Impressions of Greece

We drove south from Bulgaria into Greece on our own personal bailout mission for the Greek economy.  Exiting the lush mountains of Bulgaria, we immediately noticed a difference.  Although greener than we had expected (at least in the North), Greece had smaller mountains, larger valleys, and less vegetation.  Here are some things I find interesting about Greece:

  • The Greek alphabet, like the Cyrillic alphabet of Bulgaria, is difficult to read.  My background in mathematics allows me to identify most of the letter names, from which I can often guess their sounds, but it’s a challenge.  Thankfully the names of most towns on signs also have the Latin character equivalents (a requirement of European Union membership), which makes it possible to match them to our map and GPS.
  • Other than Athens, most Greek towns seem very quiet.  There are not a lot of shops open nor activity on the street, other than men drinking and talking at the local coffee shop.  At first we thought it might be a holiday, but it appears that most days are that quiet.
  • Many places in Greece have ridiculously low speed limits and a proliferation of stop signs.  However, after Romania and Bulgaria where roadside police were a common occurrence, we haven’t seen a single police officer on the side of a road in Greece.  The only place we’ve seen them is hanging out in town, sitting on their motorcycles in groups and talking.
  • Perhaps because of the previous point, Greek drivers ignore the rules of the road and the speed limits (e.g. not stopping at stop signs, passing on the right, lane splitting on scooters or with cars, double or triple parking).  In Athens, like in Italy, scooters and small motorcycles swarm about the vehicle while driving (their high pitched engines even sound like bees), and wriggle their way to the front of the line at traffic lights.
  • We were shocked by the first campsite we visited in Greece.  Although it was one that is inspected annually by ACSI (a camping club that we belong to), the place was a mess.  Many people leave their trailers there and awnings up permanently, but many had collapsed.  We decided to move on, but I asked the manager why the mess, and he said that they had half a meter of snow this winter, something they never get.
  • Greece has a growing problem with illegal immigration from Turkey and the Arab Spring countries.  As it is the closest EU country to the Middle East, the short, porous border between Greece and Turkey has become a gateway, an issue for Greece and now for the other members of the EU (another reason to them to complain about Greece!)
  • We visited Syntagma (Constitution) Square in Athens, the site of most of the protests about cutbacks imposed as a result of the Greek debt crisis, the ones we’ve seen on the news.  There were no protests to be seen, nor have there been any anywhere in Greece recently.  Localized protests that make the news leave the impression of something much larger.  The negative press has had a big impact on tourism though.  It is down considerably, reducing Greece’s primary source of foreign income, and therefore its ability to pay back the debt.
View from the top of steps overlooking square filled with normal people going about their business

All quiet on Syntagma Square

  • There are over 2500 archeological sites in Greece.  It is expensive to excavate them, but much more expensive to preserve and maintain them.  Without a direct source of income, like visitor admission fees, many are unsustainable.  As a result, some sites have not been excavated or have even been recovered with dirt to protect them.  It’s ironic that the countries with the legacy of the world’s great archaeological sites are ones less equipped to afford them (e.g. Greece, Turkey, Egypt).
  • Almost 35% of Greece’s population lives in Athens.  For a variety of reasons, Athens grew in an uncontrolled fashion, and in 1990 was one of the least desirable capital cities in Europe.  It was very polluted, noisy, and crowded with cars.  This improved when it underwent a major re-vamp in preparation for the Summer Olympics in 2004.  Major improvements like new Olympic facilities, a new subway, and some pedestrianized streets, along with a lot of general cleanup, have greatly improved Athens.  But it still isn’t a particularly great capital city nor particularly clean.  Most people just spend 2 or 3 days visiting the monuments and museums and then head for a Greek island.
  • There are a surprising number of people begging in Greece, more than we’ve recently experiences in Central/Eastern Europe where living conditions are generally lower.  Like most places in Europe there are Roma (gypsy) people begging here, but others as well. • Like in many places in Europe, graffiti is a problem in Greece.  It’s a bit weird to see it written in Greek letters.  Thankfully most of the ancient monuments have been spared, but not the traffic signs.  Spray paint and stickers placed all over traffic signs often make them illegible, which is not only annoying but dangerous.  In Canada, although we have graffiti, it almost never blocks traffic signs.
Round red traffic sign covered in worn white stickers making it illegible

Can you read this important traffic sign?

  • Greek food is terrific.  In addition to all the foods familiar from our Greek restaurants back home, there is a proliferation of seafood, usually grilled.  The calamari is bigger, the hummus is runnier, and the tzatsiki thicker (due to the Greek yoghurt).  We’ve noticed an alarming trend away from traditional roasted potatoes and towards serving meals with french fries.  Although I enjoy good french fries as much as the next guy, they most definitely do not belong between spanakopita and a Greek salad.
  • Free-camping outside of a campsite is officially prohibited but widely tolerated in Greece.  You can’t beat this free campsite.  Yes, that’s the Mediterranean in the background!
Our white motor home parked on the beach facing toward the camera with blue water and sky in the background

Surf’s Up!

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