By Ananya Jain
Ever since I have moved from India to the United Kingdom for university, I’ve tried to maximise my travel experiences, making the most of my strategic location and using it as an opportunity to discover Europe.
This spring, I embarked on an unforgettable journey, accompanied by 17 other students from my university. We headed to one of the most sought-after destinations in Europe and spent seven days in Greece, the land of ancient wonders.
Greece has always been a popular tourist destination as it presents something for every kind of traveller, whether you’re interested in ancient history and culture, or you’re a food enthusiast, a nature buff or even just looking to unwind and relax.
From stunning land and seascapes, to fast-moving city life and ancient ruins, this country has a vast array of experiences to offer.
While no amount of time is ever enough to see the length and breadth of a country, regardless of the size, we managed to make the most of our week that too on a budget. We spent the first three days in Corinth, the city-state which once was one of the most important and prosperous regions in the Peloponnese.
We stayed at Pegasus Rooms, a hotel situated by the main square of the village, amidst the low lying yet expansive hills. The rooms were beautiful, each one having their own unique character, all of them opening into an asymmetrical courtyard comprising of orange and lemon trees, and many species of birds.
We struck a balance between exploring ancient Corinthian ruins, walking around town, as well as spending entire afternoons lounging in the courtyard, reading under the sun with a glass of local red wine.
My favourite memory from Corinth is the simple yet most satisfying meal we had on our second day. We went to a local grocery store and bought a large circular loaf of Greek bread, along with a can of olive oil, and a few blocks of feta cheese. The manager and owner of the hotel offered us a large can of wine, which never seemed to finish.
The next three days spent in Athens were much more intensive. Our accommodation this time was a student hostel Bed Station, which was well located as well as beautifully decorated.
Apart from the main attractions of the Acropolis, the national archaeological museum, the temple of Zeus amongst others, we also visited some lesser known yet exciting locations.
This included a hike up Lycabettus hill to watch the sun set over the city, and walk around the extremely colourful Monastiraki and Plaka area where I chanced upon the juiciest strawberries I’ve eaten!
The local restaurants offer a variety of Greek dishes, the most interesting one being the Saganaki, essentially feta cheese wrapped in filo pastry, fried and then garnished with sesame seeds and lots of honey. I just couldn’t get enough of it.
We also took a day trip on a bus to visit the ancient ruins of Delphi, and marvelled at the contrast between ancient Greek monuments juxtaposed with modern constructions and lifestyles in Athens.
Yet, it was not the history, culture or food that became my biggest learning from this trip, rather another realisation that dawned upon me. While there is no doubt that Greece is a beautiful country with a glorious ancient civilisation, its deteriorating economic condition and rising rates of poverty point to a massive paradox as the only reality of this ‘exotic’ location.
Perhaps it is this understanding that enabled me to make the transition from a mere ‘tourist’ to an educated ‘traveller’.
It is commonplace for visitors to associate Greece with luxury, beauty and history. In today’s ever-connected world of social media, there is an overflow of images of the Greek islands; people in tropical clothing posing against the blue and white backdrop of Santorini, or jumping off a yacht into the sparkling waters at Mykonos. These places have long been championed as the best in the world for leisure, whether relaxation or celebration!
For those who are passionate about history, Greece represents the beginning of the ancient civilisations in the Western world.
It is home to the world’s first democracy as well as Olympic stadium (made completely out of marble), a pantheon of gods and goddesses, architectural wonders and also territorial wars that left the greatest civilisation in the world ravaged and destroyed.
It is every history and architectural enthusiast’s dream to see the colossal magnitude of the Parthenon, temple of goddess Athena.
Yet while these aspects are important, they are only a small part of the reality. The country has been drowning in economic crisis since 2009, threatening not only its own economy but also that of the entire Eurozone, with instability caused by debts of billions of Euros, owed both to the IMF and the European Union.
Rates of unemployment are high, and despite the austerity measures enforced a couple of years ago, government spending continues to skyrocket.
This sense of crisis and backwardness is evident. Whilst on the train from Athens to Corinth, a local student shared her story, and we discussed how – due to high rates of poverty coupled with conservative mindsets – young people are forced to drop out of school, and find themselves falling into substance addition.
She also spoke about the emphasis on leisure and lack of incentive to go out and work, blaming the crisis on complacency.
Going by popular perceptions and appearances can be misleading, and beautiful Instagram posts can be a facade for the grim truth. While such realities are more than often highlighted when it comes to Global South economies in Africa and Asia (there is even such a thing as ‘poverty tourism’ in such countries including India), past prejudices and notions of false supremacy lead us to overlook them in the case of the colonial powers of Europe.
The fact is that in the 21st century, these issues plague large parts of the Western world as well, and acknowledging this is essential for a modern-day globetrotter. It is something every traveller should consider, beyond the rose-tinted view of lovely landscapes, good food and vibrant culture!
First published in eShe’s August 2019 issue