A Year Prior: Planner

Every trip begins with dreams, and lists, and this will be no exception. The first entry on your first list, and there will be others, should read “Apply for or Renew Passport.” And because accomplishing this task, and many others I will “assign” you online, is so easy, perhaps you won’t leave it till the last minute. Besides, having your travel documents in hand, early, begins to make a reality of your dreams.

Athens Airport traveling light


US citizens may apply for passports at many local post offices (online, go to http://iafdb.travel.state.gov/ to locate the nearest facility where you can apply for a passport in person) or, what’s easier for many of us, apply for a first time passport online (for a fee) and avoid the lines at the post office.

Entry Requirements

Currently, a valid US Passport, but no visa, is required for a tourist/business stay of up to 90 days in Greece. There’s other valuable information housed on this site for travelers, but for more specific questions regarding Greece, contact the Consular Section of the Embassy of Greece, at 2221 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20008 Tel: (202) 939-5818 or –5800, or your nearest Greek Consulate: California Tel: (310) 826-5555 or (415) 775- 2102/4; Georgia Tel: (404) 261-3313; Illinois Tel: (312) 335-3915 or –17; Louisiana Tel: (504) 523-1167; Massachusetts Tel: (617) 543-0100; New York Tel: (212) 988-5500; or Texas Tel: (713) 840- 7522. Go to http://www.greekembassy.org on the internet.

Blue portal Mykonos

State Department Information

The US Department of State information page for Travel and Living Abroad also provides lots of helpful data and links regarding health issues and travel advisories, women and older people traveling alone, aviation safety, what they call “country background notes,” etc., etc. You can get lost in the wealth of material on this site, so it’s good to tackle it well in advance of your trip. Access http://www.state.gov/travel/index.htm online.

International Driving Permits

Though I have never been asked to present an International Driving Permit to Greek traffic police, and have used only my valid US driver’s license when renting cars in the islands, I do know travelers who have needed the international document in Athens. Automobile Association of America, or AAA, members may go to their nearest AAA office to apply, and for a discounted fee. Most AAA offices will take the photographs you need on the spot.

Ancient footsteps Santorini

Reading Up (on Ancient & Modern Greece)

This section is a work-in-progress, as I have sent out letters regarding personalized reading lists to philhellenes, scholars specializing in Ancient and Modern Greece, writers in and about and from Greece, and knowledgeable friends who make the country their home full- or part-time asking the following question: “If you had a literate, English-speaking friend, not necessarily in the Humanities, who was planning to spend a period of from 2-6 weeks in Greece a calendar year from now, what books on Greece would you lend her/him to read to acquaint her/himself with the country, ancient and modern?”

• From Elizabeth Boleman-Herring:

Acquiring a liberal education is the work of a lifetime. Most autodidacts—and, in America, we are now all autodidacts, if we are “didact” at all—create a loosely woven web of knowledge, and then hope they have enough decades of reading and looking and listening ahead of them to fill in at least some of the largest holes.

When it comes to educating yourself about ‘things Greek,’ I think it’s best to take a multi-media approach. Visit a great museum with a notable collection of Ancient Greek artifacts, and look at the objects themselves. Subscribe to the excellent (!) periodical, Odyssey: The World of Greece, for a year (access their site at www.odyssey.gr online). Go to www.pbs.org, and order a two-part video which is part of their “Empires” series, The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization.

Bridge in mid-air, Santorini

And watch other videos as well: Zorba the Greek, of course, but then just anything else good (Shirley Valentine, Z, Paul Mazursky’s Tempest), bad (Summer Lovers, Mama Mia: The Movie) or indifferent (The Big Blue—although the latter is just so awful that I like it) that features the Greek landscape.

Popular history as conceived by A. R. Burn, in “A Traveller’s History of Greece,” and by A. R. and Mary Burn in “The Living Past of Greece,” will give you a condensed overview of what you missed in school. (T. Peter Limber’s “Hellenika” is another accessible reader’s digest of Greek history, alpha to omega.)

