TV review: ‘Greece with Simon Reeve’ (2016)

Greece is known for its ancient heritage and beautiful views. However, you can always trust that Simon Reeve will look beyond the tourist trail to seek out the challenges facing the country today. The Greek government debt crisis features heavily in this two-part BBC TV series (and I don’t pretend to understand it, even when explained in simple terms) because of the huge impact it had. The result is a rather sombre yet fascinating journey around the mainland and islands.

  • Starting with the Dodecanese Islands, which have the lovely tourist brochure views, Simon meets a fisherman who dives for sponges in the sea. This industry has declined since artificial sponges were invented, so it’s mainly tourism which is keeping the islands afloat. However, even that isn’t doing as well as previously in the current economic climate.
  • The island of Lesvos, which looks out at Turkey, is at the forefront of the migration wave from Syria and beyond. Simon is stunned to witness inflatable boats loaded with refugees and economic migrants arriving, with no Greek authorities present. People are carrying maybe one bag each and their phones. Simon gives a lift to a refugee woman and her sister and children, but soon their menfolk order them out of the car to walk in the heat.
  • On Crete, where people are known to be very tough, we meet gun-toting patriotic priest Father Andreas. At the shooting range, Simon comments that it feels ‘alien’ to Brits, as it’s not part of the culture, but that for those in Crete, guns are a way of life. Many of Father Andreas’ family were killed during the German occupation, where Cretans fought a courageous resistance.
  • In Athens, we have a summary of how Greece got into financial trouble which led to the bail-out and austerity. This has led to many problems. Simon visits a giant landfill site, ‘driving up a mountain of waste’, where many tons of rubbish – some of it recyclable, some of it possibly toxic – are dumped every day. It’s shocking to see people, including children, picking through the dangerous waste in a European country.
  • There’s an angry atmosphere on the streets of Athens. Simon meets up with an activist but then some men behave threateningly towards them. The crew manage to get away with the film intact. That night, there’s a protest march which turns violent, as young men throw petrol bombs and clash with police in riot gear. It’s noted that youth unemployment in the country is over 50%.

  • The Peloponnese Peninsula is important agriculturally. However, the workers are often migrants with no legal rights, who are paid little and treated appallingly. Simon meets some Bangladeshi men who are basically stuck, hoping for work permits so they can move on to better things.
  • In the north of Greece is Arcturos, a sanctuary which rescues so-called ‘dancing’ bears from lives of cruelty. There are wild bears too and the sanctuary trains Greek sheepdogs to protect flocks from bears and wolves. This seems a more harmonious way than trying to completely get rid of the predators.
  • There’s an enormous coal mine which supplies fuel to major power stations. We are treated to a demonstration of the blasting process, which includes 4.2 tonnes of explosive being tipped down a hole, lighting the fuse with a match, and only 60 seconds to escape in the truck. Coal is of course very bad for the environment but problematically, Greece can’t afford to stop mining and burning it.
  • Women are not allowed on Mount Athos. Simon and some other blokes travel there by boat, where the Greek Orthodox monasteries are like fortresses. One of the monasteries, Esphigmenou, is locked in a dispute with the church and the rebel monks are sealed off from the other communities. However, they have a can-do attitude and even brew their own alcohol, which at 55% ensures the monks are happy…
  • After visiting the Muslim community in Western Thrace (a legacy of when the border to Turkey was changed in the past), we meet an entrepreneur olive oil producer who has actually come back to Greece instead of leaving with the rest of the ‘brain drain’. Simon concludes with a note of optimism despite admitting how ‘surprised’ and even ‘shocked’ he has been on this journey to see the evidence of how Greece’s economic crisis has affected the people.

If you have access to BBC iPlayer, this programme is available for a few months.

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