With 50 years of experience, it’s safe to say that Sunvil are experts on holidays to Greece – here are their top 10 places to visit in the country’s oft-overlooked northern region.Read more...
Northern Greece - Travel and visas
Citizens of EU member states and holders of passports from some 50 nations do not need a visa for stays of up to 90 days. These include Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, Switzerland and the USA.
After the UK leaves the EU, documentation requirements for UK citizens may change. Check before travelling. All EU members can stay in Greece indefinitely. Most non-EU visitors (including those from the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) can stay for a maximum of 90 days in Greece and other Schengen-zone countries (most of the EU, but not the UK). Your passport may not be checked if arriving from another EU country, but you need to have it stamped to avoid problems leaving the country. If you want to stay longer, it is best to contact a Greek embassy before your trip.
International airports handy for northern Greece include Athens, Thessaloníki, Vólos, Skiáthos, Kavála and Préveza. Direct year-round flights to Athens International Airport (Elefthérios Venizélos) leave from London, and, less frequently, Manchester (3½–4hrs). EasyJet is often cheapest. Other airlines that currently serve these routes are British Airways, Aegean and Olympic Air – compare dates and prices with skyscanner.net. Athens is also accessible by air from most of the rest of the world.
From the UK, take the Eurostar across the Channel and connect with a fast train; if you’re lucky, a journey from London St Pancras to Ancona or Venice can take as little as 14 hours but average at 21 hours, changing in Paris (Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon). See seat61.com for options – although it’s almost impossible to find a train cheaper than a flight, especially after adding on the ferry crossings to Greece. Or you can go overland via Paris (change to the Gare de l’Est), to Thessaloníki, calling at Munich, Belgrade and Sofia, which will take at least 55 hours on the rails with suggested overnight stops in Munich and Sofia.
If you are planning to be in Greece for any length of time, it may make sense to bring your car over from the UK. You are allowed to keep it in the country for six months (keep hold of your ferry ticket as proof). Although this is rarely checked, if you are caught out (for instance if you have an accident or are caught speeding) your car will be immediately impounded and the fine to release it can be more than the car is worth. The quickest route is by way of Calais, through France and Switzerland, then on to Italy, where you catch a ferry, though this entails quite heavy road tolls in France and Italy (Calais to Ancona €39), and also the Swiss road tax (CHF40).
If you sail from Venice – a magical place to sail out of or into as the ferry seems to go through the old city – then the drive can be done in 13 hours. The sea crossing takes just over a day, meaning you could do the whole trip over a long two days (sleeping on the ferry to Igoumenítsa). If you stop overnight on the way to or from Italy at a campsite or budget hotel, and travel deck class on the ferry, it will cost around €500 per couple one way. If you are going to be in Greece for a month or more this can compare favourably with the cost of a flight and car hire (and you can carry a lot more stuff). If your visit is going to be an extended one, to avoid difficulties when you leave, you can also ask to have your car stamped in your passport on arrival. If you leave Greece without your car, you must have it withdrawn from circulation by a customs authority.
Ferries to Ferries to Greece from Italy nearly always run overnight. The main port for northern Greece is Igoumenítsa, which can be reached from Venice (25–29hrs, from €440 return with a car), Ancona (16hrs, from €430 return), Bari (10hrs, from €230 return) and Brindisi (7.5–10hrs, from €216 return).
There are various forms of accommodation on board: the cheapest, ‘deck’ class, does not mean you are confined outside. You are allowed in the communal areas, and in the low season will often find a spot to stretch out and sleep. In high season you may have to sleep out on the deck, although there are usually plenty of sheltered areas (a sleeping mat or pop-up tent is an advantage).
There are domestic flights from Athens to Thessaloníki, Alexandroúpolis, Ioánnina, Kastoriá, Kavála, Kozáni, Préveza (summer only) and Skiáthos and other Greek airports. Olympic and Aegean are the main carriers, but also see Astra Airlines, Ellinair, Ryanair and Sky Express.