Picture books? There’s “Greek Style,” by Suzanne Slesin, Stafford Cliff and Daniel Rozenszatroch; “Greece in Poetry: With Paintings, Drawings, Photographs and Other Works of Art,” edited by Simoni Zafiropoulos; and “The Greek File: Images from a Mythic Land,” by William Abranowicz.

Mykonian arpeggios

Moving into Modern Greece and Modern Greek letters, gradually, read “The Rediscovery of Greece: Travellers and Painters of the Romantic Era,” by Fani-Maria Tsigakou; “Greece Without Columns,” by David Holden; “The Pursuit of Greece: An Anthology Selected by Philip Sherrard” (from Denise Harvey & Company, Athens), and “Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey, 1937-47,” by Edmund Keeley. (And don’t stop there with Keeley: just take a look at his bibliography.)

Please do not miss: Henry Miller’s “The Colossus of Maroussi;” “Prospero’s Cell,” and “Reflections on a Marine Venus” by Lawrence Durrell; “Roumeli,” and “Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese,” by Patrick Leigh Fermor; and “The Flight of Ikaros,” by Kevin Andrews.

For an expatriate Australian woman’s take on life outside Kalamata, read any of Gillian Bouras’s books from Penguin: “A Foreign Wife,” “A Stranger Here,” “Aphrodite and the Others,” and “Starting Again.” For a lovely, evocative memoir and chronicle of a ship-owning family from Kasos, read Elias Kulukundis’s “The Feasts of Memory: Stories of a Greek Family” (out in a new edition from Peter E. Randall). And, if you’re up to its heft, dive into Peter Green’s “Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age”—though you may need more than a year to digest this magnum opus.

Mykonian town residence

• From Dr. Josiah Ober, Professor of Classics and Human Values, Princeton University:

When I was preparing to head off to Greece for the first time, in the mid-1970s, my graduate advisor (a distinguished professor of ancient history who had lived in Greece in the 1950s) recommended I read only one book in preparation: Henry Miller’s “Colossus of Maroussi.” Looking back, that still seems good advice: Miller’s post-World War II Greece is in many ways different from the Greece a visitor will encounter today, but his determination to focus on the contemporary and cultural (and his inability to avoid the ancient, historical, and political) remains inspiring—and of course he’s a great writer. My advisor did not know that I had already consumed most of Nikos Kazantzakis—beginning, inevitably, with “Zorba,” but then moving through the much darker and mystical works, like “The Fratricides” and “Last Temptation of Christ.” Like Miller, Kazantzakis helped me to connect the modern Greece I would encounter with the ancient world that was to become my life’s work.

Coming to Greece as a visitor always means moving about, from town to town, through the country, over the sea. So your advance reading should pay attention to place and to travel itself. Among classical works, I would recommend Homer’s “Odyssey” (the ultimate travel epic). Read some Greek tragedies, with special attention to the setting of each play: Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (Argos/Mycenae: where great dreams are realized and dashed), Aeschlus’s Eumenides (Athens: where human justice is possible), Sophocles’s Antigone (Thebes: where nothing ever goes right), Euripides’s Ion (Delphi: where things work out in the end). Read Pausanias’s “Guide to Greece”: this Roman-era super-tourist is no prose stylist, but he gives the modern reader a vivid sense of what Greece looked and felt like, after the “glory that was. . .” but before the destruction of ancient pagan culture. This place-centered ancient literature should make your own travels through Greece that much more real and evocative.

Good neighbor Santorini

You must fill the ancient (and modern) landscapes with people, so read some of Plutarch’s “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.” Again pay attention to place—Pericles of Athens, Lycurgus of Sparta, Pelopidas of Thebes—very different men from very different towns. And when you’ve had enough of Plutarch’s moralizing, turn to Menander’s sly comedies. They seem at first to be fluffy boy-meets-girl sitcoms, but underneath lurks sharp sociopolitical satire. Menander wrote in an era in which much had been lost, rough thugs ran most of the world, but hope was not extinguished: Menander’s laughter among the ruins will help to make sense of Miller’s Colossus and Kazantzakis’s Zorba, and of the Greece that awaits you.

