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.

Arts & Entertainment
William Shakespeare's influence on English culture is still strongly felt today, from his plays on stage to words we use everyday
arts
News
Strange 'quack' noises could be undersea chatter of Minke whales
science
Voices
voices Furore is yet another example of shameful Westminster evasion, says Nigel Farage
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes has claimed supporters understand the need to look at
sportScot thanks club staff and fans, but gives no specific mention of players
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
weird news... and film it, obviously
Arts & Entertainment
tv
Sport
sport
News
Matthew Mcnulty and Jessica Brown Findlay in 'Jamaica Inn'
mediaHundreds complain over dialogue levels in period drama
News
peopleJay Z and Beyoncé to buy £5.5m London townhouse
Voices
voicesMoyes' tragedy is one the Deputy PM understands all too well, says Matthew Norman
Arts & Entertainment
Rocker of ages: Chuck Berry
musicWhy do musicians play into old age?
News
Jilly's jewels: gardener Alan Titchmarsh
peopleCountry Life magazine's list of 'gallant' public figures throws light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Sport
John Terry goes down injured in the 70th minute
sportAtletico Madrid 0 Chelsea 0: Blues can finish the job at Stamford Bridge, but injuries to Terry and Cech are a concern for Mourinho
Student
student
News
<b>Rebecca Adlington</b>
<br />This, the first British swimmer to win two
Olympic gold medals in 100 years, is the eversmiling
face of the athletes who will, we're
confident, make us all proud at London 2012
peopleRebecca Adlington on 'nose surgery'
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

    It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
    Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

    Migrants in Britain a decade on

    They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
    Why musicians play into their old age

    Why musicians play into their old age

    Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
    How can you tell a gentleman?

    How can you tell a gentleman?

    A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire
    Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

    Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

    Celebrate St George’s Day with a nice cup of tea. Now you just need to get the water boiled
    Sam Wallace: Why Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term

    Sam Wallace

    Why Ryan Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term
    Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

    Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

    Having smashed Sergei Bubka's 21-year-old record, the French phenomenon tells Simon Turnbull he can go higher
    Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

    Through the screen

    British Pathé opens its archives
    The man behind the papier mâché mask

    Frank Sidebottom

    The man behind the papier mâché mask
    Chris Marker: Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

    Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

    Chris Marker retrospective is a revelation
    Boston runs again: Thousands take to the streets for marathon as city honours dead and injured of last year's bombing

    Boston runs again

    Thousands of runners take to the streets as city honours dead of last year
    40 years of fostering and still holding the babies (and with no plans to retire)

    40 years of fostering and holding the babies

    In their seventies and still working as specialist foster parents