Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Greece: First impressions (Ελλάδα: πρώτες εντυπώσεις)

These days in Greece, little five-minute TV spots are appearing in between programmes, showing some of this season's tourists to Greece talking about how much they have enjoyed their Greek holidays. The spots are all based on real-life experiences of tourists, and they are all dated (since June 2012) to add credence to their testimony.

In a similar manner, bloggers and social networkers come across friends' notes about places that they have recently visited, and their recollections form instant updates on what is happening in the country they are visiting. I recently read the very moving comment made by Australian tourist Alf Hodges, a facebook friend who is visiting Greece for the fourth time in 31 years: in other words, from the year Greece entered the EU to the year Greece's presence in the eurozone is being questioned.

Alf gives us his very first impressions of his Greek holiday, as he arrives in Athens:

- Standing on the hotel roof garden, feeling mesmerised by the floodlit Parthenon. It NEVER dims. And then a gush of the most fragrant air - grilling meat, oregano, and a hint of lemon.
- The sight of the Acropolis slopes with those dark cypress trees, the olive trees and the retsina-redolent pine trees.

- Athens is CLEAN. The air is clear and somewhat fresh.
- Walking along those marble-tiled streets, with those blue and white street signs: Nikis, Kydathineon, Ermou ...

- Sprays of bougainvillea hanging over those narrow lanes with yellow, ochre and white walls.
- My first taste of Greek tomatoes! I had forgotten what tomatoes taste like! Add oregano, olive oil and feta... and you are in heaven.

- A sudden, psuedo-angry burst of "Oxi!" from the table next to me. Or the shrill granny's voice calling down the lane "Ella! Ellatho!"

- First bread - dribbled with oil, sprinkled with oregano, still warm... and that hard crust and soft, slightly elastic inside
- Climbing Lykavitos Hill and remembering those cactus spines sticking up like spears as you climb the trail.

- The city a lake of concrete under the blazing sun, surrounded by those hills and Mt. Hymettos.
- Grilled sardines and grilled mushrooms, Alpha beer, retsina...
- A couple of koulouria vendors still sticking around Syntagma Square.
- The meat market doesn't seem to have changed in Athenas Street

- The first meal at a taverna: the waiter tilts his head slightly to one side, smiles and says "Parakalo".
Endless carafes of wine and a huge spread of Egyptian-Greek food (Alf is at a friend's place in Athens), capped off by the dolmadakia the size of your little finger, but superb and lemony, rolled by a little old island lady. Liver and onions, felafel, skordalia, salad...

A flood of memories, Alf writes. We have been amazed at how well cared-for everyone and everything looks: the people, the buildings, the public spaces. We're genuinely impressed with the care and upkeep of the buildings around the Plaka - it all looks so spotless. People are so generous, helpful and polite - from the waiters, to the people in the street - when we ask for help. Outdoor tavernas and kafeneions are full during the day and evening. Despite what they talk about, you would NEVER know there was a crisis. Still seems safe to my eyes. Maybe it's the season? Many Greek tourists everywhere - more than foreigners. Our taxi driver today said tourist numbers are down. 

Alf and his partner later visited Litochoro, which Alf described as: A very smart little spa town in the mountains at the gateway to Mt Olympus. Most accommodation is about 40 Euros a night! I have no guide book, no maps...I knew I'd forget something, and with age, who wants to spend half a day searching for a few Euros less? The train from Kalambaka to Litochoro was superb - quiet, fast, ...nothing like the Greek trains I remember - slow, noisy and smelly! 

The Greek crisis is a political, social and economic one. This does not affect the weather, the sea quality or the food - on that last point, I would say the food has improved since the crisis broke out.

Alf finishes his message off by telling us that he has gone native: Using more Greek as the days go by - I even find words coming out of my mouth without thinking. Greece seems more European/Italian than ever before. Must go - the taverna calls...

If you have fallen in love with Alf's descriptions and photos of his trip to Greece this month (Athens, Meteora, and the islands of Chios, Lesbos and Limnos), there's still time for you to book a Greek holiday this year - prices have fallen, so it's all the more affordable these days. 

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