greece

Lefkada

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View from a hike in the mountainous central region of Lefkada

In my last post, I write about a visit to the Ionian island of Kefallonia. Here I will share a few pics and observations from the second part of our trip, to the island of Lefkada.

One of the great advantages of Lefkada is that it is actually connected to the mainland by a bridge, making for easy access from Athens or Central Greece. Unfortunately, we learned that this is also a big disadvantage, since the land connection means that anyone in continental Europe can drive to Lefkada and, believe me, they do. From a perusal of the license plates on the island it would appear that half of Romania heads for Lefkada in early September. Along with large numbers of visitors from Serbia and Bulgaria, the Eastern European tourists filled the beaches and tavernas of the island, in this post-high season period that we expected to be relatively quiet.

We had been warned by our guidebook to get out of the town of Nydri, where our ferry from Kefallonia landed, as soon as possible, and this proved to be good advice. Nydri appears to be heavily oriented towards package tourism, with little of interest to offer. We made our way north to Lefkada town instead and found a picturesque harbor area and a unique architectural style, unlike anything I’ve encountered elsewhere in Greece.

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Lefkada town’s waterfront

Because of the frequent earthquakes throughout the island’s history, the townspeople developed a method of construction which uses sheet metal reinforcement over the masonry, which is then painted in bright colors, giving the downtown a distinctly tropical look. As we wandered the alleyways of the old town, I felt as if we could have been in the South Pacific or the Caribbean. The impression is enhanced by the jumbled, incongruous nature of the architecture, with lovely tall houses painted in bright yellows and blues set among a jumble of grey, rotting bare wood structures with porches that appeared ready to collapse upon unsuspecting pedestrians. Could not be more different than the Cycladic villages with their strict architectural codes, every building perfectly whitewashed, the shutters all painted in the same shade of deep blue, green, or red.

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Earthquake-proofed home in old town Lefkada

One does not expect to encounter rain on the Greek islands in early September, but the weather gods were not smiling on us. Fortunately, Lefkada town has a nice little archaeological museum that is perfect for a rainy day. It was there, however, that I learned something that to an oenophile and even occasionally practicing oenologist such as myself, was very disturbing. You’ll notice that, although the modern Greek word for wine is krasi, I don’t say that I’m a krasophile–the ancient Greek word for wine was, of course, oinos.  I learned from an exhibit at this little museum that the word krasi is actually thought to have come from the word for “mixed,” as in “wine mixed with water,” which, apparently, is the way that wine was generally consumed  by the ancient Greeks. It seems they enjoyed quaffing rather large quantities of the stuff but still wanted to be able to impress their friends with their rhetorical skills and poetry and whatnot. So I guess I can no longer scoff at the modern-day Greeks who often put ice cubes in their wine, a practice that I have always ridiculed. It is well-grounded in history, it seems.

By the way, I also learned at this museum that a symposium was, in fact, a guys’ drinking part, presumably mixed in with some intellectual banter for respectability’s sake–keep that in mind next time you’re invited to one of those academic gatherings.

Lefkada’s proximity to Italy also offers the advantage of a substantial number of genuine Italian restaurants on the island, something we don’t often find in Athens. We stumbled upon one–a little hole in the wall that proved to be a gem. The owner was a Napolitana woman who, despite having lived in Lefkada for two years spoke barely a word of Greek and only a few words of English. She seemed particularly pleased to be able to chat with us in our broken Italian and was delighted at the fact that we wanted our pasta al dente (having learned in our time in Florence that the word scotto! —always with an exclamation point–conveyed the worst possible culinary sin–overcooked pasta.) Despite the rain dripping through the flimsy plastic sheeting above us and the cramped sidewalk tables on a not particularly picturesque city street, we spent a lovely afternoon, enjoying our pasta with swordfish and eggplant, pasta with mussels, caprese with basil cut from the plant in the corner, and, of course, substantial quantities of white wine.

Having learned from our guidebooks that the island’s most remote and nicest beaches were on the east side of the island, we booked a room on that side, just outside of Lefkada town. We stayed at the absolutely lovely Mira resort, near the town of Tsooukalades, which I would highly recommend.

