Vegan Travel in the Greek Islands
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Contents

Introduction

The Greek Islands have a well-deserved reputation for their beauty, history, myths, beaches and architecture. But how easy is it for vegan travellers to visit?

Standard travel literature gives a confusing picture of the comfort of vegan travellers in Greece, from 'almost impossible' to 'no problem'. Just as confusingly, Greeks eat more meat than any other Europeans, but on the other hand, eat more vegetables than other Europeans too.

This guide is intended to assure you that the Greek Islands make a great vegan travel destination, and to give some practical guidance on eating there.

N.B.Since some of the information in this guide was gathered (from September 2000 onwards), Greece has replaced the Drachma with the Euro. The official conversion rate was 340.75 drachma to 1 Euro; however, vendors everywhere have taken opportunity to "round-up" their converted rates.

Cuisine

Like many other Mediterranean cuisines, there is a tradition of small dishes, eaten individually as appetizers or with drinks (as Spanish tapas), or collectively as a meal in their own right. Greece's past under Ottoman Turkish colonial rule gives it much in common with Turkish, Arab and Levantine cooking.

For vegans, its the small dishes (mezedhes) which make travel here not just possible, but positively enjoyable. Whilst there are some traditional vegan dishes served as main courses (entreés), and certain dishes can appear as either, the easiest way to eat vegan, and eat well, is to assemble a meal from the collection of mezedhes on offer.

As in many Southern European countries, there's little public vegetarianism, veganism or general concern for animal welfare - with the possible exception of cats. Meat-eating is still firmly associated with wealth, celebration and manliness. On the other hand, many islands have only recently emerged from centuries of poverty and reliance on limited island produce, which have limited the consumption of animal products to the rich or to special feast days. This informal vegan tradition is supplemented by the Greek Orthodox Lent, when for 40 days before Easter the faithful abstain from all animal products - with the possible exclusion of some 'border-line' animals such as octopus. This practice, however, doesn't change one iota the Greek assumption that meat and dairy are essential for human existence, though. saying that you are nistevo ("I am fasting") should make it easier for Greeks to comprehend you.

All of this means that the 'infrastructure' for vegan eating is well in place, even if people there are not familiar with the terms or can comprehend the political or ethical basis for doing so. Also, you will be enjoying many of the traditional island delicacies overlooked by carnivorous tourists.

The Daily Eating Timetable

Greeks are not traditionally big on breakfasts, (which might come as a surprise if you've walked round Naxos or Ios, where cafes tend to advertise breakfasts more than anything else), but do like to make up for it later on, between 1pm and siesta time for lunch, and after 9pm for dinner, with a trip to the patisserie afterwards to round off the day.

Liquids

Unfortunately, Greeks don't share the passion of their Italian cousins for good coffee. Most coffee served is instant (in fact Nes cafe, sometimes shortened to just nes can now be considered a native Greek term), and the traditional style is a muddy unfiltered brew. Italian style coffee bars and equipment are present in fashionable places; as yet, the Starbucks empire has not appeared here.

For beer, the Dutch Amstel has almost as strong a grip on the beer market as Nescafé has on the instant coffee market. It's a decent if unremarkable brew, although can approach nectar when chilled on a hot day! Heineken and Alfa are almost as ubiquitous. However, there's now a Greek-made beer, Mythos, lighter and slightly sweeter, that's caught up hugely since being launched in 1997. In places such as Crete and Naxos, where German tourism is high, expect to see Warsteiner, Paulaner and Erdinger. Style bars in Heraklion (Crete) can serve the locals such vegan beery delights as Chimay and Hoegaarden.

Retsina and ouzo are the best known of Greek wines and spirits, and both can be acquired tastes (and opinions vary sharply as to whether they are worth acquiring). House wines (aka 'open' wine) are usually passable; better restaurants will have Chilean or Australian wines on offer, some even have the excellent Greek (and both organic and vegan) white Spiropoulous. Some shops will dispense wine from a barrel into any sort of container - a recycled Coca-Cola bottle is typical; these are very cheap, but have a taste test first - they can also be very bad. A good alternative to the raw aniseed power of ouzo is the subtler citron liqueur produced solely on Naxos. Both Naxos and Thira are fertile enough to be significant wine producers; if buying on Thira (Santorini), consider supporting Santos, the local producer co-operative near the top of the port road.

Food Fatigue

Greek food has lots of variety, even for vegans. However, its not uncommon for visitors to get tired of it after a couple of weeks - especially if they're not used to large helpings of olive oil, or have to rely on stuffed tomatoes every day.

The more popular islands have Mexican, Chinese and Indian restaurants - Crete even has McDonalds, although this is unlikely to provide an alternative taste experience for vegans. However, given both the relative homogeneity of Greek demography, and the local laws which make it very difficult (despite the facade of an EU open market) for non-Greeks to operate business on the island, it's difficult to find authentic ethnic cuisine. What Greek does, however, have to its advantage is a mobile population, many of whom have relatives in London, Sydney and New York, have experience of other cultures, and can open Mexican restaurants or Italian cafés as well as any Australian or American.

Self-catering can be difficult on the small islands, where shops are few and poorly-stocked. On larger islands, and especially lush one such as Naxos, good produce choices at greengrocers make cooking for yourself feasible. Foresighted vegans will have some nutritional yeast and marmite packed somewhere in their rucksacks.

Lookout for farms participating in the EU's Agritourismo scheme which subsidises land purchases for farmers who will manage the land organically for the benefit of tourism.

Vendors

Establishments

Taverna The most common form of establishment. Despite its name, the focus is usually on food rather than beer, especially where tourists are the main customers. Menus can be as extensive as a full restaurant.
Estiatorio Step up from a taverna, modelling itself on a Western restaurant.
Kafeneia Old style working men's cafe
Gyros / Souvlakia The typical hole-in-the-wall kebab shop, specializing in gyros (slices off the large rotating amalgam of dead flesh) and souvlakia, the greek version of kebab. Some will also sell falafel and tost (toasted half-baguette)
Zaharoplasteia Pastry shop, often selling both sweet and savoury pies, plus confectionery and bread.

Caveats

Especially in tavernas, what is available and what is on the menu can be two quite different things. Not only may certain dishes which are on the menu not be available (because of seasonality, or day of week, or limited kitchens), but there can be daily specials which don't appear there at all. It's always worth asking what's available on the day.

Whilst some establishments seem to have no difficulty serving anything from the menu, it's probably a good sign when they can't - although it might offend your culturally ingrained expectations of service, it's better for you if a taverna has 3 or 4 dishes freshly made, than to be microwaving to order 20 or so.

Dishes

Major Categories

Simple Salads Cucumber, tomato, beetroot, wild greens, olives
Mixed Salad 'Greek' salad, tomato and cucumber
Simple Fried Zucchini, zucchini flowers, pepper, aubergine - between tempura & deepfried
Fried Balls zucchini, tomatoes, chickpeas (falafel)
Stuffed Aubergines, tomatoes, peppers
Baked imam, briam, chickpeas, artichokes, gigantes
Puree skordia, fava, hoummous

Variations

Methods of cooking, and names of dishes, vary around the islands - partly as a result of tradition, partly a reaction to tourist demands, and partly due to varying levels of quality. For vegans, this means that for at least some dishes, you will have to check with each restaurant for the ingredients used.

Many variations are caused by the widespread availability of milk imported from the mainland, and of mass-produced cartons of mayonnaise, salad cream and bechamel sauce. In times gone by, mixing aubergine (eggplant) puree with bechamel would have been a bizarre act of ostentation; however, factory production and EU subsidies mean that the economics (together with package tourist tastes) are now in favour of adulterating the flavour of pure vegetables in this way. In addition to the aubergine dip, enquire whether your skordalia will be made just with mashed potatoes and garlic, or with soft cheese/bechamel added in. Some Greek cooks think eggs an essential binder for falafel, others can make them happily without - you're choice to enquire, trust, guess or abstain.

Standbys

The following are generally available- gigantes (butterbeans in tomato sauce), yemista (rice stuffed tomatoes or peppers), fried zucchini and aubergine, salads, olives, briam (cubed aubergine or zucchini with potatoes in the oven) and imam (aubergine, tomato and onion baked).

Rarities

Despite the expectations of many tourists, hoummous is rarely seen on menus. Other things to grab whenever you see them are fried zucchini flowers (commonly seen attached to the end of zucchinis in greengrocers, but very rarely on a menu), leeks, artichokes and baked chickpeas.

Island Guide

Crete

Heraklion (Iraklio)

There's a constant stream of tourists coming through Heraklion year-round, although for most it's simply a stopping place for Knossos or airport. However, the town is also a populous and prosperous place in its own right. Hence, although there are some tourist restaurants (complete with picture book menus, touting waiters and mediocre food) in the two main squares, most of the towns establishments cater for local people, with lots of stylish cafes for the young and fashionable.

North

South

West

Cyclades

Folegrandos

Folegrandos has irregular ferry connections, no airport and only 300 citizens. The lack of package hotels and daytrippers makes for a healthy restaurant scene with good choice and quality. Combined with a splendid old clifftop Hora (with medieval kastro), quiet beaches and good walks, this is one of the best of all the islands.

Naxos

Apollonas

Small port at top end of island. Popular day trip from Hora - one bus goes out via spectacular coastal route, and another local bus returns through lush central valleys. Half-dozen tavernas on waterfront with average selections and food (more focus on seafood as can be expected).

Hora

Naxos is becoming almost as big a party town now as Ios in high season. Consequently the waterfront is now very commercialized (although the alleys behind are still peaceful) and the quality of food is in general poor. A few restaurants in the old town serve the more discerning and better-off tourists.

