Italy and Greece? But aren’t they economic basket cases? Aren’t the Greeks, who spawned democracy and the Italians, titans of an ancient Roman empire who also gave us, thank goodness, Sophia Loren, supposed to be sad remnants of the glorious pasts?
Err, yes and no. Yes because they are basket cases but no because both are bulging with tourists, just like Phuket. And, get this, what nationality of tourist do you see everywhere, particularly in Italy (they could afford the gondolas in Venice, not the rest of us) spending Euro like water? Yep, the Chinese. Sound familiar?
The similarities with Phuket don’t stop with Chinese tourists, however. So here’s a few comparisons based on personal experience in Italy and Greece that locals may relate to. Invoking Clint Eastwood’s classic Italian spaghetti western genre, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” let’s just call it the good and the bad.You could never call an Italian man or woman promenading along a Rome street in the finest Italian chic designer gear by Versace ugly.
Italian male waiters (few female ones spotted, unlike in Phuket) are, as a race of people generally haughty, rude, unshaven and very, very bad at adding up the bill (to your disadvantage). Maybe it’s the hard economic times, but few bills we got for the excellent meals and drinks (try the Aperol aperitif, it is superb) were correct. Phuket scores higher here.
Rome, home of the Pantheon, Colosseum and the Vatican still has that La Dolce Vita feel, but it is appallingly dirty (shades of our roadways and some beaches) and signage to major tourist attractions for tourists is almost nonexistent. The current refugee crisis is also evident in the many homeless and unemployed people living rough in parks and on the streets. Patong has its lady boy muggers, but around train stations and airports in both countries pickpocketing is rife.
Both countries are very expensive, compared to Thailand, of course. No differential pricing at tourist attractions like the Colosseum and Vatican Museum (unlike here) and there are innovative tourist ploys such as free admission to the Colosseum on Sundays (if you are prepared for the enormous queues it’s worth the wait. You can imagine a real Russell Crowe of “Gladiator” movie type of person fame fighting the lions and tigers to the roar of 80,000 Romans almost 10 centuries
Many ancient attractions in Italy and Greece have free entry. Some, like the superb Vatican Museum with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the Acropolis Museum and Parthenon in Athens charge reasonable fees for the great experience. The Galatia ice cream in both countries is creamy and moreish. Venice’s maze of narrow alleys dotted with restaurants and its (over) busy canals with gondoliers blowing kisses to attractive tourists; Verona’s elegant walking streets and the sheer historic ambience of Michelangelo’s Renaissance Florence dominated by the majestic 11th Century Duomo Cathedral are unforgettable experiences.
High above is Fiesole, still occupied from the 8th-9th Century BC. Wander its quiet streets and imagine the many invasions and wars. Germans, Vandals and Byzantines fought here. It epitomises the history of Italy, so long and traumatic you would imagine modern day Italians have being conquered in their blood. Well, they have—economically by the Germans and the rest of Europe. History repeats itself.
Grieve not for Greece
And Greece? Tortured, bullied, grieving Greece. Well, grieve not if you are a tourist. Athens was an absolute delightful revelation. Less throbbing and crowded than Italy’s great cities, understated, reeking of historic monuments dating back up to 3000 BC around every corner, yet cosmopolitan, bustling and modern, Athens belies the current perception of a wounded Greece on its economic knees.
Sure, there is a 23% tax on services in the Greek Islands, on magic places like Santorini, with its white faced caves sprawling across vertical cliffs, but Greece has to start somewhere. It seems, in fact, it is starting with its biggest income earner – tourism. Like Phuket Santorini is an island with stunning scenery and friendly locals, and like Phuket, you can find hordes of young bridal couples everywhere on Santorini being photographed high on the cliffs against a spectacular Aegean Sea vista (not unlike our Andaman Sea). All that was missing was the beach and a baby elephant.
And the service. The Greeks have obviously been told to be very, very nice to tourists. And they are. Coupled with the sights and the wonderful, reasonably priced, Greek cuisine, this once great nation now on its knees deserves more tourists, even if, like another country we are familiar with, its politicians have sadly let it down over the years.
Democracy was hatched in Athens in 508 BC. The Acropolis Museum beneath the awe inspiring and easy to climb hill housing the Parthenon temple teaming with tourists has superbly restored archaeological remains and statues dating back centuries before Christ. Even the most cynical would be impressed.
So what else about these great European countries of western civilisation history should be noted? Here’s a few observations
An Innocent Abroad’s Eye View of Italy and Greece
Car parking:same as here – chaotic and very close. How people extract their cars from street parking spaces is a miracle.
Queues:everywhere and long. Watch for British people berating queue jumpers who don’t speak English. Entertainment.
Airlines:Air Aegean has much better leg room than Asian carriers. Also give out little spot prizes and sweets on each international flight. Nice touch.
Public water:fountains dribbling continuous streams of ice cold drinking water in public places for hot tourists is traditional and nice. It would never happen in Phuket. Tummy upsets would ensue.
Transport:taxis quite cheap, modern, big, erratically fast, surely drivers who expect a tip. Tuk tuk are minnows beside them.
Pickpockets:everywhere at train stations and airports. Italy particularly bad. Wear a money belt or clothes with zip pockets. Dress down.
Food:terrific in both places, of course. Italy awash with cheap wines (compared to Thailand), mainly reds.
Immigrants:Indians speaking perfect Italian or Greek not uncommon, running a dairy type of shop, as they do all over the world.
Motorcycles:Hurrah! The Italian cute Vespa scooter, made famous in movies like “La Dolce Vita,” lives in a myriad of colours. Mainly ridden by young women. Road riding habits generally far superior to Phuket, which wouldn’t be hard.
Pigeons:“rats of the sky.” Everywhere. Eat a baguette beside a Venice canal and expect company—cheeky and lots of them.
Graffiti:is everywhere, particularly bad in Rome. Nothing is sacred save, thank goodness, the ruins and artefacts.
Refugees:in Rome they squat in the parks and in Athens congregate in the centre of the city. You don’t feel threatened by them as they are so busy taking care of themselves. The tragic evidence of a modern day phenomenon we in Phuket are unlikely to experience.
Busking and begging:a lot of begging on the streets in Athens and Rome. Not your hard core Bangkok style, but still there. The buskers are of a high standard, particularly outside popular attractions.