If you’re wondering how coronavirus has affected that Greece vacation dream of blue skies, bluer seas, bright sunshine and the most delicious al fresco salad you’ve ever tasted — it hasn’t.
Greece has worked hard to adapt its tourism offering in an age of infection. For the time being at least, this seems to be paying off, even as a second wave of infections threatens other European destinations.
Thanks in part to the fact that it’s so far seen few cases, visiting many parts of Greece right now is almost like visiting a country where Covid-19 never happened.
There are a few reassuring precautions in place, but the beautiful empty beaches, crystal clear seas and waterfront tavernas are all still serving up the 100% authentic Greek relaxation needed to cure those lockdown blues.
Not everyone can visit Greece at the moment. It has only opened its borders to travelers from European Union countries and a handful of other nations, although officials have hinted that US visitors (other than Tom Hanks) may be welcomed before summer’s out.
Visitors need to complete paperwork before departure, giving details of where they’ll be staying. On arrival, they’re subject to random testing and could, if anyone on their flight tests positive, be quarantined for 14 days.
Despite pre-flight nerves on a trip to Greece on July 16 — one of the first flights between London and Athens after a ban on UK arrivals was lifted a day earlier — the journeying was smooth.
Passengers mostly behaved themselves by wearing masks throughout the British Airways flight. There were paperwork checks during immigration, but there was no sign of anyone being given swabs for Covid-19 testing.
Which is not to say that these aren’t being carried out. While it accepts that travelers will inevitably import some infections, Greece desperately needs to contain these in order to keep its vital tourism industry in business for the rest of the summer.
Once clear of the airport, Greece is all still there, waiting.
Rugged hillsides, covered by cypress trees, olive groves and citrus orchards, descend to soft-sand beaches and navy blue waters. Almost every evening, a liquid sunset bathes the sky and the scenery in a soul-soothing spectrum of oranges and pinks.
Hotels and guest houses are doing their best to make guests feel safe. Check-in desks have been placed behind screens, staff are wearing masks and — sometimes — gloves and full plastic face guards, even if they’re uncomfortable.
“I feel like I’m about to go scuba diving in this,” says Takis Zotos, who runs the Pension Marianna guest house in the touristy port town of Nafplio, on southern Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula, sweating heavily behind his plastic face guard.
Hand sanitizer is everywhere — in hotel lobbies, outside rooms, inside rooms and even in little bottles in the bathroom, next to the complimentary shower gel and shampoo. TV and aircon remotes are sometimes wrapped in plastic.
Signs and floor markings try hard to enforce a two-meter social distance guideline that isn’t always practical. Arduous one-person-at-a-time breakfast servings, instead of the traditional buffet, seem to still be a logistically tricky work in progress.
A traditional welcome
If hoteliers are concerned that their guests could be unpacking coronavirus along with their beach shorts, they’re not showing it.
Welcomes, even to visitors from virus hotspots like the UK, seem genuine. Greek hospitality has apparently been undimmed by Covid-19, even if some restraint must be shown.
“For Greeks, not being able to shake hands is like having an arm cut off,” says Zotos, who runs his scrupulously clean guest house (a Covid-19 training certificate is proudly displayed in reception) with his two brothers.
Restaurants too are taking precautions. Tables are spritzed with disinfection between diners, and hand sanitizer bottles occasionally sit next to the salt and pepper.
Serving staff are mostly equipped with masks or a mini plastic guard that sits beneath the mouth. Sometimes the masks are missing though, or are worn below the nose or as ineffectual chin decorations, in busy tourist spots.
However, even in remote mountain villages, wait staff in tiny roadside tavernas can be seen gamely wearing the full gear in the high heat of midday.
There’s certainly a degree of trust involved in some dining out experiences, but given that this is mostly al fresco and Covid-19 cases have so far been minimal, the risk seems very low.
Out in the streets, there’s little to show that there’s a global pandemic going on. Few pedestrians milling in and out of shops, whether in tourist areas or ordinary parts of towns, are wearing face masks or observing social distancing. Shopkeepers mostly are, though.
In Greece’s many historic attractions, face mask rules do apply for any indoor exhibits. The irony here, though, is that because tourism has been so heavily affected by coronavirus, these places are largely empty.
While that’s tragic for the Greek travel industry, it’s rather magical for visitors exploring ancient wonders that would normally be crawling with people.
At the ancient theater of Epidaurus, an acoustically perfect ancient structure that’s been hosting shows for more than 2,000 years, a tiny number of tourists were enjoying the unexpected delight of being able to stage their own performances to a completely deserted amphitheater.
Masks are required on all public transport, which includes the numerous ferries connecting the islands. There’s also additional paperwork for traveling this way.
No masks are required for Greece’s many beaches. And with visitor numbers currently well below the seasonal norm, there’s very little concern over social distancing.
This may yet become an issue on some of Greece’s smaller islands or destinations with more intensive package tourism scenes, but around the Peloponnese, most shorelines were occupied mainly by only a few Greek bathers.
This area of mainland Greece, easily accessible by a fast new toll road from Athens, is arguably one of the country’s best destinations for Covid-era tourism. It’s traditionally less visited than the Greece’s islands, yet it has an abundance of beaches and historical attractions.
With imposing mountains, green countryside, dramatic driving roads and gorgeous inland and coastal towns, it has all the ingredients for road trip perfection.
Highlights include the historic Byzantine fortress town of Mystras, the paradise shorelines of Elafonisos island, the beautiful port town of Gythio, the medieval castle town of Monemvasia, and the Mani — a wild peninsula of breathtaking coastal roads, secluded bays and hilltop villages that feels a very long way from trouble.
Greece may yet witness the beach crowding seen in Spain and other parts of Europe. It may yet see a new spike in virus cases as a result of opening its borders and be forced to cut short its summer.
But right now, with the cicadas singing on warm olive trees, the sun melting into the mirrored surface of the Mediterranean and the condensation dripping down the side of an ice-cold bottle of Mythos beer, it’s the perfect escape from everywhere else.