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In Greece, you can still hear the echoes of the global financial crisis.
While I was sitting at breakfast in June on the glorious rooftop terrace of the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens overlooking the Parthenon, police sirens suddenly blared. So did the chants of angry cleaning women demonstrating over the disappearance of their government jobs at the ministry of finance, just across iconic Syntagma Square.
My sister and I went to inspect. The police phalanx appeared to be an overreaction. Loud but small in numbers, the cleaners posed no threat. The ratio of cops to demonstrators was about five to one. This was hardly the rioting that scared so many travelers away from Greece, the worst hit of the Euro economies since the 2008 financial crisis. But the chanting ladies were a sign of the economic meltdown’s lingering effects.
Although Greece’s draconian austerity diet is still a drag on tourism, the country is slowly bouncing back. Now is actually a great time to visit, because the places most often mobbed, like the Acropolis or the center of Mykonos, can be wandered in peace. Government officials told me they expected a banner summer, crucial considering that tourism is a sixth of the country’s GDP.
Luxury properties like the Hotel Grande Bretagne are filling up again, and the cruise ships have returned to Mykonos harbor. This summer Greece no longer felt like you are “intruding on a private grief,” as The New York Times travel section wrote in 2012.
That year the Greek National Tourism Organization launched an aggressive social media and ad blitz, True Greece, to help counter the image of a depressed country rocked by strikes and riots.
Every year my sister, Jane O’Connor, and I take a trip together, just the two of us. Abandoning our husbands and children, we have gone all over Europe, North Africa, China and even sailed through Polynesia. This year our journey was especially essential for me, because I had just been fired as executive editor of The New York Times and needed the sisterly solace. It also seemed fitting to rush into the arms of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, war and justice, to try to put myself back together. I had never been to Greece, and Jane had last visited in college.
Because we had both heard tales of museums closed without notice and cashless ATMs, we were a little nervous. But we encountered no problems of this sort. The weather was glorious, the Aegean bluer than blue. We found a good hotel deal that gave us a few nights at the Hotel Grande Bretagne and then a week at the Santa Marina Resort & Villas in Mykonos.
Our first night we headed to the Parthenon, and I was flooded with strength and inspiration standing in democracy’s literal cradle. Near sunset, the site is especially spectacular, and it is impossible not to feel the majestic solitude. It helped that there were fairly few other travelers there as closing time approached.
On our second day we spent hours at the Acropolis Museum, a 150,700-square-foot showplace opened in 2009 to house the country’s ancient treasures, including many pieces of the Parthenon and Erechtheion (minus the marbles and the Caryatid that Lord Elgin swiped for the British Museum). They were gleaming from a recent cleaning. It’s impossible to pick favorites among more than 4,000 statues, ceramics, coins and jewelry. But I found myself returning to the oldest relics, the small votive animals and goddesses, that date to the sixth century b.c. They’re heartbreakingly gorgeous. Restaurants and pubs nearby were bustling, and prices, which had dropped with the crisis, had rebounded significantly. Grouper or sea bass fetched over 20 euros on most menus.
We took the super-fast ferry from Rafina to Mykonos, an easy ride of about three hours. When we arrived at the Santa Marina, one of the hotel workers told me the place was less than half full (the front-desk receptionist would claim it was almost full) and that he hoped the resort would have to extend its season through October to make up for lost revenue. He needed the work. Greece still has a 28 percent unemployment rate, and he had lost his government job in Athens driving a bus.
The Santa Marina, which had just undergone a three-year renovation, has a stunning view of the Aegean and Ornos Bay. Our room was in one of the white villas high on a hill. When we were told we had been upgraded, this was literally true, because we had to hike up to our room, taking three different elevators and many flights of stairs. Our suite was attractive, mostly white and gray, with teak flourishes, and looked out over the beach and sea. Still, I felt sorry for the waiters who had to haul heavy trays to guests ordering room service.
During the day both the lovely private beach and large saltwater pool were pretty deserted, but at meals the place was full of people, so it didn’t have a lonely feel. The nearby little town of Ornos, just a stroll away, had a couple of very decent fish places at bargain prices.
In the heart of Mykonos, with its signature white buildings with deep blue doors, the shops were bustling and crowds gathered to watch the spectacular sunsets. But a few of the most expensive restaurants were sadly empty. We had been looking forward to eating at White Star, whose chef had been awarded Greece’s first Michelin star. Tucked in Lakka Square, it was a bit hard to find, but when we arrived we were impressed by its sophisticated decor and cool lighting. The food was yummy, if pricey. The only problem was that we were the sole diners.
Even if this was a welcome change from the noise and crowds of New York eating, it was, frankly, kind of depressing to have a meal in a completely empty dining room.
Another echo of the financial crisis, no doubt.
While in Mykonos, looking out at the multimillion-dollar yachts in Ornos Bay, the European economic crisis seemed very distant. But the expensive toys in luxurious resorts can be deceptive. An Athenian sitting near us on the beach pointed out that these posh boats are owned by foreigners. Even so, he said he believed Greece is finally coming out of its devastating six-year recession.
The debt conflagration that began in Greece back then spread through southern Europe like Ebola. Greece still has the worst unemployment rate in the region, which could intensify social unrest. There is still anger over the budgetary cutbacks that created job loss. But the International Monetary Fund has predicted Greece’s economy will grow for the first time in six years in 2014. The recession is bottoming out, former IMF director Evangelos A. Calamitsis has said.
We did see signs of green shoots in Athens and Mykonos. Our luxurious settings might have masked them, but we did not sense the despair and panic that had enveloped the country and deterred many travelers.
There is still wariness and uncertainty. Given my mood on this vacation, I liked the vibe.
And surrounded by such beauty and majestic sites like the Parthenon that have lasted for so many centuries, it’s impossible to visit Greece and not feel hopeful.