From the start, the whole trip seemed haphazard and conceptually incoherent. What was the rationale, our friends asked, for spending a week in the Czech Republic followed by 10 days in Greece and four in Paris?
The simple, reasonable answer: Horse-trading. It was our 20th anniversary and my husband, Dan, and I had learned that collaborative skill of long-term couples through trial and therapy. Dan would pick a place and I would pick a place, and we would start and end in Paris, the home of close friends and a hub for cheap non-stop flights.
Dan decided to chase the ghosts of his ancestors around the Czech Republic. I chose Greece, mostly because I’d never been there and had always wanted to go, and because the financial crisis made it attractive for tourists like us looking for deals.
The Greece we planned to visit fall 2015 was the errant child of the Eurozone. The economy, which had collapsed along with so many others during the 2008 financial crises, was still unable to recover. Deficits were deeper and more intractable than in other countries, and austerity and reform measures, tied as they were to debt relief, had kept the economy stagnant and the unemployment rate high. Creditors were owed some 320 billion euros, and the government was defaulting on its debt and running out of cash to pay its workforce.
The anti-austerity government, led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, had come to power earlier in the year on promises of securing better bailout terms and debt forgiveness from the EU. But by June, the government, after threatening to ditch the euro, instead succumbed to creditors’ demands for more austerity measures, thus paving the way to a third bailout, which, like the others, would likely keep the country from gaining any economic traction.
While this was going on, increasing numbers of Syrian refugees, desperately fleeing civil war, were jumping into overstuffed inflatable boats and landing—the ones that made it—on Lesbos and other Greek islands, heaping a humanitarian crisis onto an economic one.
We weren’t alone in taking advantage of the Greeks’ misfortune. In September 2015 plenty of other travelers were heeding the Sirens’ song and booking flights. Of course some of those travelers—including people in our immediate circle—were volunteering their vacation time, not to mention their dollars, to help pull Syrian refugees out of the roiling sea. The rest of us were, at least to some extent, mining the communal tragedy for personal pleasure.
Not that we didn’t feel bad about it.
Believe me, I boarded the plane to Paris thoroughly ambivalent about the trip. On the one hand, we’re taking the vacation of a lifetime, to the cradle of Western civilization, comfortable in the knowledge that the country could use all the tourist dollars it can get. On the other hand, Dan and I, who generally see taking economy vacations to beleaguered countries as a form of profiteering, have just constructed a neat little bargain holiday out of one nation’s economic, political, and social chaos.
If we’re going to live with ourselves after it’s over, we’ll need to tread lightly.
The only non-stop flight from Prague to Chania, Crete was at 4:55 a.m. It will mean little sleep the night before, but otherwise we are not complaining. The flight is ridiculously cheap and the cab driver gets us to the airport at 2 a.m. through a clotted vein of traffic in a terminally congested Prague, now one of Europe’s premiere destinations.
Another advantage of a three-and-a-half-hour, middle-of-the-night flight is that it affords us a view of the Aegean Sea and its islands in the early morning hours.
That’s great unless you are a journalist whose editors expect well-crafted sentences that convey the awe and beauty of Crete without any of the back-pocket clichés favored by travel and brochure writers. I’m failing here, so let’s just get it over with: Billowing clouds? Check. Dappled sunlight? Check. Azure sea? Check. Pristine beaches? Check. Majestic mountains? Check.
The greatest cliché of all—“a land of contrasts”—will reveal itself soon enough, and in the form of graffitied ruins. But spray paint is a fact of life in every city we visit. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it is more common in poor neighborhoods. With the euro faltering, immigrants seeking safe haven, and extremist groups rising up to keep them out, the graffiti becomes, for us, a visual cue of the discontent washing over the continent. Here we are in Europe in the Age of Anxiety. Check.
In the cab from the airport, we pass working-class neighborhoods and row after row of 1960s-style dingbat apartment complexes, the kind that would be right at home in a California suburb, all covered in graffiti. Unlike the Czechs—who have a robust industrial sector and have retained their own currency while still being part of the EU—the Greeks have a sagging economy and are tethered to the very expensive euro, making it a less attractive place for tourists looking for bargains. As the manager of our boutique hotel will tell me a day later, “When Greeks want to go on vacation, they go to Prague.”
When the cab drops us off we are in old-town Chania, a 13th-century Venetian village built around a harbor. It has a gorgeous port, winding alleyways filled with shops and restaurants and several centuries and civilizations of architectural remnants.
Our hotel overlooks the harbor’s iconic lighthouse and we spend our first day and night exploring the shops in the old town, walking along the marina, visiting the archaeological museum, and eating delicious kolokythoanthoi (stuffed squash blossoms), lamb with stamnagathi (wild greens) and washing it down with raki.
This part of Chania is the sort of well-scrubbed, high-end environment—a theme park for adults—that globalization now promises visitors traveling to destination spots around the globe. The thousands of years of history are thrown in at no extra charge.
We marvel at the transformation of relics into trendy businesses. A burned-out 17th-century soap factory now creates a lovely, ghostly framed patio for a popular restaurant. Many chic boutique hotels have been fashioned from the remains of 15th-century Venetian mansions. These, obviously, are in addition to the remodels crafted by history, often brutally. For example the Agios Nikolaos was built as a Dominican monastery in the early 14th century, converted to a mosque by the Turks in the 17th century, then turned into a Christian Orthodox church in 1928.
But the next night, after venturing outside the old fortress walls, past the old town and the new mall, we find that ruins are mostly, well, ruined. Fewer are fancy hotels, restaurants, and upscale shops; more are crumbling, graffiti-covered squats. We stop to examine and photograph a small Minoan excavation site, and turn to find taggers on the opposite side of the street. My hand, holding an iPhone, moves toward my eye. A guy behind me, who apparently is group leader or minder gets in my face and yells, “no photos, no photos. NO FACES!” I reflexively drop my hand and the group moves on.
An hour later we walk through an area where taggers, no longer content to deface homes and businesses, have raised their spray cans to local churches, including the aforementioned historically significant Agios Nikolaos. At the Chania public market, an upscale food court, a fight has broken out. I recognize one of the combatants as a tagger and move toward the scuffle. He’s raging in Greek at a guy in a butcher’s apron, who, in turn, is trying but failing to calm him down. The taggers, we are later told, sprayed the anarchist symbol all over the building, including on the cement floor in front of the butcher’s stall. When order has been restored, I approach the butcher to find out what happened.
“I asked him not to do this in front of my place of business,” he says, pointing to the spray paint, “and he did not like it at all.”
“Was he mad at you for not showing solidarity with their cause?” I ask him.
“Cause? What cause?” He laughs. “How do I say this in a nice way? Some people, especially young people, don’t have to worry about eating.”
We scurry back to the pristine hotel overlooking the harbor.
It’s our final full day in western Crete and we have yet to set foot on a sandy beach or hike a famous gorge. So we do what we swore we never would do: Take a bus tour. We sheep-dip ourselves in sunscreen and then join a group of parboiled, beach-loving types—mostly British and American, but with a few Germans and a pair each of Italians and Canadians—for a trip to Elafonisi Island. It is, our tour guide Demetrius tells us, “the seventh most beautiful beach in the world, that is, according to one of those silly online travel sites.”
During our nine hours together, we drive past the Topolia gorge and stop at the Agia Sofia Cave and the Chrisoskalitissa Monastery before hitting the beach. There we wade in water that moves through several shades of green and all the shades of blue before rolling onto pink and yellow sand. The ride back includes a late al-fresco lunch of stewed okra and goat cooked with chestnuts eaten in a small mountain village where, according to Demetrius, the people “eat and serve only what they produce, with the exception of the soft drinks, which they must have for the tourists.”
So much of this perfect day of handpicked and sustainably grown experience belongs to us because we are tourists. And Demetrius, a retired biochemist and professional talker, is there to remind us of this fact.
Throughout the day he lectures continuously and in two languages—English and German, which irritates the Italians. (“They are the only languages I know besides Greek or I would say everything I say again in your language,” he tells them.)
He drops the scientific names of every bird, rock, mammal, sea creature, and plant in the region and then hectors us (particularly the Americans) for our moral lassitude, poor eating habits, superficiality, and toxic popular culture.
He wraps things up with a set of instructions: Go home and raise better children and make sure they eat only fresh food that is sustainably grown. By all means avoid all movies glorifying pirates (“the worst people who ever lived”). And while in Europe travel with an open mind and a generous heart.
He then adds, “And don’t forget to tip the bus driver. He’s had a long day.”
We tip them both, generously.
From the deck of our hotel in Fira, the capital of Thira (better known to tourists as Santorini) the view of Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni, two lava islands, is interrupted by the inky blue of the water-filled caldera, three giant cruise ships, and a fleet of smaller boats, which look like motorized offspring ferrying passengers between the mother ship and the old port.
The deck, like every deck of most every room along the Fira bluffs, looks out over the same scene: the caldera, the exquisite sunsets, the remnant islands that form a small circular archipelago in the larger Cyclades island group, the whitewashed buildings stacked like sugar cubes along the nearly 1,000-foot cliffs, and, of course, the omnipresent cruise ships, which, according to a guy who owns an ice cream shop in town, spill out and double the population of the city center every day during tourist season (which nowadays, he adds, means every day except those around the Christmas holidays).
And as we soon discover, the baby boats that bring all those tourists into town deliver something else: a continuous humming sound that interrupts the tranquility from late morning until after dark.
This is our second and last night in Santorini, the bit in the middle of the trip that we generally designate “the vacation part of the vacation,” which really means the “do as little as humanly possible” part of the vacation, and we are doing a bang-up job of meeting our targets.
Yes, there are vineyards and farms to appreciate, islands of lava to get to by boat, archaeological museums and Minoan ruins to explore, better sunsets to view in Oia, and black-sand beaches to walk on. We do none of it.
We hang out in our room, mostly in the hot tub on the deck, and we climb a couple of flights of stairs to eat breakfast and to swim in the pool. Later, when most or all of the cruise ships have moved on to their next port we trudge up the six flights of stairs to the street and walk a block or two to the center of town to shop and eat in a local taverna. The area is so picturesque, tidy, and tasteful that it makes me sleepy. It’s definitely a no-graffiti zone. “We won’t be surprised by anarchists here,” I tell Dan, as we climb back into the hot tub to eat leftover moussaka.
On the last night we take a very long walk—mostly because we get lost—and end the evening at an ice cream place, where the owner of the shop frets to us—his only customers—about his sluggish business and the cruise ships.
“Tourists get off the boats and only come for a few hours, so we don’t make much money but we are overrun with people. It is sort of, you know,” he is trying to choose his words carefully, “changing the place for the local people.”
If he were vacationing here, he says, he’d head to Thirasia, the island next door that was separated from its larger sibling in the cataclysmic volcanic eruption of the second millennium BC. “Thirasia reminds me of Santorini before it was discovered by tourists,” he says to us, two tourists. He stops and recovers. “What I mean,” he says, “is the tourists who come on ships and stop to buy cheap gifts and maybe, if we are lucky, grab a meal. Those people don’t really spend enough time here to savor the culture.” Or to buy ice cream.
We nod our heads, order two double cones and toss the half-eaten bits in public bins on our way back to the hotel.
All of our friends said it: Avoid Athens. It will be hot, humid, and smoggy. You will be swamped by tourists and stalked by thieves.
It turns out they are right about the humidity. And wherever we go we do run into tourists traveling in packs and wielding selfie sticks like weapons. But the air is clean, the temperature is mostly bearable, and we’ve only been ripped off once, by a cab driver who overcharged us 12 and a half euros.
We love Athens. It’s sprawling and frantic, but humming and honking with life, history, and humanity. And with all the building and excavating going on, it looks like its seams are showing, which is not a bad metaphor for an ancient city trying to stay relevant in the modern world.
From the restaurant on the roof of our hotel we can see the Acropolis walls and some of the Parthenon in one direction and in the other, Hadrian’s Gate and the Temple of Zeus—newer developments. We spend the next three days traversing the pedestrian walkways to visit the Acropolis, the new Parthenon Museum, The Ancient Agora, The National Gardens, The Houses of Parliament. And we ride the funicular up Lycabettus Hill and walk down it, where we find graffiti on the side of the church and even carved into the leaves of the aloe trees planted along the path.
On our last night in Athens, as thundershowers crack the humidity, and our brains and feet forsake the call of the ancients, we step into the Café Aítion on Tzireon street, and into the arms of Vasiliki and Apostolos.
The Aítion, which in English means cause, is a book-filled basement behind our hotel. From the street it looks like a restaurant, a coffeehouse, a bar, a library, and a gallery, and it turns out to be all of these things, as well as a salon, a place where lecturers come to discuss politics, philosophy, and art. It’s also the retail outlet for an eponymous magazine. Vasiliki Karakosta and Apostolos Linardis are the only ones in the café when we step, or float, in out of the rain and they welcome us like we’re best friends.
We assume Vasiliki to be the café manager because she greets us at the door, shows us around, and brings us the wine we order. She’s actually the romantic partner of Apostolos, the actual manager of the café. She is, she tells us, also a singer.
“Do you perform here?” I ask. The two of them burst out laughing.
“Does that mean you are someone famous?” I ask.
“Well, she does sing in large concert halls packed with people,” says Apostolos.
“But I sing without shoes,” says Vasiliki, who by now is washing some dirty glasses in the bar.
For the next four hours we talk and laugh, share stories and watch videos of Vasiliki performing—yes, without shoes but with a hundred musicians on the stage with her. Apostolos tells us about his other job as a supervisor on major construction projects in various parts of the world while refilling our wine glasses and stuffing us with food. First we eat a plate of bread, salami, and cheese, then he brings large salads of mushy dakos (barley rusks), tomato, and sheep’s milk cheese.
“You eat like a tourist,” he says looking at our half-eaten bowls of salad. We look confused, so he explains, “Only tourists leave food on their plates.”
I tell him about my conversation with the ice cream purveyor in Santorini and ask him if he considers tourists to be more a blight than a blessing.
He laughs and thinks a bit. “It depends on the tourists. Those who come and stay in hotels or even in people’s homes and who eat real food in local restaurants—not food that has been changed to suit their tastes—are good for us. And I think we are good for them.”
He pauses before plowing ahead.
“But too many of the people who come to Greece now are corrupting our culture and destroying our businesses. They come on the ships, eat on the ships, and visit for a day to buy souvenirs and nothing else.”
Adding to the frustration, he says, is that Greece’s main attraction is its past. “Everything is about what happened at least 2,500 years ago. And that is hard for Greeks, especially young Greeks. We are proud that we have given you so much of Western history, but right now we are stuck in this present, and would like, you know, to have a future, one that is about more than our past.”
Dan and I buy some wine, we all trade personal information and Vasiliki gives us one of her CDs before we go back for our last night’s sleep in Greece.
When we leave in the morning we feel good about our decision to come to Greece. While we’ve made no noble sacrifices, we have, according to the rules set forth by our Greek friends, comported ourselves adequately. We frequented small businesses, consumed regional delicacies, respected local customs, made new friends, and tipped the bus drivers. We also avoided large ships, chain restaurants, foreign-made souvenirs, processed foods, and pirates, who really are the worst people on earth.
Wendy Miller is Editor in Chief of California.