After four fabulous months in Greece it’s time to start the long journey back to the UK for ArchieVan’s MOT. This is a summary of what we’ve learned, what we’ve experienced, and a few tips for anyone considering a similar trip.
Why Greece for winter?
During our Greek island holidays we envied the vans we saw tucked away near great beaches, and it was always on the cards that we’d spend time here. We did some research, but not that much. The main thing was to get an idea of the likely temperature – and the temperature looked fine.
The mountains keep rolling on, it’s the most mountainous country in Europe and there are always some in view. They often stretch right down to sea level making for dramatic cliffs and small beaches of bright white limestone pebbles. There are sandy beaches too, but they’re few and far between.
Spring comes early – now in February there are flowers everywhere, and right now the air is sweet with almond blossom. All through winter the thyme and sage scents the air, and there were always cyclamens brightening the olive groves too.
Winter weather in Greece.
Well it wasn’t quite what we expected, but it served us well.
It was hot when I crossed the border into Greece back in early November, and it’ll be pleasantly warm when we leave this week. In between we have seen all weathers.
Every Greek we spoke to told us how it has been the worst winter in decades. There has been a fair amount of rain, and more snow than they’re used to, but we did a good job of being in the right place at the right time and only encountered snow when we climbed high into the mountains.
During January even at the most southerly tip we experienced nights around zero degrees, but every week brought some bright sunny days.
I swam lots in December, and a couple of times in January. Now that we’re into February I’m in the water every couple of days. It’s not warm, but it’s good for swimming a few hundred metres and emerging feeling truly alive and envigorated.
Today (17th February) we’ve had cloudless skies since dawn, it’s about 14 degrees out there. That doesn’t sound high, but if you’re sheltered from the wind you certainly won’t want much on. It hasn’t quite got to 20 degrees yet this year, but it has certainly been close.
Is Greece open in winter?
You realise how important tourism is as you drive around in winter. Outside of big towns probably 70% of shops and restaurants are closed. That’s OK though – the ones that are open tend to be more authentic, the ones that rely on locals rather than tourists.
There are mini-markets everywhere, think of The Co-op at home, but with more crammed into smaller spaces. They’re not the cheapest, but they’re OK. Lidl is the main bigger supermarket and all big towns have one.
We saved a fortune having fewer opportunities to eat out – the temptation of a taverna is hard for us to resist.
When we did eat out it we enjoyed simple good food. Occasionally it was excellent.
We judge a restaurant on its ubiquitous Greek salad. They range from good to brilliant. A good Greek salad and a basket of bread would easily suffice for lunch, and even with a miso kilo (half litre) of wine it’ll only cost about €10.
You can always get a coffee, even if the restaurant is closed. Most tavernas double up as the owners’ front room, and if they’re in watching TV you’ll be welcome to join them, and they’ll be glad of the excuse to light the fire.
Greek hospitality and welcome.
That leads nicely onto Greek hospitality.
Even though much of the country now depends on tourism, and the hoards of people must become a drag in summer, the welcome is truly heart warming.
Wherever you go people have a greeting for you, not just the older folk, even the kids say hello. There seems to be a “Rock, Paper, Scissors” game going on and the aim is to always respond with a different greeting to the one you’re offered. “Ya”, “Yassas”, “Yassu”, “Kalimera” or even the most difficult “Kalo apoyevma” are seemingly thrown out at random.
My desire to rent a place for a year and experience what it’s really like grows stronger the longer I’m here. Not some flash villa with a pool, just a little village house, with people around who’ll laugh at my attempts at Greek, while helping me along. Who’ll offer us an ouzo at breakfast time. Old boys who’ll teach us the art of slowly nursing a coffee through a whole morning.
Roads and native driving.
Greek roads are OK. Generally they’re empty too.
Having said that, they’re not always brilliant. Drastic state cuts have meant that repairs, and hedge trimming, haven’t happened in a while.
Despite the cuts and lack of maintenance Greek roads are certainly better than many in Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.
But they are often narrow and precipitous.
Think. Don’t automatically follow your navigation. Especially if you’re in a big motorhome. It’ll often take you off road, and through some gaps you might wince at! Height can be a problem through villages. Look up as well.
Outside of the cities driving is a laid back rather random affair. Most people seem to have a phone permanently clamped to their ear. No one seems bothered about driving fast, perhaps because so many of the vehicles are knackered old pick ups. They’ll still be going faster than you though, just pull in close and let them through.
Road discipline is rather less consistent than a northern European might desire.
Roundabouts are a free for all, and even researching the net as to who has priority isn’t conclusive. Take it easy and be ready to slam on the anchors in case someone decides to abide to the highway code as it was when they learned to drive decades ago.
Parking is mad and there seems no order no matter what road markings are in place. People get to where they want to be. And stop. Simple as that. Two cars deep? No problem. Blocking the road? Well, they won’t be long.
What do they drive?
I’ve mentioned the pick ups. Many are truly ancient – I want one!
Tax on prestige cars is punitive, and so most people drive small cars, and drive them until they fall to pieces. At that point the shell is often left on the roadside to slowly return to the soil. Likewise scooters and tractors.
There isn’t much of a second hand market and the crazy car status race we experience in England and Germany just doesn’t happen here – perhaps it’s different in Athens and Thessaloniki. It’s refreshing, but you have to remember that your precious van or motorhome is at greater risk of a bump or scrape as a consequence.
Fuel availability is good, and there is always pump service.
LPG is stocked at probably 20% of garages and only on The Mani did we travel a long way without seeing it for sale.
Garages always have toilets, and they’ll let you fill your water tank. They might be your only opportunity for emptying your toilet cassette too as public loos are non-existent (I have seen three in four months, and none of them were places you’d want to linger).
