• Europe’s most touristic destination has for years been unreachable by international train. Meanwhile, Greece’s domestic lines paint a similarly grim picture. Chronic financial and staff shortages, corruption and disregard for EU rules are the main causes for the current decline.

    In 2011, trains linking Thessaloniki with the Balkans and then to the rest of Europe were suspended by the Greek government. They relaunched briefly in 2014, before being cancelled again for good.

    Jointly operated by Turkey and Greece, the train connecting Thessaloniki to Istanbul launched in 2005, but was slashed in 2011 due to cost-cutting by the then Greek state-owned company TrainOSE.

    Turns out, these lines simply could not keep pace with cars, buses, and planes.

    The Thessaloniki-Alexandroupolis route, the most important domestic railway line since 2010, has suffered from a lack of staff and maintenance, placing the infrastructure in an atrocious state. The 440 km route now takes 8.5 to nine hours. George Nathenas, a traffic expert, says that was also causing problems for the cancelled Thessaloniki-Istanbul route.

    Over the last 30 years, despite available funding, the modernisation of the network has been one big failure.

    “The memorandums imposed [by the IMF, EU and Greek Government] due to the Greek financial crisis caused the laying off of experienced personnel and the separation of the national railway company into independent legal entities that dispute among themselves, and this also had implications,” explains Nathenas.

    This degenerated from bad to worse. Last February, 57 people lost their lives in a head-on collision between two trains near Tempi Valley, provoking a national outcry. A prosecutor’s investigation discovered the automated system for re-routing trains, which would have prevented the human error, did not work.

    In September, severe damage on the railway network was caused by the storm Daniel. The government promised a full recovery of the damaged railway – but only in the next 1.5 years. Even if this is achieved, this would still be a drop in the ocean of problems that need to be solved.

    Despite the heat and wildfires, Greece is still one of the most popular holiday destinations in Europe. But Greeks themselves can barely afford a holiday in their own country.

    “I chose to have a vacation in my city, taking a few days off work in August,” says Katerina, a freelancer who lives and works in Athens.

    According to the Greek Institute of Retail Consumer Goods, one in two Greeks will not holiday this summer, while four in ten who intend to go will cut their spending by more than 50 per cent.

    They decide to stay in friends’ or family’s summer houses (26 per cent) and, according to the Business and Retail Association of Greece, save money on essential goods and services. 45 per cent of Greek consumers prefer to save money by cooking during their holidays, and only 16 per cent buy souvenirs or other products such as clothes or jewellery.

    “To go to a Greek island is an elusive dream,” says Marita Meleti, a private employee.

    In popular destinations such as Mykonos, Santorini, Sifnos, Paros and Milos prices start at 120 euros for a double room. The costs of a ferry ticket to island destinations can often exceed the accommodation cost.

    MEGA TV channel reports that a family of four travelling to the island of Paros in July has to spend around 400 euros for economy class tickets. By car, the amount will exceed 600 euros. The cheapest accommodation will cost around 900 euros for six nights. Add to that the costs for food, entertainment, and entry to the beaches, and the total amount will reach 3,000 euros. With an average salary of 1,176 euro per month in Greece this means a significant burden on a family budget.

    This year, the figures for domestic tourism are at the same level as in 2022. After almost two years of the pandemic and health restrictions, Greeks hugely needed to vacation, but three in four Greeks said that they would reduce their holidays due to financial constraints. One in four in 2022 said that they would not go on holiday at all.

    The tragedy in Turkey has shocked its neighbours and the rest of the world. In Greek cities like Athens and Thessaloniki, volunteers collected food, clothes for adults and babies, first aid kits, painkillers and other medicine, blankets, sleeping bags and cash to send to the affected zones. By last Thursday, Greece has sent 90 tonnes of aid to Turkey.

    The deadly earthquake of 6 February cost the lives of more than 37,000 people. This reminded me of the deadly earthquake of 1999 in both countries. In Turkey, 17,000 people died in that incident, and 143 in Athens. Greek and Turkish rescue teams worked together. Then as now, the Greek and Turkish foreign ministers met and spoke warmly, giving hope for a change in the relations between the two countries.

    In the same spirit, people on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are posting photos of Greek and Turkish rescue teams joining forces, or Greeks retrieving survivors from the ruins.

    Greek media detailing the tragedy include headlines such as “Wave of solidarity for the people in Turkey”, “Humanitarian aid collection points for the earthquake victims in Turkey-Syria”and “The thanks of the Turks on social media for the help of Greece.”

    The solidarity between the two countries has become breaking news in the west. The foreign press speaks about a new era between these two old “enemies”. They often forget or do not know the history of these countries. Beyond the wars, the differences, the nationalism and its instrumentalisation for political gain, are the people.

    The diplomatic history between Greece and Turkey is complex and controversial. For a reader trying to grapple with the intricacies, it develops like a spiral that drags you down and crash-lands you. Beyond and above politics are people; they always are, regardless of whether many forget this.