Travel News Extra: What Rick's tour guides in Greece and Spain are saying about "unrest"
Tour guide Pat O'Connor says, "Here is what I've encountered regarding unrest in Greece. In a word: zilch."
Austerity measures in Europe have triggered public protests during the past couple of weeks, most notably in Greece and Spain, where the unemployment rate is already at 25%. News reports have focused on acts of violence that have occurred at some events, which gives the impression that entire cities or countries have become dangerous to travelers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here are reports from several of Rick Steves' tour guides, who have been leading tours where demonstrations are taking place.
Pat O'Connor in Greece: Greetings from Monemvasia where the weather is fantastic and David is leading a great Athens and the Heart of Greece tour. Per your request, here is what I've encountered regarding unrest in Greece. In a word: zilch. Let me expand on that. When I was in Austria finishing leading my GAS tour in mid-September, I saw on BBC TV that a general strike was scheduled for September26th in Athens. I flew from Vienna to Athens on September 24th and our last Greece tour of the year kicked off that night. Our hotel is five blocks from the Acropolis and perhaps half a mile from Syntagma Square (where past demonstrations have focused). Our first full day in Athens (the 25th) was enjoyable and we were able to visit the Acropolis in the morning and use the Metro subway to visit the Archeological Museum in the afternoon. No problems, just predictable large crowds at the sites and urban commuters in the subway. The following morning (the 26th) we visited the new Acropolis Museum as it opened and then got on our coach and drove out of Athens mid-morning. David said that the museum employees had voted not to strike and don't see the point of turning away travelers that are so much a part of their economy. Our Greek driver was savvy enough to know to take a longer loop route out of the city to avoid any potential chaos near Syntagma Square. And from there the tour has progressed beautifully.
We've encountered no animosity or general unease from the Greek people. They seem genuinely friendly and glad to have us visiting in a year that's obviously a down year for tourism (I read in the Herald Tribune that visitors flying through Athens are down 14% this year). I heard no sirens in Athens. I saw no banners or marchers. I suppose we could have found trouble if we would have looked for it by going to Syntagma Square on the 26th. But, honestly, it's been a complete non-event from a visitor's perspective.
David Willet in Greece: There was no sign of any disturbance whatsoever on our Athens and the Heart of Greece tour. No sights missed. Tour Members will return home and hear about this, and not believe they were in same place as news described. They will be telling their friends that the media coverage of Greece is woefully wide of the mark. In fact, outside of a few protests at Syntagma Square (where a few extremists hijacked an otherwise peaceful demonstration and grabbed headlines in the U.S.), Greece has been noticeably quieter than usual overall. Our tour spends most of its time outside of Athens, and most people outside the city vote against striking, which is why we not inconvenienced at all.
The Greek (and southern European) tradition of dealing with issues is to go into streets and protest, if it wasn't debt crisis it would be something else. There is a festive, highly emotional aspect to this, so sometimes tempers can show. The media is always looking for visuals to simplify things, so two people walking down the street carrying sign makes the news. There will be more "drama" as the debt crisis plays out, so people need to get used to this kind of thing making headlines. But it has little if any real effect on travelers' experiences here.
One of my goals on every tour is to put Americans in touch with typical Greeks, and see that these are still Europe's most friendly and welcoming people. Nothing has changed about that!
Nygil Murrel in Spain: From my experience of walking around Madrid over the past several weeks, the focus of the demonstrations has been almost exclusively around the Congress building, and the closest that demonstrators are able to get to the barricades, which is Neptune square. While there have been different groups (labor unions, independent organizations, etc.) that have marched their way through city center areas (Puerta del Sol for example) to reach the demonstrations, these are peaceful marches that are simply trying to rally people to join in on the way to the Congress demonstrations. The average traveler isn't affected by this in any way.
Following the first protest, which ended in police aggression, the demonstrations have been mellow affairs during the normal hours of the evening. They have only escalated when the remaining few, who are determined to stay on-site as long as possible, are forced out by police who use aggressive tactics in the wee hours of the morning. This action, which involves relatively few people, makes the headlines.
Because none of our various Spain tour groups have any reason to go near the demonstration site, I myself haven't seen anything more than what's been on the news, but I think a sensational approach is being taken by both left and right newspapers. The left wants to show police brutality spurred on by the conservative government, while the right wants to show the "out-of-control" nature of the demonstrators with the goal of discouraging "normal" people from joining them. As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.