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on April 17, 2007 at 8:43:04 pm
 

Answers for Visitors

 

This small informational site was put together by Americans living and studying in Thessaloniki for the benefit of pilgrims visiting Thessaloniki and the Holy Mountain.

 

It is by no means complete. Those who have been to Greece before will already know that reliable information is both difficult to come by and constantly changing. The information contained herein represents only the latest information we have. Please also see the disclaimer.

 

If you run into wrong numbers, unhelpful clerks, and a general lack of coherency—well, welcome to Greece! Our advice is to be persistent and assertive—it is not rude. American ideas of 'meekness' and 'politeness' will not get you far here.

 

The guide is meant to answer the most basic and frequently asked questions of pilgrims, for the sanity of those studying here. Since pilgrims are coming here on vacation, it is easy to forget that the Americans living here have full schedules of classes, work, child-rearing, etc. Our hope is that this guide will answer the most basic questions, so that we may use our free moments to help with complications.

 

Enjoy the blessing of your Greek experience, however God works it out for you. It will almost certainly not be exactly as you planned!

 

The current date in Greece:

The current time:

 


 

 

Where's the best place to get plane tickets?

 

Orbitz has produced good results, along with Expedia and Kayak. Currently, tickets range anywhere between say $800-$1500, depending on the time of year. Remember that Christmas and summer will be expensive times. If you can find a ticket for less than $1000, it's probably a good deal.

 

It is possible to fly into Athens or Sofia, Bulgaria, but you'll have about a five-hour commute either way, plus the hassle of figuring out how to get you (and your baggage) from the airport to the train or bus station. From Athens, I would recommend taking the Express Train (about 35 Euros one-way; 4-5 hours). I believe the train leaves about 8 AM daily. From Sofia, I would recommend the bus (about 35 Euros round-trip, 5-6 hours). I believe the bus leaves around 3:30 PM daily.

 

Be aware of weight restrictions on your luggage. These are fairly generous for itineraries booked from America to Europe, but are much more limited in the case of inter-european travel. If you are checking your luggage all the way through to Greece (or to Sofia if you are taking a bus for the last leg of your journey), the more generous allowances will apply, even if you have a layover within Europe. But if you have bought your tickets from America to somewhere in Europe, and then from that place to Greece, independently of each other -- that is, if you will have to pick up and re-check your luggage inside Europe -- the lower, European allowances will apply to your second flight and you should expect to be fined if you are overweight. This can be very expensive, even if you are only overweight by a little.

 

Incidentally, if you will have extra room in your luggage, Americans here always appreciate offers to ferry over to them things that cannot be found here. If you are willing to do this, please let people know a little early if possible, since they may need a week or two to arrange to have whatever it is shipped to you.

 

 

What should I bring?

 

So glad you asked—there's a whole seperate page about it.

 

 

Can you recommend an affordable place to stay in Thessaloniki?

 

A frequently recommended choice is the Hotel Orestias Kastorias. They have an English website. The hotel has a great location in the center of the city, in what appears to be a relatively quiet little nook. It is right in between St. Demetrios Church and the Ancient Roman Agora — about 200 feet to either one! The prices are very reasonable. In person, they've quoted 35 Euros/night for a single, 47 Euros/night for a double. (The website says 38 and 49.) (Note: There is a considerable price spike for the month of September, which is true for all the hotels in the area, because of a big International Trade Fair.) There is a computer and printer in the lobby, with internet, available for free use to all guests. They have free coffee, tea, and snacks throughout the day.

 

Another option used in the past by American visitors is the Hotel Pella. This is not quite as conveniently located as the Orestias Kastorias, but still within reasonable walking distance of everything. More information on the Pella to be posted shortly.

 

The travel guide Lonely Planet: Greece makes some suggestions, which are usually relaible. Otherwise, search online, at some place like Hotels.com or Orbitz, or at a Greece-specific site. If you are traveling alone and on a limited budget, a hostel may be a good choice. Try online at some place like Hostel Traveler or Hostels.com. There is at least one in Thessaloniki.

 

Hopefully, others will add suggestions from personal experience. Please consider posting your own experience on this website after you return!

