The Moral Case For Visiting Greece This Summer

PatmosEveryone who can afford it should visit Greece this summer. That was the conclusion I reached after reading a heartbreaking story about malnourished children in Greece on the front page of Thursday’s New York Times. According to Liz Alderman’s piece, malnutrition is a serious and growing problem in Greece, where the unemployment rate has reached 27 percent and even those who are employed have seen their wages slashed due to austerity measures. Alderman interviewed Greek school officials and others who have seen school kids stealing food, fainting or appearing listless due to hunger and foraging through trash bins for leftovers.

Greece is very near and dear to my heart so I had a difficult time making it through the story. Last year international tourist arrivals to Greece in the first nine months of the year (January-September) declined by 5 percent overall at a time when Greece needed tourists most. Even worse, arrivals from the United States plummeted by 19.2 percent. Images of protests in Athens no doubt scared away plenty of American tourists and some Germans stayed away in part because of a perceived backlash over austerity negotiations.

Avoiding Greece because of safety concerns is silly. Athens has crime just like any other large city but the Greek Islands are as safe and idyllic as any place in the world. Even if you are concerned about Athens, you can fly directly to islands like Kos, Rhodes, Samos, Kefalonia, Crete, Zakynthos, Corfu, Mykonos or Santorini on Aegean Airlines, or on budget carriers like Ryanair or EasyJet.
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Greece is obviously not the only country in the world where there are children who aren’t getting enough to eat and it’s far from the world’s poorest country. Child poverty is a huge problem all over the world, including right here in the United States. In February, I visited Nicaragua and the poverty that exists there is sickening. But there may not be another place on earth where people’s standard of living has declined as precipitously as it has in Greece over the last couple years. There are desperately poor people all over the developing world but many of today’s poor in Greece are people who had stable jobs and incomes just a few years ago.

The reality is that most Americans aren’t going to plan a trip based on a desire to help alleviate poverty far from home. But Greece is actually an easy sell, regardless of the moral case for visiting the country. Great weather, tasty food, reasonable prices, historical sites, welcoming people and picture perfect beaches on dozens of islands where you’ll think you died and went to heaven. Greeks are proud of their country, regardless of its dire economic situation, and if you express in interest in knowing more about their country and its culture, 1,000 doors will be opened for you.
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I’ve been to Greece many times, including a six-week stint in the Greek Isles last year, and I’m always amazed at how few Americans venture anywhere in Greece outside of Athens, Santorini and Mykonos. On Kos, Patmos, Samos and Crete last year, we found plenty of bargains and I’ve been daydreaming about these places ever since I left Greece last June. I’ve traveled to more than 60 countries and I have deep family ties to Italy but Greece is the place I dream about on gloomy days in Chicago. It’s the one place that somehow stays with me after I leave.

In the shoulder season, it’s easy to find comfortable accommodation on most of the Greek Islands for as little as 50 euros per night. A good meal can be had for 7-10 euros, a half liter of house wine can be as little as 2 euros and if you need to get some work done, there are scores of beachfront restaurants and bars that have Wi-Fi all over the busier Greek Islands. Flights to Greece from the U.S. are pricey but you can save money by finding a cheap flight to London and then booking a discount flight on to the Greek Islands from there.

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But will it help?

How can you make sure that your trip to Greece will actually have a positive impact? Here are a few tips.

Spend Wisely. Stay at smaller, family owned hotels and bed and breakfasts, or rent apartments or rooms from local people. Spread your money around by patronizing local restaurants rather than eating at the hotel and buy handicrafts and art directly from the people who make them.

Use a Credit Card or At Least Ask for an Official Receipt. Tax evasion has long been a huge issue in Greece and it’s easier for businesses to hide money when they are paid in cash.

Hire Guides. A local guide can greatly enrich your trip and it helps funnel cash directly into the local economy. Even if you don’t like to tour archaeological or historic sites, consider hiring a guide to take you sailing or on a hike.

Volunteer or Donate Cash. Non-profits like Prolepsis, Desmos, Bourome, SOS Children’s Villages, The Smile of the Child and a host of others all do great work and you don’t have to visit Greece to make a donation. And if you can spare a little time to volunteer, you might find the experience to be a life changer.

