In the first half of 2020, many European countries closed their borders and imposed strict travel restrictions. But as the number of cases started to decline, countries began reopening for the summer.
GCT caught up with Tony Kariotis from @iamgreece to hear about his recent travel experience to the motherland.
How did I get there?
2020 has been different, difficult, and strange. Routines have been broken, lives have been changed. However for a Greek American, theres a routine we try to never break. That’s visiting Greece in the summer. With the coronavirus outbreak unfortunately, that is no easy task in 2020 unless you flaunt an EU passport and agree to strict protocols including a coronavirus test.
I was fortunate enough to gain access to visit Greece during this 2020 pandemic and provide a first hand look of what life is like in the motherland. Coming from the United States things were pretty locked down as I left. I was not able to fly out of Boston, Massachusetts as international airlines at the time were only flying out of a few hubs, Boston was not included.
I had to find a way to Newark New Jersey to catch a flight with Lufthansa. Fortunately enough Newark Airport has a train station that connects with Boston, and due to the pandemic, getting on a fast train from Boston to Newark Airport cost me about the same as a Taxi would cost from my home to my local airport.
What was flying like?
What was flying like? As I awaited in the terminal, the airport was extremely quiet. This was on June 12th. As we got ready to board, everyone was following the strict protocols. Masks, social distancing, some people were wearing full body suits that looked like they landed from space!! But what about when we get on the plane and we are sitting next to someone for 7 hours!? Well that is what happened, as the flight was entirely full!
The flight attendants passed out disinfecting wipes. Sure wipe your hands, but to be safe wipe down everything you will most likely touch!! Arm rests, food tray, TV screen, buttons, window, window frame. If you do this, you really have nothing to worry about. T
The crew also had a unique way to distribute food so that people next to each other are not eating at the same time! Smart! However the person next to me, never took their mask off, they did not eat or drink. I, on the other hand took every opportunity to eat and drink!! I had a window seat, so turning towards the window allowed me occasionally pull my mask down to catch my breath, as 7 hours under a mask was difficult!!
What was landing in Athens like?
Let’s fast track, the same went with the shorter flight from Germany to Athens. We land in Athens, now what!? We made it!! Yes but not so fast!! Everyone from the flight enters a room. Not much social distancing due to the amount of people but everyone wore a mask. Here we had to fill out contact tracing forms, agree to our covid test, and then prepare to be taken to a government funded hotel for 24 hours as they await your test results.
We then walked over and lined up for our covid test, easy peasy, it was a throat swab, not a nasal. I myself was not OK with a nasal test, I even told the lady giving the test, if it was nasal I was prepared to fly back home!!
OK, next is luggage, but things got strange at this point. There was no more guidance from staff. It was a simple go that way to luggage. OK, I found my bag quickly. Now what? Where is the staff to take us to the bus? I continued to walk out to the sliding doors and made my way past the last check point. Still no one. I was free to go. But I couldn’t, I had to be sure. So I asked two different staffers, one did not have a clear answer and the other said “You landed from Germany, yes you are fine, just do your 7 day quarantine. You will get a phone call if the test is positive.”
This was exciting but inconvenient. My AirBNB was not set until a day later and I did not book a car yet. So I immediately got a car at the airport and luckily was able to get in a day early in the apartment. You may be wondering, don’t you have family in Athens? Yes, but this was peak coronavirus season, would you ask your extended family if you can visit? Absolutely not! So I drove down to Glyfada to spend the next week. Thankfully there is eFood delivery!!
It then hit me. It felt like I escaped the coronavirus pandemic and entered a new reality where the virus does not exist. I would wake up everyday feeling a little off, thinking I had coronavirus and I was going to infect Greece, but that was just because I slept with the Air conditioner on! It’s just congestion!!
What was Greece like?
Athens was different! It was June and it felt like March.
Zero tourists yet, but the locals lived as if there was no pandemic. You saw zero masks unless it was a worker at a shop. Even then, I was handed meals by people wearing chin straps instead of masks, but I wasn’t bothered.
Monastiraki and Ermou Street, absolutely quiet. Some of the gift shops had not opened yet, the ones that did, business was slow.
In a very selfish way, it felt pretty amazing. I got to experience Greece in the summer with not many people in the way, especially for someone who loves and needs to take pictures and videos.
