The Acropolis: Greece’s most famous monument weathers the crisis

The Acropolis, Athens, Greece
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.

The last time I was there was 1994, and a lot has changed. There has been a great deal of restoration and the world-class Acropolis Museum has opened up.

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

Athens day trip: Acrocorinth, one of Greece’s greatest castles

Acrocorinth, Greece, castle, castles
Greece is justly famous for its ancient monuments. The Acropolis, Delphi, and other Classical sites are the reason most history lovers come to this ancient land. The medieval period, however, produced many equally impressive monuments and it’s a shame they’re so often overlooked. Greece is filled with giant castles, remote monasteries, and lovely churches decorated with gold mosaics and richly colored paintings.

One of the largest castles in Greece is Acrocorinth, less than an hour away from Athens by train. It sits atop a rocky hill 1,800 feet high overlooking the famous city and harbor of Corinth. Its strategic location close to the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow strip of land connecting the Peloponnese with the rest of Greece, makes it one of the most important castles in the country.

I arrived there one rainy morning to find the hill and its castle wreathed in mist. A taxi ride from the train station took me up a winding road past sheer drops. No approach to the summit is easy, and from some sides it would take a skilled mountain climber to get up. Only the western slope is relatively passable, and it’s protected by triple walls.

Acrocorinth is such an obvious point for defense that there’s been a castle here for more than 2,500 years. The ancient Greeks built a temple to Aphrodite at the top and built walls made of massive stones to serve as a refuge for the Corinthians against pirates and invaders.
In AD 146 the Romans destroyed Corinth and its castle and for many years they lay abandoned.

The temple was replaced by a church in the 5th or 6th century AD. By this time the Western Roman Empire had collapsed and the Eastern Roman Empire, known as Byzantium, was a powerful Christian state ruling over much of the eastern Mediterranean with its capital at Constantinople, modern Istanbul. Corinth and Acrocorinth became important again as a Byzantine regional capital.

%Gallery-146085%The Byzantines had their hands full fighting Muslim armies and were seriously weakened when they lost most of what is now Turkey. Little did they expect the next blow to come from fellow Christians. As knights from Western Europe set out on the Fourth Crusade, they originally planned on retaking Jerusalem from the Arabs. Instead they diverted to Byzantium and sacked Constantinople in 1204.

The Crusaders surrounded Acrocorinth but saw that an assault would be foolhardy and settled down for a long siege. Acrocorinth was defended by the Greek lord Leo Sgouros. For four years he kept the Crusaders at bay, but the strain of living within the walls eventually drove him mad. One day he mounted his horse and galloped over the cliffs to his death. This didn’t deter his garrison, however, and they continued to hold on until 1210, when the situation became so hopeless that they finally surrendered. The French knight William de Villehardouin built a castle on Acrocorinth and strengthened the walls.

The Byzantines slowly pushed the crusaders out of their empire and Acrocorinth was retaken in 1395. The ravages of the Fourth Crusade permanently weakened Byzantium. The Ottoman Turks were moving in from the east and took Constantinople in 1453. The Peloponnese held out for a time and Acrocorinth didn’t fall until 1458 after a long siege during which Greek soldiers snuck through Turkish lines and climbed the cliffs to bring supplies to the beleaguered defenders. The Venetians took the castle from the Ottomans in 1687 and many of the walls visible today are their handiwork. After a long war the Ottomans retook Acrocorinth, only to lose it for good to the Greeks in 1823 during the War of Independence.

The view from the top had me entranced. To one side, ancient and modern Corinth lay at my feet, with the Aegean stretching out beyond. To the other side lay olive groves and open countryside. As I explored the rugged hilltop with its medieval walls, Crusader keep, and remnants of temples, churches, and mosques, I was entirely alone. Two American tourists left just as I arrived, and besides a guard and a workman at the gate, I saw no one. That was fine by me. Places like this are best seen in silence and solitude.

It doesn’t bode well for the local economy, though. Sure, winter is low season, but there should be more people seeing this wonderful place. Low season in Greece also means shorter hours. Acrocorinth shut at 3pm. Old Corinth, with its important museum and picturesque Temple of Apollo, shut at the same time. If I wanted to do the castle justice I didn’t have time see Old Corinth.

