I have never been to Greece before, so when I landed on a very warm and sunny Sunday morning, to enjoy a rare beast, a holiday in the sun (homage of course here to the Sex Pistols immortal ditty from the late seventies), I was both curious and excited to be visiting a nation that had enthralled me since I could learn to read. The epic Gods, Fables, battles and heroes, let alone the culture, education, poetry and of course politics (itself a Greek word) of this country that had played such a pivotal role in shaping the history, culture, and civilisation of mankind as we know it today, would certainly make this a most engaging experience, or so I hoped..
Such was my boyhood fascination that I used to enjoy wearing a bronze coal holder as it was known (minus the coal of course) on my head, as it vaguely resembled the classic Greek helmets worn by the warrior heroes of old. This of course allowed me to pretend being the ancient heroes of Greece re-enacting my own versions of epic battles between the Gods and heroic mortals. When you are six of course this is perfectly normal behaviour but as I discovered when attempted in my late forties in a Cotswold antique shop after a few lunchtime pints of Speckled Hen, was frowned upon by those fortunate enough to witness my re-creation of the battle of Thebes.
Anyway as ever I digress, five days on and I have been able to travel the length and breadth of this extraordinary nation, I have witnessed extreme contrasts. On the positive it is crammed full of history, signs on the main highways regularly point out temples and theatres that have not changed since civilisation began. On the other hand I have been saddened at the real economic deprivation that litters the landscape, closed down farms, ramshackle buildings, scores of desolate factories and plants are testimony to the reality of economic austerity. It is a sad paradox that the birthplace of civilisation, philosophy, and culture is now reduced to an economic scarecrow, even the thriving sea port of Thesoloniki where we were based in the rather grand Porto Palace hotel is itself surrounded by empty and decrepiid warehouses and offices now like everything else in Greece covered in grafitti, an art form of protest that is everywhere.
What I also found surprising that we were almost the only tourists around, we travelled to one of the most beautiful places in the world, the unique monastries built against all human odds by the devoted monks and nuns on the spectacular mountains of Meteora. We drove four hours past the snow capped mountain of Olympus itself, to visit these amazing buildings and took a three hour tour in a minibus which only had us, 4 Australians, and 2 Americans, on this incredible tour where the highlight was the setting of the sun against the backdrop of these monastries. And as the excellent tour guide explained the circumstances of how these devoted men and women painstakingly built from the 11 th Century on, these once 26 churches of God on this impossible terrain. The reality was that in 2018, only 6 Monastries remain, history, empires, and wars had reduced them one by one.
And today virtually no monks and nuns actually live there anymore. The solitude and isolation that they craved so they could reflect and serve God away from the world, had ironically created a tourist trap that attracted people like me. I had become the spectator on a world of privacy that drove them away from what they had created. In many ways this kind of summed up the sadness of Greece. The nation like the monks had built a beauty and a heritage that ultimately they could not sustain and today is a shadow of its former self, where ironically people like me have become both the problem and the solution. The future of Greece is now dependant on tourism and here I do hold some hope, it is one of those nations that people should visit as its footprint is so vast across all parts of society that many of us owe it a debt of thanks.