Tough times are afoot in Greece. Simon Reeve's travelogue initially conjures up the expected images of sun, sea, sandy beaches, hilly islands of white houses, and tavernas bursting with music, ouzo and dancing.
And then there's the reality. Economic crisis. Migrant crisis. Environmental crisis. In short, a lot of crises. Boatload after boatload of Syrian refugees are turning up on the beaches of Lesvos. The sponge industry is dying, as are the sponges, thanks to catastrophic pollution. The divers trying to find them on the Mediterranean floor are dying too: pushed to take risks, they collapse of the bends. Children are scavenging on carcinogenic landfill sites where a lack of recycling is all too evident. Rich people are getting richer and not paying tax on their swimming pools. The people of Crete are firing guns.
"This is Europe in 2015," says Reeve, and it's hard to stomach. The Euro is based on a Greek letter, and it's not news that Greece was allowed into the Eurozone without meeting the necessary financial criteria. With access to a pot of unchecked loans, the government turned into spendaholics. They have a nice new Underground in Athens and various other Olympic legacies to show for it. But now they are being forced into austerity so that some of the debts can be repaid, and the citizens aren't, well, buying it. There is arson and discontent on the streets. There is aggression towards Reeve's own camera crew, filming on a patch the local wannabe mafia think they own.
The gun-toters on Crete don't want to give any money back to the Germans. They are still full of resentment about the suffering inflicted on their islanders by the Nazis during the Second World War. Their leader is a priest, but not one who preaches forgiveness. A group of shepherds in the hills fire their pistols into the night sky at random intervals. It seems mainly to prove a point; a point where you or I might use an exclamation mark instead.
The plight of the Syrians is heart-breaking. They are coming ashore in their hundreds. There is no one to reject them, but no one to welcome them either. The whole situation appears entirely unmonitored. The people have had to abandon any possessions they set off with. They may have a phone left, but otherwise just the clothes they stand up in. A man nods at the TV crew and says he was a cameraman in Syria, but now he has nothing. This bald statement of fact moves Reeve more than any other. Later, Reeve gives a lift to a woman suffering from heat exhaustion, trudging along the asphalt in searing 40 degree temperatures. But despite the fact she is with her young child and her sister, her husband forces her back out of the car as he does not like her accepting help from another man. Huge clashes of cultures and beliefs surely await as they continue their long journey to who knows where.
|Beach at Potami, Evia|
We visited Greece in happier times, and how I long to return to that gorgeous idyll. We spent a week on a walking holiday on the island of Evia. It's a large island and back then it wasn't touristy - more a place Athens folk hopped over to for a mini-break, catching the ferry from Rafina. But it was worth travelling to from further afield. Evia has a spectacular gorge, the Dimosari, that easily rivals the more famous Samaria on Crete. We spent a day descending its shady paths, spotting rare orchids and poppy meadows and paddling in refreshing pools. We ended up on a beach so perfect and secluded it was how you might imagine paradise. A taverna, the sole building for miles, served what was essentially a lunch of egg and chips, but the eggs had been laid that morning, the potatoes grown in the garden and the feta sprinkled on top hand-made. Dessert was halva topped with home-made yoghurt, strawberries from the garden and honey from the family's hives. I would rate it as one of the best meals of my life, and yet it was unutterably simple.
A fleet of taxis drove down an unsurfaced mountain road to collect us, and the journey back to our hotel in Karystos was more than a little hair-raising. We had a similar level of high-octane adventure when a spectacular hailstorm swept in on a sunny day and nearly washed us off a mountainside. On another walk our legs were ripped by gorse thorns and the heat became unbearable.
But other than that, it was the most relaxing and beautiful week. We visited tiny Orthodox churches and mountainside monasteries celebrating Easter, and an abandoned marble quarry with Roman pillars that had never been exported, left pointing out to the Aegean centuries ago. Goats and tortoises ambled alongside our walks. There was a dubious afternoon tasting the local dessert wine. Romances blossomed amongst our fellow walkers. We spent the evenings drinking one-euro bottles of local red on our balcony, watching the sun slip into the sea. (The wine didn't taste nearly so good when we took a bottle home.) The hotel had its own private pebbly beach, where the water was gloriously cool and shoals of fish swam around us.
|Roman pillars at Kilindri|
|Tortoise and goats accompanying our hike|
|Monastery of St George|
|Montofoli vines, Greek flag, the rest is a blur|
There was a taverna next to the hotel run by a Scottish family. The food was incredible but our bill never came to more than six euros a head. On the last night we walked along the beach into the town and ate slow spit-roasted lamb by the sea. The food was consistently wonderful, and the appetite on our long day hikes well earned.
I don't want Evia to be suffering the same fate of the places Reeve is visiting, but it must be. Our holiday guide was a local character who was passionate about the island and a wealth of knowledge and history. I can't imagine what he must make of it all.