On July 16, British writer Barry Neild took advantage of the first opportunity he was offered — just one day after Greece lifted its ban on UK citizens — and took off for the sunny climes of Greece, not knowing exactly what the experience would be like in this coronavirus era, but hoping for the best.
In a recent feature report on CNN Travel, Neild described his 2020 Greek vacation in all its serene beauty and unexpected pleasures, as he strolled beaches and archaeological sites which were empty for the most part, allowing those lucky few who are there now to experience Greece in a much quieter way this year.
Realizing upon his arrival that indeed Greece was just as stunningly lovely as it has always been, the seas just as deep sapphire blue and the skies just as cerulean, he says in his report that it was “almost like visiting a country where Covid-19 never happened.”
His British Airways flight was uneventful, with the vast majority of passengers duly wearing their required face coverings and spacing themselves according to social distancing rules. However, there was no mention of any testing whatsoever upon arrival, so it seemed much like any other flight he had made before coronavirus times, in many ways.
Mentioning the untiring efforts of Greece’s restaurateurs and hoteliers to maintain the strict hygiene rules imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Neild was clearly impressed by the measures taken, with the wearing of gloves and even plastic face guards de rigueur now.
Even in the sweltering heat of a Greek summer, those in the hospitality industry in the country, as well as shopkeepers, are bending backwards to accommodate all the necessary rules and regulations imposed by the Greek government.
At the hotel, Neild says the check-in desk was now behind a plastic shield and there was hand sanitizer literally everywhere within reach. Hotels have made it available not only in their public spaces but even in small bottles in bathrooms as well, alongside the traditional shower gel and shampoo bottles.
Neild quotes Takis Zotos, who operates the Pension Marianna guest house in Nafplio, as saying “I feel like I’m about to go scuba diving in this,” as he labors behind a full plastic face guard.
“For Greeks, not being able to shake hands is like having an arm cut off,” Zotos complains to Neild during his visit. The Greek man is proud the work he has done to open up the establishment he and his two brothers run this year, and he displays a government-issued Covid-19 hygiene training certificate on a wall.
Neild reports that, perhaps surprisingly, the welcomes he receives from hoteliers and all others in the hospitality industry across Greece are just as genuine as they have always been, despite him coming from a country which had one of the highest rates of Covid-19 infections in the world.
New floor markings show customers and guests where to stand according to the new social distancing rules, and the breakfast buffet, long a staple of hotel mornings, has now been replaced with being served individually, a much more labor-intensive practice.
The tables themselves are constantly wiped down with disinfectant and servers always have the appropriate face coverings although, Neild notes, “Sometimes the masks are missing though, or are worn below the nose or as ineffectual chin decorations in busy tourist spots.”
However, when Neild explores Greece’s backcountry, in the tiny villages clinging to mountainsides which are dotted all over the country, he notices that the servers there at roadside tavernas are all determinedly wearing their full protective gear despite the searing heat of midsummer.
Still, as he walks down the streets of the larger cities, Neild notices few are wearing face coverings or distancing themselves from one another. But this doesn’t pose as much of an issue as you might think, because there are so few people out and about compared to most summers.
This may be an enormous issue for all those in the tourism and travel industries, but it is a blessing for those who have made it to the country this summer of 2020, since they are able to stroll freely around the ancient buildings and archaeological sites of the country, having exhibits sometimes all to themselves.
While in a normal year it is impossible to even take a photograph atop the Acropolis without getting hordes of other tourists in the picture, this year offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get that one dream shot of your favorite Greek site without any other people in the frame.
While touring Mani, Neild even found the famed beaches of that area nearly bereft of people, and he sometimes had the beach to himself. He noted that this was true for the most part all along the shores of the Peloponnese, with only a handful of Greek visitors at each beach.
Even at the theater in Epidaurus, right outside Athens, there were so few visitors that those who were there were able to test their voices one by one to see if they would reach to the highest seats in the acoustically magnificent ancient structure.
Neild says in his CNN Travel report that the peninsula may be overall the best area for exploring this year of all areas in Greece, with its new toll highway, large numbers of beaches and its many areas of historical interest.
“With imposing mountains, green countryside, dramatic driving roads and gorgeous inland and coastal towns, it has all the ingredients for road trip perfection,” Neild says.
Of particular note he found the Byzantine town of Mystras perhaps most interesting. The sandy beaches of Elafonisos Island and the medieval town of Monemvasia, along with the entire unspoiled Mani peninsula, were also praised by Neild, as he was able to experience them in peace and near-seclusion.
The unique experiences of Summer of 2020 in Greece, he says, may not last if the coronavirus numbers spike in the country and the authorities face having to shut down all travel, as has happened elsewhere in the world. But for now, the beauties and the glory of Greece are simply unsurpassed — maybe more so than ever before.