 

A note: If you end up staying with an American who lives in Thessaloniki, you might consider making a donation to the cost of their studies. The cost of living here is quite high and job opportunities are slim to none. All the Americans here struggle to make ends meet. (Of course, this is just a thoughtful gesture, not a necessity!)

 

A similar suggestion applies to spending a night at a monastery: a small financial contribution is appreciated, though certainly not expected.

 

 

What sights should I see in Thessaloniki?

 

See the church of St. Demetrios, of course, which houses the saint's relics, and the Cathedral of St. Gregory Palamas, which houses his. Agia Sophia, Thessaloniki's homage to the Great Church, is where St. Gregory preached to the city's faithful the Orthodox teaching regarding the uncreated energies of God. The central church of the monastery of St. Theodora, located nearby, contains the relics of two Thessalonian saints, Sts. Theodora and David. Those with an interest in Byzantine history, in addition to exploring the city's many Byzantine structures, will want to visit the excellent Museum of Byzantine History.

 

We liked Thessaloniki before it was cool to like Thessaloniki. But those of you just catching up might want to refer to a recent New York Times article, which christened Thessaloniki "the Seattle of the Balkans" and explored the local artistic and cultural scene. Then you can pretend you knew all along.

 

You can find links to maps of the city on our Links page. For those who want a more personal guide, let's start with one of the landmarks of Thessaloniki and a 360˚ view from the seaside, with the first in a multi-part series, "Thessaloniki Digital Shorts - Tours of Salonika."

 

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(More to come in this section!)

 

How do I get around in Thessaloniki?

 

There are really three options here.

 

1. Rent a car. You get a better price the longer you rent the car—if you rent for, say, less than two weeks, expect to pay about 35 Euros a day. If you're renting for longer than that, you may get something like 28 Euros a day. Avis seems like they have a good website, though sometimes local agencies offer better deals than international chains. Avis requires an International Drivers License to rent a car, and other rental agencies may as well. Be aware that local agancies in particular rent stickshift cars almost exclusively. If you want an automatic, and one is available, you will often have to pay more for it. Beware: driving here is NOT like in the US. People have told me, straight-faced, for example, that stop signs are optional. The roads are chaos and there's no parking in the city. You drive at your own peril.

 

2. Taxi. This is a great option, if you have the money, and if you are planning just to stay in and around Thessaloniki (i.e. no long trips), taxis make much more sense than a rental car. There are plenty of taxis (they are all blue in Thessaloniki) and they are cheap, compared to the US. They do work a little differently than in America, however. Sometimes it is just the same: you get in, state your destination, and then pay what's on the meter at the end of the ride. Other times, however, the driver will refuse to take you where youwant to go, perhaps just because it would mean having to point the cab in the opposite direction. Sometimes he may not turn on the meter, or he may—after picking you up—stop mid-trip and look for other fares to cram in with you. (Unfortunately, if he does pick up someone else, this doesn't mean you split the cost with the other person—each pays the full price. That's a bit strange, but the prices are still low enough that you're getting a good deal.) Now, of course, if he doesn't turn on the meter or he's splitting the ride, then you (as a tourist) have no way of knowing if the price he gives you at the end is 'fair.' In the experience of the Americans here, however, it seems like they are generally honest. If you try to stop several cabs, and they seem to be waving you in one direction or another as they drive by, that usually means there is a taxi stand in that direction, and they want you to go get the cab from there.

 

3. Buses. Of course, buses are by far the most economical means of getting around. Inasmuch as this is Greece, however, there are no bus schedules and no reliable bus maps. As with most everything here, you have to just know how it works. This makes matters difficult for tourists, but again, as is also usual here, people are generally very friendly and helpful. Ask someone at the bus stop, or on the bus, or the bus driver, for help. (Drivers are usually very knowledgable.) You can buy tickets at many newsstands—they are blue and come in books of ten (0.50 each). You can also buy them from a machine once you're on the bus for 0.60 each. Every time you get on a bus, if yu've bought your ticket before getting on, you insert it into a small orange box, which stamps the ticket with the bus number and time. From the first stamp, the ticket is valid for up to four separate bus rides over the next 70 minutes. Each time you transfer buses in that 70 minutes, you simply punch a new corner of your ticket. (Occasionally, an official will randomly get on a bus and ask to see everyone's ticket, and fine people without a stamped one on the spot.)

