Greece - A Country Overview

Information on Greece; its place geographically, history, government, climate, security, tourism and foreigners living in Greece...

Geography

Greece is located in south-eastern Europe, at the meeting point of three seas: the Ionian Sea to the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the south and the Aegean Sea to the east.

The Greek Archipelago takes up 7,500 Km of the country's total of 16,000 Km coastline, offering a highly diversified landscape of both sand and pebble beaches, sheltered bays and coves, coastal caves with steep rocks, and dark sand typical of volcanic soil and coastal wetlands.

Most of Greece's islands are found in the Aegean Sea, and are divided into seven groups (from north to south): the north-eastern Aegean Islands, the Sporades, the prefecture of Evia which lies to the east of Athens and the mainland peninsular, the islands of Argosaronic, the Cyclades (a group of 56 islands), the Dodecanese and Crete

Beyond the Aegean, in the Ionian Sea the main islands, from north to south are Corfu, Lefkada, Ithaca, Kefallonia and Zakynthos, while Kythira is situated to the south of the Peloponnese peninsular.

Climate

Greece enjoys one of Europe's warmest climates, with April, May, September and October being ideal times to visit. Southern Greece can be up to four degrees warmer than the north.

Greece has a Mediterranean climate with plenty of sunshine, mild temperatures and a limited amount of rainfall. Due to the country's geographical position, its rugged relief, and its distribution between the mainland and the sea, there is great variation in Greece's climate.

In summer, the dry hot days are cooled by seasonal winds called the meltemi, while mountainous regions have generally lower temperatures.

The winters are mild in lowland areas, with a minimum amount of snow and ice, yet the mountains are usually snow-covered. Moreover, a common phenomenon is the occurrence of different climactic conditions during the same season (for instance, mild heat in coastal areas and cool temperatures in mountainous regions).

History

The first traces of human habitation in Greece date back to the Palaeolithic Age (approximately 11,000-3,000 BC). During the Bronze Age (3,000-1,200 BC) the advanced Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations flourished. This was followed by a dark age marked by invasions, but by the 6th to 4th centuries BC, Greece was enjoying a cultural and literary revival, known as The Classical Period, or Golden Age. This was followed by a long period of internal strife and power struggles, culminating in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) in which the Spartans defeated the Athenians. Both were later overshadowed by Macedonia, under the guidance of the twenty year old King Alexander, who united the Greeks in Asia Minor and conquered Greece's enemy Persia, as well as Egypt and India. By then he was known as Alexander the Great and this era became known as the Hellenistic Age.

Roman incursions into Greece took place from 205 BC and Greece and Macedonia became Roman provinces by 146 BC. After the sub-division of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western empires in 395 AD, Greece came under allegiance of the city of Constantinople, leading to the illustrious Byzantine age, during which time the foundations for Orthodox Christianity were laid. By 1500 almost all of Greece had fallen to the Ottoman Turks, but by the 19th century, as the Ottoman Empire was in decline, the Greeks fought the War of Independence (1821-1832). Britain, France and Russia intervened, installing Otto of Bavaria as king. His ambition, The Great Idea, was to reunite all the lands of the Greek people to the Greek motherland, but in 1862 he was peacefully ousted and the Greeks elected George I, a Danish prince, as their king.

In WW1 Greece's prime minister Venizelos allied with France and Britain, which resulted in George's son, King Constantine, who was married to the Kaiser's sister Sophia, leaving the country. After the war The Great Idea was resurrected and Venizelos sent forces to occupy Smyrna (Izmir in Turkey), which had a predominantly Greek population. The army was repulsed and in 1923 there was a brutal population exchange between Greece and Turkey.

By 1930 George II, Constantine's son, was reinstated as king and he appointed General Metaxas as prime minister. In refusing Mussolini's request to allow Italian troops to cross Greece in 1940, he put Greece on the side of the allies. However, Greece fell to Germany in 1941, and resistance movements sprang up, divided into Royalist and Communist factions. This led to a civil war which lasted until 1949 and left the country in chaos. Political instability continued and in 1967 King Constantine fled the country. There followed a period of brutality and repression under the US-backed Regime of the Colonels, and after a failed assassination attempt on Cyprus's leader Archbishop Makarios, he was replaced with convicted murderer Nicos Samson. This prompted mainland Turkey to occupy North Cyprus, whose continued occupation remains one of Greece's most contentious issues. By 1974 the regime had crumbled and Greece became a republic, with the right-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) in power.

