I spent most of July in different parts of Greece. While there, I kept hearing from friends: “Are you scared? Is Greece safe?”
After I got back, on Aug. 7, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a photo essay, “The Mean Streets of Athens”, which, with photos of heroin addicts, riot police and a burning mosque, made Athens look worse than Manhattan in the seventies.
The NYT photo essay had only one paragraph of text which read in part: “Recent images from Athens have mostly shown violent protests in response to the austerity program Greece has adopted to solve its debt crisis. Less public is the city’s skyrocketing violent crime rate. According to police statistics, robberies almost doubled from 2008 to 2010, homicides are steadily increasing and illegal immigrants continue to arrive.”
In Athens, we usually stay at the Grande Bretagne on Constitution (Syntagma) Square, but this year, when we first arrived, we borrowed a friend’s apartment near the Hilton, away from the center, because we had read about the riots in the Square in front of the Parliament building, during which the police used tear gas on the crowds and considerable damage was done to the luxury hotels around it.
The angry dissidents pitched tents and occupied that square, where we always used to sit in the cafés and watch the sun set over the Acropolis while boys on skateboards sailed down the marble steps and evening commuters emerged from the underground subway station(which is as grand as the entrance to a museum, lined with the antiquities uncovered during its construction, displayed behind glass).
This July, I walked through Constitution Square, snapping photos of the occupying dissidents, who seemed peaceful and busy in the daytime tending to housekeeping chores in their groups’ campsites. The cafes were deserted now and port-a-potties lined the sides where they used to be. The McDonalds at the bottom of the square, which had been set on fire during the riots, appeared as good as new. The Grande Bretagne was repairing some damage to its marble steps. (The GB has iron riot gates, which can drop down to barricade the entrance.) The King George Hotel, however, seemed to be both damaged and closed.
A few days later, we moved into a suite in the Grande Bretagne, overlooking the square. A taxi strike had begun a few days earlier, and we had to drag our suitcases on and off the subway to get there.
Around 1 p.m. I saw that a demonstration was beginning in front of Parliament, with a fleet of striking taxis at the head. Many people were streaming out of the subway and the tents in the square toward the Parliament building where the Evzones, in their pleated skirts, stand guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown soldier twenty-four hours a day. (The two Evzones are relieved by another pair every hour on the hour. The big, formal changing of the guard, carried out by the entire regiment of Evzones, happens every Sunday at 11 a.m.)
I wanted to open the door to our balcony to take photos, but learned that it was locked—no doubt to prevent injury to onlookers. As soon as the demonstration began, a line of riot police positioned themselves between the demonstrators and the Evzones. There was shouting and singing and much honking of horns, but the demonstration petered out without violence and everyone eventually went back to their afternoon activities.
At the end of July, when I left for the airport, the taxi strike was still on, but the ride to the airport was fairly easy on the air-conditioned subway, and it only cost 8 Euros (compared to 35 Euros—the set price to and from the airport in a taxi.)
After I left, the taxi strike continued, some roadways were blocked, and the squatters remained in Constitutions Square until August 6. According to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, “Employees of the City of Athens, in cooperation with the police, early Saturday cleared dozens of tents from Syntagma Square - the remnants of two months of protests by self-proclaimed indignant protesters.
The process was completed without any major resistance by the campers, though eight people - four Greeks, two French nationals, a German and a Romanian - were briefly detained.”
Which brings us back to the original question: Is it safe for tourists in Greece?
The answer is yes. The minute you travel outside of Athens, as we did, visiting Crete, Corfu, Ioannina in Northern Greece and the fabulous new ecological resort of Costa Navarino near Messinia, the Greek hospitality was as warm as it ever was. (The Greek word for hospitality – “philoxenia”—literally means “love of strangers”, and Greeks throughout history have felt it their duty to welcome strangers, even if it means serving them food meant for their own family.)
Visiting Athens is another matter. It’s not dangerous—I have never felt threatened by demonstrators, nor have I encountered anti-American feeling in Greece in the last two decades. (Back in the seventies and eighties was another matter.)
The main problem with Athens right now is that it’s inconvenient -- due to the strikes and demonstrations in the wake of the country’s economic problems. The Greek newspaper Kathimerini, in an editorial, pointed out, during the taxi strike, that tourism is one of the only ways that Greece can hope to improve its economic future, and scaring tourists away is basically cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Throughout Greece this summer I saw very few Americans, except for some Greek- Americans. In the expensive ecological resort complex of Costa Navarino, and in most luxury resorts, the guests were primarily Russians as well as wealthy Greeks.
Greece has always been the dream destination for tourists, thanks to its beaches, islands, museums, music, food, and the warmth of its people. All this is still true today, although its economic agonies and the influx of desperate immigrants has changed Athens for the worse. In the city, walls are now covered with graffiti. Formerly chic shopping areas are filled with empty stores for rent. But once you get outside of the city, the islands, the hospitality, the food and the beaches and sunsets are as amazing as ever.
Hopefully by next summer many of Greece’s economic woes will be on the mend, but in the meantime, it’s wise (and increasingly economical) to fly into Athens airport (which is outside the city) and hop on a plane to one of the islands (or rent an car and drive to destinations like Meteora or Metsovo in the north—all now much easier to reach thanks to the new cross-country Egnatia Highway in the north.)
Outside of Athens, Greece still is as alluring and hospitable to the traveler as it was when it enchanted tourists like Lord Byron and, in the last century, visitors like Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell, who wrote, “You should see the landscape of Greece. It would break your heart.”