Greece is a land of mountains. They begin in the north-west of the country, and run south-east until they slip beneath the waves of the sea; their peaks periodically breaking the surface to form the thousands of islands for which the Greek waters are renowned. These mountains divide the mainland into a series of small habitable valleys and plains, determining the distribution of villages and towns across the landscape and shaping rainfall patterns and road networks.
This broken landscape has bequeathed Greece a wide range of environmental conditions, many of which are not suitable for large-scale modern agriculture, and as such have reverted to a ‘wild’ and rocky state. It may not be the idyllic rural landscape filled with babbling brooks and shady sun-dappled forests imagined by the Pre-Raphaelite painters, but it is magnificent in its raw and untamed state, and the endless miles of coastline contain some of the best coves, beaches and gulfs in Europe.
In bare statistical terms, Greece occupies an area of 131,940 sq km (50,942 sq miles), and has a coastline of 13,676 km (8,498 miles). It has more than 2,000 islands, 170 of which are permanently inhabited. A geographically complex country, it can be divided into the following zones for ease of description:
Athens and Attica
The capital and its hinterland are located on a broad peninsula that juts out into the Aegean Sea. Athens itself is now home to c.4,000,000 people, and has filled a plain that is contained between three mountain ranges and the sea. The airport (Eleftherios Venizelos) is situated to the east, on the far side of the Imittos range, but is extremely well connected to the capital. Attica used to be famous for the quality of the olive oil it produced, but much agriculture has been abandoned as the inhabitants have turned their attention to the job opportunities on offer in the capital.
The Peloponnese is a large peninsula that was only barely attached to the mainland by a narrow isthmus in the north-east, near the town of Corinth. As this strip has now been cut through by the Corinth canal (which drastically shortens the dangerous voyage around the peninsula) it has technically become an island; the latest among the many that define the Greek state.
Its mass is divided by two long mountain chains that run north-south and another mass of mountains that run east-west along the northern coast and the central region. The northern and central mountains are extremely well watered, and are filled with forests and beautiful gorges. The south is dominated by the plains of Lakonia and Messinia, the latter of which is renowned for its beautiful sandy beaches.
The Aegean Islands
The islands of the Aegean are conventionally divided into a series of different groups: the Argo-Saronic, the Cycladic, the Sporades, the Dodecanese, the islands of the East Aegean (Samos, Chios, Lesbos etc.) and a few others such as Crete and Samothrace that are either so large that they can stand by themselves, or too far away from others to be included in an easily defined group.
They are generally composed of limestone or granite, although some of the islands of the southern Dodecanese are volcanic rock or basalt. Many of them have little groundwater, which limits their agricultural potential, although some of them do produce excellent wines. Before the advent of tourism, most of them made their living from the sea, and the whitewashed houses in the fishing villages are the archetypal scene that is brought to mind when one thinks of Greek architecture.
Central Greece and Thessaly
The plains of Thessaly and Boeotia are completely encircled by imposing mountain ranges and the Aegean Sea, and are the richest agricultural zones in Greece: the Thessalian is the largest, and produces considerable quantities of corn, rice, tobacco and fruit; the Boeotian produces cereals and cotton, and is famous for its cattle. The Kamvounian Mountains separate this region from Macedonia to the North, and the Pindhos range divide it from Epirus to the west, while the Parnassos Mountains cover the south. This latter range is home to two decent skiing resorts that are easily accessed via day trips from Athens.
Epirus, Macedonia and Thrace
Epirus is dominated by the peaks of the Pindhos mountain range, which catch the clouds as they drift south-east, with the result that it is the wettest region in Greece. Rugged and remote, it is under-populated and poor, but full of stunningly beautiful scenery. The Rodhopi Mountains in Thrace are similarly rugged, and much of this region consists of forests that blanket the mountains and valleys. Macedonia is particularly rich in mineral resources, but there are also large numbers of livestock. The most notable feature of this region is the lakes of the north-west, which are shared with the neighbouring countries of Albania and the Former Yugoslavian Republic Of Macedonia.
The Ionian Islands
The Ionian Islands consist of six major islands strung out down the west coast of Greece, and in terms of climate they are much closer to this part of the mainland than the islands in the Aegean. The relatively high levels of rainfall that they receive means that they are heavily wooded, and their landscape is just as rough and mountainous as that of Epirus. They produce some good wine and fruit, and the wildflowers that blossom in spring render the landscapes astonishingly beautiful.