Greece: A summer of discontent?

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.


Greece eyes revival without jeopardizing bailout targets

“The climate is becoming more favorable to changes and adjustments provided we meet our commitments and work towards implementing targets,” Staikouras, one of two deputy finance ministers, told a conference.

“The government can make changes, as long as these are in line with the targets of the program.”

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s conservative-led government took office less than two weeks ago but has already outlined a wishlist of changes to the bailout – including an additional two years to eliminate the primary deficit.

The main opposition party SYRIZA, which only narrowly lost elections last month, wants to tear up the bailout deal.

Greece’s foreign lenders – the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – have warned there is little room for maneuver. They begin a review this week of Greece’s faltering progress in fiscal adjustment and reforms after weeks of political paralysis during elections in May and June.

The government has argued that a different policy mix is required due to a deeper than expected recession in Greece which makes cutting debt even harder.

Staikouras quoted a study by the KEPE think-tank predicting the Greek economy would contract by 6.7 percent this year, well above a Bank of Greece forecast for a 5 percent contraction in 2012.

“PLEASANT SURPRISE”

“We have underlined that it is necessary to apply additional policies to reverse rising unemployment, contain recession and help the economy recover,” Staikouras said.

“A basic aim is the economy’s macro-economic adjustment towards smaller twin deficits.”

He added that the government would also try to pay out arrears of about 6.5 billion euros ($8.2 billion) to suppliers this year. Near-bankrupt Greece has held off on paying suppliers to avoid running out of money.

The comments came after the head of a special EU taskforce in Greece told the same conference that the government must prioritize paying out those arrears to get funds flowing again to cash-strapped businesses.

“It would be very difficult to really improve the situation of the Greek economy even with these reforms if the very difficult situation of access to finance is not tackled,” Horst Reichenbach said. “The first step is to pay the arrears that have accumulated.”

Arrears to suppliers in industries ranging from pharmaceuticals to construction rose to 6.8 billion euros in the five months to May, according to data released by the finance ministry late on Tuesday.


Travel letters

Advice wellworth sharing

I so agree with Christopher Reynolds’ advice [“Next Stop: Somewhere Else,” June 24]. My two grown children have always said one of the best gifts I’ve given them is the love of travel. To initiate them, I told them their high school graduation presents would be trips abroad.

My son’s was a month’s backpacking in Europe on his own. He made friends at youth hostels and learned to make the most of his Eurail Pass, as well as to stay within his per diem budget.

My daughter and I spent two weeks with friends in London and Paris after her graduation. She got to practice her high school French, which later inspired her to minor in French in college and spend part of her junior year at the Sorbonne. After college she joined the Peace Corps, volunteering in a French-speaking African country. Those first experiences outside their own world inspired confidence and curiosity.

Whether here or abroad, travel is the best education there is.

Mackay Crampton

Ojai

I’ve been following Reynolds’ articles and columns for many years. His June 24 article was his best ever.

I lead international trips for the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. Although most of my participants are 55-plus, there were many gems in his article that apply not only to young travelers but also to all new travelers. I will share some of these with our participants in a Bali/Komodo dragons trip at a pre-trip meeting in August.

Thank you for enlightening us.

John Lajeuness

La Crescenta

I just finished reading Reynolds’ article, and I have a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. It’s so true. Some of the best moments of my life are the silliest little things, but they happened abroad and have a starring role in my memory. My last epic adventure was in Ecuador, but that was 18 years ago and how I became a Lopez. Three kids later, my husband and I are ready get back on the road. You don’t have to be young. We are planning to hike in the Canadian Rockies. Woo-hoo.

Deborah Lopez

Agoura Hills

Greece fans

Thank you for Amanda Jones’ article on the Greek Peloponnese [“Mythical,” June 24]. All too often the only travel stories on Greece are about the islands. Greece is so much more than Santorini and Mykonos. The Peloponnese, the cradle of Western civilization, is a place travelers should be familiar with but are not.

I realize that space is short, but it would be nice to have included the rugged and unique area called Mani and the magnificent late Byzantine city of Mystras, just a stone’s throw from legendary Sparta.

Nevertheless, as one who has traveled extensively in Greece I appreciate this piece greatly.

P.S. The “Greek” ice cream Jones ate in Nafplio was probably from the Italian gelateria off the main square. This shop is owned and operated by Italians; the ice cream tastes wonderful, but it is not “Greek.”


Corfu travel guide

Why go?

Corfu has figured in our consciousness since Edward Lear visited and painted while it was a British possession from 1814 to 1864. The Durrell brothers (and Henry Miller) lodged it even more firmly in the Anglo-Saxon psyche with their late-1930s sojourns, and subsequent rhapsodising in print.