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Mira Resort

We took a drive down the beautiful coastal road on the island’s east side, making our way all the way to the southern tip to the spectacular beach of Porto Katsiki. Unfortunately, every other visitor to Lefkada had also been apprised of the beauty of this beach and, even in September, we were confronted with a mass of umbrellas, blankets, and people.

 

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Porto Katsiki beach

 

We had better luck with our visit to the mountainous central heart of the island, despite the iffy weather.  We took a lovely drive through the mountains, mostly on good roads (although we did end up, at one point, on what is probably the most narrow, winding road I have ever encountered–more of a paved goat path than road–thank goodness we never encountered another car or I don’t know how we would have managed to get by.) We enjoyed a nice hike through olive orchards and fig groves, sheltering occasionally from the sun showers, enjoying gorgeous views at various points of the mountains and the sea below.

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Central Lefkada

 

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My bottom line impression, then is that Lefkada is a great natural beauty but, unfortunately, much of Europe has already made this discovery.

 

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Refugee Crisis Update: From Bad to Worse

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Refugees waiting in the harbor of Mitilini, Lesbos

For some weeks now, I have been wanting to write a follow-up piece on the refugee situation in Greece, but I have been overwhelmed by the pace of events, which has exceeded my capacity to absorb and comment on them. To summarize what has happened since our trip to Lesvos, which I last wrote about a month ago:

1) The expected drop-off in refugee arrivals from Turkey due to the onset of colder, wetter fall weather and rougher seas did not occur. In fact, the flow increased dramatically. The hundreds of arrivals per day that we witnessed in September turned into thousands per day in October despite rough seas, with a concomitant increase in deaths in the crossing. On October 20, to pick one day, over 8,000 people arrived on the Greek islands. Total migrant/refugee arrivals in Greece have now reached a staggering 700,000 in 2015. The Greek Coast Guard and emergency service personnel have been working 24-7 trying to rescue people from the sea, but they are completely overwhelmed and understaffed. Despite their efforts, some 500 people died on the Turkey-Greek island route in October.

2) The Greeks have been giving people free passage through the country after a cursory registration process on the islands. They have been criticized for failing to screen adequately arriving migrants, but anything more rigorous would create a massive bottleneck, leaving thousands of people in cramped, inadequate facilities on small islands that are completely unprepared for and incapable of handling this. News reports today say that European ministers in an emergency session in Brussels are focusing on the need to strengthen border controls on the periphery of the EU, that is, on the Greek islands. But, let’s face it, this isn’t going to happen without a massive influx of resources from the EU.

3) Most of the migrants arriving on the Greek islands have moved quickly through the country, but a small percentage, most of them Afghans, have been stranded in Athens. The New York Times had a story recently describing the increasingly common journey of impoverished Afghans out of the country, via a hostile Iran, where guards routinely shoot at the migrants, then on to Turkey and Greece. They often leave with only enough funds to get them as far as Turkey or Greece, where they end up stranded. If you go to Victoria Square in Athens on any given day now, you will find it filled with Afghans and other migrants who appear to be stranded here. They are surviving on charity from aid organizations now, but how long will this last? What will happen to these people when the aid agencies move on to another crisis? The Greek government certainly can’t support them.

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Syrian refugee child in Pikpa camp on Lesvos

4) The Paris attacks, involving at least one terrorist who made his way through Greece on a stolen Syrian passport, suddenly changed the entire conversation on the refugee problem. Every country looking for an excuse to close their borders to refugees (Poland, Hungary, etc.) now has the perfect one. Who can argue with the right of those countries to secure their borders from terrorists? Conveniently, this will also allow them to evade their responsibility to share in the burden of taking in the legitimate refugees many of whom are, in fact, fleeing from the horrors of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

5) The Americans, who had previously agreed  to take a minuscule trickle of Syrian refugees over the next several years, are now poised to shut off completely that tiny opening.  We are being offered many useful suggestions by a variety of American politicians, such as Donald Trump’s brilliant idea of requiring all Muslims in the U.S. to register in a national database.  Should we also require that they all wear a patch with a yellow crescent to identify them? Or maybe just round them all up and put them in detention centers?