 

Bus stops frequently have little shelters with a bench, and the name of the stop written on it. Next to it, there's a small blue and white sign that lists the bus numbers that stop there.

 

 

What do you recommend in terms of phones? How do cell phones and payphones work?

 

Landlines: Payphones do not take cash, but work only with prepaid phone cards, which are easily available at any of the many newsstands. (A few payphones will also take credit cards.) It's a good idea to buy one of these cards upon arrival. Ask for a "telekarta"—the smallest denomination available is 4 Euro. You can then use any payphone. Simply pick up the receiver, insert the card (chip first), then dial the number. Always dial the "area code" (i.e. in Thessaloniki, 2310), even for local calls. Just don’t forget your card in the phone after you hang up! There are also American-style calling cards, with pin numbers, available. Some brands will be cheaper than the "telekartas" for local calls (especially to mobile phones), though it is hard to know which one is best. (A reasonable choice in the past has been the "TalkTalk" card.) There are cards that are particularly good for overseas calls to one or another country—if you are at a kiosk with a wide selection, the owner may have some insight on this. As of this writing (March 2007), the best card for the US seems to be the "Unity" card. (Note that not every kiosk will carry every brand.)

 

If you have a calling card from an American telco such as AT&T, find out what access code you will have to dial in Greece to be able to use it. (For AT&T cards, dialing the toll-free number 00 800 1311 from within Greece will patch you through to the AT&T system, at which point you dial your access number just as if you were in the US.) You might also want to see if your bank (and health insurance, etc) has a number that is toll-free from Greece. (The Citibank US number, for example, is 00 800 123 162.)

 

(While we're on the subject of phones: If you have access to a high-speed internet connection, consider using VoipDiscount for your long-distance calls. It's a great option. You can make calls using your internet connection for only 5 cents per call (for up to 1 hour of talking). It works great calling from here to the US. We don't know anyone in the US who has tried it yet, but if it works for you, please let us know!)

 

Cell Phones: Depending on the length and purpose of your visit, you may also want to consider a cell phone. Most cell phones here are prepaid and are used with one of three companies: Vodafone, Cosmote, and Tim. The deal with cell phones here is that the caller assumes all the cost for phone calls. This means that there is no charge for receiving a call on a cell phone.

 

If you call a cell phone from a landline, it should run about 15 cents/minute. If you call from another cell phone or a payphone, it’s about 40 cents/minute. Using a cell phone to call a landline is the same—40 cents/minute. That’s pretty spendy, so most people avoid making calls with their cell phone. They’ll place calls on a payphone (which is only 2-3 cents/minute) and send text messages ("SMS messages") to other cell phones. (Text messages only cost about 8 cents to send and are free to receive.) So, if you limit your outgoing calls, a cell phone here can be VERY cheap and handy. To get set-up, you can head to one of the many ‘Germanos’ stores (they're like an upscale Radio Shack) and ask for an inexpensive cell phone package. Recently, a mobile phone, SIM chip (which is what provides you your phone number) and 11 Euros of prepaid credit could be had for 40 Euros. When/if you need more credit, you simply buy a ‘refill’ prepaid card from a street kiosk and punch the code into your phone—but the 11 Euros credit could last you a couple of months if you do not make many calls from the phone. And so you now have a number which you can give to people to get in touch with you.

 

You can use your phone in any country in Europe (though you will need a seperate number for each country). Just buy a new SIM chip (phone number) for whichever country you are in—probably they will cost around $15-$20. (The phones are not locked to a particular carrier—you can use them with any company's network.) If you are just going back to the US and won't need it—it won't work in the US—you could give the phone to one of the Americans living here, who could then pass it on to a future pilgrim.

 

(A tri-band or quad-band GSM phone—which will be considerably more expensive than the basic type of phone mentioned above—can be used both in the US and in Europe. But this can't just be any such phone: it must be "unlocked"—that is, not restricted to using a single carrier, such as Cingular or Verizon. If it is "locked," though you may be able to use it aborad, you will not be able to insert a new SIM chip so you can have a local, pre-paid number. Rather, you will have to pay your American carrier's typically obscene international roaming fees. Unlocked tri- and quad-band GSM phones can be bought in the US, typically online, or here; and if you already have a GSM phone but it is locked, there are companies online that may be able to unlock it. In any event, make sure the phone you are intending to use here can function on the proper frequencies for Greece.

 

Note for tech-heads regarding 3G service: Most tri- and quad-band phones, though they can be used for voice communications in both America and Europe, cannot use both American and European 3G networks, which, irritatingly, operate on different frequencies. If 3G service in one locale or another is important to you, you should take this into account in deciding where to buy your phone.)

 

 

How do I obtain Internet access?

 

Don’t expect your hotel to have Internet, even if it claims that it does. Your only reliable choice is to go to Internet cafes, which have fairly high-speed connections for about 2-3 Euros/hour. They’re not exactly on every block, but you should be able to locate one within walking distance.

 

Some have accomodations for those who wish to use their own laptops; but many do not. The cafes' main use seems to be for teenagers playing computer games.

 

 

What is the cost of living there? How much should I expect to spend per day?

 

More than you think.

 

This is difficult to say, because it depends on numerous factors. As a ballpark, a fair estimate is that, aside from hotel/hostel expenses, you could easily spend $40 (30 Euros) a day.  Many travel guides suggest $100-$120 a day as a conservative figure, which would be more like $60 a day aside from hotel expenses.  If this seems high to you -- well, it is.  And while it is true that you could get by on much less, the guess is that you probably did not fly all the way to Greece to sit in your hotel room all day and eat only stale bread.  Getting around to see the many sights will cost money, as well as food and the requisite coffees.

 

 

A note on money and credit cards: In many ways, Greece is about fifty years behind the US. One example of this is that it is still primarily a cash society. Some places do accept credit cards, but it is unusual. Additionally, your credit card company will probably charge you a hefty fee for converting — you should check with your credit card company on this before you leave. Likewise, there is a fee for using the ATM.

 

The best bet, if you can plan ahead, is to obtain Euros from your bank in the US. Many banks will do this for their customers for free, but you should give them 2 to 6 weeks lead time. If you run out, you can then use the ATM. Call your bank before you leave and tell them that you will be travelling, so that their security alarms do not go off when they see your card being used in another country. (If that happens, you won't be able to use your card at all until you get in touch with the bank to explain.) 

 

Recently, several visitors have experienced frustrations with their ATM and credit cards.  Despite having told their banks that they would be in Greece, these pilgrims came to discover, as they went to an ATM in desperate need of money, that their company was still blocking their use here.  It wasn't until they called their banks/credit card companies again from here that the company authorized their accounts.  So be sure to emphasize this to your company when you first call, and be prepared for problems by carrying their phone number with you.

 

 

How do I arrange a visit to the Holy Mountain?

 

There are actually three seperate steps to arranging a visit.

 

1. Contact the Mount Athos Pilgrim's Bureau in Thessaloniki and ask for permission to visit the Holy Mountain on a certain date. They typically grant four-day passes. It is best (as with everything in Greece) to go to the office in person. They are located at 109 Egnatia Street (near the Kamara). If you can't do this, call and fax persistently until you get an answer. The latest known numbers (as dialed from the US) are: 011-30-2310-252-578 (phone) and 011-30-2310-222-424 (fax). If you are a priest or deacon, the situation is somewhat more complicated — the Pilgrim's Bureau will be able to direct you.

 

2. Make reservations for a boat from Ouranoupoli to Daphne for the day you will enter the Holy Mountain and from Daphne to Ouranoupoli on the day you will leave. The latest known phone number is 011-30-23770-21041. There are usually two options — the fast boat (about 30-minute ride) for 10 Euros and the slow boat (a little over 2 hours) for 5 Euros. Taking the slow boat there and the fast boat back is a nice option. There are some good views of the monasteries from the slow boat.

 

3. Call around to the monasteries and ask if you can spend one night there. You will have to arrange a series of stops for your trip. For example, on the first day, you will stay at Monastery X, then the next day you will walk to Monastery Y and spend the night there, and then the next day you will walk to Monastery Z, etc. Take into consideration the distances between the monasteries, and consult a map.

