Postcard from Eretria

In a coastal Greek town, quiet charm or ghostly silence?

By / October 2015

Mustached men scuttle by on rusty scooters down the Eretrian promenade. A lone woman hunches over a broom, scratching leaves off the street. The wind is silent. Another man sits on the shore and guts anchovies with his thumb and forefinger. Water laps at his blood-stained feet, the sound of its gentle sloshing interrupted only by sporadic barking from neighborhood dogs. A large ferry approaches. Its low growl slowly drowns out any other feeble noise. A handful of cars embark. Fewer come ashore.

They have arrived on the Greek island of Evia, second in size only to Crete, funneled into the Aegean harbor of Eretria. This seahorse-shaped land mass hovers just north of Athens and the mainland of Attica. Across from the dock, a squeeze of shops, restaurants, and cafes line the shore. Farther afield and encroaching the nearby hills, traces of Eretria’s historic civilization appear.

The settlement here dates back nearly 5,000 years. Formerly magnificent temples to Isis and Apollo have been reduced to a graveyard for stones. Visitors require an incredible imagination or an archeological degree to see much in them. Eretria’s ancient theatre, one of Greece’s oldest, is in slightly better condition. The pre-Roman period venue once seated over 6,000. Today, that’s more than the entire population of the town.

EritreaFishing nets on Evia. Photograph by Brian McKanna

On the western pier I run into Labros Apostolopoulos, a local who is angling for parrot fish with his 12-foot telescopic pole. He stands at the docks, a hitching post for boats that’s mostly vacant. Labros wears a faded NY Giants football cap and a carefree insouciance. He greets me and shakes my hand, his fingers covered with the sticky dryness that comes from handling fish. He fills a plastic market bag with the small catch he’s reeling in without bait.

Labros tells me that he no longer lives in Eretria. He says he left 17 years ago in search of a livelihood and a more lively place. He now works in the French Alps, at Les Deux Alpes resort, for six months a year during winter. He tells me that he also travels in the summer, mostly to Southeast Asia for vacation. In his words, it’s more beautiful and cheaper than Greece. “For me, Eretria is just a nice quiet town,” he says. “Quiet, but kind of boring.”

Eretria wasn’t always so dull. The citizens of Evia were once key players in Greek society. The Battle of Eretria in 411 BC, when Eretrians sided with the Spartans in a naval battle to defeat Athens, attests to the region’s significance in the back-and-forth of Greek politics. Today, however, Eretria is mostly a sleepy spot for European travelers. Not much more than the frayed end of Greece’s all-important tourism industry.

Joanna Krokou works at Apollo, a small knickknack shop on Eretria’s coastline. The business, where she’s worked since 1994, peddles plenty of Greek statuettes and jewelry. Joanna is friendly but she is stressed. She’s worried about her job. Worried how she’ll provide for her two children.

“Greece isn’t the only place in crisis,” she tells me. “Tourists used to come for two weeks; now they stay for one.” Joanna has also noticed a shift in clientele. Visitors used to come from France, from Russia. Now more are coming from the Balkans.

Back at the pier, Labros points to a spherical structure across the bay. It was once a historic grain mill, he says, but has since been converted to a hotel, a hotel that now sits empty.

Not all the hotels are suffering so badly. As Joanna points out, Eretria’s charm has always been that families could come here and relax while their kids roamed free. It’s so much quieter, so much less busy, than other islands like Santorini or Mykonos, she says. But how quiet is too quiet? How busy is not busy enough?

 

Brian McKanna is a contributing writer for EthnoTraveler.

 

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