Top it all off with Simon Goldhill’s recent “Who Needs Greek?”—a bravura romp through 20 centuries of intellectual engagement with Greek language and culture. Goldhill’s book will explain to you why you feel compelled to do all this serious advance reading before experiencing Greece for yourself (did you, would you, feel the same compulsion before spring break in Cancun?).

Wish you were here

• From Dr. Edmund Keeley, author of “Inventing Paradise”:

Dear Elizabeth: to be honest, your suggestions have really co-opted mine since they include (along with your generous comment re Keeley) works by Miller, Durrell, Kevin Andrews, Philip Sherrard, and Paddy Leigh Fermor, all that I tried to promote in my sometimes less than subtle way in “Inventing Paradise.” In fact, I had the potential new traveler to Greece in mind throughout the book, hence my effort to include descriptions of Athens, Salonica, and the landscape of rural Greece on any excuse I could fashion—and this also meant ample quotation from the modern Greek poets.

If I were to add anything to your list, it would be an anthology that included the best of those poets, and of course the first that comes to mind is the Princeton University Press “Voices of Modern Greece,” also available as “A Greek Quintet” from Denise Harvey. And there are other possible sources for the poetic sensibility in Anglo-American poets who have written convincingly about Greece (a new anthology compiled by Don Schofield, for example).

And Josh’s suggestions are valuable regarding the ancient tradition. On the modern tradition, he takes us back to where I too started my reading a half-century ago, and that puts us something like a generation out of date for those who want mostly pure current reality.

…how about adding to the list a good short history of modern Greece, e.g., that by Richard Clogg?

Boat tickets to Paradise Mykonos

• From Gillian Bouras, Australian author of “A Foreign Wife”:

For more Australian reactions: these are from 50 years ago and so speak of a vanished Kalymnos and Hydra: Charmian Clift: “Mermaid Singing” and “Peel Me a Lotus.”

Beverley Farmer: “Milk” and “The House in the Light.”

Academic stuff: I’m very fond of the late lamented Peter Levi’s works: “The Pelican History of Greek Literature,” “The Hill of Kronos” (a personal portrait of Greece), “A Bottle in the Shade” (a journey in the western Peloponnese).

“A Dictionary of Mythology”: mine is ancient; there must be good modern ones around. Robert Graves and both vols. of “The Greek Myths.”

Byzantium: 3 vols by John Julius Norwich. “A Short History of Modern Greece,” by Richard Clogg. Constantinople: “City of the World’s Desire,” by Philip Mansel.

“Dinner with Persephone,” by Patricia Storace. ( I swore I would never read it, and then somebody lent it to me, and I couldn’t put it down.)

“Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” by Louis de Bernieres. A flawed novel, but very penetrating in its understanding of ‘Greekness.’

“The Mule’s Foal,” by Fotini Epanomitis and “God’s Snake” by Irini Spanidou. “Eleni” by Nicholas Gage. “The Greek Islands,” by Lawrence Durrell. “My Family and Other Animals,” by Gerald Durrell (a vanished Corfu).

“The Orthodox Church,” by Timothy Ware, who is now Fr. Kallistos ( I think) at Mt. Athos. I think this is a must for any understanding of what makes Greeks tick.

Greek Orthodox interior

“A Literary Companion to Travel in Greece,” (ed) Richard Stoneman.

“The Legacy of the Ancient World,” by W. G De Burgh. (Very old, but good.)

“Winds of Crete,” by David MacNeil Doren.

“Stranger and Friend,” by Nance Donkin.

The Geo Sfikas series on Greek plants, medicinal and otherwise, trees and birds.

The worry is that some of these will be out of print.

Belltowers, Santorini

• From Vicki Politis, Writer on Contemporary Art:

Even though I feel as though I know Greece like the back of my hand, having lived here for the greater part of my life (and having traveled extensively), whenever I venture out now, I always have with me Richard Stoneman’s “A Literary Companion to Travel in Greece.” It is a wonderful compendium of selections from the writings of travelers from antiquity to the “Grand Tour” tourists of the 19th century. With great sensitivity, their writings convey various aspects of Greek history, people and landscape. It is arranged by area, so is easy to use.

