One of the great pleasures of exploring a hilly city is a constantly changing, often surprising, landscape. One minute you are trudging along a crowded sidewalk, huffing and puffing up a big hill, and suddenly you glimpse it between buildings: the Bosphorus. The Acropolis. The Prague Castle. Today’s Photo of the Day from San Francisco reminded me of the moment of magic. From out of the shadows of Russian Hill, Flickr user Nan Palmero shows us the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge and the city spread out before you. It’s a good chance to stop, catch your breath, take a photo and keep on trucking until the next overlook – hopefully with a refreshing beverage nearby too.
Athens is home to one of the world’s most-visited tourist destinations: The Athenian Acropolis. Drawing millions of visitors each year, the Acropolis is perhaps the most famous archaeological site in the world – and it draws the traffic in kind.
The Acropolis Restoration Project also has a marked effect on the ongoing state of display at the Acropolis. Though it’s nearing completion, scaffolding is still a major component of any visit to site.
Visiting Greece and not visiting the Acropolis is unthinkable. Set atop a high rock overlooking Athens, the temples here were built primarily to honor the city’s patron goddess Athena in all her attributes. The buildings here are some of the best examples of Greek architecture and have had a profound effect on the architecture of all the Western world. While I have a preference for medieval sites like Acrocorinth, and I’ve visited the Acropolis before, I couldn’t help but go back.
Here’s one attraction that the Greek government needs to preserve as it passes through its worst economic crisis since World War Two. People still flock here and it’s a major reason why Greece is an important tourist destination. Tourism accounts for 18 percent of the Greek GDP and tourist numbers went up last year. Several sources told me there were two reasons for this: budget-conscious Europeans are traveling closer to home and people are staying away from North African favorites like Tunisia and Egypt.
Even though sites like the Acropolis generate billions of euros a year in revenue, the Ministry of Culture survives on just 0.7 percent of the national budget, and that budget is shrinking faster than the supply of Greek olives I brought back from this trip. In the past year the ministry has seen its budget slashed by almost a third, with warnings of more cuts to come. Museums are already feeling the pinch and now ministers, archaeologists, and site directors are scrambling to find ways to maintain their their heritage. There are even plans to lease the Acropolis for film backdrops and photo shoots to help raise funds.
%Gallery-146241%This last bit is actually nothing new. Archaeological sites have always been available for rent, but costs were enormous and most projects were rejected out of hand. Now the Acropolis will go for the bargain-basement price of $1,300 a day for a photography session and about $2,000 a day for filming.
Despite Greece’s financial woes, restoration and conservation are continuing. Funds are still coming through from the government and from the European Union. The most visible is the restoration of the pronaos (front inner porch) of the Parthenon shown here in this image by flickr user dorena-wm, who obviously had better luck with the weather than I did. This image was taken last year and now there is considerably more scaffolding obscuring the front. The photo I took last Sunday is in the gallery.
At the Erechtheion, where Poseidon and Athena competed for possession of Athens, the interior of the famous south porch with its caryatid columns is screened off as the ceiling is cleaned with an innovative laser system developed specifically for this project. In ancient times it was believed that Poseidon, the sea god, struck at the ground here with his trident and a salty spring gushed forth. Athena created an olive tree, the first in the world. The Athenians judged that the olive tree was more useful and so dedicated their city to her. The city continued to honor the sea god, though, and the Erechtheion is devoted to his local aspect Erechtheus. Athens owed her power to her great navy, and so it was smart to honor the god who rules the waves, even if he did come in second place in the competition for the city.
No reconstruction was going on when I went, though. I took advantage of Sundays being free to revisit the Acropolis. It was low season and bitterly cold and overcast, but there were still large crowds exploring the ruins. One family from Crete entered at the same time I did and took the same route through the monuments. The father gave a long lecture about the place to his young son and daughter. It was heartening to see how much they enjoyed it. They asked questions, told him some things they’d learned in school, and were obviously having a good time. They took dozens of pictures and I offered to take one of them all together. That got us talking. The father’s English was limited, but his national pride was obvious even through the language barrier. As we talked, his kids went off to take more pictures.
