‘The isles of Greece! The isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!’
I couldn’t agree more with Lord Byron about the joys of the Greek islands. Here in Cephalonia, the poppies are out, back-lit by a strong spring sun. The swallows are swooping low across the villa, taking little sips from the swimming pool. The tavernas are gearing up for the summer season; the sea bass at lunch was freshly caught this morning.
Still, lucky old Byron never had to deal with a ferry strike between the isles of Greece.
A general strike meant our ferry from Cephalonia to the Peloponnese was cancelled. The alternative was to hire a water taxi for £150 – bearable for tourists; impossible for most Cephalonian locals. The strike was called in reaction to a new government bill, introducing pension cuts and higher social security contributions. The Syriza-run government is cranking up the austerity in return for more bail-out cash.
And yet, despite the strike, Alexis Tsipras, the Syriza leader and Greek Prime Minister, has just made an extraordinary bet with Andreas Andreadis, President of the Association of Hellenic Tourism Enterprises. Tsipras bet Andreadis that 2016 will break the tourism record of 2015. The loser will buy dinner for the winner in a restaurant overlooking the Acropolis.
The funny thing is that, come October, Andreadis may well pick up the tab as the sun dips down below the Parthenon. I was unlucky enough to catch an off-season ferry strike. Even the hard-line unions are unlikely to call one in high season, and risk the collapse of tourism – the one shining beacon in Greece’s bankrupt economy.
I would say to anyone thinking of booking a summer holiday in Greece – go right ahead. You’ll be absolutely fine, and you’ll barely notice the crisis, apart from on the streets of Athens – now daubed with graffiti from foot to head height throughout the city centre. Everywhere else – particularly in the islands – the Greek summer will be its usual, happy, smooth, efficient journey between beach, taverna and ruin, uninterrupted by the deepening disaster of domestic politics.
But smooth-running journeys are reserved for tourists only. Because there are now two Greeces. There’s Tourist Greece – a country of hotels at capacity, of packed tavernas; with all the outward appearance of a solvent economy.
And then there’s Real Greece – a broke country of closed shops, houses for sale at knockdown prices, and families living on 40 euros a week. Real Greece bears the brunt of off-season ferry strikes and thousands of refugees; Tourist Greece doesn’t.
Of course, there’s always been a gulf between Tourist Greece and Real Greece – as there is in any tourist economy. But, for nearly 30 years, after Greece entered the EEC in 1981, the gap between the two Greeces began to close. But no longer – and the gap won’t close again for decades to come.
In those heady early days of EEC membership, and the first years of euro membership, European largesse, and crazily low, Germanic interest rates, revolutionised Real Greece’s infrastructure. Bye-bye, ancient widows shrouded in black, inching across dirt tracks on knock-kneed donkeys. Hello, glistening, blacktop motorways across the Peloponnese; hello, Mercedes dealerships in Athens.
We all know what happened next. The government-debt crisis hit in 2009 – and, suddenly, Real Greece came tumbling back down the ladder. GDP crashed by more than a quarter; youth unemployment climbed above 50 per cent; pensions and wages were cut by more than a third.
Tourist Greece took a brief hit just after the crisis – with tourists falling from 17 million in 2008 to 11 million in 2012. But, ever since, numbers have been soaring by more than 10 per cent a year, to that record of 23.5 million in 2015.
And so the gap between the Two Greeces yawns wider and wider.
Occasionally, the two worlds collide, on the rare occasions tourists have to deal with the local infrastructure. On the road near Myrtos, on the north-west coast of Cephalonia, landslides mean the crash barriers have fallen down the hillside – and there isn’t the money to repair them.
But, once you get to Fiskardo, Cephalonia’s smartest little yacht spot, everything is just as it should be in Tourist Greece; the harbour is crammed, side to side, with a flotilla of yachts from the Sunsail holiday company. As the British holidaymakers stream off their yachts, exchanging salty seadog tales, there’s no sign of recession in the harbourside, with its Italianate shops and restaurants – a legacy of Venetian rule from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The sardines are fresh, the Mythos beer is chilled, the waiters are their charming and hyper-efficient selves.
No Greek objects to the gulf between Tourist Greece and Real Greece. They appreciate what a money-spinner Tourist Greece is; they also retain the ancient Greek idea of ‘xenia’, or hospitality to strangers – a concept well-known to Odysseus, ruler of Cephalonia’s neighbouring island of Ithaca.
More extraordinarily, they still want to stay in the euro. After five years of travelling round Greece, writing a book about Odysseus, I’ve yet to meet a single Greek who wants to leave.
Yes, they rage about Germany, Tsipras and the troika – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – that has failed to resurrect their desperate economy.
But still they keep ahold of the euro, for fear of something worse. All the Greeks I’ve talked to over the years are keen, too, on Britain staying in the EU; partly out of Anglophilia – but also because they still think of EU membership as a corrective to half a millennium of oppression.
400 years of Ottoman rule only ended 180 years ago in the Greek War of Independence – poor old Byron died in the war in 1824, just across the water from Cephalonia, at Missolonghi.
Even since independence, life has been pretty rocky. In 1893, Greece went bankrupt. Then came Nazi occupation, followed by a civil war between Communists and anti-Communists; the 1967 coup by the colonels; and the abolition of the monarchy in 1973.
You can see why the EEC was greeted with open arms in 1981. 35 years on, it’s harder to see why Greeks cling on to the EU, as their living standards fall so drastically behind the northern European tourists who belong to an entirely different economic universe.
Who’d want to stay a member of a club where only foreign members get club class treatment?
Harry Mount’s ‘Odyssey – Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus’ (Bloomsbury) is now out in paperback