As the guard closed and locked the castle gate I walked down the road back to Old Corinth a few kilometers away. It had stopped raining and I didn’t mind the walk. This being Greece, however, a passing motorist stopped to pick me up. It turned out to be the workman I had spotted on Acrocorinth, an archaeologist working on the restoration of Villehardouin’s tower. His English was limited but he expressed his gratitude at my visit. He loved the castle as much as I did, and was thankful that money for its restoration was still coming through. Not from my visit, though; entrance is free. I would have happily paid five euros.

Down at Old Corinth everything was closing. I took some photos of Apollo’s temple through the fence and wandered down a street lined with tourist shops and restaurants. All were open and none had customers. I settled in for lunch at a restaurant called Marinos. The owner and his family and friends were having a big, loud meal. I was the only customer. The food was excellent, though, and they serve a wine from their own vineyard not just a hundred meters away. I hope they have better business in the high season; they deserve it.

From the restaurant I called the taxi driver who had brought me up to the castle. It was getting late, the rain had started again, and walking all the way to the train station after sampling the local wine didn’t appeal.

“You liked the castle?” he asked as we drove down the hill.

“Loved it. Too bad I couldn’t see Old Corinth.”

“Yes,” he sighed in obvious frustration. “They should stay open longer. You would have bought a ticket. Instead you end up less happy than you should be.”

“Has business been bad?” I asked.

“The tourists are still coming but they’re getting a bad experience. I do day tours and sometimes we show up at a site and it’s closed. People fly all the way here and don’t get to see what they want.”

“People being the way they are I guess they sometimes blame you.”

“Yeah,” he grunted. “Sometimes they do.”

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: The Acropolis!

Greek museums face the economic crisis

Greek museumsIt’s not easy being the caretaker of Greece’s heritage these days. Greek museums are facing budget cuts, strikes, reduced staff, even loss of visitors due to riots. The National Archaeological Museum had many rooms closed during the peak tourist season last summer due to budget cuts, and strikes are regularly closing all publicly owned museums.

Take the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. It collects the nation’s Medieval heritage, focusing especially on the glory days of Byzantium. When the Roman Empire split into western and eastern halves in 395 AD, the West fell apart within a century, but the East, known as Byzantium, survived for another thousand years. Byzantium produced a distinct and beautiful artistic style and preserved many Classical works that then became the inspiration for the Renaissance.

The museum was founded in 1914 in the palace of a French noble. For most of the twentieth century the displays didn’t change much and visitors tended to pass it by for the more famous Classical sights.

“It was a place only for scholars,” said Nikolas Constantios, an archaeologist and museologist who works there and showed me around the recently revamped permanent exhibition.

And what an exhibition! Some four hundred icons are on display. Richly embroidered church vestments stand next to colorfully painted manuscripts, gold coins, and day-to-day objects. It’s all laid out in an open, well-lit fashion that reminded me of the new Ashmolean in Oxford. This modern style replaced the old “cases filled with stuff” museum design and helps combat museum fatigue.

This ten-year revitalization project almost came too late. The money, half of which came from the Ministry of Culture and half from the European Union, was already earmarked when the crisis hit.

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“We were safe because we were almost finished,” Constantios said. “If the crisis had happened five years ago we would have had a lot of problems.

The final touches are due to be completed by May and include a public garden, gift shop, and cafe.

While the present looks rosy for this museum, there are some serious challenges ahead. Museum director Anastasia Lazaridou said the Ministry of Culture has cut the museum’s budget by 20 percent. She has had to let some of the staff go, especially short-term contractors whose work is important for their well-known conservation department, which remains the biggest in Greece.

“We will try to find money from the private sector and create a bigger network of collaborations with foreign museums to share expenses,” Lazaridou said.

With the recession, though, the museum has found getting large donations to be more difficult than it used to be. Tickets help–with the renovation visitors numbers are ten times what they were a decade ago–yet many of these visitors get in for free.

When I visited there was a typical crowd for the low season: three other tourists and several school groups. Entrance is free for under-18s. Luckily this situation reverses in the high season. Check out the photo gallery and you’ll see why the Byzantine and Christian Museum is getting on the map.