The Acropolis Museum was opened in 2009 to much fanfare and became an instant success. Between between June 2010 and May 2011 more than one million and three hundred thousand Greek and foreign visitors passed through its doors. The museum explains the importance of the site from earliest times through the Classical era and beyond. It’s probably best to see this museum before you see the Acropolis as it will give you a much deeper understanding of that most historic of attractions.
To combat museum fatigue, take a break at the restaurant or café. Prices are remarkably reasonable and floor-to-ceiling windows give a splendid view of the Acropolis and two of its buildings-the Parthenon and the Sanctuary of Athena Nike.
The museum is not free on Sundays but that didn’t stop the crowds coming out in full force. The restaurant, café, and gift shop were all doing a brisk business. Most popular was the third floor, where a reconstruction of the Parthenon sculptures can be seen. As the labels make clear, most of these are plaster casts because between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire that then ruled Greece, got permission to remove about half of them. As you can see from the display at the Acropolis Museum, he took the best ones. Now they are in the British Museum in London, while several other sculptures were taken by other antiquarians and ended up in other museums.
The Greeks want their sculptures back. The British Museum says they took them with permission of the government that was then in power. Here is the official Greek position and here is the British Museum’s position.
The economic crisis has added a new dimension to the struggle to return the sculptures. While the plaster casts in the Acropolis Museum are very well done, seeing the real thing is always better. Getting them back would be a major coup for a country that has only had bad news for far too long, and it would help bring in much-needed tourism revenue. But with both sides dug in, it looks like the Greeks won’t be getting good news like that anytime soon.
Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.
Coming up next: The Athens War Museum
Desperate times require desperate measures. That seems to be the mantra coming out of Greece these days, where the country has gone from debating whether or not it should lease out the Acropolis to just how much they should charge. Yesterday, the Greek cultural ministry announced that it will begin renting some of its most well known, and iconic, archeological sites, starting with the Acropolis itself, for about $2000 per day.
Members of the cultural ministry were quick to point out that leasing the monument, which happen to be a World Heritage Site, would come with a number of strict stipulations. For instance, it would only be available for advertising firms wanting to use the ancient ruins as part of a photo shoot, or for demonstrators looking for a place to stage a protest. The cost could be as low as 1600 euros (roughly $2057) per day however, which makes it a relative bargain for a place with so much history.
As you can imagine, archaeologists are less than thrilled at the thought of Greece renting out its historical sites. Critics of the plan fearing further damage to the already fragile ruins and a perceived cheapening of history itself. But the ministry says that the plan only makes good economic sense, and that all funds raised in this manner would go directly towards the maintenance of the sites themselves. At this point, with the government already strapped for cash, they need all the help they can get.
While this news is a bit sad, it could have easily been worse. Considering the fact that Greece is facing major debt default in March, we should feel lucky they aren’t selling the corporate naming rights to these sites like many sports franchises. One can only imagine how much revenue The Amazon Acropolis or the Delphi Oracle by Google could have brought in.
[Photo credit: Steve Swayne via WikiMedia Commons]
Greece has been hit hard by the recession. According to EU figures, it has 18.8 percent unemployment, the second highest in Europe and more than twice that of the United States. Last year it saw its economy shrink by 5.5 percent.
Now former deputy health minister Gerasimos Giakoumatos has suggested a controversial plan to get Greece some quick cash–lease the Acropolis and other famous sights. According to the China Daily, Giakoumatos, who is a minister of parliament and a member of the conservative New Democracy party, said the move would save Greece from bankruptcy.
He said there’s no shame in leasing out Greece’s heritage, and that the real shame is that regular protests against austerity measures keep shutting the sites down. Giakoumatos said the money could go to save the government from having to slash pensions and wages.
Even with the current economic woes, tourism accounts for 18 percent of the country’s GDP and is worth tens of millions of euros each month. While Giakoumatos’ suggestion carries no weight of law, it may be given some consideration because of the huge amount of money that could be earned.
What do you think of a nation leasing out its heritage in times of trouble? Tell us what you think in the poll and comments section!
Photo courtesy Roger Wollstadt.