Up and Down in Greece

Robert Ettinger writes: My wife and I love to travel, and one of the places we love to visit the most is Greece. Over the years, we have bicycled on many of the islands; we’ve enjoyed countless days and nights of exploring, eating and drinking; we’ve become friends with numerous locals and fellow visitors. Travelling around Greece, we are endlessly astonished by its hills and roads and coastline. It is truly one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been following Greece’s distressing economic news for many months now. So when we visited Greece in May, just before their elections, I was especially curious to discover first-hand how this crisis seems to be affecting this place which we are so fond of.

We bicycled around Samos — one of the more historically interesting spots in a region steeped in history. Samos is located in the East Aegean Sea; it was a prominent city-state in ancient times, was a semi-independent state during much of the 19th century, and only became a part of Greece in 1912. Both Pythagoras (best known for a2 + b2 = c2) and Aesop (famous for his fables) were born there. It has been a wine-producing region for centuries, and features lots of local foods and ways of preparing them.

We had previously bicycled around Samos perhaps five or six times; and in many ways, this experience was similar to those visits. The weather was dry and hot, the hills were challenging. But there were some differences.

We began this time in Pythagorio (named for our mathematician/philosopher friend mentioned above), made our way through Samos town, Karlovasi, Kampos and back to Pythagorio. Along the way, we spoke to locals and ex-pats, and the election was very much on everyone’s mind. But it was clear, simply from our informal conversations, that there would be a narrow margin for whoever ultimately won. Many people spoke realistically about the difficult challenges ahead regardless of the political route they would take.

We heard that tourism, the heart of their economy, was down, with 15–20% fewer British and 30–40% fewer Germans at this time of year. We encountered only three other cyclists the entire week, which was certainly unusual. We were told that the car-hire fleet had been reduced by 60% because it was expected fewer cars would be needed.

Looking ahead, I can’t help but be concerned about Greece’s infrastructure and service industry. So much of the economy depends on tourism and the flights arriving and departing in a timely manner; the inter-island ferries (which are heavily subsidised) running as scheduled. We heard, ominously, that a hospital on another island was running out of food to feed its patients.

With the future of Greece so much in the balance, I can only hope that wise heads — among its politicians and its citizens — will prevail. This crisis was years in the making, and it will undoubtedly take years to recover. But I remain hopeful that this beautiful and irresistible country will return to economic health; I know my wife and I are already planning to return in September. I’ll keep you posted.

If you’ve recently visited Greece, I’d love to hear about your experiences. Please comment below and let me know your impressions.