Saturday, July 17, 2010

Greasing Up In Greece

About 35 years ago my wife and I were traveling in Africa.  As part of our itinerary we were scheduled to visit Ethiopia, but some internal strife there led us to change our plans at the last moment and spend the time we had allotted in Greece instead.  Our improvised itinerary included renting a car and traveling around the Peloponnese Peninsula.  At that time we had sites like Delphi and Olympus pretty much to ourselves, despite the fact that we were there during the summer high season.  These days these sites are on the standard circuit of dozens of group tours and are visited by thousands of tourists.

For our return to Greece this year we decided to concentrate on the islands since we hadn't seen any on our first trip.  We contacted a Greek travel agent who specializes in island hopping packages and booked a custom "tour" for the two of us (hotels, transfers, ferry & plane tickets).

Compared to the extensive planning that goes into many of our trips, this went surprisingly easy.  Until Zeus and his buddies decided to challenge us a bit.  The Icelandic volcano blew up and threatened to cancel, postpone or reroute international air travel.  The Greek economy went into the dumper and the government's economic reforms sparked numerous strikes, some associated with violence, that threatened to make internal travel difficult and perhaps a bit risky.  However, we decided to go ahead -- life's an adventure, right?  Besides, we've found that the news media (both "mainstream" and "fair and balanced") tend to exaggerate and distort the negative aspects of situations like these.  And this turned out to be the case.  We found modern Greece to be one of the safest, cleanest, and most travel-friendly places we've visited.

The islands we visited were very different from one another in terms of geography, geology, size, history, social character, and level of tourist activity.  Some, like Naxos, Milos,  and Crete, have significant economic bases that lessen the importance of tourism and give them a more relaxed and laid-back atmosphere.  Others, like Santorini and Mykonos, are almost entirely dominated by tourism.  For instance, each morning 2-3 cruise ships arrive in Santorini's harbor and disgorge thousands of  passengers who elbow their way through the picturesque main town of Fira for a few hours and then return to the ships for an afternoon departure.  The same thing happens on Rhodes and Mykonos.  This is clearly one of the downsides of cruise-ship tourism.  An upside for those not on the cruise is that after all of those people leave it is very pleasant in the port towns;  having a drink in a sidewalk cafe, watching the cruise ships sail off into the Aegean, is a nice way to spend an afternoon.

 The Greek mainland oozes with history and with important archeological sites.  We were surprised to discover that so do the islands -- even the smallest of them.  For example, we spent most of one day on the tiny island of Delos, just a short boat ride from Mykonos.  Until around 70 b.c. it was the financial and trading center of the Mediterranean, complete with multiple agoras, temples to not just Greek gods, but those of contemporary powers as well, like Egypt, Italy, Syria, and houses of some very wealthy families.  Delos was also considered to be the birthplace of Apollo in Greek mythology.  On Milos we hiked to the spot where the famous statue "Venus de Milo" was originally located -- a niche along an avenue to the ancient theater.  On Crete we visited Knossos, one of the most famous examples of Minoan civilization.  And Rhodes was a major European base for the Knights during the Crusades,  not to mention the location of the famed Colossus of Rhodes.

The Greeks take all this history in stride, as do most Europeans in their own countries.  Having a connection to a place that goes back several thousand years gives them perspective on current issues that most Americans lack. 

One interesting thing we observed is that different islands seem to be favored by different groups of tourists.  In general we saw very few Americans, except on the places visited by cruise ships,  and of course in Athens.  The biggest single group seemed to be northern Europeans, especially Scandinavians, no doubt trying to recover from their sunless winters. The most common language was....English.  Since few visitors spoke Greek, the universal translator was the common language most learned a smattering of in school, which used to be French and now is English.  At restaurants we would overhear customers haltingly order their meals and then return to their native language.  We got along very well because I think the waiters found our English very clear!

Speaking of restaurants, Greece was similar to many other places we have visited where there is little or no  tipping:  the service was uniformly excellent.  This is contrary to the idea that the promise of a good tip is required to motivate a server to do a good job and provide extra personalized service. Nevertheless it is something we've seen time and again on our travels.  One interpretation is that the salary for wait staff is substantial enough that people view their work as valued and important, and strive to perform accordingly.
 This trip had many of the features that we value in travel:  interesting and unique locales, exposure to a different culture and way of life, historical richness, charming architectural character, and the opportunity to observe and interact with other travelers from backgrounds much different from our own.  It also reinforced our conclusion that we were fortunate to travel in earlier times,  before mass tourism developed the ability to negate the positive experience of these features.

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