I’ve made it to Greece – and it all feels like a bit of an adventure
I wonder if I should be ashamed that I’m writing this in Greece? These days, it’s hard to be sure about government messaging, but travel seems to be more associated with risk assessment and safety warnings than with something you might want to do for pleasure. Could it be that the so-called “staycation” could be here... well, to stay? I hope not. More than 20 per cent of the Greek GDP and about a million jobs depend on tourism. Look at London, too. It will never be fully alive until foreign tourists return.
Anyway, with some trepidation I made the journey, on the 7.10am easyJet flight from Gatwick – an eerie experience in itself. For a start, the airport was only functioning at what looked like about five per cent. Nearly all the shops were shut. The lounges were also closed. There was a strange silence... again, that sense of shame.
By and large, the airport has adjusted brilliantly to the new reality. Plastic screens are everywhere and there is no physical contact at all in security, passport control or boarding. You now scan your own pass. There are some anomalies. You can’t use the touch screens if you are wearing gloves – although, to be fair, there is sanitiser everywhere. And although everyone is masked in the departure lounge, this is not true of the Pret and the Starbucks on the first floor, which rather defeats the point.
The best thing about the post-lockdown flight was its speed. A mere three and a quarter hours to Crete without the usual delays, the long waits for a departure slot and the queue to get on to the runway.
My flight itself was about 80 per cent full and the nervous silence continued throughout the cabin with two-at-a-time queues for the lavatory and no hot meals or drinks being served. The truth is, it’s not very easy to chat when you are wearing a mask – especially above the noise of the engines.
Entry into Greece couldn’t have been easier. Before we left, we’d had to fill in an online locator form, and on the night of departure my phone pinged with the essential quick response (QR) code, without which nobody can get in. But I was pleasantly surprised that the system worked so well. At Heraklion, we left the plane one row at a time without the usual scrum for overhead luggage and although we all had to pile into buses for the short ride to passport control, there were more buses than usual and they set off half-empty.
Inside the terminal, a long corridor led to a table where two matriarchal Greek ladies in blue PPE were waiting with swabs for random testing, but I didn’t see anyone directed that way. The luggage arrived very quickly. Within 10 minutes of landing, we were out.
Yannis, our taxi driver, who is now an old friend, was more than happy to see us. He’s had a terrible year, with no business at all; it’s brutally unfair given that Greece was making such progress after its last financial crisis. We drove past empty beaches, closed shops. Nearly all the major hotels around Agios Nikolaos have failed to open and there is no Greek equivalent of Rishi Sunak offering support. At least the restaurants that are open can offer tables outside, even if social distancing is the exact opposite of the intimacy and family spirit that is so much a part of the Greek spirit.
But the sun is still shining. The Aegean is a brilliant blue. There seems to be less rubbish in the streets and there are no jet skis carving up the water and disturbing the calm with their chainsaw buzz. After so much rain earlier in the year, everything is very green. That’s the trouble with this country. It’s a bit like the dolphin’s smile. No matter how bad things are and how much it is hurting, it just can’t look miserable. I’ve only been here a few days, but everyone I have met has been glad to see me. There’s a definite nervousness about Covid. People are careful. But I’ve not yet experienced any sense that I’m a danger or that I shouldn’t have come.
And the awful truth is that, in some ways, I prefer Crete like this. I feel as if I’ve returned to the age before tourism became mass tourism, when you had to be fairly intrepid to risk going abroad. After all, a Grand Tour of Europe came with the risk of all sorts of illnesses, including malaria, smallpox and (Death in Venice) the plague. I’m not saying that sitting on an easyJet plane for three hours makes me Indiana Jones. But this trip has so far had the feel of a true adventure.
The fee for this article has been donated to Kidscape (kidscape.org.uk).