Apprehension crept up on my excited anticipation about my Greek holiday last week as the Greek Debt Crisis worsened. How far had the unrest spread? Was I walking into a nightmare?
Cash. Bring lots of it. That was the stand-out advice offered by all experts for those travelling to Greece – even before last weekend’s debt bailout referendum was called.
Banks were still open, but the Greek government was about to call a referendum to allow Greece to vote on a new loan deal worth billions of euros that would impose more cuts and austerity measures.
I was going to swim and sail in the Ionian isles, whose governor Theodoros Galiatsatos just two weeks previously called on prime minister Alexis Tsipras to quash plans for key VAT increases, outlined in the latest bailout deal.
He demanded not only that rises in the hotel and restaurant sector be scrapped, and that the order for removal of the Aegean Islands’s 30% discount be ignored, but that Tsipras use this opportunity to bring the Ionian isles in-line with its counter-parts off the Turkish coastline.
This lower rate, a similar scheme to that Spain has with its far-flung islands the Canaries, was put in place to offset the high cost of having to ship everyday goods long distances – and the weaker the economy, the more essential it is for the islanders to survive.
It was my third time in four years on this exact trip, visiting new ports daily and staying nightly in Geni on Lefkada island, one of seven major islands in the region and the only one physically connected to the Greek mainland.
The bay was still flush with yachts, naked Germans seeking shade in the cockpits. The same tavernas remained, one having installed a brand new bar, though none were full. The hotel, Ilios Club, was busy with our 16-strong group and scores of Italians, but the atmosphere was subdued – except on Greek night; dancing brings is this moth’s fire.
When banks did close, cash remained available for foreign bank cards – and we tested that, though some businesses, especially smaller ones, were not accepting credit card payments.
It was all, on the face of it, practically business as usual. The mood was relaxed this far away from Athens and the epicentre of the Greek crisis. Some were even in jovial mood as the tourists swelled in.
“We don’t have an ATM on the island,” said the waiter in Vathi Harbour on Meganisi. “They keep saying, ‘next week we’ll bring you one,’ then, ‘next month, next year’. I don’t think we will get a bank.”
In Sivota on Lefkada, the 12 Gods Taverna offered a ‘Grexit Special’ in drachmas, Greece’s currency before it entered the eurozone. Moussaka, kleftiko, tzatsiki, Greek salad and wine for two will set you back 10,200 drachmas, or €29.90 if you haven’t the old stuff handy.
Fishing was the topic for local boat crews over lunch in the harbour. They are done talking about the debt crisis and they won’t be voting yes for the latest bailout deal. No islanders will.
They rely heavily on tourism and, though the country is working hard to ensure tourists are not affected by the downturn, uncertainty is slowing the industry down and putting people off travelling.
The Ionian’s sheltered, clear and warm waters make it a mecca for sailing holidays. The peak season is July and August, and though my bay looked full, locals worried that the seas were too empty for the last week in June.
Cutbacks have reduced ferry services between the mainland and some islands and between the islands themselves. At Fiscardo, a major port on Kefallonia, came a reminder of what the ferries bring; people.
As we tied up our boat a large passenger ferry rumbled in and out flowed enough hungry consumers to fill all the shops and restaurants on the sea front. They explored the square, walked out to the historic lighthouse and left clutching ice cream pots.
Yes, in the islands at least it’s practically business as usual. I had expected more visible signs of the debt crisis; perhaps more emptiness, an atmosphere of unrest and tension. But the Greek’s on the Ionian isles were not letting any worries show.
The country still owes the European Central Bank €3.5million and had a deadline of July 20 to pay that back, so it has to be expected that life is going to get a lot tougher for all Greeks, but for now at least that is not filtering through to visitors.