I can think of movies galore, from Micahel Cacoyannis’s Electra and Iphigenia to the unforgettable Never on Sunday, with Melina Mercouri and, a film that I still remember clearly from the time I saw it as a six-year-old (maybe it was my first color movie, I don’t know), Boy on a Dolphin, with Sophia Loren and Alan Ladd.

For a brief history of Greece, from Byzantium to the mid-1970s, I always refer to C.M. Woodhouse’s “Modern Greece: A Short History.” It is very readable on its own, although I use it primarily for reference.

Who hasn’t written on Greece, its landscape and manners? Lawrence Durrell’s “Prospero’s Cell,” with Corfu as its central character, his “Reflections on a Marine Venus,” which makes you yearn for Rhodes, and “Bitter Lemons,” which covers the troubled years of 1953-56 in Cyprus—all are a must.

Oh! and John Fowles’s “The Magus.”

Loyal transport Mykonos

• From Michael House, Barrister (and Peripatetic World Traveler):

Most of the books I would suggest have already been chosen by prior contributors, so I will try to add a few special favorites. I should warn readers that I lean towards the frivolous rather than the worthy or erudite in my reading habits.

Anything on Greece by Dilys Powell is a must. She has a knack of rendering the rhythms of Greek speech into English which I think is unique. Her prose is spare and sinewy, utterly different from the Leigh Fermor/Levi tendency, but just as evocative.

A very straight English tourist, almost a caricature of Englishness, wrote three very funny books on Greece, supplemented by delightful line drawings. The writer is John Ebdon and the books are “Ebdon’s Iliad,” “Ebdon’s Odyssey” and “Near Myths.”

Other indispensible books are “Classical Landscape with  Figures,” by Osbert Lancaster, a wonderful mix of architecture, politics, history and character spiced with witty and atmospheric drawings; “Greece Untrodden,” by Alan Wace, a little book of short stories by a distinguished archaeologist; “The Dancing Floor,” by John Buchan, which looks at a darker side of the psyche of island Greeks; and—back to frivolity—“The Bananaless Republic,” by Alex Kitroeff, a columnist on The Athenian magazine (now, alas, defunct) who finds his fellow countrymen a neverending source of hilarity.

Signs in a new tongue

Language Study (Learning Modern Greek)

When I arrived in Athens as a child, I experienced a monumental block when it came to learning Modern, or Demotic, Greek which is, as opposed to Ancient Greek, the spoken language of the Greeks of today. In grammar school, I was also studying French, which added to my linguistic confusion but, for the most part, I felt back then that if I took on Greek I would lose my grip on all things American. So, stubbornly, I resisted picking up the language.

Later, when, as a young adult, I studied Greek while working on my Master’s degree in English, I found I had retained a layer of bedrock in terms of vocabulary and grammar, but I do not pretend to be one of those blessed with a gift for picking up foreign languages effortlessly and my studies were a struggle. Most English-speaking adults will find Greek a distinct challenge, but I cannot emphasize strongly enough that if you intend to spend a long vacation in Greece, you should make a stab at acquiring a liberal smattering of the language. The Greeks will respect you for it, and it will enrich your visit beyond measure. (I won’t go into the intellectual benefits of taking on a new language in adulthood, but I believe they are significant. Use that grey matter—stretch its limits—or lose it. And hey, learn to swear in Greek while you’re at it: a colorful bonus.)

That said, I am happy to report that it could not be easier to find a Modern Greek studies program near you. Almost all Greek Orthodox churches offer Greek courses. And many US colleges and universities also offer both courses in Greek language and Hellenic Studies. If this trip is something upon which you place a great value, why not take this small step, a year ahead of time, and learn some Greek? In studying the language with a native speaker, a Greek, you will also be given an introduction to the culture and literature of the country.

Access a list of texts for students of Modern Greek, annotated, at the Modern Greek Studies Association website (http://www.humanities.uci.edu/classics/MGSA/mgtexts.html), which is also a great place to research other, related topics.

Hands-on study of Aphrodite

These texts are available at many online booksellers, but I especially recommend www.greeceinprint.com ([email protected] or Tel: 1-800-267-6672) as a source for locating and ordering all books, and other materials, relating to Greece.

