It’s never good to arrive in a new country without any money, but when I went to the cash point at Santorini airport and realised I did not know the correct PIN for my new card, that’s exactly the situation I found myself in. Being an imbecile I had also failed to bring any cash with me, so I was left in a bit of a pickle.
Fortunately, Santorini is a small island so I was able to walk to my hostel, and I managed to stave off starvation by eating a few left over peanuts I had taken on my flight, until the next afternoon I was able to get some money. I’d like to say I’ve learnt from the experience, but who am I kidding?
Santorini, as it turned out, was a pretty incredible place. The archipelago is basically just the fragmented, narrow rim of a huge volcano caldera, which is prone to erupting quite spectacularly now and then (legend has it one such eruption was responsible for the lost city of Atlantis). The rocky, volcanic landscape, with its huge cliff sides falling steeply down into the Aegean Sea, is impressive enough, but the beautiful little villages full of white painted buildings perched atop the cliffs really add the to the spectacle. It’s like nowhere I’d ever seen before.
If Santorini is the best Greece has to offer, then Athens is surely the worst. Perhaps I’m being overly harsh, maybe I was influenced by external factors like the nasty cold I had and the dull weather, but I don’t recall being less impressed by a major city.
To begin with, I should give it some credit. It has a long, fascinating history, and is full of ruins from the ancient civilisations which inhabited it. The Acropolis is a very impressive sight, a huge rocky outcrop towering over the city, and if you’re into that kind of thing there are a few world renowned museums. And apparently the nightlife is great these days, though I was a bit too ill to find out.
The problem with Athens is that, excluding the ancient ruins, it’s a pretty ugly place. The modern day city is a huge urban sprawl consisting almost entirely of square, medium sized grey cement buildings. There is graffiti everywhere- stand still in Athens for more than two minutes and you’ll probably get tagged yourself- and it looks very dated, as though nothing has been repainted or replaced since the 1990s. Even with the economic crisis I hadn’t expected it to look so shabby and neglected.
Adding to the slightly anarchic feel was the presence of the Syrian refugees sleeping rough in a square 100m from my hostel. It was slightly surreal to see with my own eyes evidence of a problem we’ve been hearing about for months in the news. It can be easy to think of the migrants as statistics, a faceless mass of Arabs crossing the sea in ever increasing numbers- but up close it was easier to see them more personally, to see how ordinary they looked- mothers tending to their babies, teenage boys chatting in groups, little kids playing happily.
I don’t know if the Greek government has either the resources or the will to do anything to help, but it was heartwarming to see local volunteers arriving in the evenings to feed them and make balloon animals for the children.
Of course, Greece has enough problems of its own without the migrant influx, and it was interesting to hear people’s views on what was responsible for the ongoing economic disaster. The chief complaint seemed to be endemic corruption and tax dodging, from households to major companies. I personally sensed that there was a lack of respect for authority: whether it was tax dodging, smoking indoors illegally, spraying graffiti, or ignoring red lights, it felt like people were behaving with brazen impunity.
More positively, I went to a couple of other Greek cities, and while they both shared some of these negative aspects I much preferred them to Athens. Nafplio was a pleasant historic seaside city with a scenic coastline and a huge cliff top fortress towering above it, the views from which were impressive. Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, had plenty of Roman ruins and Ottoman architecture, but the main reason I liked it was its location right on the bay, with Mt Olympus faintly visible across the water.
Perhaps the most incredible place in Greece, and somewhere that I believe warrants much more attention than it currently receives, is Meteora. It is basically a collection of huge rock pinnacles plonked incongruously in a valley, towering almost vertically above the city of Kalambaka. These mini mountains, eroded over millions of years into different shapes and sizes, are impressive enough on their own, but six of them are also topped by ancient Orthodox monasteries, founded by monks looking for the ultimate place of solitude.
It was a really fun area to explore, with lots of scrambling up and down rocks, climbing cliffs, shimmying along ledges and the like. Peeking over the tops of the cliffs was thoroughly vertigo inducing, as often there was nothing but a sheer drop into the valley below. The views were stunning, not just over the rock formations, but also the city below and the mountains in the distance.
And that was about all I had time for in Greece, though of course there is so much more. If I have any take home messages from all of this, I guess they would be: go to Santorini and Meteora, they’re brilliant, but unless you’re fascinated by Ancient Greek civilisations, give Athens a miss. Consider going in October, it’s a good time to visit in order to avoid the worst of the crowds and the heat. And don’t expect huge bargains- even with the economic crisis it’s still probably the most expensive country in the region.