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
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Wednesday 27 June 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.
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