Paros

Paros is both a major summer party destination and the cross-roads of Cycladic ferry connections, so will be unpleasantly busy in July/August and is able to support lots of mediocre tourist restaurants.

Sifnos

Island specialities

Revithia (chickpeas in oven), often available only on Sundays, and usually indistinguishable from Chickpea Soup on some menus. Other local specials include the horta (boiled greens) and pseftekeftedhes (chickpea balls, like falafel).

Thira (Santorini)

Island specialities

Capers, caper leaves, fava, chickpea balls, tomato balls, chickpea soup and baby tomato soup.

A zaharoplasteia in the street just E of the main square sells local fava, caper leaves and some truly awful organic wine (800 drachma per kilo from the barrel).

Fira

Dodecanese

Leros

Small island, an arduous 3 hour boat ride from Kos. Traditional island, catering mainly for tourists from the Greek mainland, and hence few English-speaking waiters and poor English descriptions on menus. As a consequence, supermarkets are better than on most small islands, the restaurants have all the traditional Greek vegan dishes and there are no English lager louts.

Alinta
On the beach front look for the restaurant with a couple of ducks waddling round - the owner speaks excellent English (possibly with an understanding of 'vegan' too) and has a better veggie selection than usual.
Laki
Has a real supermarket for real people (as opposed to the tourist type of shop found in resorts) with lots of vegan goods.

Rhodes (Rodos)

Dodecanese island close to the Turkish mainland port of Bodrum. Grand old architecture from its past as a Crusader Knight stronghold. Now a major package tourist destination

Lindos
Most restaurants here have a veggie section to the menu, although not much of this appeared to be vegan.
Pefkos
Couple of miles from the more famous Lindos. Supermarkets are basic but had a large variety of Greek vegan food. Restaurants here are mainly 'grills' and focussed heavily on serving thickly sliced dead animals. An exception is the Coliseum on the main street, with several vegan starters and English staff who are happy to adapt any other dishes on the menu.
Rhodes
Tourist-spoiled, and problematic not just for vegans, but for vegetarians too. Rude waiters and shops selling fur coats on every corner complete the picture.

Ionian

Zante

Ionian island which is a major package destination, especially for English tourists. Special note to beach tourists - please avoid the beaches used by turtle for breeding: Zante is the last Mediterranean refuge of the loggerhead turtle and uncontrolled development is threatening their existence; even the presence of tourists on a beach can prevent their activity, but beach umbrellas impaling their eggs are disastrous.

Laganas
The main tourist town and full of British lager louts. Supermarkets stock English food (expect Heinz Beans and Kellogg's Cornflakes), and lots of tinned Greek food such as olives, dolmades and butter beans. Limited range of fresh fruit and veggies available. Restaurants uninspiring, largely selling English dishes i.e. hardly anything vegan. There is a good jacket potato cafe on the main street about 400 yards from the beach. Quite incredibly, there is also a vegetarian restaurant on the edge of town, just off the main street (about 15/20 minutes walk from the beach) - it has plenty of vegan options and staff were very helpful.

Glossary

Aginares Artichokes (a Greek variety of Globe rather than Jerusalem)
Briam Baked cubes of potato and aubergine or zucchini, in olive oil
Dolmades Vine leaves, usually stuffed with rice
Domata Tomato
Domatokeftedes Deep fried chopped tomato 'meatballs', speciality of Thira
Fakes Lentil dhal
Fasolia Haricot beans
Fasolada Bean soup
Fasolakia Green (french) beans, usually served in tomato sauce
Fava Mashed yellow split peas in olive oil
Gigantes Butter (lima) beans in tomato sauce
Horta Wild greens, usually boiled and served with a little oil, and sometimes pinenuts.
Imam Aubergine stuffed with tomato and onion
Kolokithakia Zucchini, courgettes, baby marrow. Served on its own shallow or deep fried, or grated into balls.
Koukia Broad beans
Mavromatika Black beans, usually served cooked with chopped onion in olive oil
Melitzanes Aubergine, eggplant.
Pandzaria Beetroot, usually served with a little vinegar or olive oil.
Radikia Dandelion salad
Revithia Chickpeas. Often served baked with olive oil and rosemary
Revithokeftedes Mashed chickpea and herb balls, like falafel, specialities on Sifnos, Folegrandos and Thira
Skordalia Garlic Sauce - can be based on mashed potato, or soft cheese/bechamel
Skordo Garlic
Spanaki Spinach
Yemista Vegetables, usually tomatoes or peppers, stuffed with rice

Links

Books

The Greek Vegetarian A Vegan Taste of Greece, Linda Majlik

Feedback

Have any comments or questions on this guide? If so, contact me (=jey) and I'll do my best to reply.

I'd be especially grateful to receive your own recommendations, reviews and advice. These will be incorporated in the guide, to keep it fresh and as helpful as possible. Thanks to Perikles Tembelis, Geoff, Richard, Stephen, James and Jennifer for their contributions.


Last Update: 8th November 2003
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