The Museum of the City of Athens is facing even greater challenges. Housed in the former royal palace of King Otto, the first monarch after independence from the Ottoman Empire, it’s situated close to the municipal government buildings. Several riots have occurred right outside their door and now many tourists avoid the entire neighborhood. Museum director Aglaia Archontidou-Argiri told me visitor numbers dropped 70 percent last year.

Luckily the museum is a private foundation so they are in no danger of closing, yet they’re scrambling to find money for extra programs. Last year they ran a free program teaching Greek culture and history to immigrants. It ran for six months and included students from the Roma, Georgian, Bulgarian, and other communities. Now they have no money to continue, but Archontidou-Argiri remains optimistic they’ll find the money somewhere.

Like with the Byzantine museum, many visitors are school groups, who come to see the displays illustrating the development of their city. While the museum charges them, it lets in kids for free if their families can’t afford the €2 ($2.63) entry fee. With the crisis worsening, this is becoming increasingly common. There is also a popular music and lecture series that attracts many locals, but it is also free.

So far these two museums are doing fairly well. Both have been lucky in their funding, but with the crisis tightening wallets all over Europe, the caretakers of Greek heritage have a tough job ahead.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Athens day trip: Acrocorinth!

Athens nightlife: desperate pensioners on the hustle

Athens nightlifeGiorgis looked like he didn’t have long to live.

Aged about 70, he was a tall man who appeared shorter because he stooped so much that his head hung almost below his shoulders. He was thin and walked with a limp that showed he suffered from sciatica. His clothes–yellow sweater, gray trousers, and brown dress shoes–were old and faded but immaculately clean. His gray hair was neatly combed over watery blue eyes that scrunched up when he coughed, which he did often.

“It’s this cold weather,” he told me. “People my age always cough like this when it gets cold.”

Giorgis was in denial. I know plenty of old people who don’t cough like that. There was death in that cough.

I met him on my first night in Athens while standing in front of the Parliament building watching the Evzone Guards. A few other tourists gazed at the guards’ famous uniforms of a white skirt, white hose, and shoes with big pompoms. Their costumes may look odd but there was no mistaking that these were real soldiers. I’m six feet tall and every one of them towered over me. They looked in the prime of health.

Giorgis did not.

“I’m an oil engineer,” he said. “I work in Saudi Arabia for a big company.”

Looking at his clothes I doubted that. I acted interested, though, and answered the usual questions about where I was from and what I was going to see in Greece. He made some hints about knowing some good spots for Athens nightlife. I doubted that too. After a time I was thinking of saying goodbye and moving on. Giorgis must have seen something in my body language.

“What, you don’t like talking to Greek people? We don’t have to talk.”

Ah, The Line! I’ve heard it from La Paz to Damascus. It’s a guilt trip. You go wherever they want just to prove you don’t hate their people. Well, as usual I wasn’t fooled but went along anyway. I’m too curious for my own good. Falling for The Line has never gotten me into serious trouble and has led to some interesting stories. Giorgis didn’t look dangerous. I wouldn’t follow him down any dark alleys, but other than that I’d let him take the lead.

“We’ll go to a bar,” he announced. “I know a good one.”

He limped off at a remarkable pace. I hurried to keep up as he coughed his way down the street. I figured him for an alcoholic. He sure looked in a hurry to get to that bar.I decided I’d get Giorgis a couple of drinks and then say goodbye. He was a nice enough guy and the elderly in Greece are having a hard time of it. Pensions have been slashed. Some people who were earning 800 euros a month, a decent amount, are now receiving 400. That’s almost impossible to live on. Even worse, properties they worked so hard to pay off are now subject to steep property taxes. What was supposed to be a bit of security has now turned into a liability. I’d be hurrying to a bar too.

After a few blocks we made it to a nice-looking place. Dim lighting and plush couches. A giant oil painting of Marylin Monroe took up an entire wall. She was licking a set of lips longer than my arm. I’ve always liked Marylin.

The bar was empty except for the bartender and two Eastern European girls. They looked about twenty. They both gave me seductive glances as I passed them.

Oh so THAT’s your game, Giorgis, I thought. Well, I don’t play that game. One drink and I’m out of here.

We sat and ordered. I got a beer. He got a double ouzo. So at least I was partially right. A minute later the girls came up to us.

