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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    ICE ICT: Lead Business Consultant

    £39,000: ICE ICT: Specific and detailed knowledge and experience of travel sys...

    Day In a Page

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most