10 September 2019
When I return from Greece, I am inevitably asked questions that have become very familiar.
Like every returning holidaymaker, there are common questions such as did you have a good time, was the weather better than it was here, or was the food/wine/hotel good.
At one time, returning from Greece, people inevitably asked did I go island hopping.
But in recent years there are two questions I am always asked when I come back from Greece:
Are they still suffering from the impact of the economic crisis?
Did you see many refugees on the islands?
The two islands that I have visited recently – Crete three times in the past 18 months, and Corfu for a fortnight more recently – are cushioned, to a degree, from both of these crises.
Very few refugees make it as far as Corfu, although it has some large and visible Roma settlements that are in a very sad state. Crete too has very few refugees, although there have been some unusual and encouraging stories in recent years, including one of the integration of a Greek-speaking Syrian family in Crete, whose grandparents were Greek-speaking Muslims who had been forced to leave Greece in the 1920s.
Most refugees seem to arrive first in the Dodecanese islands and the islands close to the Turkish coast, including Chios and Lesbos. But I have seen refugees on the streets of Athens and Thessaloniki, and the memories of one encounter with a beautiful but impoverished refugee on the streets of Athens two years are still heart-breaking.
When it comes to the impacts of the economic crisis, at first these are less visible on islands such as Crete and Corfu.
These are large islands that benefit from tourism. Over the years, the tourist season has been extended, so that now it last for six months from April to October and is no longer concentrated on school holiday months.
Some reports say that about 25 per cent of the Greek economy is dependent on tourism. But it is inevitable that a hard Brexit is going to have an immediate impact on tourism, when prospective British tourists find the pound has lost its spending power and 2020 holidays have become more expensive.
Indeed, if economies throughout northern Europe take a harder hit than expected from a hard Brexit, the impact on the Greek tourist sector could be worse than forecasts are estimating.
But even in the places that benefit from tourism, it does not take too much searching to find poverty, if you walk around with your eyes open.
Nor is it difficult to see how the economic crisis has had an impact even in areas that have been cushioned most because of tourism.
Once lively bars, shops, hotels, restaurants and nightclubs have closed on every island. In some cases, of course, it is simply that fashions have changed, or trends demand new styles.
But in may cases families and businesses found themselves too stretched, unable to pay rising interest rates or ever-increasing taxes, or had expanded when they over-estimated potential growth in the tourist sector.
And so, when of the other questions I am asked is, how can I help?
Obviously, going to Greece on holidays is one immediate answer.
By and large I agree with the campaign that asks people not to holiday in the large, all-in-one resorts. Of course, they provide employment on a large scale. But their profits are usually sent out of Greece to large multinationals, and they take business away from local restaurants, bars, shops and family-run hotels.
Tourism is a form of taxation. It transfers large sums of money from northern Europe to Greece, sustains local economies, creates and keeps jobs, and the tax revenues it generates help the recovery of the Greek economy.
Buy in local shops, eat in local restaurants, drink in local bars, visit the churches, monasteries and museums.
There are ways too of helping Greece to deal with the refugee problem. It is in inequitable that large number of refugees making their way through Turkey to Europe are caught in a ‘limbo’ in Greece, and the Greek economy cannot afford to handle this crisis alone.
Continuing political pressure is the obvious way to change attitudes. There are Irish volunteers like Caoimhe Butterly and Valerie Cox who gave gone to the islands in recent years to work with the refugees, and there are churches and agencies that could use your support, contribution and prayers.
But going to Greece is the best way to help Greece. You will see for yourself, and it will change your approaches to Greece’s problems and how you respond to them in your political, social and cultural attitudes … and, if you pray, how you pray too.
One of the sad sights on the outskirts of the old town of Corfu is the Villa Rosa, a once-beautiful mansion built in 1864 by the painter Nicholas Aspioti.