 

Below are some numbers for monasteries that typically receive pilgrims (all numbers prefaced by 011-30-23770-x). The italics in parentheses are the times when the monastery answers the phone (24-hour clock). They are in the same time zone as the rest of Greece (see the introduction for the current time in Greece).

 

  • The Skete of St Anne - 23320
  • Vatopedi - 23219 (10.00-16.00)
  • Iviron - 23643 (12.00-14.00)
  • Karakalou - 23225
  • Koultoumousiou - 23226
  • Xenophontos - 23249
  • Xiropotamou - 23251 (12.00-14.00)
  • Simonos Petras (Simonopetra) - 23254 (13.00-15.00)
  • Stavronikita - 23255 (13.00-15.00)
  • St Gregory - 23668 (11.00-13.00)
  • Pantokrator - 23253
  • New Skete - 23629

 

You are now prepared to go. On the day of your trip, take a taxi to the bus station called KTEL-Halkidiki. They run two buses to Ouranoupoli every day at 5:30 AM and 6:00 AM. You can take either and get there in time.

 

When you arrive in Ouranoupoli, they will make a stop at a gas station, and many people will get off here. You should get off here as well. There is another Mount Athos Pilgrim's Office here, behind the gas station. Present your passport to them and they will look up your reservation. You will then pay a fee to get your visa for the Holy Mountain. Currently, it is 35 Euros. Now all you have to do is walk down to the dock and wait for your boat. Depending on which one you picked, it will probably leave around 9:30 or 10:00 AM.

 

Enjoy!

 

 

So, Athos is on the Old Calendar. That means... what, exactly?

 

It means that they celebrate all the fixed feasts (saint's days and any feasts that fall on the same date every year, like the Dormition) thirteen days later than those on the New Calendar. Dates related to Lent and the Paschal season are the same on both calendars. If you want to compare the New ("Gregorian") Calendar and the Old (Julian) Calendar for a specific day or week, you can use the date search at ThinkTime's fantastic, feature-rich Church Calendar Resource Page.

 

 

Can you recommend any websites or books that would be helpful?

 

Lonely Planet: Greece (currently in 7th edition) is indispensable. The best price is currently at Overstock.com (about $17, including shipping). Mother Nektaria McLees' enormous book Evlogeite! A Pilgrim’s Guide to Greece is also excellent for the Orthodox traveller. The lowest price seems to be on Amazon.com: about $38 (including shipping).

 

 

What's the best way to learn Greek?

 

Some have found Rosetta Stone useful—though it is expensive and not everyone's cup of tea, so you should test it out before committing. (Even better: many local and school library systems offer you free access to Rosetta Stone's online version, even from your computer at home. Check out your institution's website or ask.) Future Greek students should consider Routledge's fantastic Greek: an Essential Grammar of the Modern Language, which is just what it claims to be, providing a systematized and detailed explanation of Modern Greek that is missing from the textbooks here. It's hard to go wrong with an Oxford dictionary—many of us have used their "pocket" (actually book-sized) Greek-English/English-Greek dictionary, and their Greek-English Learner's Dictionary is a great next step (there is also a well-reviewed English-to-Greek version).

 

Both short-term travellers and language students will find Oxford's very small, bi-directional mini-dictionary useful—it is the best of this category several Americans here have seen. Lastly, Lonely Planet produces an excellent Greek phrasebook to help you survive while getting started.

 

There don't seem to be any portable electronic dictionaries aside from those made by Ectaco—which makes impressive claims. But a stern return policy makes their high prices all the more problematic, paticularly since there seem to be no reviews of their Greek dictionaries, which can only be tried out at a few Ectaco stores. If anyone has experience with Ectaco's Greek dictionaries, or knows of other electronic-dictionary options, we'd like to know.

 

 

Editors: add another Q&A here!

 

Chose "Heading 1" from the format menu for the big, bold question, and choose "normal" from the same menu for the answer text. (Please leave a blank line between the question and the answer.) If you have a large amount of information on a topic, feel free to make a whole new page for it (cf. "What should I bring," above) and just link to that (or ask someone how to do this). Thanks!

 

 

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