CULTURE

Greek holidaymakers flock back to Aegina

greek-holidaymakers-flock-back-to-aegina

This year the island of Aegina turned into one of the summer season’s hottest destinations. This was true particularly in August, when the Saronic island was inundated with visitors: Summer homes were filled with families and their guests – who in previous years may have headed off to more distant shores during their summer vacations – who arrived on the island on ferries and hydrofoils from Piraeus. This is how, amid the prolonged capital controls and general financial blues, many Greeks rediscovered the island, which had largely fallen off the radar of domestic tourists who before the crisis had grown used to more “exotic” holidays.

“Maybe [former finance minister Yanis] Varoufakis had something to do with it,” suggested Costas, a waiter at one of the port cafes. “He put the island back on the map following that famous weekend when, instead of voting [on Greece’s deal with its lenders] in Parliament, he came to Aegina. There were Greek and foreign journalists coming here to look for him, for a comment, for an exclusive photo.

This was a first for us, in terms of media glory. They camped outside his home [a property the former finance minister shares with his wife, artist Danae Stratou], at his regular hangouts. Tourists are still asking if he’s around, what he’s like as a person.”

Besides Varoufakis, a number of ministers in SYRIZA’s outgoing cabinet, as well as popular Greek actors, own properties on Aegina. They all tend to be discreet and avoid having their picture taken and publicizing their presence on the island. For them, Aegina is a safe haven – for real publicity they go to Myconos. Aegina boasts two groups of celebrity-friends: The first comprises actors Giorgos Kapoutzidis, Smaragda Karydi and Elisavet Konstantinidou, all of whom starred in the popular comedy series “Sto Para Pente.” The second is the so-called “Aegina political group.”

Rumor has it that Alexis Tsipras first met Varoufakis on the island. Among those with homes on the island is close Tsipras aide Alekos Flambouraris as well as outgoing cabinet members Giorgos Stathakis, Theano Fotiou and the husband-and-wife team of Theodoris Dritsas and Tasia Christodoulopoulou. “Tsipras has been a regular since the days when the party would garner just 2.5 percent of the vote,” noted Nektarios, who manages Sarpa beach, where the former premier has been sighted on more than a few occasions. What about the rest of the island’s visitors? “You don’t see them at local restaurants and tavernas. They are like ghosts. They go to their summer houses and stay there.

There has been no increase in revenues because people are scared, they are penniless, and when they do go out their orders are very sensible. The days of leftovers are gone.”

This is how the crisis, in combination with the publicity, turned Aegina into one of the most popular destinations this summer. Hundreds of neat – some of them very elegant – stone-built summer residences with swimming pools, a legacy of more affluent times, now fill up with families and friends. While ferry tickets to other Greek islands are on the rise, Aegina is still affordable: A one-way trip on the ferry costs 10 euros, while a ticket for the faster Flying Dolphin hydrofoil is 14 euros.

While Aegina is not the most photogenic of the country’s islands – it is not strikingly beautiful (compared to some of its counterparts) and you might not fall in love at first sight – it does offer a sense of the familiar, comfort and security.

Back in the days when Greeks were taking out vacation loans for their holidays on Myconos, Aegina was snubbed for being mainstream and old-fashioned. But in today’s very different economic climate, to many it seems like a welcoming, safe choice.

The popular beaches of Marathonas A, Marathonas B (the island’s trendiest this year), Kleidi, Sarpa and Aeginitissa draw the crowds. The island requires minimum effort: Everything is near, easy and quick. Services on the island are satisfactory and, with the exception of Aghia Marina – the island’s most visited spot, where decades of uncontrolled construction have taken a toll – there are plenty of beautiful places to visit.

In the picturesque village of Perdika, local tavernas serve quality fish dishes, while on the islet of Moni, opposite Perdika, peacocks and deer can be seen walking along the beach. The ancient Temple of Aphaia is located at the top of a hill in the northeast of the island. One of the most important sites of the ancient world, Aphaia resembles the Parthenon, but in a much more peaceful setting.

The island is also known for its ceramic and pottery production as well as delicious pistachios, which are sold everywhere.

Aegina hosts a music festival every August. Founded by pianist Dora Bakopoulou 10 years ago, the annual event focuses on chamber music and showcases leading Greek and international classical music soloists in moonlight performances – quite an experience.

In terms of nightlife, the island offers something for everyone. The main drag alongside the port turns into a pedestrian zone after 9 p.m.: Tanned kids rides their bikes, seniors gaze out at the boats, families savor ice creams and drink coffee at the pastry shops, while several cafe-bars, such as Remvi and Perdikiotika, accommodate the younger crowd.

Perhaps this explains why the island’s international visitors – which this year turned out en masse – are also content. Many French, Scandinavian, British and Greek travelers made bookings in June this year. Although some considered canceling due to the political upheaval in July – including capital controls and a referendum – most resisted.

“People got scared, they chose Aegina due to its proximity to the capital. They’re afraid of developments and being close to Athens gives them a sense of security, given that they can go back to the city at any time,” said the owner of the Stratigos restaurant.

Insufficient infrastructure

Considering that Aegina has been catering to visitors for years now, meaning that the island authorities are fully aware of the inefficiencies of its infrastructure, it is to many quite shocking that no permanent solutions have been found to these embarrassing problems. One of the first things you notice is the piles of garbage. The island is designed to service 10,000 permanent residents (its winter population), but summertime Aegina caters to some 60,000 people – this year the figure may have even reached 70,000. The municipality’s trash collecting infrastructure is insufficient and trash piles up on the island during most days in August. Professionals operating several of the island’s beaches complain, while the municipality’s efforts ultimately fail to deliver. There is no landfill and trash is directed to Attica. The tap water on Aegina is brackish, with supplies of drinking water coming from Athens. “We import water and export trash, at a considerable cost,” noted Giorgos Mourtzis, head of the municipality’s tourist development organization.

Waiting alongside me at the port toward the Flying Dolphin back to Piraeus, 22-year-old Marios was listening to music on his large headphones. “Is this the end of your vacation?” I asked. “The vacation is never over on Aegina,” he replied. “I’ll be back for a weekend or two. I’d rather be in Antiparos with my buddies, of course, instead of staying with my parents at the summer house, but this is a cheaper solution and I have friends I grew up with here. Everyone knows each other on the island. So, everything is OK, there goes another year.”