Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The beach (Η παραλία)

Primary schools in Greece are closing this week for summer break (three whole months), in time for the elections. It will be time to hit the beach once again. Greek beaches are rated very highly: the Blue Flag organisation, which rates beaches on 32 criteria (upon application), has judged 394 Greek beaches as worthy of a Blue Flag award, giving Greece second place in the world for the 2012 international awards (the most Blue Flag beaches are in Spain). Of those 394 beaches, 97 are located in Crete, of which 25 are in Hania. I live close to a number of those Blue Flag beaches.

My favorite beaches are on the west coast of Crete, like Falasarna - but these days, it's an expense to get to them.

The beaches of Crete are still generally accessible to all of us democratically, whether you are rich or poor. For a small fee, you can hire a deckchair and sit under an umbrella for as long as you like. If you prefer to be more frugal, you can take your own furniture with you and set it up in the same general area. If you go early enough, you will even find a tree to sit under in the shade all day long, if you have the time. There are usually inexpensive canteens on the beach where you can buy something to eat and drink. Again, you can bring your own food and drink, whether you rent deckchairs or not. Most people do this these days, but it's not easy to keep your drinks cold the whole day, and it's difficult to bring ice-cream with you, so you will inevitably need their services.

Agious Apostolous beach, last Saturday

The beach is a refreshing place to relax. Thankfully, we live close to a good beach, and we prefer it to driving too far away, to keep our costs down, as petrol is expensive now. So we like to hang out at our local beaches. The area is quite busy because both tourists and locals use these beaches, which causes a bit of undesirable people congestion, but you can't have everything the way you want. I don't mind people congestion so much, to be honest. Generally speaking, the large number of people at the beach doesn't match the noise level - we are all there for relaxing and enjoying a refreshing dip, so most people are quiet, and very few play loud music, or any music at all. A good number carry their reading material with them, both tourists and locals alike.

Chrysi Akti is one of a string of beaches leading from the town to the west coast of Crete.

My local beaches are situated close to the town. We don't live very far from an urban centre, but the difference between urban and rural life is quite sharply contrasted in the environment, despite the proximity. So it's quite easy for peddlers to walk from the town to the beach, searching for potential customers sell their bric-a-brac, to peddle their wares. The beach is a good place to do this because it's usually frequented by tourists and other people with disposable income. There's little police presence during the day, since there is little trouble here. The peddler's wares are enticing: colourful accessories, gadgets, all sorts of knick-knacks, pirated CDs and DVDs, even clothing and massage services. It's almost like an open-air shopping centre - the mall by the seaside! Such services are not limited to Crete - they are available all over the country at nearly all the beaches. (And it doesn't need to be said that this kind of business isn't limited to Greece: While in Berlin, we were surprised to see immigrants selling all sorts of ex-commie paraphernalia on street corners, making a mockery of the EU tax and migration laws.)

The beach mall at Chrysi Akti - clockwise, starting from top left:  Chinese masseur, Roma lace tablecloth seller, Pakistani clothes merchant, African bag specialist, Pakistani sunglasses expert and African faux bijoux entrepreneur. All photos taken in early September 2011 at midday on a Sunday.

Most of the beach peddlers are illegal immigrants, while most of the items are fake brand products. Naturally, the sellers aren't registered with the tax department (and for all intents and purposes, most of them don't exist in Greece because they are here illegally). While legal businesses close down due to mounting costs and reduced clientele, the illegal businesses keep on mushrooming, selling untaxed bootleg junk with no overhead costs.

The canteen at Chrysi Akti was closed for a few days last year during the season because - as the owner mentions in his protest letter, he was dobbed in for having seating at his canteen. He vowed to return, with or without seats (and he did), lamenting that he was a law-abiding tax-paying business owner that wasn't allowed to conduct his services due to a minor trespass.

Some people think that Greek beaches are over-commercialised, with too many food and drink places, as well as souvenir shops. Well, if we don't develop the beach areas commercially to some extent, we may as well become an ouzo republic. It is generally recognised through studies and research (including those conducted through my own workplace) that tourists to Greece want high standards at cheap prices, so some commercialisation is inevitable. The areas that get commercialised need to be the places where people with disposable income congregate, and in Crete, those are our beaches and archaeological sites which are easily accessible. This also helps keep prices down through the competition. Rules need to be in place to keep the environment clean and sustainable, but legal seaside businesses need to be developed, otherwise we'll just have illegal ones.
Loutro webcam Sfakia Chania Crete Greece
The seaside resort of Loutro is located on the south coast of Hania. It is not accessible by road - you need a boat to get to it; and naturally, it is a car-free zone.

For a quieter off-the-beaten-track summer holiday, Crete in particular still offers myriads of choices, especially given that the island is formed around a mountain range peaking at nearly 2,500 metres.  Even though I've travelled around most of the island, I still find much joy in discovering places that people don't know very well, because they are not so easily accessible. There are still places to hide in Crete if you want.

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