Greece: Warnings more myth than truth

By Simon Calder

Watching the sun set while sipping beer in Poros, Greece, ranks as one of travel's great pleasures. Photo / Getty Images
Watching the sun set while sipping beer in Poros, Greece, ranks as one of travel's great pleasures. Photo / Getty Images

Myth, like crisis and democracy, is a concept bestowed upon the world by Greece. You may add to that list 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 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. I had flown across most of Europe, zigzagged around greater Athens and barrelled across the Saronic Gulf.

Gratification is rarely so instant. By 6.03pm, I was sitting in a cafe with a bottle of Mythos, a bowl of olives and a grin.

Gazing at the yachts bobbing by the quayside, listening to locals and visitors chatter, and enjoying 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 rises 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, above a deep gorge with views across to the Peloponnese. 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 island's western side: 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.

But no yacht is needed if you want to seek 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 Peloponnese, is a 10-minute boat ride away, and the ruins of Epidavros are 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. 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 as choked and chaotic as when I first hitch-hiked to Greece three decades ago. As best they could, taxis hurried and 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 teargas despite official warnings, and hooked up to the free Wi-Fi 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 of impending trouble. But judging from this example, under the heading "Today's Demonstration", Athens remains several notches short of civil insurrection: "1800: Indignant motorcyclists of Greece will sponsor a gathering outside the "Peace and Friendship" stadium. A mechanised 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.

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