Trains are the cheapest way to get around northern Greece, but by European standards service is patchy, slow and old-fashioned. During the austerity crisis Greece sold off its floundering railway (OSE) to Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato, which is determined to improve things. E-tickets are available online for up to 10 minutes before departure.
A new Intercity (IC) fast train links Athens to Thessaloníki via Lárissa and there are current plans to improve the entire route from Igoumenítsa to Alexandroúpolis. Rail buffs won’t want to miss the very-narrow-gauge Little Pelion Train, which now runs a heritage route.
Greek public bus services (KTEL) are run by the provinces, with different ticket booths in the bus stations, which can be confusing; all have websites of varying degrees of usefulness. Once aboard, however, buses are fast and efficient, at least on main routes, and the buses themselves are modern, comfortable and air conditioned (although the toilet is seldom open). On intercity routes, you buy a ticket in advance and seating is assigned; in July and August and during the holidays, reserve early to get a seat, especially on buses to and from Athens. On rural routes, buy tickets from a conductor or the driver on the bus. If there are only a couple of buses a day, they tend to be first thing and in the early afternoon, designed for local students and shoppers.
By car or motorbike
Unless you want to confine yourself to the major towns or a beach, the easiest way to get around is by hiring a car. In peak season you can get a small car for around €30 a day. The unexpected can happen in Greece, so do get the most comprehensive insurance cover you can. A photo licence from any EU country is valid; other nationals should have an International Driving Permit. Allow enough time to obtain one from your local automobile association before leaving.
Traffic regulations and signalling comply with standard practice on the European Continent (ie: driving on the right). As a rule, local speed limits are 50km/h in builtup
areas, 70km/h on rural roads and 100km/h or 120km/h on motorways, but there are plenty of (often inexplicable) exceptions. Speed cameras are beginning to appear, but police traps with radar guns are more common. If people driving towards you flash their headlights, they are warning that you are about to pass one of these. There are tolls at intervals along the national highway E75 (adding up to €31.25 for 502km) and along the Egnatía Ódos, although these are negligible. Unleaded 95 is the basic fuel, and currently hovers around €1.85 per litre, but the price changes often. Diesel is a bit cheaper. In the majority of petrol stations there are pump attendants. Some might close on Sundays or during the night.
Although driving in and around Athens and Thessaloníki isn’t much fun, the rest of Greece is fairly easy and pleasant. There are few cars on most roads, but always be prepared for surprises: low visibility in the mountains, flocks of goats and sheep just around the bend, abruptly ending asphalt, and world-class potholes. Roads passing through villages are often single lane, and dotted with sleeping dogs. Toot your horn at blind corners and listen out for those coming the other way. Greek drivers tend to believe the rules of the road don’t apply to them, so are liable to tailgate even on mountain roads (pull over when it’s safe and let them get on with it), or use the hard shoulder as a personal fast lane.
Occasionally, you might have to drive on dirt roads, often to reach an archaeological site. Even on good ones, drive slowly, to avoid throwing up stones and pebbles. If you are in a hire car, you are often not covered for damage to its underside, or for driving off-road (even if you have hired a 4×4). In case of an accident, remain calm and wait for the police to arrive; they are normally efficient, polite and fair. If you have a breakdown, call the Greek breakdown service ELPA. They have reciprocal agreements with companies such as the AA and RAC in the UK, and the AAA in the USA. In resort areas you can hire scooters, motorbikes or even quad bikes. For any but the smallest of these you should have a specific licence, and if you are not experienced, you should probably steer clear.
Taxis are cheaper than in most other European countries and can be a useful alternative to public transport. In towns they run on the meter (on tariff 1, changing to tariff 2 if they drive out of town). In rural areas there are often set prices for various journeys, but it’s always best to agree on the charge before starting. A rough estimate of cost would be €1 per kilometre.
Despite its mountains, many people enjoy cycling in northern Greece, but it’s best to avoid July and August because of the heat. Many of the resorts hire out
street and mountain bikes. Bringing your own bike on your flight is often possible as well; check with the airline.