“May we join you?” the cuter one asked me. She was blonde and had remarkably blue eyes.

“Um, OK.”

She sat down next to me on the couch and introduced herself. She said she was from Poland and told me her name. Her friend started talking to Giorgis in Greek.

“So you like living in Athens?” I asked.

“Oh yes, but it’s been pretty hard lately,” she replied.

“Where do you work?” I asked.

“Here in the bar.”

“How has business been with the crisis?”

She shrugged.

“Pretty bad. Will you buy me a drink?”

“I’m not looking for business,” I said.

“Oh come on,” she gave me a smile that wouldn’t look out of place on a high school cheerleader being asked out by the star quarterback. “Just one drink. It’s for companionship.”

“No, sorry.”

“OK. Well, enjoy Athens.”

She shook my hand.

“Good luck,” I said. “And take care of yourself.”

I meant it.

She smiled like she was touched.

“Bye.”

After they left, Giorgis pulled a sports paper out of his back pocket and started reading. I finished my drink and left.

Giorgis hasn’t been the only pensioner to try hustling me here. Some want to give me a tour. Others want to take me to bars. Many simply beg. They’re the people hit hardest by the crisis, and when they aren’t protesting angrily and sometimes violently against the government, some look to make quick cash off the people who have the most to spare–tourists.

I find it impossible to judge them.

Two days later I passed through Syntagma Square in front of the Parliament building and saw a group of farmers handing out free produce. They were from a village near Athens and wanted to show solidarity to their city cousins. A long line of pensioners stood waiting to get a few bags of vegetables.

I didn’t see Giorgis there but I hope he got his share. Maybe that will keep him going for another couple of days and save him, at least for a little while, from pimping girls young enough to be his granddaughters.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Greek museums face the economic crisis!

Pole dancing image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

New series: Our past in peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis

Greek tourism, Greek
This is a sculpture of a fallen Greek warrior from the temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aigina. Made in the 5th century BC, it’s an important example of Early Classical Greek art. This was a time when Greek artists began imitating life with realistic poses and expressions.

We owe so much to the ancient Greeks–our ideas of art, architecture, democracy, philosophy, theater, and a lot more. When Greece was conquered by the Romans three centuries after this sculpture was made, Greek culture actually flourished, finding new outlets in the receptive and expanding Roman Empire. Horace once said: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (Captive Greece took captive her rude conqueror). The suffering yet proud face on this fallen warrior reflects Greek history–cycles of tragedy and triumph.

Suffering yet proud. That’s the impression I get of Greece these days. An economy in shambles, general strikes, people being forced to give up their children. At the same time, an increasing number of Greeks are going back to the land and sea to revitalize the traditional cornerstones of the Greek economy. Meanwhile, Greeks from all walks of life are taking to the streets to protest cutbacks that threaten their livelihood.

The cutbacks threaten our past too. Not the Greek past, our past, because Western civilization is based to a large extent on Greek civilization. Regular general strikes against the austerity measures imposed by the IMF mean that seeing the physical remains of our heritage has become a game of chance. A minister’s suggestion to lease the Acropolis and other ancient sites was treated with scorn one week, and approved the next. Three important paintings, including one by Picasso, were stolen from the Athens National Gallery because cutbacks had left only one guard on duty. And it can get far, far worse. Allowing Greece to fall would be like burning an attic full of family heirlooms and photo albums.

For the next week I’ll be in Greece interviewing museum curators, archaeologists, and regular Greeks about the problems facing our collective past. How are the strikes inhibiting access to museums and sights? How much are staff cuts reducing opening hours and the nation’s ability to conserve and restore our heritage? I’ll also be seeing, strikes permitting, some of the nation’s greatest monuments such as the Acropolis and Agora, as well as lesser-known treasures such as Mistra, briefly the capital of the Roman Empire, and the Crusader castle of Villehardouin.

Unfortunately, this sculpture will not be among them. It’s now the property of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek in Munich, Germany. The same country whose banks currently own the second largest share of Greek national debt after France. The statue of the fallen Greek was taken by a German baron in 1811 when Greece was under the control of a different foreign power–the Ottoman Empire.

Next in the series: Athens nightlife: desperate pensioners on the hustle!

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.