That said, the single best way I myself have found for a traveler to learn Greek—and perhaps any modern language—is through purchasing the language-courses-on-DVD produced by Rosetta Stone (www.rosettastone.com and www.rosettastone.co.uk).

To quote from the material accompanying the Greek course (Ellinika), “The Rosetta Stone Program is designed to teach you a new language the way you learned your first language: by directly associating words—written and spoken—with objects, actions and ideas that convery meaning. . . . Rosetta Stone uses Dynamic Immersion, a method that simulates a real-life immersion experience and relies on your active participation.” It works like a charm, this course, if you’re willing to put in about an hour a day.

Hellas's blue-and-white flag

Hellenic Studies

Well, I did subtitle this site “The Thinking Traveler’s Guide to Hellas,” so you came aboard forewarned. But this section is really for retirees, those employed only part-time, and/or elder hostellers. If you’ve decided to head off for a lengthy stay in Greece a year or so from now, why not see what courses are available to audit at your local institution of higher learning? You’ve got the time to study, so why not show up in Greece with some knowledge under your belt?

To whet your appetite, just look at some of what was offered one recent fall by Princeton University’s Program in Hellenic Studies: The Mediterranean and Its Travelers; Elementary Modern Greek; Byzantine Art and Architecture; Europe and Greece—Between East and West; Greek Archaeology of the Bronze Age; Architecture of Periclean Athens; Participatory Democracy—From Ancient Athens to the Postmodern Organization; Socrates; Tragic Drama; The Philosophy of Aristotle; and Medieval Art: Byzantine Monasteries. And that’s only a partial list.

Here’s a course description of The Mediterranean and Its Travelers: “In this seminar we will look closely at the fascination which the physical and cultural environment of the Mediterranean has exerted on its travelers since antiquity. We will ask what the Mediterranean is, how far it stretches, and whether it is an area of geographical and cultural unity. We will also explore the link between travel, curiosity and the imagination, and the idea that travel somehow changes the traveler who writes about it. To this end, we will look at travelers from different periods and to different areas of the Mediterranean, including the ancient historian Herodotus; early pilgrims to the Holy Land; artists and poets in search of artifacts and inspiration; adventurous women travelers in the 18th and 19th century; Mark Twain (who raises the question: is a traveler the same as a tourist?); and some contemporary travel writers and film makers.”

OK. Yes. Princeton’s Hellenic Studies Program is unique. But go online and have a look. Few of us now live farther than a stone’s throw from a university, and courses on point are available in a slew of departments: Architecture, Art, Classics, Drama, History, Literature and Philosophy, to name just a few.

Morning retreat Santorini

Athenian Newspapers: Subscribe!

Well, don’t “subscribe,” precisely. Just access one online. My advice to all travelers, whether they’re bound for Alaska or Astrakhan, is to read a local newspaper for about six months in advance of your trip. There’s nothing like it to show you the lay of the land ahead of time. My favorite online Athenian paper is the English-language edition of Kathimerini, accessible online at http://www.ekathimerini.com/. The Athens News is another fine paper in English. To access it online, go to http://www.athensnews.gr/athweb/nathens.index_htm?e=C.

Dimitris Gritzallis, Always EnRoute

My Own Travel Agents

Actually, this section should be titled: My Own Athens Travel Agents, or “Are you Dimitris?” OK. Never say that I didn’t offer you my Number 1 Trade Secret of Greek Travel for free: just read on.

These days, having your own, personal, knowledgeable, trusted, proven travel agent in Athens is an absolute must, as far as I am concerned. I myself can’t, won’t, make a move in Greece any longer without Dimitris’s help. In fact, in all the Greek guide books I’ve written heretofore for Insight Guides, there is Dimitris Gritzalis, center stage. (His offices have moved, though, since my “Insight Pocket Guide: Corfu” came out a couple of years ago, so unless you’re reading this paragraph online, you’ll have a hard time locating him

When you call, tell them Elizabeth Boleman-Herring sent you. And when you get Dimitris on the line, or online, ask him, “Are you Dimitris?”

Dimitris, his family and I have been friends for years, and so I trust them with your itineraries as well as my own. They’ve never once let me down, and I’ve got myself into some logistical pickles over the years.

