For anyone who was lucky enough to visit Greece for the first time 40 years ago, every return is accompanied by a twinge of apprehension. Between one visit and the next, how much will have changed? How different will it feel, and how many memories will have disappeared? And given its current economic and political situation, and the way the media has insisted on portraying Greece as a country reeling between crisis and catastrophe, will there be anything left to recognise?
But in a few hours, even by the time you settle down at a table, nod to the waiter and order your first drink, just as your eyes rest upon the great shimmering blueness of the lapping sea, something almost miraculous occurs: you’re back, and all is well.
We’ve just returned from Parga, a typical small resort on the western mainland. There are a couple of lovely beaches either side of the town, plenty of taverna, a Venetian/Ottoman fort atop a leisurely hill (known as Ali Pasha’s castle, no less), a cosmopolitan mix of holidaymakers (including many Greeks) and an easy-going tempo as far away from frenetic as you could get. Each day white-painted boats leave from the little harbour for short trips to the nearby islands of Paxos and Corfu. In effect, a classic Greek coastal resort, effortlessly appealing.
In the main, the beaches remain dominant; it’s as if holidaymakers are transfixed by the sea and can only look in one direction (rather like the Gormley figures staring out across the Mersey on Crosby beach). If you’re staying in Parga, though, or anywhere on the mainland, this singular view means you miss out on mountains, gorges, ravines, caves and some of the most spectacular and extraordinary sights in the world. A couple of hours drive from Parga, inland through the Vikos National Park, you climb up to the most stunning and dramatic Byzantine monasteries of Meteora, perched precipitously on columns left behind when the seas of pre-history rolled away.
Sun, sea, beaches, sights… it’s a formula shared with other countries yet Greece manages to remain unlike anywhere else. Sitting in a moonlit café, enjoying a glass of local wine, listening quietly to the darkened sea, it may be preposterous but you don’t need to be a scholar in Classics to imagine yourself connected in some mysterious way with the mythic trials and adventures of Odysseus, desperate to return to Ithaca. There’s no need for costumes, re-enactments or charades as we might need in the UK to convince ourselves that history has meaning; it’s the effect of the landscape, the permanence of the spirit of place, the unbroken bonds of a culture.
In the UK, it can feel as if the country is at odds with its own values and is chronically confused about its identity. It soon becomes reassuringly apparent that whatever problems Greece may be facing, identity is not one of them. The ancient Greek ethos of welcoming the stranger is as evident now as ever; indeed, the ease and relaxation a holidaymaker feels in Greece is partly down to the comfort and assurance the Greeks feel in themselves. In a sense, Greek life is the way it is because the people themselves are happy for it to be so. Hospitality is not a burden but an instinctive gift.
Anxiety? Trepidation? How much has changed? Perhaps much; but one thing feels certain; Greece will remain Greece.