Tourists can’t save Greece but they sure can help. And if you’d rather stay close to home this summer, think about how you spend your tourist dollars and who will benefit from your expenditures.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

12 Offbeat Travel Ideas For 2013

valetta maltaMy annual New Year’s Eve tradition is to reflect on all the places I visited during the year and plot out where I want to go in the New Year. 2012 was a banner travel year for my family because we put all of our things in storage for five months and traveled extensively in Europe and North America. We gorged ourselves on donuts and thought we got scammed in Western New York’s Amish Country, learned how to flatfoot on Virginia’s Crooked Road, were heckled and intimidated at a soccer game in Italy, and drank homemade wine with the only two residents of the village of San Michalis, on the Greek island of Syros.

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For those of you who have made resolutions to hit the road in 2013, here are 12 travel experiences and destinations, most of them a little or very offbeat, that I highly recommend.


amish donuts12. Donut Crawl in Western New York’s Amish Country

Unlike Lancaster County and other more well known Amish areas around the country, Cattaraugus County’s Amish Trail is a place where you can experience Amish culture, and let’s be honest here – candy and donuts – without all the tourists and kitsch. I love the Amish donuts so much that I went in January and again in July. Because there aren’t many tourists in this region, you’ll find that many of the Amish who live here are just as curious about you as you are about them.

11. Soak Up Colonial Era History in Marblehead, Massachusetts

I’ve been visiting family members in Marblehead for nearly 20 years and I never get tired of this beautifully preserved, quintessential New England town. Marblehead gets a steady trickle of day-trippers from Boston – but don’t make that mistake – book a B & B in this town and dive into one of America’s most historic towns for a full weekend.

10. Save The Turtles, Eat the Fish Tacos and Ride The Waves in Safe, Scenic San Pancho, Mexico

If you want a low-key beach vacation in Mexico but aren’t into big resorts or large cities, look no further than San Pancho, which is only an hour from the Puerto Vallarta airport. It’s about as safe as Mayberry, and you can volunteer to help preserve marine turtles, eat the best fish tacos you’ve ever had and surf and frolic on a huge, spectacular beach.



sicilian man in gangi nicola seminara9. Visit Gangi, Italy’s Most Charming Hill Town You’ve Never Heard Of

Italy is filled with enchanting hill towns, but many of them are besieged with tourists. If you want to check out a lovely hill town in Sicily’s interior that hasn’t changed much in centuries, check out Gangi, where you’ll find everything you could want in an Italian hill town: a perfect central piazza, a medieval street plan you will get lost in, and perhaps the world’s best gelato at the Seminara Bar (no relation to me).

freiburg germany8. Eat the Real Black Forest Ham in Historic Freiburg, Germany

Freiburg is a gorgeous, highly underrated city in Germany’s Black Forest region that is a pedestrian and gourmand dream. Here in the U.S., companies can get away with calling any old ham “Black Forest ham” but in Freiburg, you can sample the real deal and you will taste the difference.




7. Discover Old Time Music on Virginia’s Crooked Road

Southwest Virginia has a 253-mile music heritage trail that’s a glorious little slice of Americana where you’ll find terrific homespun music played by passionate locals who have Old Time Music in their blood. Don’t miss venues like the Fries Theater and the Floyd Country Store and bring your dancing shoes.




enzo ferrari museum modena italy6. Check Out Evita Peron’s Ride at Italy’s New Ferrari Museum

I’m not even a car buff, but I loved visiting the new Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena, a picture-postcard small city in Emilia-Romagna, near Parma, that doesn’t get nearly as many tourists as it deserves. The museum pays tribute to the founder of Ferrari, who was born in the house next to the museum, and the automotive heritage of the Motor Valley, home to Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Ducati and other companies that make vehicles suitable for rap stars, professional athletes and others who like to be noticed.




5. Eat at the World’s Best Greek Restaurant in San Michalis, Syros, Population:2

Syros is just a short ferry ride away from Mykonos but it gets only a tiny fraction of the tourists and I’m not sure why. It’s a gorgeous little island, with a thriving port, great beaches and To Plakostroto the best Greek restaurant I’ve ever been to, located in a striking, end-of-the-world village where you can see six neighboring islands.




