In Greece, It’s Almost Normal

The plaster-cast heads of Dionysus have been again. The unblinking blue Mati evil eyes and Parthenon fridge magnets hung as soon as extra outdoors the memento outlets of Plaka and Monastiraki, the place shopkeepers tended to rows upon rows of leather-based sandals, silver meander rings, dried spices and Cretan mountain tea. The vacationers have been again, too, if not fairly so many as one would possibly anticipate within the historic coronary heart of Athens on a equally sensible, blue June day of years previous.

They strolled Pandrossou Street of their masks, filling the restaurant terraces that line the sinuous alleyways of the Psiri neighborhood because the solar set to share plates of mashed fava beans, grilled octopus and Greek salad. The streets hummed with the din of voices and clinking glasses, however no music. Music wouldn’t be allowed for another week. The masks have been principally off now, revealing contented, sun-dazzled faces — and perhaps the slightest flicker of lingering unease.

On May 14, Greece formally opened its doorways to vaccinated and Covid-negative guests from a lot of the world, together with the United States. In doing so, the nation jumped forward of a broader European Union reopening at a time when coronavirus circumstances remained excessive and greater than three quarters of the Greek populace was nonetheless unvaccinated. It was a gamble Greece couldn’t afford not to make, after seeing its economy shrink a staggering 8.2 percent in 2020. The country welcomed only 7.4 million visitors last year, compared to 34 million in 2019, when travel and tourism accounted for more than 20 percent of the gross domestic product.

To be sure, the popular tourist sites were significantly less crowded when I visited than they were a couple of years ago, when a high-season Athens visit was starting to feel like a bad call. I found myself nearly alone at times in the shadow of the Parthenon — that lodestar of Greek antiquity that Le Corbusier, the influential modernist architect, called “the basis for all measurement in art” — something that would have been all but impossible in years past. An Acropolis guard told me that when the site first reopened in April, many Greeks came to visit, often for the first time. “And now the foreigners are coming,” she added. “which makes us very cheerful.”

There may be nowhere in the world that had as drastic a transition from full lockdown to global reopening as did Greece. As late as early May, there was still a 9 p.m. curfew and residents could only leave their homes for a limited number of essential reasons with official government permission through an automated text message system. But only a month later, I went to visit the newly opened restaurant Tzoutzouka in the ex-industrial Rouf neighborhood southwest of Omonia Square and found the terrace full with chicly eccentric Athenians across at least three generations.

“It’s amazing — always a full house,” said the chef Argyro Koutsou. “We had faith that it would be good, but we didn’t expect that it would be so much so soon.” Though she has no formal culinary training, the Athens native gained a cult following while cooking at restaurants on the islands of Zakynthos, Paros and Chios, where she became known for her adventurous cuisine that jumps from region to region, sampling and reinterpreting traditional Greek recipes using ultra-local, unexpected ingredients. “I use things that most people don’t,” she says. “I am a head-to-tail person. I love the wild fish that is not very noble. If it’s fresh and it comes from good water and you treat it with respect, it’s always a tasty dish.”

Of course, not everyone is so gung-ho about the reopening — especially after last year, when Greece opened to tourists only to see Covid rip through the country at the end of the summer, flooding the hospitals and leading to stringent lockdowns.

“In June and July the cases were so low that we completely forgot about the virus and then suddenly in August it started going crazy. And we were like, OK, we’re all going to die now,” said Ariadni Adam, a journalist for Vogue Greece. “And I think that if we go about it the same way, September is going to be the new Athenian variant or Greek island variant or whatever. I’m in favor of tourism opening, because I do realize it’s our economy and we need to bounce back, but you still need to monitor the situation.”

After a few days in Athens, I headed to Piraeus to catch a ferry to the islands, making sure to fill out my form confirming I had recently tested negative or was fully vaccinated (it’s honor system on the ferries). We cast off in the early evening, and I felt my first real rush of post-pandemic travel euphoria as I watched the sunset glint golden over the Aegean Sea from the wind-blown rear deck, where Greeks and foreign visitors filled the tables to eat and drink, smoke and talk late into the evening.

“I’m going to paint and I’m going to make pottery and I’m going to swim and I’m going to eat,” said Carolyn Nichols, a retired cosmetologist and sometimes-artist from Santa Barbara, Calif., sharing a bottle of wine with friends on the deck. She was headed to Amorgos for three weeks, a trip she booked without a second thought when she learned Greece was opening. “I want to travel while I can still walk, talk and find the airplane,” she said.

We stopped at Syros after nightfall, the lights of the port and illuminated hillside church domes glittering over the darkened sea, then continued on to Paros, my final destination. Known for its ancient marble quarries and classic Cycladic hamlets, Paros is a favorite with affluent Europeans, especially the French, whose villas and vacation homes are scattered throughout the island.

I spent much of my last day on Paros at Kolymbithres, the island’s most remarkable beach, which sits within a vast, shallow bay where giant curved rock formations worn marble-smooth by the passage of time rise from the soft sloping sand to form a string of natural salt pools and secluded coves.

“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” said Orpheus Christopoulos, a tattooed local in swim trunks selling cocktails on the beach when I asked him how he felt about the reopening. “It was a strange winter, a hard winter,” he said. He lost his father to Covid. The lockdown was extreme: “The hardest part was the local fishermen couldn’t even go fishing,” he said.

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