ATHENS — Greece requires no real need for an introduction. If you’ve been, then you just know. But even if you haven’t, you’ve most likely fallen in love with something about it — probably while watching Mama Mia or Shirley Valentine.
There is no doubt that this Mediterranean gem has a warmth and energy felt by everyone, including the locals themselves, the expats reconnecting with their roots and the tourists on vacation. While Greeks can be loud, impatient — our version of rude — there is no denying that our relaxed, diverse and passionate approach to life is one to admire.
Greece has a national identity that boasts strong customs, values and traditions along with one of the oldest languages in the world. As a nation, it has overcome invasions, war, economic crises and social hardship. Yet, the Greeks have never strayed from what truly defines them. Consequently, with over 17 million tourists a year, significantly higher than the population itself, Greece is emblematic of paradise and the way life is meant to be lived. Simply put, Greece is just THAT good.
Above: Greece is so much mire than azure water and hidden beaches.
Narrowing down the reasons as to why this country is amazing is tough. There is the obvious: the birthplace of philosophy and the cradle of democracy, along with the foundation of mathematic and scientific principles. Greece is the brains behind the Olympic Games and with those come thousands of historical monuments, temples, cubic houses, narrow streets and dead-ends. Furthermore, the pristine waters and Greece’s ultimate secret weapon — the perfect climate — are the backdrop to extraordinary food and culinary experiences.
Finally, this a country with unbelievable hospitality, exploding with one of the most energizing cultures known to man. However, here’s the 10 things that really set Greece apart and makes its way of life so distinct and equally appealing:
1 Filotimo, Philoxenia & Meraki: The Greek language is uninterrupted and filled with 40 centuries of meaning, influence and practice. Lucky for us, we have the Greeks to thank for our English vocabulary. So why in fact visit Greece? Simple. Three things define the genetic makeup of the country and are unquestionably the real essence of Greek conduct — respect/do good, love thy stranger and put your soul into it. I can guarantee that wherever you visit in Greece, you will feel the warmth and love of the people. It is the highest of all Greek virtues and the standards set out for family and social living. Knowing this, you can now embark on what will be one unforgettable and legendary experience.
2 Unwavering faith: Over 95 per cent of Greeks believe in God and here, there is no shortage of its practice. The presence of faith and the religious discipline of the Greeks is remarkable and for many, their redeeming quality. No village is without a church and no town is without a monastery chiseled high in a mountain. Take, for instance, the church of Panagia Kakaviotissa in Greece’s island of Lemnos. Nestled into a mountain cove, it was built so that the faithful could have direct communication with God. Furthermore, no route is without a roadside shrine (kandylakia) and no island is without a patron saint. And if you really want to be fascinated, check out Meteora or Mount Athos where monasteries are elevated and built atop rock pillars (immense monoliths split by earthquakes and eroded by water and wind). These are the authentic masterpieces of God’s power and presence. Many believe, the higher the pilgrimage and the more rigorous the journey, the closer he will be to God.
3 Sea blue: Two things are infinite in Greece — the blue sky and the spectacular waters. The country boasts15,000 km of coastline (the largest in all of Europe and ninth in the world), three seas, 50 natural lakes, 700 natural hot springs and over 6,000 islands and islets scattered all over the Aegean and Ionian Seas (about 200 of those are inhabited). Greece’s waters are extraordinary and the beaches stretch over many kilometres — sandy, pebble or volcanic, take your pick. From coastal caves and steep cliff diving, to bays, coves and sand dunes, Greece’s beaches are repeatedly honoured with awards. They each set the tone for your choice of adventure: scuba diving, snorkeling, windsurfing and sailing. The possibilities are endless. You can even purchase your own island, like Makri in the Ionian for just over $4 million. And yes, island hopping really is a thing. Take advantage of discounted ferry rides from island-to-island while you soak in the unique terrain of each one. Keep in mind, the smaller the island, and the more unchartered the territory, the more likely you will be getting around by foot, bicycle or donkey. Either way, the crystal waters and authentic charm really are unique to Greece.