4. Experience Bluegrass Nirvana at the Rosine Barn Jamboree in Kentucky

Every Friday night from March through early December, local musicians gather to jam at an old barn and general store in Rosine, Kentucky, the tiny little town where Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music was born. This might be the best free music jam in the whole country and best of all, the regulars are the sweetest people you will ever meet.




samos3. Patmos & Samos Not Santorini and Mykonos

I’m obsessed with the Greek Isles. If I could spend my holidays in just one place anywhere in the world, it might be here. But I get a little frustrated by the fact that most Americans visit only Santorini & Mykonos. Both places are undeniably beautiful, but there are dozens of less expensive, less crowded islands that are just as nice. Patmos and Samos, in the eastern Aegean, are absolutely gorgeous and aren’t as crowded or expensive. Samos is known for its wine & honey, while Patmos is home to one of the most interesting monasteries in Greece.




obama pasticciotto2. Eat an Obama Pasticciotto in Italy’s Heel

The fact that Salento, a peninsula in Italy’s heel, has a chocolaty, gooey desert named after President Obama is just one reason to visit this very special but relatively off-the-radar part of Italy. Lecce is a baroque dream, a lively place with a great passegiata, unforgettable food and wine, very friendly people and fine beaches in the vicinity.




1. Make Friends in Valletta, Malta

I had but one day in Valletta and I spent a big chunk of it trying to track down a retired Maltese civil servant who chided me for misrepresenting the country at a school model U.N. in 1986, but I saw enough of this city to want more. Valletta is a heartbreakingly picturesque port, with gently decaying sandstone buildings, warm people, dramatic Mediterranean vistas and artery-clogging pastizzis, which were my favorite treat of 2012.

I Can Barely Afford To Eat At Panera

eating on the beach in patmos greeceA month ago, I was eating a terrific meal at a taverna right on a lovely beach on the Greek island of Patmos when a perverse thought occurred to me.

“I bet this lunch is cheaper than we’d pay at a Panera, in some strip mall somewhere in the U.S.,” I said to my wife, who was finishing up a carafe of the house red that cost the equivalent of $4.

I made the comment somewhat in jest, but yesterday after having lunch at a Panera in Dekalb, Illinois, I realized that my statement had actually been correct. Here’s a little comparison of two lunches, experienced in very different corners of the world.

Patmos

In Patmos, we dined right on Lambi beach, with a stunning view of the Aegean. We split a half liter of house red wine, had a large bottle of water, two orders of chicken souvlaki, which came with a small salad and fries, and our kids split one order of plain spaghetti. The bill came to the equivalent of $28.50 and we were welcomed to linger and use the taverna’s free Wi-Fi for as long as we liked. Shots of ouzo were offered on the house.Panera

paneraOur Dekalb Panera location offered a panoramic view of strip malls as far as the eye could see, with a Panda Express, a Barnes & Noble, a Starbucks and a Ross all within spitting distance. We ordered one Cuban Panini ($7.89), one chicken cobb avocado salad ($8.69), two kids’ mac and cheese meals, which included small bowls of mac and cheese and some yogurt ($4.99 each) and four glasses of ice water (free).

With tax, the bill came to $29.22 and would have been more like $35 if we’d ordered drinks or desserts. We didn’t have our laptops with us, as we did in Patmos, but Panera has a 30-minute limit on Wi-Fi usage during the lunch rush. The place was packed and there wasn’t a single empty table despite the fact that there were no free shots of ouzo or anything else for that matter.

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In fairness to Panera, I like the place and our meal was pretty good, especially for fast food. But the meal in Patmos was far better, both in terms of the quality of the food, the ambience and the service. With tip, the meal in Patmos was actually a bit more expensive but not by much, because in Greece people usually just round up and tips don’t usually exceed 10%.


panera cuban panniniThis is obviously an apples to oranges comparison, but the point is that “upscale” fast food places like Cosi, Noodles & Company, Panera, Corner Bakery and others seem to be getting pretty damn pricey. Getting lunch at any of these places for less than $10 isn’t easy, unless you eat like a bird. According to the Christian Science Monitor, even Taco Bell, perish the thought, is going upscale! What is the world coming to?

But bargains still exist at independent fast food outlets. Last night, my faith in the American non-burger/KFC/Taco Bell/Arby’s fast-food genre was restored at a place called Just Kabobs, in St. Charles, a nice town about an hour west of Chicago. My wife and I both had a chicken kabob platter that included two big skewers of delicious chicken, rice, pita, salad and Greek potatoes, which cost just $5.99 each, and we split a hummus and pita appetizer for only $2.25.