In 1981 Greece entered the European Community.

Politics and Government

Since 1975, democratic Greece has been a parliamentary republic with a president as head of state, elected for five year terms. The president and parliament, which has 300 deputies, have joint legislative power. The government is made up of a cabinet which includes a prime minister and 22 ministers.

The Greek two-party system is dominated by the liberal-conservative New Democracy (ND) and the social-democratic Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). Other significant parties include the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS).

Greece is divided into regions and island groups. The regions of the mainland are Central Greece (officially called Sterea Elladha), Epiros, Macedonia, the Peloponnese, Thessaly and Thrace.

The island groups are the Argo-Saronic, Cyclades, Dodecanese, Ionian, the North-Eastern Aegean, and the Sporades. The large islands of Evia and Crete do not belong to any group. For administrative purposes these regions and groups are divided into prefectures.

Economy

Traditionally Greece was an agricultural country, but today the importance of agriculture is declining, and tourism is Greece's biggest industry, with shipping second, accounting for 4.5 percent of GDP. The Greek-owned maritime fleet is the largest in the world, with 3,079 vessels accounting for 18 percent of the world's fleet capacity.

Greece has the lowest income per capita of all the EC countries other than Portugal. The financial crisis of the late 2000s hit Greece particularly hard; high public spending and widespread tax evasion, along with the credit crunch and the resulting recession, has left the country with a crippling debt burden.

Fearing defaults on debt payments, the eurozone countries have agreed on aid packages worth billions of euros to rescue Greece's economy. This has led to huge cuts in public spending and tax increases, prompting fears of social unrest and instability.

Tourism

An important percentage of Greece's income comes from tourism. In 2009, Greece had over 19.3 million tourists, and in 2011, Santorini was voted as 'The World's Best Island' in Travel & Leisure Magazine, with Mykonos, its neighbouring island, taking fifth place.

Crete, Rhodes, Corfu, the Dodecanese and the Cylades are some of the famous and popular islands and island clusters in Greece.

Away from the beaches, Greece is also renowned for its archaeological sites, of which Delphi, Knossos, the Acropolis and Olympia are the most popular:

Delphi, in central Greece, is set on Mount Parnosos, overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. It was believed by the ancient Greeks to be the centre of the world, and its grandest building, the Temple of Apollo, was the most important oracle, with kings, generals, politicians and pilgrims consulting it during the nine warmest months of each year.

Knossos is the most magnificent of Crete's Minoan sites. In 1900 its ruins were discovered by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur John Evans (1851-1941), who subsequently spent a fortune reconstructing some of the buildings. The site consists of a vast palace (22,000m2), which was both a royal residence and the political and ceremonial centre of Minoan culture, and includes courtyards, banquet rooms, private living quarters, religious areas and storage rooms.

The Acropolis in Athens was rebuilt during the city's golden age in the 5th century BC. South of the entrance stands the temple of Athena Nike, built in commemoration of the victory of the Greeks against the Persians. The Parthenon was completed in 438 BC and dedicated to Athena, patron of the city of Athens.

Olympia, on the Peloponnese peninsular, is the shrine of Zeus, in whose honour the Olympic Games were held every four years.

Security

The crime rate in Greece is one of the lowest in the European Union, but while violent crime is rare, petty theft, car theft and burglaries are on the rise, mostly in central Athens.

Foreigners/expats

Greece's large coastline and multiple islands mean that policing the entry of migrants is difficult, but it is believed that Albanian migrants make up about 70 percent of foreigners living in Greece, while recent immigrant groups have come from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the former Yugoslavian countries.

The most popular places for expatriates to live include Athens, the Peloponnese peninsula and Thessaloniki, as well as the islands of Corfu, Crete and Rhodes, which are popular with retirees.