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Refugee dinghy in Molyvos, Lesvos

The refugee crisis, vastly complicated now by the horrific attacks in Paris, is, nonetheless, here to stay.  Can the Greek government do more to police their borders? Probably. But not without a huge infusion of resources from the EU—asking a country in the midst of a massive economic crisis, with a steadily declining GNP and 26% unemployment to carry the burden as the border police of the EU is simply not a realistic solution.

 

 

 

Finally, some people have asked about how to donate to the volunteer refugee assistance efforts in Lesvos. The wonderful organization that we volunteered with is now incorporated as a non-profit in Greece and it is called the Starfish Foundation. You can connect with them via their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HelpForRefugeesInMolyvos/ either to donate or to volunteer.

And…a nice video from Lesvos by the charitable organization Samaritan’s Purse, showing the volunteer efforts there and the many challenges they face.

A very good day for Syriza and Tsipras

The pre-election polls in the short campaign leading up to this important national election were remarkably consistent–it would be a very close battle between the current governing Syriza party and the party they had ousted in January, New Democracy. It was a toss-up as to who would come out on top and the likely result would be a fractured parliament with no clear mandate and no clear path to a parliamentary majority.

The polls were dead wrong. Tsipras and Syriza achieved a clear victory, with a comfortable 7.5% margin over New Democracy. Under the Greek electoral system in which the winning party is awarded a bonus of 50 seats in the Parliament, Syriza very nearly garnered an outright majority, needing only to ally with its previous junior coalition partner Independent Greeks to summon a majority.

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Source: Kathimerini

So there will be no post-election chaos, no need for long drawn-out negotiations among various factions, and no need for new elections.

How did the party that brought the country to the brink of disaster in its dealings with the European Union, that brought about a run on the banks and capital controls, and which ultimately made an abrupt about-face in agreeing to harsh bailout terms that it had previously rejected categorically–how did this party manage to get re-elected comfortably?

I think the answer can only be the personality of Alexis Tsipras, an earnest young man with a ready smile who you just can’t help but feel is a really good guy. I think my friend Dimitri hit the nail on the head when explaining the Greeks’ support of Tsipras: “Greeks love a ‘Glorious Defeat’ and Tsipras gave them exactly that.” It is a long tradition in Greek history, Dimitri explained, and the Greek people greatly respected their earnest young leader for standing up to the powers-that-be of the European Union even if it was ultimately–and inevitably–a losing battle. He fought the good fight–the Greeks were outmanned and outgunned, but they went down honorably under Tsipras’s leadership.

Dimitri’s analysis rings true for me and is echoed in many of the man-on-the-street interviews in the press here. After all, what is the biggest patriotic holiday in Greece? Not Independence Day, but Oxi Day, when the Greeks proudly told Mussolini to stuff it, eventually leading to a disastrous German invasion and catastrophic occupation.

A few other observations from the election results:

  • The Neo-Fascist Golden Dawn garnered a frighteningly high number of votes, with their roughly 7% putting them in third place. After a period in which the Fascist party appeared to be receding from the scene, this support is truly troubling.
  • The Popular Unity party formed from the hard-left, anti-bailout faction of Syriza fared miserably, apparently under the 3% necessary to get a spot in Parliament.
  • By far the biggest vote-getter was “No One,” with a record 55% abstention rate. Given a population that is obsessively engaged with politics on a daily basis, this is perhaps the biggest story of the election. The Greek people may have finally gotten burned out on politics after several intense years of it.
  • The centrist To Potami party, which was heralded by some of the intellectual elite as a possible alternative to the more ideologically oriented parties, failed poorly with only 4% of the vote.

A Greek newspaper had a cartoon the other day in which Tsipras wakes up in a fright, telling his wife he had a terrible nightmare. “I dreamt I got re-elected!”

For better or worse, the earnest young man with the big smile’s dream/nightmare came true. I hope he can survive the challenges to come.