The quality and quantity of food was incredible, and the price was unbeatable. The only thing missing was the beach.

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Hospitality: What We Can Learn From The Greeks

greeks giving directions greek hospitalityTwenty minutes into an uphill walk on a sizzling hot day on the Greek island of Syros, we gave up and decided to take a taxi. My wife and I were pushing a 2-year-old in a stroller, and cajoling our 4-year-old to brave the heat, much to his chagrin, but realized that our destination, the Catholic neighborhood of Ano Syros, perched high above the city, was too far away.

But taxis don’t randomly patrol the streets of Ermoupoli and I doubted there was a public bus that could get us there anytime soon. I saw a matronly woman in her 30s sitting on a second floor balcony and asked her if she knew where we could get a taxi. She seemed not to understand me, and disappeared momentarily, before emerging a few moments later on the street.

“Tell me,” she said, using a phrase you hear all the time in Greece.

“I think we need a taxi up to Ano Syros,” I said.

She said she’d call one for us and then went back into her apartment. I thought we’d never see her again but a minute or two later, she came back out onto the street, crossed to the other side and popped a phone card into a pay phone. We had no mobile phone and assumed that she had either a landline or a mobile in her home and hadn’t even entertained the possibility that she could afford neither.”Car number nine will be here for you in 10 minutes,” she told us after crossing back to the shady side of the street to meet us.

Her name was Uranus, and she refused to accept any money for the phone call. She told us that she had studied to be a hairdresser but was never able to find a job.

“The crisis,” she explained. “There is no work here.”

ano syros greeceShe had no job and no phone but like most Greeks, she hadn’t lost the tradition of hospitality. After spending a few hours exploring Ano Syros (right), we were again at a loss to find a taxi with no mobile phone. But on a whim, I asked a man who was getting into his car if he was heading our way, and sure enough, he was happy to drive us back to our hotel, or anywhere else we wanted to go for that matter.

Over the course of a six-week trip through Kos, Patmos, Samos, Syros, Santorini and Crete, we’ve experienced remarkable hospitality in Greece, despite the economic crisis or perhaps because of it. Like any where else, we’ve had a couple of run-ins here or there with unscrupulous or unfriendly people, but for every negative encounter, there have been dozens of positive ones.

On the island of Kos, we found ourselves stranded in the humdrum town of Kefalos, thanks to an extremely limited bus schedule, and I walked into a pharmacy and asked a woman named Sevy, a Greek-American who had moved back to Kos, how to get to a nearby beach. There was no way, she said, but she insisted on having one of her colleagues drive us there in her car. It was a good 20-minute ride and they refused to take any money.

Hotel managers almost everywhere have redefined the concept of customer service. In Santorini, the owners of Rena’s Suites gave our children a whole host of toys and some waffles with ice cream upon arrival, and a bottle of wine on departure.

Lila at Lila’s Guesthouse in Syros insisted on washing all our clothes, free of charge, and picking us up at the port, also free, despite our 2:30 a.m. arrival time. And Yianni at the Afroditi Hotel in Rethymno, Crete, picked us up, dropped us off, gave us a bottle of wine, a plate of fruit and some little gifts upon departure even though we stayed with him just one night at the ridiculously low rate of 40€.

Hotel staffs have a vested interest in keeping travelers happy but we met kind people everywhere we went. In Crete, a group of locals welcomed me like a long lost friend during the EURO 2012 tournament. On the island of Syros, I accidentally barged into someone’s kitchen in a remote village and was invited in for a meal and entertained with some live music. Monks in Patmos made me coffee, served me cookies and invited me to worship with them. And on Election Day in Naxos, the mayor of a small village offered to personally show me around and insisted on buying me drinks.

Aside from the Middle East, where hospitality is almost like a religion, and neighboring Macedonia, where guests are also treated like gold, I can’t recall such a warm welcome anywhere in the world. Greece has a lot of problems, and there are many things that Greeks can learn from Americans (for example, having some gas in the tank of a rental car when you pick it up would be nice!). But I think that anyone who works in the hospitality industry should be required to come to Greece to see how it’s done right.

