Thursday 9 July 2015

Nothing (much) to do with cycling: “Greece is the Word, the Word..”

A few years ago, I took the family for an October half-term holiday to a Mark Warner resort near Kalamata, in Greece.  We had been spending this week for some years at Sunsail resorts in Turkey, until, for reasons too complex to go into here, their entire Aegean operation folded, and we were left looking at late notice for a Plan B and at this stage we had not yet discovered Neilson.

The proposition is similar across several operators including Warner, Sunsail, Neilson, Club Med etc.  A hotel and beach complex offering pool, spa, pilates etc plus dinghy sailing and windsurfing, with RYA-certified courses and instructors, and tennis, with a team of coaches.  Mark Warner is heavier on the tennis than most, with about a dozen courts in their Kalamata resort.  But (and I’ll return to this later) no mountain biking, normally a significant part of the mix in these resorts. (Actually, what they mean is a 50/50 mix of on and offroad riding, using upper midmarket Hardtail XC bikes by Specialized or Gary Fisher).

Anyway, back to Kalamata.  With capacity for about 500 guests, the resort witnesses the Home Counties professional middle classes wandering about in their tennis whites, enjoying a drink at the bar between matches and coaching sessions.  You have everything you (apparently) need right there.

Your chances of meeting a Greek though are pretty small.  The hotel manager was local, and quite possibly the housekeeping staff were too, although they kept themselves largely invisible.  All the beach staff, the instructors and the tennis coaches, were British.  The bar, restaurant and kitchen were staffed by Poles and Balts.

And you were not very likely to meet Greeks outside the resort either.  There were no organised trips to sites of local interest (Kalamata, as a city, is actually not very interesting, despite being the home of the eponymous olive) and barely any information either, just a few typewritten notes and photos in a folder at reception about Pilos, a small port town to the west – a local bus service every hour, with the stop at the top of the service road about a mile from the resort entrance – walk there yourself.

And, curiously for such resorts, no bicycles.  Not merely no MTBs for guests, and no guided tours.  Knowing this in advance I packed my Birdie (full-suspension folder) in its carrying bag and, after a tense discussion at the charter operator’s check-in at Gatwirck, checked it in as hold baggage.  I tracked down a 1:100,000 road map of the area, photocopied the relevant pages, and made annotations from a careful study of Google Earth photography.  Thus equipped I was able to tour widely around the resort on roads and tracks, coming across the occasional ford not detectable on map or Google and giving my Birdie a much-needed though unplanned wash, and visit the local small towns and villages.

A few intrepid guests solved the dilemma by going into nearby Messina and hiring a curious motley of roadster bicycles, but otherwise I suspect 475 out of 500 guests never ventured past the resort gates all week.

Now, how much was any of this doing for yer average Greek?  Not much, it would seem.  I don’t know whether locals were too snooty to work in tourism, or were simply undercut by eastern European migrants and British Gap Yah types willing to work for beer money, a roof over their heads and as much sun and sex as they could lay hands on.  The hotel owner was probably a corporation or a wealthy individual whose wealth and profits were quite likely being spirited out of the country to avoid tax, while local people didn’t appear to be making any money on which to evade tax. 

Contrast this with Neilson on the Turkish Aegean coast where, through Turkish labour policy and what I suspect was a more socially-responsible corporate policy, all housekeeping, catering and bar staff were locals, together with a fair proportion of the sailing and waterski instructors and the mountain bike guides – many of whom were brought to the UK in the off season to freeze their butts off in the Solent undergoing instructor training courses.  There my money really was going partly into the local economy, and that made me feel better.

The problems faced today by Greece are many and complex.  Go back far enough, and there is the wartime occupation and the plundering by the Nazis of Greece’s treasures, for which only fairly minimal compensation was ever paid.  The Euro can’t have helped, denying as it did the latitude to devalue the exchange rate to protect Greek exports from “unfair” price competition and put up barriers to the more frivolous imports.  I think it has long been suspected that much of the government borrowing went ultimately to line the pockets of politicians and their cronies.  And the major investment banks have been shamefully let off the hook when the IMF, unusually, insisted that the consolidation of Greek government debt into the NGO lenders should fully repay the private banks, at least one of which to my certain knowledge actively marketed complex derivatives which they promised would serve, Enron-style, to disguise the related borrowings from the national balance sheet.

Whatever.  The one person you can confidently say is not responsible for this mess, but is being made to pay the price, is Iannis, or Androulla, Publikos.