Simon Calder: Cheap but cheerful? Or a summer of discontent for tourists in Greece?

Don't believe everything you read about Greece: the country is as open to visitors as it has ever been

Myth, like crisis and democracy, is a concept bestowed upon the world by Greece. You might add to that list some travel pleasures such as delving into antiquity, island-hopping and sipping a beer at a taverna as the subsiding sun turns the sea from blue to silver to gold.

The Greek tourism alphabet, which begins with the Acropolis and the Aegean, has helped holidaymakers to write millions of travel tales over the years. But looking at the official warnings from foreign governments, you could fret that a summer of discontent awaits you in Greece.

Canada has raised its overall advice from green to amber: "Exercise a high degree of caution," one step short of "Avoid non-essential travel". And who would want to go to a place where "Rioting can break out with little warning," as Australia warns its citizens? Well, perhaps the ever-stoical British holidaymaker. As UK travellers have proved time after time, the best time to visit a destination is when the rest of the world mistakenly believes that it is risky/closed/desolate. Empty seats – on planes, around hotel swimming pools and at harbourside bars – are perishable resources that the owners are selling off right now.

Cheap, certainly – but cheerful? To find out, I flew to Athens, armed only with a camera, a laptop and low-denomination euro notes.

Aboard a Ukrainian hydrofoil that skimmed across the sea like an overweight waterskier, I reached the island of Poros on the dot of 6pm, less than eight hours after leaving Gatwick, I had flown across most of Europe, zig-zagged around greater Athens and barrelled across the Saronic Gulf.

Gratification is rarely so instant. By 6.03pm, I was sitting in a café with a bottle of Mythos, a bowl of olives and a grin. Gazing at the yachts bobbing by the quayside, listening to the chatter of locals and visitors, and sensing the serenity that isolation can achieve, I wondered: is this really a nation on the edge of a financial breakdown?

Poros, if you have not had the pleasure to visit yet, has the usual attributes of a small Greek island: a clutter of cottages rising steeply from the quayside to a pretty white church, and a hilly hinterland draped in pine. The beaches are above average, with strands and coves to suit every need on the continuum from sociability to seclusion. But Poros has a couple of extra attributes. One is a fully fledged monastery in a heavenly location, floating above a deep gorge with views across to the Pelopponese. On Sunday mornings the chapel is crowded with worshippers, with tourists welcomed in.

After the service I met Nikis, who works at the New Aegli Hotel: "The season is shrinking. We used to have package tourists from Britain from May to September, but they left when other islands got airports. Now we're busy in July and August, but for the rest of the summer we mostly get weekend visitors from Athens." Beautiful Mediterranean views are going begging.

Rather more strange is the Russian supply base in a bay on the western side of the island: during Greece's struggle for independence, Russia – sharing the Orthodox faith – offered help against the Turks in return for a provisioning depot for its Mediterranean fleet. These days the Russians are coming once more, but in big, shiny yachts.

No yacht needed if you want to seek some antiquity. Poros has a crumbling hilltop shrine to Poseidon. Down by the harbour, the archaeological museum contains a fairly random repertoire of relics. But the mainland, in the sinuous shape of the Pelopponese, is a 10-minute boat ride away, with the ruins of Epidavros not far beyond.

Or seek out a sun-dried Bohemia. Before Leonard Cohen took Manhattan and then Berlin, the Canadian poet-turned-musician took up residence on the island of Hydra. Hydrofoils, pleasingly, get here in half-an-hour from Poros. Cohen began "Bird on a Wire" here (you realise the local cats would be far too drowsy to target such a creature). He reputedly finished the song in a Sunset Boulevard motel in 1969, and the following year performed it at an Isle of Wight festival that was, miraculously, free of traffic jams.

Hydra, too, has no traffic problems, due to having no roads. Instead, people and cargo-carrying donkeys thread through the intricate alleyways of the town, and along the lanes that lace the island. It remains a cosmopolitan location. If you have previous experience of the Greek islands, you may not be surprised to learn that they are getting on quietly with providing a great escape for tourists. But what about the capital, where all the stresses and anxieties of the crisis are concentrated?

Athens was just as choked and sclerotic as I have known it since I first hitch-hiked to Greece three decades ago. As best they could, taxis hurried, while waiters scurried to serve the crowds at pavement cafes. But the Olympian improvements for the 2004 Games have delivered handsome dividends: Athens is a city on a human scale.

I sat in Syntagma Square, refreshingly free of tear gas despite the various official warnings, and hooked up to the free Wi-Fi that the city provides.

My browsing took me no further than the Facebook page for the US Embassy. The American diplomats use this site to warn about impending trouble. But judging from this example, under the heading "Today's Demonstration", Athens remains several notches short of civil insurrection:

"18.00: Indignant Motorcyclists of Greece will sponsor a gathering outside the "Peace and Friendship" stadium. A mechanized march will follow to Syntagma Square."

The protest by indignant bikers against austerity passed, predictably, peaceably. The 21st-century mythology about Greece is about as compelling as the ancient stories – and, in my experience, about as accurate.

 

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Simon Calder paid £193 return for a Gatwick-Athens return on easyJet. Athens is also served from the UK by British Airways and Aegean Airlines. EasyJet, Jet2, Monarch and Ryanair, also serve a range of Greek destinations. Packages are available from tour operators such as Thomson, Thomas Cook, Sunvil and Olympic Holidays.

 

Staying there

If you are organising your own accommodation, negotiate for a good deal. The Athens Cypria, a comfortable and modern location is open to deals: while the prices at athenscypria.com are good, you may well be able to improve by calling 00 30 210 323 8034.

 

More Information

Official advice is available at fco.gov.uk/travel, and through the websites of other governments. For the US Embassy Facebook page, visit on.fb.me/USEmbAth. For tourist information, see visitgreece.gr.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect