In the early days of a two-week trip to Greece, I suffered an inauspicious indignity. Stomping through Athens’ Exarcheia neighbourhood, where anarchists and squat-punks regularly scuffle with police, I became distracted by a banner strung between buildings on a narrow, stony promenade: AIRBNB SUPPORTERS GO HOME HERE WE HAVE CLASS WAR. Impressed by such a blatant, vaguely threatening show of local politicking – which flew smack in the face of Airbnb’s “belong anywhere” sloganeering – I tripped, inverted my ankle and suffered a nasty sprain. Perhaps it was my punishment for renting an Airbnb in the nearby Metaxourgeio area; a fateful needling courtesy of whichever Greek god wards against lollygagging gentrifiers.
I didn’t quite know it at the time – aching and moaning and easing the pain with extremely affordable mugs of Alfa lager – but it set a tone for the holiday. Tripping through Greece these days is, in many ways, a journey through both its rich ancient history and its roiling present, embodying so many of the pros and cons of modern tourism. In a painful instant, I was implicated in the a process whereby historic capitals throw open stately apartment doors to bargain-hunting vacationers, whose presence compounds existing housing shortages, driving prices up and making life more costly for locals and, in the case of Athens in particular, recent immigrants and asylum-seekers. I felt, in a word, bad.
This nagging feeling quickly dissipated by the time we hit Rhodes, the largest of Greek’s Dodecanese island chain, which doglegs through the southern Aegean Sea. An ancient trading port and medieval fortification, Rhodes’s historic Old Town folds modern comforts into its genuinely awesome historic setting. Between its castles, clock towers, mosques and banks of stony ramparts, shops sell mass-produced olive wood souvenir spoons and bootleg Fortnite beach towels, tiny bars bait German tourists with signs advertising cheap local bier vom fass, and tavernas cook up perfectly charred octopuses.
Mama Sofia’s, with its multilingual menu, is the sort of establishment that may be uncharitably dissed as a tourist trap. But when the host, Stavros (who introduces himself as “the son of Mama Sofia”) greets you with a hearty handshake before displaying a hefty tray of the day’s local seafood, and the pleasingly aloof, heavy-handed waitstaff pour large half-bottle glasses of dry wine and send over rounds of gratis ouzo, such distinctions don’t seem to matter. (I also spotted two older men plopping at a table and producing their own sleeves of cold cuts and Tupperware containers of home-pickled peppers, which is about as “locals only” a scene as I might imagine.) Such shows of zealous, back-slappy hospitality may well be put-ons. Still, when the waiter sends over plate after plate of free urchins and tentacles, it’s hard to feel all that hoodwinked. Here, the tourist (and his money) feel welcome – necessary, but not necessarily a necessary evil.
This sense of fellow-feeling and genuine hospitality is deepened on the nearby island of Symi, a tiny, postcard-picturesque island accessible by boat or ferry. Bopping between the Greek islands has arguably never been easier. As a direct response to the increase of tourists visiting Greece, Eurail – the European marketing conglomerate that has long lured tourists from outside the continent with international rail and bus passes – has expanded its Greek Islands Pass to include 53 islands. For €90 (about $130), you get five ferry trips in a one month period, and raft of other discounts – an ideal incentive for visiting one of Greece’s island chains.
As with many Eurail tours, the pass requires reservations. But they’re painless, and the minimal hassle can net considerable savings compared to buying individual tickets. And like the European train networks Eurail typically boosts, many of Greece’s ferries are an attraction in themselves: stately and well-appointed, offering bars, restaurants, and slow-moving views of the islands, or the deep, inky night.
Visiting the Dodecanese late in the season, in the waning weeks of October, restaurateurs, hoteliers and bartenders rise to welcome the last wave of tourists and day-trippers, before the long holiday window slams shut come November. Greece’s tourism industry has exploded, as is so often the case, in direct response to larger social and economic crises (Greece welcomed a record-breaking 33 million tourists in 2018). The tourism industry feels like a saving grace; an economic response to the pressures of the continuing recession, and a refugee crisis that sees Syrians, Kurds and other exiled castaways shuffled back and forth across the Aegean, the human collateral in some cruel show of brinkmanship between the EU and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.
For even the most primitively attentive tourist trotting through Greece these days, such realities prove readily apparent. In Symi, refugees smuggled by boat from Turkey find temporary asylum at the harbour-facing police headquarters. Locals leaves bottles of water, apples and plastic-wrapped pastries. The station house’s balcony teems with families, whose laundry drapes over the edges. Their sanctuary is eclipsed by a docked 183-foot super yacht, called “O’Mathilde,” which can be chartered in the high season from €220,000 a week, plus expenses. Here, in paradise, the complexities and seeming contradictions of the moment feel imminent.
One of travel’s benefits is that it permits a confrontation with such realities, deepening ones perspective. A “holiday,” on the other hand, conveniently obliterates them. At an all-inclusive on the stony beaches of Kardamaina, on the island of Kos, the distressing practicalities of the present recede again, submerged in an undertow of Greek mojitos (in which mastika, a resiny liqueur, replaces the rum) and heavy buffet suppers. Entertainment staff in bright neon tank tops lead outdoor yoga sessions, excitable tykes ripped up on sugary mocktails chase each other around the grounds, dutiful waitstaff attend to every lazy whim. Here, the Greek islands feel fully alive in their new role as (in the words of The Guardian) “the Florida of Europe.” Blasting into the Aegean, screaming on a rented jet ski broaching speeds of 42 km/h, my heart races and my mind goes blank. The resort experience feels pleasantly numbing – especially at late-season, everything-must-go prices.
As I sit, soused, suntanned and shirtless, on the balcony of my island resort, slurping my billionth beer, watching a group of acrobatic dancers armed with light-up neon whips vibing in synchronicity to Sandstorm, I think of all the dullards and drips who bleat in the news about the necessity of defending “Western Culture” from some near eastern insurgence. I think about Athens’s mighty Parthenon, and its ancient friezes of everyday people mixing among the gods, sharing their destiny with divinities, and how those humbling sculptures were stripped from their place of pride by a 19th century British nobleman.
I think about how tourism, whatever the season, can stir feelings of both profound benevolence (as if the traveller were some visiting king blessing the region with disposable tourist dollars), and rank sponginess (as if he were sapping the place of the very mana people come searching for). I think of the free drinks and genuine good cheer offered by locals who don’t seem to mind me. I think of the anarcho-punks and asylum-seekers of Exarcheia – described to me by a bartender, who claimed to play in a band that opened for the Ramones called Panx Romana, as “the most free place” – whose lives are being made more difficult by the ease of my presence
A few days later and I’m back in Athens. My foot still throbs. I get a hotel.
The writer’s travel was subsidized by Eurail. The company did not review or approve this article.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.