After a slow cruise through the former eastern European states Greek prices were a shock to us. In actual fact it’s probably similarly priced to Britain, although fuel is expensive and prices vary wildly. Near Athens diesel was only €1.25 a litre, but we’ve seen it above €1.50 too. Petrol is more expensive and heating oil is very expensive.
It’s all part of the tax issue. More people are self employed here than anywhere else in Europe, and very good at making a loss! The only way to achieve a tax income is direct taxation such as VAT and fuel duty.
Greece has been used the Euro since the start, adopting the currency in 2001 and launching the new Euro notes and coins in January 2002.
You will need cash. Outside of the towns it’s hit or miss. They may take cards. They may have a signal. They may not.
All ATMs charge a commission, and it’s between €2 and €3. Best then to draw a large amount once rather than many small ones. Thankfully there are plenty of machines, even though many are shut in the winter.
In winter the citrus are ripe. We have eaten so many oranges and kumquats straight from the tree. There are lemons all over too.
If scrumping oranges isn’t your bag then you can buy a couple of kilos for less than £2.
They’re also big on pulses which can make a delicious meal for very little cost. We’re getting good with chickpeas and lentils.
Finding spots to camp.
This is where Greece is simply superb.
In winter no one seems to mind provided you respect property and ask if you do see anyone. In summer too many people taking advantage I guess and we’ve read tales of the police moving people on.
In the countryside it’s unlikely you’ll see anyone, and even less likely that they’ll take umbrage.
We continued to use Park4night a lot, but also we’d simply pull up in a lay-by, or occasionally in town. ArchieVan is more subtle than most so this is a bit easier for us.
It’s also easy to leave a place better than you found it simply by gathering some of the rubbish that you’ll undoubtably see. It’s an unfortunate aspect of the country that people don’t care about rubbish, and tipping bins over seems to be a national sport.
Open campsites are few and far between, but there are enough for you to get your washing done every couple of weeks. Yacht Clubs usually offer laundry service too, although in Lefkada Marina it was €15 a load, only €10 at Vlyho.
Blimey Greek is hard! I’ve been at it for four months and while I can make myself understood, I haven’t a clue about what people respond with. If we stay a long time again I’ll work harder to at least be able to chew the fat about the weather.
In less tourist areas signs are only in Eliniko alfavito (Greek alphabet) and that’s a challenge! I decided not to learn the alphabet at first – that was a silly mistake. I’m catching up now, but it’s hard, especially when a letter that looks like a p sounds like an r, an r could be a y and a H is probably an I, it goes on.
Fortunately most people have enough English for the questions you’re likely to ask. You’re unlikely to get too stuck.
For one of the poorer countries in Europe Greece has excellent connectivity.
Most of our blog posts have been made using 4G.
Everywhere you go you’ll see a small groove had recently been cut along the roadside. That was the fibre optic cable being put in. And amazingly ever the smallest villages seemed to have been linked up.
We’re not looking forward to getting home to the UK’s embarrassing 4G coverage. And this morning, in Italy, I lost hours of work when the connection failed, hey ho (not my actual words at the time).
Although you’ll see a lot of men with guns I think they’ve long since shot the last wildlife.
We saw foxes, a couple of boar, and that’s about it. There are tales of bear and wolves, but we saw no signs of either even in the most remote places.
In the wonderfully clear sea you’ll see plenty of fish, including some big ones, and beautiful tropical looking varieties, but despite my long hours of gazing across the blue I didn’t see any dolphins, sharks, or other big sea creatures.
I’m in the hill village of Sivros now and the tweety birds are plentiful. They’re very pretty too flitting between the blossom heavy trees.
Bugs and beasties.
The high cat population keep the rats and snakes in check. We’ve seen a good number of snakes, some of which are a metre or so long, and of courses hundreds of geckos and other lizards. Minty spotted a single scorpion. One is fine. We had a holiday in a fabulous French villa once where scorpion watch was a full time job.
Through winter there have been no mossies, but the buggers are coming out now. My generally mild mannered wife goes bonkers when there are mossies disturbing her sleep and feeding off her sweet blood. The van becomes a killing zone. Polly and I try to hide in the toilet. I must investigate fly screens and a mossie trap for next year.
What did we do?
All the big cultural attractions are still open. Workers rights in Greece are very generous, and so places will often have more staff than visitors in winter. You could spend many years in Greece visiting ancient sites and learning about how advanced the culture once was compared to Britain’s.
The beaches are even more stunning with no one on them, and the sea is warm enough for swimming all year. No week was without days warm enough for sitting in a sheltered spot soaking up the beauty and calm of this incredible country.
You could ski, but we didn’t. Perhaps next time.
Mostly we took very long walks and helped a few tavernas stay in business. We drove about three thousand miles over four months, and there was hardly a boring stretch.
Is it for you?
Winter in southern Spain or Portugal is almost certainly warmer, but it’ll be more crowded too. Take a look at any van site and you’ll see them lining the beaches.
If you have driven this far south then the roads are unlikely to scare you too much. It’s usually a case of take it easy and gradually get used to the surroundings.
If you love raw beauty, big scenery, and sometimes going a whole day without seeing another soul, or even a car, then you may well love it as much as we have. It is hard to describe the continually changing scenery of this small, but spread out country. The land mass is about the same as England’s, but with only a fifth of the population. There must be boring areas somewhere, but we didn’t find them.
And for all their history of fighting, the Greeks are the most welcoming of any country we have visited yet.
I’m confident that we’ll be back. But now we have to board a big ugly ferry, and sail to Italy. So come on Bess, come on Ethel, or whatever your van is called. They all need a long winter in Greece.
ps: we’re in Italy now. Every attempt to publish over several hours failed. It’s all change. Look out for an update next week.