4 Hotel Bargains In the Greek Isles at $75 Per Night Or Less

sirena hotel samosWith the Euro sliding and many tourists avoiding Greece on the faulty assumption that the country isn’t safe, this is a great time to visit the Greek isles. If you can travel outside before outside July and August, you’ll find some amazing bargains.

I’ve spent the last month in the Greek isles with my wife and two young children and these are three of the best deals I’ve encountered for apartment-style hotels suitable for families. Each of these places cost us between 50 and 60€, but if you don’t have kids and need less space, you might be able get by on less if you travel outside the high season. Here are four great deals in Samos, Syros, Santorini, and Patmos.Sirena Hotel/Village- Samos

The Sirena Hotel is a swanky place in the beachside town of Kambos on the gorgeous island of Samos in the eastern Aegean, right on Turkey’s doorstep. Sirena Village is a collection of holiday apartments right across the street from the hotel. We had a beautiful little two-bedroom apartment with kitchen that was very comfortable and full of character. The pool is delightful and my kids loved the turtles that live in the backyard.

Our neighbor was Giannis, the owner’s dad, who lives in one of the villas in the summer (see photo above). Giannis likes to stroll the grounds, watering trees and chomping but not smoking cigarettes. He and the rest of the family make you feel incredibly welcome. We stayed for a week and didn’t want to leave. We had an evening ferry on our last day there and when I asked about check out time, they said, “Don’t worry, stay as long as you like.” I could live at this place.

syros lilas guesthouseLila’s Guesthouse- Syros

Syros is an underrated little island – popular with Greeks – that has a bustling, non-touristy port city, great food and beaches. It’s also a ferry hub, so you can make day trips to more expensive islands like Mykonos with no problem.

My love affair with Lila’s Guesthouse started even before we arrived. I booked via email and Lila asked what ferry we were arriving on. I told her we were coming in from Samos at 2:30 a.m. but she still offered to come pick us up. And sure enough, she was there, bleary eyed, in the middle of the night waiting for us as we got off the boat.

Sometimes hotel websites can be very misleading, but what you see is what you get at Lila’s. The place used to be the French consulate and the rooms are beautifully renovated and tastefully decorated. We had a one-bedroom loft with incredibly high ceilings, two balconies, all kinds of windows and light and a small kitchen. As beautiful as the place was, the best part about this place is the hospitality.

Lila and her husband, Dimitrios, are amazing hosts. One morning, I asked Dimitrios to recommend a Laundromat.

“Why?” he asked. “We’ll do it for you.”

“How much will that cost?” I asked, showing him a huge bag of dirty laundry for a family of four.

“No, no, it’s free,” he said, and three hours later he brought up our laundry, all neatly laundered and folded. I’ve been traveling the world for twenty years and no one has ever, ever washed my clothing for me for free. God Bless the Lila Guesthouse!

renas rooms and suites santoriniRena’s Rooms & Suites- Santorini

Santorini is easily the most expensive Greek island, due to its spectacular setting, so finding a high quality place here at a low price is a bit trickier than on other islands. But Rena’s Rooms & Suites is a very pleasant surprise. The place has some negative reviews online, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the rooms were completely renovated in 2011 and it’s like a brand new hotel.

We have a very stylish two-room suite with a terrace and access to a lovely pool that serves big frosty mugs of Fransiskaner Dunkel Weiss for 3.5€. Best of all, the owners left a whole slew of toys for my children in the room, which were a huge hit.

patmosHotel Australis- Patmos

Patmos is another gorgeous island in the eastern Aegean that has it all: history, great food, beaches and stunning scenery. We stayed in a two-bedroom apartment at the Hotel Australis for a week, and at the shoulder season (cash only) bargain price of 50€ per night, it was a steal. The apartment was functional, not fancy, but we practically lived on our terrace, which had an amazing view of the port.

The family that runs this place is wonderful. They brought us a bottle of wine when we checked in, and fresh baked goods every day. If we needed a ride somewhere, Peter was always there to help us, and before we even checked out, we were Facebook friends. Right around the corner from this place, you’ll find the trailhead for a great hike up to Patmos’s ancient Acropolis.

NOTE: Room rates will vary based upon time of year, occupancy, number of persons in the room and other factors.

(Photos and videos by Dave Seminara)