In fact, we first met in mid-pickle, one terrible night about 12 years ago. I’d taken the advice of a close friend (who also has an online Greek travel site, alas) and had fronted up, with my middle-class, middle-aged, golf-playing, 30th-anniversary-celebrating, South Carolinian cousins, Lana and Randy, at a hotel my online friend had recommended in the Plaka area of Athens.

Dimitris, navigating the Athenian Metro

Lana and I took one look at the place, and stepped gingerly back out into the street: it was the worst dive I had ever poked my head into, and the three of us fled in horror, pulling many wheeled suitcases in our weary wake. (We’d gone straight from a transatlantic flight to Ye Olde Athenian Flophouse!)

Cursing my friend, whom I’ll call Chrysostomos, vociferously, in colorful Alexandrian Greek, I led my poor, tired cousins from one Plaka hotel to another: all were fully booked. At long last, a kindly hotelier took pity on us and phoned his travel-agent friend, who just happened to be Dimitris Gritzalis, to ask if he could find rooms for us.

Dimitris could, and did, and we became fast friends over the course of that summer of travel back and forth between Athens and the islands.

My cousins had a wonderful time, and forgave me the gaffe of our first night in Athens. (I’d forgiven Chrysostomos until I again took his advice when seeking lodging on Lesvos one year, and ended up in yet another dive!) What’s funny is that, when Lana, Randy and I finally showed up on his doorstep, face to face, I said to Dimitris, naturally, “Are you Dimitris?” and, since then, every other traveler I’ve routed to Always En Route Travel has asked him the same question. He’s threatened to print his response—“Yes, Elizabeth, I’m Dimitris!”—on T-shirts.

So, you’ll find Dimitris, his wife, and daughters, at their agency, called Always En Route Travel, either on the ground, in a suburb of Athens or, much more easily, via phone, fax or e-mail. Here is a link for information about my travel agent.

Your cousins, and everyone else you know, will be safe in their care.

A welcoming hand Santorini

Cell Phones (in Greece)

They’re readily available, and use pre-paid cards, so there’s no muss, no fuss. The best deals, however, vary from month to month, so this is something I’ll let Dimitris Gritzalis handle for you. Let him know you’ll need to rent a cell phone, and for what dates. Arrange to pay by credit card and pick the phone up from them, or a dealer they recommend, in Athens when you arrive.

Out of shape in the Mykonian sun

Getting In Shape

I cannot emphasize this enough: get in shape before you go to Greece. You are not going to enjoy this country as much as you should if you show up out of shape, overweight and unable to walk on fairly uneven terrain. Years and years ago, when I was accepted by The Experiment in International Living for a collegiate summer trip to Ireland, the organization insisted participants should all be able to walk a mile carrying all of their luggage. I thought they were nuts, and went off to New York with my two enormous, overstuffed suitcases, and this was way before wheeled luggage.

Just getting to the hotel in Manhattan convinced me I’d brought along way too much, however, so I sent one suitcase home with my parents. Since that summer—when I really did have to carry all my own luggage for well over a mile, and often—I have done my level best to get into shape before trips to Greece, AND to take the bare minimum along in the form of luggage. (Every year I pare down my list, and you’ll get the benefit of this long, painful process in my section on packing.)

For now, though, if you’re reading this a year ahead of your flight to Athens, bite the fitness bullet. Join the gym, lift weights, swim laps, run or walk outdoors in all weathers (in the shoes you’re planning to take with you), and maintain an exercise log to keep yourself honest. (I myself head off to Weight Watchers in earnest—OK, OK, I know it’s déclassé, but it works for me—and drop all that so-called winter weight before my departure. Every year. Middle age is NOT for wimps. Go to www.weightwatchers.com online for information on the program and meetings near you.) Believe me, you won’t want to show up on the beaches of Mykonos without doing some serious work on yourself, so let your full-length mirror be your conscience. Besides, if you lose ten pounds or so now, sampling the baklava later on won’t engender so much guilt.

PS Here follows another excerpt from “Greek Unorthodox,” which has to do with middle age. . .and my non-travel-related advice on ways to approach it.