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Letter from Athens: The Trip to Greece Missed the Real Greece

July 18, 2020

As welcome a respite as it was during the time of COVID-19, British comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, today's counterparts to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's The Road movies, managed somehow to miss seeing Greece in their film The Trip to Greece.

You can't get to know anyplace if you stay in Five-Star hotels and eat at their restaurants or, as they did, skip genuine tavernas offering incomparably fresh horiatiki Greek salads and sea food for well under 50 euros for two people, including beer and wine.

Instead, between quips and insults that in their first three movies The Trip, The Trip to Italy and the Trip to Spain, were wickedly funny and endearing, they traipsed their way through Greece, eating a 307-euro ($350) lunch of mussels at a fancy restaurant that could be had for 10 times less at places offering real Greek food.

They even managed to make Greece a cameo as their itinerary was designed to follow that of Odysseus, who – at least according to Homer – didn't stay at the Grande Bretagne in Athens on the way to Ithaca.

The hotel, by the way, is near a little hill called the Acropolis that has a decent attraction on top called The Parthenon, which is worth visiting even if you have to rub elbows with the hoi polloi who wouldn't know a barb from a riposte.

Maybe it's because we watched this while on Tzia, also known as Kea, one of the quietest Greek islands, having just finished a meal at Kristoforos, a seaside restaurant nestled under trees on Poisses Beach, feeling a soft breeze blow off the water.

That was accompanied by the biggest – and best – grilled squid you'll see on any plate this side of 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea – and grilled octopus that created new taste buds, a crunching horiatiki made with tomatoes and peppers and onions produced right there, and two Greek beers. The tab? It was just 35 euros ($40).

Don't get me wrong. These guys are flat-out funny as they spar for the title of the Fastest Wit and their slings seem designed to sting, if not injure, as they battle for one-upsmanship but the Aristotle and bits of Greek history thrown into the script seemed affected, unlike their dueling impersonations of Robert DeNiro and Mick Jagger.

The movies are like My Dinner With Andre as take-out, and at times are genuinely moving when they switch from comedy to pathos, and the depths of the soul are plumbed past jokes, including Coogan's dream of Hades and his father's death, which happened two years before the movie showing fictional representations of themselves.

That was after their venture into the Caves of Diros (have been there and it's spooky indeed to be taken through the underworld of cold water and stalagmites and stalactites and not imagine this is what spending eternity is like, minus being conscious).

The stops they made essentially showed ‘Instacrams’ of esoteric Greece.

They started in Turkey – Troy – and Brydon let slip an unfortunate bad joke about the Greek island of Lesbos that's overrun with refugees being so close that refugees could swim there, perhaps not knowing scores have drowned when dinghies capsized.

Undoubtedly thinking it would be too touristy and lacking the cerebral cachet to lift the movie into philosophy (Coogan, an atheist, admitted to believing more in Greek philosophers than religion) the pair didn't go to the usual places, but in so doing missed the quaint little places that make a trip unforgettable.

They ate at the pricey Varoulko, a Michelin-starred seaside place in Piraeus in the little Mikrolimano marina, a restaurant said to be worth its stars.

But for our money if you take a trip to Greece you're better served sitting almost in the water at Delfinia, The Dolphins, down a hill on the back side of Santorini, where the fish jump into your plate and the setting is more serene, the food succulent and much cheaper.

As Varoulko noted, the Nobel Prize winning poet Odysseus Elytis wrote, “If you deconstruct Greece, you will see at the end that what is left is an olive tree, a vineyard and a fishing boat,” most of which they missed.

Director Michael Winterbottom said he wanted to make the anti-tourist trip and told Conde Naste's Traveler that, “one of the things we try and do is find places where Rob and Steve's conversations can start with something vaguely connected to the place like Greek drama or Greek democracy, and then wander off into their usual inanities.”

It wasn't a bad idea to go the other way except they went way the other way, not just to places less visited despite their allure – the island of Hydra where singer Leonard Cohen lived off and on, the magical Cape Sounion and the ancient, glorious theater of Epidaurus, which Winterbottom thought was in Macedonia, not the Peloponnese.

To his great credit, he told the magazine that, “basically Greece is all mountains and olive groves falling down into the most amazing sea everywhere. It’s hard to pick a bad spot to shoot,” even if he did miss some. But at least he came and in the end, despite the misses, it was still a hit that made Greece the anti-COVID-19 Utopia from afar.

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