg. Keep an eye out for them in northern Greece, especially in Thrace in Macedonia. Thrace has the richest colony of fish-eating birds in Europe, including species such as egrets, herons, cormorants and ibises, as well as the rare Dalmatian pelican. The wetlands at the mouth of the Evros River, close to the border with Turkey, are home to two easily identifiable wading birds: the avocet, which has a long curving beak, and the black-winged stilt, which has extremely long pink legs.
Upstream on the Evros River in Thrace, the dense forests and rocky outcrops of the 72-sq-km Dadia Forest Reserve play host to Europe's largest range of birds of prey. Three out of Europe's four vulture species (black, griffon and Egyptian) spend time here as do Europe's only breeding population of black vultures.
Over 350 pairs of the rare Eleonora's falcon (60% of the world's population) nest on the island of Piperi in the Sporades and on Tilos, which is also home to the very rare Bonelli's eagle and the shy, cormorant-like Mediterranean shag.
Under the Sea
One of Europe's most endangered marine mammals, the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) ekes out an extremely precarious existence in Greece. Approximately 200 to 250 monk seals, about 50% of the world's population, are found in both the Ionian and Aegean Seas. Small colonies also live on the island of Alonnisos and there have been reported sightings on Tilos.
The waters around Zakynthos are home to the last large sea-turtle colony in Europe, that of the endangered loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta). Loggerheads also nest in smaller numbers in the Peloponnese and on Kefallonia and Crete. Greece's turtles have many hazards to dodge: entanglement in fishing nets and boat propellers, consumption of floating rubbish, and the destruction of their nesting beaches by sunloungers and beach umbrellas that threaten their eggs. It doesn’t help that the turtles' nesting time coincides with the European summer-holiday season.
There is still the chance that you will spot dolphins from a ferry deck, though a number of the species, including common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) and Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) are now considered endangered. The main threats to dolphins are a diminished food supply and entanglement in fishing nets.
Illegal development of mainly coastal areas, and building in forested or protected areas, has gained momentum in Greece since the 1970s. Despite attempts at introducing laws, and protests by locals and environmental groups, corruption and the lack of an infrastructure to enforce the laws means little is done to abate the land-grab. The issue is complicated by population growth and increased urban sprawl. Developments often put a severe strain on water supplies and endangered wildlife. While a few developments have been torn down, in more cases illegal buildings are legalised as they offer much needed, affordable housing.
The lifting of the diesel ban in Athens and Thessaloniki in 2012 decreased air quality as people opted for cheaper transport. As heating oil tripled in price, people turned to burning wood, often treated, as well as garbage to keep warm. Wintertime particle pollution increased by 30% on some evenings, with lead and arsenic particles found in the air. Smog is a particular problem in Athens as the greater metropolitan area hosts over half of the country's industry, not to mention the lion's share of Greece's population. Athens has subsequently pledged to ban all diesel vehicles from its city centre by 2025.
Each year, forest fires rage across Greece, destroying many thousands of hectares, often in some of the country's most picturesque areas. During the summer of 2018 a series of wildfires across coastal areas of Attica, not far from Athens, claimed 102 lives. This was the country's worst natural disaster since wildfires destroyed large tracts of Mt Parnitha and the Peloponnese in 2007 when 63 people died.
The increasing scale of recent fires is blamed on rising Mediterranean temperatures and high winds. Many locals argue that the government is ill-prepared and that its attempts to address the annual fires are slow. Fearing they won't receive help, many locals refuse to leave areas being evacuated, preferring to take the risk and attempting to fight the flames themselves.
Feature: Don’t be a Boar
Greece's relationship with its wildlife has not been a happy one. Hunting wild animals is a popular Greek activity, as a means of providing food. This is particularly true in mountainous regions where the partisanship of hunters is legendary. Despite signs forbidding hunting, Greek hunters often shoot freely at any potential game. While this can include rare and endangered species, the main game is often wild boars, which have been around since antiquity. Considered destructive and cunning animals, wild boars have increased in number in recent decades, likely due to a lower number of predators. Many argue that hunting is an important means of culling them. There is also an increasing number of boar breeding farms, with boar showing up on many menus.
Sidebar: Loggerhead Turtles
Loggerhead-turtle hatchlings use the journey from the nest to the sea to build up their strength. Helping the baby turtles to the sea can actually lower their chances of survival.
Sidebar: Minoan Eruption
Around 1650 BC, the island of Thera (Santorini) experienced one of the largest volcanic events in Earth's recorded history, ejecting up to four times as much matter as the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883.
Greece’s recycling rate is 17%, below the European Union average of 39%. In the main cities and towns, however, you will find recycling bins to dispose of paper, plastic, aluminium and other packaging.
Sidebar: Herbs in Cooking
Herbs in Cooking is an illustrative book by Maria and Nikos Psilakis that can be used as both an identification guide and a cookbook for Greek dishes seasoned with local herbs.
Sidebar: Nature Conservation
- Pelicans and pygmy cormorants (www.spp.gr)
- Birdlife (www.ornithologiki.gr)
- Wildflowers (www.greekmountainflora.info)
- Sea turtles (www.archelon.gr)