Greece occupies a place in modern culture as one of the two birthplaces of organized society – the cradle of western civilization. The Greeks invented countless concepts; democracy, philosophy, political science and geometry, all which shaped the modern world as we know it. Positioned at a crossroads between Africa, Asia, and Europe, it was uniquely able to leverage its geography to create the empire it is known for today. While a testament to greatness, it is also a reminder of the fleeting nature of national superiority. The country today while rich in natural beauty and a warm culture, feels more akin to a developing country than to a member of the European Union. Economic calamity in recent years has severely impacted the average Greek citizen and serves as a stark reminder of what could happen to a country with a government that spends and saves irresponsibly.
Greece was the half-way point on our trip and we planned on using this leg of the journey to rest and recover. Warm sun, blue ocean, and great food seemed like the perfect combination to recharge our batteries. What better place to do so then on Santorini, a small island that sits about 120 miles south of the Greek mainland. It is essentially what remained after an enormous volcanic eruption created a vast geological caldera. The island is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in modern history which occurred around 3,600 years ago. This eruption is said to have indirectly caused the collapse of the then thriving Minoan civilization, and is thought by many as the origin to the legend of Atlantis.
Set on sheer cliffs overlooking the impossibly blue ocean and whitewashed buildings sporting the occasional blue dome, Santorini is affixed in countless postcards and travel websites. It serves as a symbol of the Greek islands and it is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country. Today, the island is a thriving tourism destination and the fifteen thousand inhabitants mostly work in the hospitality industry supporting the countless visitors from all over the world. Despite the overwhelming presence of tourists, the fulltime residents of Santorini are incredibly warm and welcoming. I never felt like I was a bother or an annoyance which is unusual for a destination that draws as many tourists as it does.
The hotels and homes line the cliffs of the island all the way down to the water. When you look up a photo of Santorini online there are one or two that pop up repeatedly. I was suspicious of this and thought perhaps there were a few great vantage points but doubted that the sweeping ocean views could be as gorgeous or numerous as advertised. I was dead wrong. The hotels and homes are designed with the views in mind and any restaurant you visit provides an unbelievable view that rivals any other. It was no wonder that the island was as popular as it was. In the mid-day and early evening, cruise ships would disembark and the town would be inundated with tourists to such an extent that you could barely move through the streets. However, I never felt overcrowded as the restaurants and bars were always easily accessible and allowed you a relaxing view and some relief from the crowds. The combination of Greek hospitality, ocean air, sun, and an Aperol Spritz made you feel like all was right in the world. The cliffs and scenery served to magnify the ocean’s ability to promote calm and tranquility and allow for deeper contemplation.
Our plan was to enjoy the scenery, take a few boat excursions and relax by the pool for the week. We were both in dire need of some rest and recovery after being on the move for so long. As it would turn out though, our plans had to change. Mandy became ill after the first few days and was barely able to leave our hotel for any length of time. I could take some walks and do a bit of exploring, but generally stayed close to our hotel. Despite this setback, the island still made a great impression on me. I plan on returning and exploring more of the Greek islands.
Prior to heading to Croatia, we spent a day in Athens and it made an entirely different impression on me than my week on the island. Upon leaving the main drag in Santorini and working our way back to the airport, I was surprised to see the lack of infrastructure on the other parts of the island. We arrived on the island at night and weren’t able to take in our surroundings. Much like the villages drop off sheer cliffs into the ocean, the repair and cleanliness of the island drops off a cliff once you are outside of the tourist areas. Not only was the rest of the island in disrepair, the airport itself was woefully inadequate and not at all prepared to handle as many visitors as it was transporting. We arrived shortly thereafter in Athens and most of the neighborhoods reminded me more of suburban Buenos Aires than a typical European city. Many of the buildings had been in dire need of repair for decades and the streets were littered and dirty. Every other building was graffitied over and every tenth building sat abandoned. The warmth of the people of Santorini was quickly replaced by a much terser and less welcoming local population. Athens was hit the hardest by the economic depression Greece suffered over the last few years and it was visible at every turn.
The one day we had in the city was spent visiting the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and the nearby museum. To its credit, the museum was one of the best I have ever visited and did a very good job of explaining the ruins and contextualizing the various monuments in Athens. What the Greeks constructed so long ago was impressive and fascinating. To learn of such an advanced society was even more fascinating to me amidst the backdrop of a country that was clearly in the midst of some dire circumstances. I know that Greece is on the mend now and improving every year, but my impression of it was much different than the rest of the cities in Europe I visited.
Greece is and always has been a country at the crossroads of different regions, cultures, and circumstances. It remains so today but in a way serves as a reminder of how things can go wrong. I think Europe’s current prosperity can be taken for granted and Greece is a sobering reminder that progress does not arc in one consistent direction. Progress can be erased, and culture can erode. That is a lesson we as Americans can internalize as we plan our strategic initiatives and legislate our future. // Jeff