Today the island has a somewhat chequered reputation, due in part to its associations with Peter Mandelson/Nat Rothschild (habitués of the north-east coast, popularly dubbed “Kensington on Sea”) but also the notoriously downmarket excesses of Kávos in the south.

Yet there is plenty in between for the rest of us, on one of the greenest of the Greek islands – thanks to intermittent but torrential rains from September to May, and the thousands of olive trees that carpet the land­scape. It is also, perhaps surprisingly, one of the more rural, sleepy islands away from the touristic honeypots.

Tourist development is quarantined on certain coastal patches, and once inland you really seem to be on another island, even another era. Secondary roads appear not to have changed (in width at least) since British times.

In remote glades, Corfiot villagers still celebrate summer-and-autumn panegýria (religious festivals-cum-fairs) with music and merchandise stalls – watch for posters (usually Greek only) plastered onto olive trees. Olive culture was traditionally rather desultory – the Corfiots for years didn’t prune, or pick the fruit, local patron saint Spyridon having forbidden the practices in a vision – and many groves still retain a half-wild, romantic aspect.

The old quarters of the east-coast capital, Corfu Town, have recently, and deservedly, been designated a Unesco heritage site. There’s nothing else quite like it between here and Dubrovnik.

With last winter’s rains – a hefty 88cm at last look – over, now’s the time to begin seriously considering a spot on one of Corfu’s many beaches – those along the west coast rate among the finest in Greece, with enough heaped sand to satisfy the most jaded Californian or Australian.

When to go?

Corfu is “open for business” from Easter until October, though many resorts hotels only work from May to September inclusive. For discounted room rates, better taverna service and moderate weather, mid-May to late June, and the last two-thirds of September, are the best times; during July and August everything is fully functioning, and the sea thoroughly warmed up, but you’ll contend with crowds and either intense heat or the maïstros, the infamous north-westerly wind which buffets beaches all afternoon.

Getting there

By air from overseas

Spring 2012 sees an increase in direct, no-frills flights compared to previous seasons: Ryanair is adding routes from Leeds Bradford, East Midlands, and Glasgow to its already-existing Stansted service, while BMI Baby is flying in from East Midlands.

easyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies direct from Bristol, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester; Ryanair (www.ryaanir.com) from Stansted, East Midlands, Glasgow and Leeds Bradford; Jet2 (www.jet2.com) from East Midlands, Leeds Bradford and Newcastle. Thomson, Thomas Cook and Monarch also all serve Corfu from May to September, from a range of UK airports.

Regrettably, the long-mooted expansion of Corfu Airport’s international passenger terminal is unlikely to proceed in the current economic climate. But Ryanair’s experiment with extending flights into November 2011 went so well that there are rumours afoot of its 2012 program lasting through the Christmas holidays, making Corfu a winter-break destination for the first time.

By air from within Greece

Athens and Thessaloniki are linked to Corfu with Olympic (www.olympicair.com) or Aegean (www.aegeanair.com). Corfu is also linked to Kefaloniá, Lefkáda (Áktio) and Zákynthos with Sky Express (www.skyexpress.gr), but their baggage rules are stricter (15 kilo limit) and space for carry-on luggage nonexistent.

Transfers: The airport lies just over a mile south-west of town; there’s no bus service, so you have to take an (overpriced) taxi or pre-arrange car hire. All ferries – including cruise ships, international services from Italy and domestic ones from Igoumenítsa or Pátra – dock at the New Port, 0.6 miles west of town.

Getting around

Public transport: Corfu has two separate bus services based in Corfu Town: the blue-coach suburban lines from Platía Sanróko (aka San Rocco), and the green, long-distance, island-wide lines starting just west of the Néo Froúrio (New Fort).

Car hire: As buses halt fairly early in the evening, renting a car is advisable through the usual online sources, from the town, airport or major resorts. For a long-established, locally based company, try Sunrise (00 30 26610 44325, www.corfusunrise.com) at Ethnikís Andístasis 6, by the New Port.

Know before you go

Essential contacts:

UK Embassy, Ploutárhou 1, 106 75 Athens: tel 210 7272 600, http://ukingreece.fco.gov.uk/en/
The Greek National Tourist Office (www.visitgreece.gr) has UK offices at 4 Conduit Street, London W1S 2DJ (tel 020 7495 9300)
Ambulance 166
Urban fire brigade 199
Forest fires 191
Police 100

Basics

Currency: euro
Telephone code: 0030
Time difference: + 2
Flight times: 3 hours

Local etiquette

Mikró ýpno (siesta, 3–5pm) is legally mandated quiet time.

Dress code is casual, but shorts on men except near the beach is infra dig, and a few multi-star hotels enforce ‘smart casual’ garb for dinner.

Local driving habits leave much to be desired – beware especially of people emerging from side-roads without stopping, opposing traffic straddling the middle of the road, and and reckless overtaking