This villa is an architectural gem in Corfu, and it has been described as ‘a monument and a symbol of 19th century Corfu.’ But I noticed its sad state over the past few weeks as I passed by on way in and out of Corfu town, and it is difficult not to notice with its bright red colours and its sad-looking state of neglect.
The Villa Rosa was designed in an architectural style that is a mixture of Italian romanticism and the English country house, and was once one of the most imposing buildings in Corfu. It is possible to imagine what life must have been like at the Villa Rosa, which once a large garden with many roses and ample stables.
This was probably the first house in Corfu to have electricity, generated for the Aspioti factory. It became one of the most prestigious centres of social life in Corfu at one time, with grand receptions, sometimes attended by members of the Greek royal family and visited by the King of Greece.
The Aspiotis family had a tremendous impact on social and economic life in Corfu, introducing many technological innovations to the island’s industrial life, including the foundation of the first printing factory in the whole of Greece.
The Villa Rossa was built in 1864 by Nicholas Aspiotis who had bought the site. This was the same year Corfu and the Ionian Islands were united with the modern Greek state.
After his death, the villa was inherited by his members of his family. It eventually passed to his grandson, Konstantinos Aspiotis, who became wealthy by mass-producing, in his printing shop, a kind of exclusive playing cards illustrated by his grandfather Nikolaos Aspiotis the painter.
Eventually, the company moved to Athens and became Aspioti-ELKA, a well-known printing and publishing company and one of the largest of its kind in Greece.
Villa Rosa passed to his daughter, Maria Aspioti (1909-2000), who entertained many British visitors, friends and colleagues here, including Lawrence Durrell and leading figures in the British arts world.
Maria-Aspasia (Marie) Aspioti (1909-2000) was born on 29 September 1909 at the Villa Rosa and became a distinguished writer, playwright, poet, publisher and cultural figure, and she influenced the literary and cultural life of post-war Corfu.
She published her book Corfu in French in 1930 in co-operation with the French writer René Puaux. During World War II she became a volunteer nurse at the Corfu General Hospital.
After the war, she was the director of the Corfu Branch of the British Council from 1946 to 1955, and from 1949 to 1954, she published the magazine Prosperos, inspired by Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell.
She was also a family friend of Prince Philip. However, she resigned as the director of the British Council in Corfu in 1955 and handed back her MBE in protest against the British policies in Cyprus against enosis and suppressing Cypriot self-determination. At the same time, she also accused Durrell of betraying his philhellenism for a few coins.
Her first play, O Κουρσεμένος Γάμος (The Pirated Wedding), was staged in Corfu in 1956. Her other literary works were published in Prosperos and other publications in Corfu.
In his introduction to Lear’s Corfu, which she published in 1965, Lawrence Durrell wrote: ‘She is, I think, the first Greek friend I made and as a girl in her 20s she wrote a book about Corfu in French which was the first study of the island to fall into my hands. Indeed, her knowledge is as comprehensive as her scholarship is scrupulous and unobtrusive.’
Marie Aspiotis could no longer afford to maintain the Villa Rosa later in life, but while the villa became dilapidated, she continued to live there with her mother. Finally, the villa was bought in 1997 by the Greek government through the State Property Agency, and two years later it was handed over to the Prefecture of Corfu on condition that it was restored. Maria died on 25 May 2000.
Many uses have been proposed for the villa if or when it is restored. However, the local government was unsuccessful in persuading the banks to lend the money needed for its restoration.
Many fear that it is probably far too late to return to the restoration of the Villa Rossa, despite extensive studies and surveys by the School of Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens and other organisations since the villa was bought by the Greek state in 1997.
Many of the tiles and windows have disappeared, the site is water-logged, mosaics and decorations have collapsed, there are deep, serious cracks throughout the building, the elaborate wooden staircase is rotting and the garden is in a state of neglect.
The Villa Rosa appears to be rotting and about to collapse, propped up and surrounded by supporting iron girders. Is it too late to save this unique work of architecture in Corfu?