After quarantine, I headed off to the islands (with a friend) with no return date to the mainland.
What were the islands like?
Getting on a Greek ferry meant you had to wear a mask and fill out a contact tracing form to board the ferry. Some ferry lines did instant temperate checks as well.
This is where things got interesting!! It was still mid-late June and the islands were QUIET!! We started off on Milos. Sure it’s not the most popular island when it comes to big crowds, but the local bar in the evening drew about 5-10 people. Restaurant waiters were standing around waiting on guests just to help them pass the time. We would easily befriend waiters as we were their only conversation at times.
Experiences places like Sarakiniko with under 20 other people there is something you will never forget. The popular beach Firiplaka was not even open for business yet, we had the entire strip to ourselves.
Ok, but what about the more busy islands? We will get to those in a minute. After Milos we stopped in Folegandros for one night. An absolute gem for someone who wants to experience something quiet even in a normal year.
On to Paros and Mykonos. At this point we are getting closer to July 1. July 1 was the day Greece was going to open to tourism, but the countries allowed in were basically all EU countries. Still no Greek Americans, no Greek Canadians, no Greek Australians. These make up a BIG part of the tourism economy.
Paros felt a bit more busy, but at specific times. Naousa would have people dining, but after dinner the area would empty out, the bar scene was very quiet and some did not even open their doors. I was told by a local when I asked if the people I see are tourists or locals. He told me, “90% of what you see are locals, we are just passing our money around.”
When we arrived in Mykonos, it was a few days into July, so some tourism was starting to trickle in. That didn’t change things much, as our afternoon coffee in Little Venice by the water was accompanied by maybe 2 to 3 other parties in total. Still quiet. A couple of the bars at night had some crowds. Beaches such as Super Paradise, Ilia, Ornos were all empty. Ilia probably had the most crowds, and it was a sunbathing crowd.
Our trip in Mykonos was then unexpectedly extended as I was introduce to extended family who owned a beautiful hotel in Paraga. We were invited to stay a few extra days. The beach in Paraga drew modest crowds, the hotel was very quiet and you can see Scorpios in the distance, also quiet, but things were slowly picking up day by day as we are now a week into July.
After Mykonos, I returned to Athens for a short break. At this time tourists were coming in, virus cases were rising, so the government installed some new restrictions. This first phase was that everyone must wear a mask when entering an indoor establishment. Fair.
What this also did was put an end to the slowly rising tourist count. By late July it seemed the ones that wanted to travel to Greece did and got it over with, and not many more were on the way.
After staying in Athens for a couple weeks, it was time to get back to the islands. I then visited Skiathos and Skopelos. Again, you felt virus free in places like this. After these two a short return to Athens and you noticed here that things were getting more tight. The next phase of restrictions was that business had to close at midnight!! How many late nights at a dinner table do you remember surrounded by great company? Well, that was not possible anymore. 11:55pm things, would quickly come to a wrap. I quickly took off to see another island and hopped over to Spetses for a few nights.
The rest of the summer included many more island stops, but the following stop was Koufonisi. An island I have never been to, and quite frankly, completely WOWed me. A paradise in the Aegean. Imagine small ferry boats acting as a bus service that take you beach to beach. Imagine cliffs with incredible land design. Imagine clear turquoise waters. An island so small, you don’t need a car, you can literally walk everywhere or hop on a small ferry that runs every 30 minutes to get to different parts of the island.
The rest of the summer included more island stops such as Kalymnos, the land of the sponges!! As well as Paros again, Tinos, Kefalonia, Kalymnos again, Rhodes then back to Athens only to be talked into squeezing one more island in before calling it a season, and we escape to Sifnos!!
When I returned to Athens after the Dodecanese, things felt a lot different. More and more people were wearing masks even outdoors. The case count was floating around 400 per day.
Overall, 15 islands, 27 ferry rides, lots of contact tracing forms, lots of masks but endless memories. Three and a half months, I’ll never forget.
Why did I spend almost 4 months?
During our stays on Milos and Paros we were shooting my next two films, a follow up to my film NakedSantorini, which can be seen on my website, www.greece-media.com.
At every stop we shot photography and some more film. In late August, I collaborated with another travel company and hospitality company on a 10 day tour to Paros, Tinos and Kefalonia showcasing its beauty and also some of the best hotel options on these islands.
*Images copyright by Iamgreece