4 Periptero: Think of a tiny house, on a sidewalk with a man in it, selling all things necessary. At first glance, that’s what it looks like. However, this is the famous and official Greek kiosk found on every street corner of Greece. Stocked like a mini market, the periptero usually operates 24/7 and sells everything — literally. Specifically used to purchase cigarettes and water, it is a refined news stand where the owner is fully equipped with snacks, magazines, newspapers, parking passes and cold drinks to name a few. These little huts have adapted to the needs of the neighbourhood and have been a significant source of income for the owners. Though many have shut their doors, others have expanded in size and product variety making them one of the coolest and most useful attractions in Greece. Originally set out to financially assist war veterans after the 19th century, the periptero was the used for making phone calls. Now it’s the convenient store making life that much more convenient.
5 Café bars — caffeine, then cocktails: Greece has a very distinct approach when it comes to socializing. In fact, the local café culture is thriving. “Going for coffee” or yia ena poto (for a drink) is the preferred passtime of the locals. Fortunately, for us, real Greek living has no shortage of hotspots for that caffeine/booze kick. Greece has two types of cafés: Café-bars and café-ouzeris or kafenio. And, as their names suggest, these places function as coffee shops by day and bars by night. Now if only Starbucks could jump on the bandwagon right? A direct descendant of the original kafeneio, café-ouzeris are frequented by the older generation (typically men) and serve the traditional Greek coffee and local spirits (ouzo, tsipouro and even raki). They have always been a popular meeting ground for a game of chess (tavli) or for watching soccer. In both these spots, but especially café-bars, food is just as vital as the music. Bars and nightclubs are still extremely popular, but the rebranding of this coffee culture is quite unique as hordes of people gather together. Affordable, accessible and diverse in nature, they are certainly the preferred option. Choose from sidewalk patios, enclosed garden oases, or swanky rooftop patios such as Thea Terrace Bar in Athens. Greece has more than its fair share of places where your day can seamlessly roll into night.
6 Fourno — carb loading: Bread is everything in Greece. Much more than just sustenance, a trip to the bakery is the essential morning pastime that sets the tone for the day. It is the most important part of any Greek meal and highly valued due to its historical and cultural significance. Literally meaning “oven”, the Greek word “fourno” describes the bakeries and pastry shops that exist almost everywhere in Greece. There is nothing better than waking up early in the morning and walking just a few steps down the road to purchase a fresh loaf, a famous and traditional “koulouri” (Greek bagel) or pastries for the day. Everywhere you turn in Athens, you will find a fourno. Some of the best bakeries are in Monastiraki and serve up all sorts of Greek pastries. A popular choice for all Greeks: grabbing a warm pie stuffed with cheese or spinach — the famous “tiropita” and “spanakopita,” are both low-cost and incredibly delicious. With the price of a fresh baked loaf often less than 1 euro, it's very affordable and essential for dipping into your Greek salad. Hot spots like Veneti and Gregory’s make carb lovers dreams come true — and don’t fret, there’s plenty of gluten free options.
7 The Panigiri — ring around the tables: Most common during the summer months, the panigiri is a celebration for a patron saint or any religious holiday. Street markets and food vendors line up along the village square or any open space big enough to host this “glendi” or celebration. Long tables and chairs are set up for everyone to gather and they feast on mouthwatering foods and drinks: souvlaki, gyros, roast pig and lamb, salads, olives, pies, and loukoumades along with cold beer and wine. As the live band starts to tune their instruments, locals gather for what will be a night of dancing and singing until the early hours of the morning. Tables quickly fill up and obscene amounts of food and drink are consumed. It is a cheap night out which makes this authentic experience that much more enjoyable. Several religious ceremonies always precede the panigiri and while this social celebration is one of the oldest traditions, it has never wavered in meaning or intensity. The island of Ikaria is famous for its celebrations. It is here where you’ll be amazed and understand why these islanders have one of the highest and healthiest life expectancies in the world. A night at a panigiri is synonymous with sensory pleasure overload.
