Climate – when to go

Despite its small area, Greece has startling regional variations in climate. Visitors tend to forget that most of the country lies between 36 and 42 degrees north, roughly thn some distance from the equator as Japan, the United States, or New Zealand’s ninth island. Therefore, it is the overall mildness of the climate that’s surprising, not the well-defined areas and periods of inclement weather.

In the far north and inland locales away from maritime influence, the prevailing climate is termed “modified continental.” This is an understated way of designating hot, muggy summers and bitterly cold, snowy winters that call for a Canadian or Siberian wardrobe. Fortunately, there are buffers of moderate, lingering springs and nutumns between the two extreme seasons. The entire western coast, from Methoni in Ihe Peloponnosos to the Albanian frontier, experiences milder but extremely rainy winlors that keep the countryside lush year-round, plus the same hothouse summers. Weather rhythms of the central and north Aegean—-Magnisia, the Sporadhes, Xalkidiki,Thassos,Samothraki—fall somewhere in between: cold and lightly snowy In winter, more salubrious in summer.

I he southern islands, the balance of the Peloponnisos and the Attic Peninsula I’Djoy a true Mediterranean climate. This is a convenient description for a pattern inpoated in several global zones between 30 and 35 degrees north or south that face a ι iry, subtropical ocean to the west. Mild and minimally wet winters precede long, hot ■.ummers (in Greece, from June to September). Vegetation is almost entirely ι lupendent on ground water accumulated during the winter months; such conditions favor the small-leaved, perennial scrub that makes casual visitors from other Moditerranean” biomes (California, Australia, South Africa) feel as if they’d never left home. Attiki, the lowlands and most of the islands receive their annual rainfall in ■iporadic downpours falling at any time between November and March. Only eastern Crete and the southern Dhodhekanisos have really brief (December to February), dryish winters, but even this balmy archipelago may be inaccessible owing to storms between it and Athens’ seaports and airports. The prevailing winter winds in most of the islands are the rain-bearing southerlies; for the balance of the year the Aegean is buffeted by high-pressure-fueled north winds, including the infamous summer meltemi.

The mountains everywhere—whether Cretan, Peloponnesian or mainland— generate their own microclimates and are pretty much off-limits to nonsnow campers from November to April. No formal rescue service exists and almost every ye^r imprudent and unprepared hikers suffer fatal consequences. Until June you may have to contend with heavy runoff, huge snowbanks or both, depending on the severity of the past winter. Summer alpine thundershowers are inconvenient and common.

This leaves April through June and September and October as the best seasons for hiking. Most, though by no means all, of the famous Greek wildflowers bloom in succession from early to late spring while there is still enough shallow ground water. If you come to see them too early, though, March winds will tear you and the pages of your field guide to shreds. In compensation, the early spring atmosphere attains a lenslike clarity, and photographic opportunities are at their best. Easter week is a movable feast in the Orthodox calendar; it can occur anytime from late March to early May, but it usually falls in mid-April. A Cretan or Peloponnesian Easter festival will not soon be forgotten and coincides with some of the best weather in those areas. The days lengthen and warm up through May, which marks the unofficial beginning of the swimming season. Sensible trekkers or day hikers will move north with the sun as the land behind them dries to a crisp; heatstroke in the south remains a very real danger until fall. By June crampons, gaiters or ice ax are needed nowhere except on Mt. Olymbos and perhaps two or three other northern peaks.

July is the peak tourist arrival month and that, plus the soaring mercury, frays everyone’s nerves. It’s a good time to retreat to the alpine redoubts of Ipiros and the Sterea, far from the madding crowds. Insects, especially flies, are present in tropical profusion, and the humidity can be debilitating, but the long summer days permit extended marches, and wild edible fruits abound in many places. In addition, numerous city dwellers rebel against hellish metropolitan conditions and retreat to their ancestral villages, where between mid-July and the end of August the wayfarer can partake in an almost nonstop series of religious festivals. Musical accompani­ment is of decidedly mixed quality, but there’s no lack of liquid refreshment and shepherd-style barbecues.

The worst of the heat relents by mid-September and the sea is then at its warmest for swimming. Autumn in the mountains is spectacular, with turning leaves and voluminous cloud formations; unhappily, the clouds herald erratic weather, and storms around the equinox are the rule. In the north virtually uninterrupted wetness commences with almost monsoonal regularity around October 1, a date generally referred to as that of theprotovrohia (first rains). The autumn tramper returns again to the south, keeping in mind that the cheaper types of “rooms” close on November 1 and boats that had hitherto departed on a daily basis now sail only once a week.


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