Greece is the cradle of democracy, but the baby grew up and became a screaming toddler of revolution and discord. You might be surprised to learn that Greece is actually a fairly young democracy in its current form, as there was a military coup that held power from 1967-1974. My children now say that I am older than Greek democracy (and the wheel, and dirt).
You have to love, or at least tolerate, historical facts like this if you are going to visit Greece. The deep and rich history of the region permeates everything, including the people, and is a part of every experience. Even the subway system was subverted by history; there were so many historical finds during the construction, Athenians joke that it was excavated entirely by archaeologists with toothbrushes.
Most people visit Greece during the warm months, leaving the tourist destinations abandoned during the winter months. If you love a bargain, winter is a great time to go. One awkward lesson that we learned was that the ferries run much less frequently during the off season, and the fast ferries don’t run at all. Luckily Aegean Air has cheap last minute tickets!
Being good little democrats, we began in Athens. We even walked up the hill where Pericles would lead the men of Athens for their primitive voting exercise; they probably held their open-air town hall meetings early in the morning to avoid the rush of tourists from the cruise ships. The Acropolis is just high enough above the city to rise above the human tsunami that crashes ashore in the summer, but in the winter is easily accessible and really an impressive sight.
Athens is very urban, and you can interpret that however you wish. If you are looking for bustling nightlife, clubs, and general debauchery, its a nice destination. If you don’t like pickpockets, traffic jams, or overpriced hotels, one or two days will be plenty.
If you seek relaxation, escape to the islands…
Crete is still a surprisingly wild place, given the thousands of years that it has been inhabited. There are snow-capped peaks, deep gorges with ancient switch-back paths, and New Zealand-esque sheep around every turn.
Luckily, there doesn’t seem to be any significant risk of intestinal parasites despite drinking fresh spring water during a hike. You get lucky sometimes….
Another important part of Greek island culture is the interwoven influence of Roman, Turkish, Greek, and Venetian colonization. We rented a house next to this cool Greek Orthodox church that has a belfry and a minaret; it had been a church and a mosque at various points, and nobody seems to mind the juxtaposition.
Crete has a large enough population that life goes on after the tourists leave in the fall; we found several great local restaurants, and enjoyed hiking the mountains and the ancient sea wall in Chania. It was a restful place to spend Christmas, and I’d go back in a heartbeat.
An ironic pattern to our trip is that Crete was the home of the Minoan civilization, which was destroyed by a tsunami created by the explosion of a volcano later known as Santorini, our next stop!
Santorini is rumored to have the best sunsets in the world; I don’t know that the sunsets are any better than in the southwestern US, but the views really are fantastic.
The many small Greek islands only have one speed; it is that speed at which the setting sun travels while you sit in a taverna sipping a glass of local red wine. Its a great pace. Another winter warning: similar to the ferry availability, around Christmas Santorini apparently dwindles to 4 open restaurants, a few stray dogs and cats, and my family. Luckily that’s exactly how we like it! My kids especially enjoyed petting the cats.
One of my favorite discoveries in Oia was a little bookstore in a converted cave house. In summary, this had been a cave, then a house, and now a bookstore. Barnes and Noble this is not.
I don’t think the Greek economy is going to boom anytime soon, so you probably have a few years before prices begin to rise; plan ahead ( or don’t, remember Aegean has cheap fares to bail out your failed plans to take the ferries…) and soak up the sun, sand and history of Greece while it lasts. At this rate, it might not be around in two or three thousand years.