8 Laiki — Greek street market and vendors: The "laiki" (for the people) is a large Greek street market and was traditionally the time when the village market came into town. Moreover, it was motivation for local farmers to sell their fresh produce to the local population in neighboring towns without the use of any intermediaries. Today, permits are required and while the fresh produce and food that make up the Mediterranean diet are the main attraction of these markets, they have expanded to include a variety of merchandise and products unique to the country. Social interaction, economic support and community connection are the driving force behind the scenes. Urban dwellers reconnect with farmers and in turn, farmers get to reap the benefits of their hard work. Today, almost every village, town and city in Greece has its own street market held once a week. Truly amazing, these traders and farmers set up shop in rows of perfectly aligned stalls and one can’t help but want to buy a little something from every vendor. Check out Varvakios in central Athens — albeit one of the larger markets that’s crowded, loud and very fragrant, it’s a true testament to the diversity and efforts of Greek livelihood. Come for the “kreatagorá” (meat market), the “psaragorá” (fish market) or the “lachanagorá” and leave with all the ingredients necessary for a perfect meal.
9 Bouzoukia — Party like a pro: Give Greeks a reason to party and they will. Who am I kidding? They don’t actually need a reason. An essential part of city life, especially in Athens, bouzoukia are the Greek nightclubs where famous singers perform live. Though plate smashing is not much of a thing anymore, throwing trays of carnations onto the stage is — it’s also indicative of how much money you have to burn. Nights at the bouzoukia stick in your mind forever because they’re a healthy mix between trashy and classy. The bouzoukias are stunning, the light show is incredible, and the belly dancing is on point. A night here can cost you a pretty penny if you choose to sit front and centre, but not to worry, you’ll definitely be getting your money’s worth. Why? Greece has something called “kefi”, a concept so entrenched in the Greek way of life that the locals are pretty much born with it. It has no real translation, but it’s something that puts you into a good mood instantaneously. While the bouzoukias’ stages range from big to small, these venues exist in several pockets of Athens and all over Greece. Fortunately, they run all year long — the only difference is outdoor vs indoor venues, depending on the season. If you are looking for a smaller, dodgier setting, then there are also the skyladika, a.k.a. “where the dogs hang out.” If you had to differentiate, they are where the B-listers of the industry perform. Doors at both usually open at midnight and go till 6 a.m., wherever you choose to party. Oh, and you may have to call in sick the next day.
10 Greek Products to take home: Greece is iconic for so many things — not just their way of living but the products unique to the country. And while you can’t bring home with you an entire tray of lamb or moussaka, you can purchase many of the ingredients to make your own. From food to clothing, to handmade crafts, each region of Greece has something special about it. Here are a few worth the smell in your suitcase:
Honey: Due to the country’s temperate climate and rich biodiversity, Greek honey is the tastiest medicine that exists. Nutritional, aromatic and significantly higher in antioxidants, it is the byproduct of exceptional bee keeping practices.
Masticha: The resin from the mastic tree (kind of pine, kind of cedar) has many therapeutic properties. Unique to the island of Chios, mastic or masticha comes in many variations, but the chewing gum and liqueur are most popular. Don’t pass up this woody delight.
Capers: A little jar of these aromatic and tangy bites are the perfect complement to a salad or fish dish. Most popular and distinct on the islands of Santorini and Sifnos, and the region of Messinia, capers have been harvested in Greece for millennia and are extremely rich in flavour.
Olives: High in antioxidants and a staple with every Greek meal, you cannot go wrong with the olives unique to Greek soil and region. With over 60 varieties (not just Kalamata), each type has its own flavor, size, color and shape.
Cheese: Using the highest quality of sheep and goat milk, Feta, Kefalograviera, Kasseri, Metsovone and Manouri are some of the most flavourful cheeses particular to Greece. It's well worth the smell in your luggage to bring some home.
Leather goods and artisan jewelry: If the God’s from Greek mythology wore them, so can you. Nothing better than a “made to measure” pair of leather sandals from Monastiraki Square in Athens or Nafplio. Add to it a supple leather goods or fine knit wear and cotton. Greece is known for cultivating some of the most skilled workers, artisans and designers in the industry. If you’re feeling like you need some bling, than there is no shortage of silver and skillfully crafted gold pieces, especially on the islands.