The Tower of the Winds and Lycavittos
Yesterday evening I took the Metro to
Syntagma Square and from there walked down Ermou Street into Monastiraki and
Plaka. It was one of those typical mid-summer Athens evenings, where luckily
the temperature was not too high. There were a good number of people out,
tourists and Greeks, enjoying a Saturday evening and the mild weather. The
Olympics were on flat screen TVs everywhere, but few people were watching. In
Thisio, the Nigerian fake Vuitton brigade was out in force, as were panhandlers
and peddlers of all kinds and nationalities.
One of my favourite walks is from the Roman
Agora up the northern flank of the Acropolis to Theory Street, and from there westward to the main entrance of the
Acropolis, then down to the Herod Atticus Odeon and Dionissiou Areopagitou
Street. It’s not something I often have time for, but yesterday evening turned
into one of those stolen moments in time, when life went from the unending
series of deadlines and commitments to an evening of freedom for reflection.
Let me preface my writing with the fact
that this is the section of Athens which the Municipality and various
government ministries, particularly the Ministry of Antiquities, do their best
to preserve. The historical responsibility as well as the seriousness of
successive generations of political administrations should not be in doubt. So
when discussing this area, we are discussing the “state of the art” as regards
Greek and to a certain extend European cultural heritage. Their success is
reflected in the fact that millions of people, Greeks and tourists, visit and
work in this tiny area every year, without major damage to historical monuments
which are an integral part of Greek and world civilisation.
Acropolis North Wall from the Roman Agora
As you look up at the northern curtain wall
of the Acropolis, just to the left of the Erechtheion, you see the remains of
column drums from the Old Temple which were used to rebuild the wall after the
Persian destruction of Athens in 480 BC. Legend has it that Pericles placed
these columns there to remind Athenians of the dangers of complacency and as a reminder
of the Persian threat.
I often wonder what equivalent reminder
Greece should place as a reminder of the dangers of domestic political
corruption and the morally bankrupt statist approach behind the present debt
crisis and in the very real “occupation” of the Greek state. It has always been
easier for Greece to rally against a foreign invader: it has always been more
difficult to manage the Greek polity in times of peace. This fundamental
challenge is no closer to being resolved today than it was in the days of the
Peloponnesian war or the power struggles of Periclean Athens.
The Mercouri Foundation
A little way further up the hillside, Polygnotou
Street takes you to the right, where the Agora lies slumbering. The Melina
Mercouri foundation building is on the left. This part of the centre reflects
the squandered legacy of what could be. Magnificent buildings lie in ruin.
Others have been taken over to house a vast apparatus connected with the Ephorate
of Antiquities or the Ministry of Culture, which I have never in my life, night
or day, seen to actually operate. There are private “Museums” and “Foundations”
which never open (certainly not at the height of the tourist season, which
would somehow be too logical); there are tens of other state buildings who’s
purpose is unclear. What buildings have been renovated are defaced by graffiti
or litter. It is impossible to think of the historical centre of Paris or London
in the same way.
Let me be clear here: the actual budgetary
cost of this is one reason Greece is bankrupt today. But the opportunity cost
is far higher.
Colour Guard Retreat at the Propylea
This is repeated when one actually reaches
the height of Theory Street, and the entrance to the Acropolis. At 19:30 on a
Saturday evening in August: the Acropolis is closed. It’s been closed since
15:00. This means that at the height of the tourist season, the hundreds of
visitors streaming up the hill cannot visit a major monument to world
civilisation. Instead, they can buy a bottle of ice water being sold illegally
by a Pakistani immigrant.
Not a single thing stirs. The souvenir
store and cantina outside the entrance are locked up. Inside the gates, a guard
sits, his feet up, staring into space.
Up above, on the Propylea, the honour guard
(barely visible in my photo) marches down the steps, having taken down the
Greek flag. A solemn and moving moment, which none of the tourists or Greeks
around me actually notice or understand.
If the Greek government could find a way to
operate its monuments and physical infrastructure such as ports even half as
efficiently as Public or Goody’s (both Greek companies) operate their stores, I
believe the Greek state could be earning at least EUR 10 billion more in gross
income each year. This is roughly half of Greece’s general government deficit,
including interest costs.
Try one more thing: try to find the opening
hours of the Acropolis online doing a Google search. Let me know what you come
The Acropolis and the Herod Atticus Odeon (foreground)
I crest the hill and walk down to the Herod
Atticus Odeon. This is one of my favourite places in Athens, where I’ve seen
Miles Davis, George Dalaras, Placido Domingo, Coriolanus, and many other
artists and performances. To my vast surprise, it too is closed. The “Athens”
component of the Athens-Epidavros festival is now over: the last performance
was on July 27th. Apart from a few tourists taking photographs, the
entire place is empty.
I just wonder exactly what logic is behind
this. There’s good weather in Athens from May to October, 6 months of the year.
The height of the tourist season is June to September. How is it possible that
this place is closed? How is it possible that according to the Festival
website, there were only 9 evenings of performances at the Odeon in
June-July 2012? That’s 4.5 evenings per month.
Even in a financial crisis, there are ways
of managing a venue to bring in revenue, particularly given the presence of
corporate sponsors and tourists in a city of 4 million inhabitants. And yet, if
I were to ask the receptionist at any of the major hotels we do business with,
they would not be able to tell me what’s playing—because even if the “Athens
Festival” had something playing, it would not have made the effort to market
this via a simple email newsletter to the major hotels, embassies, companies
and other potential client groups in Athens.
The Acropolis Museum: Stunning, and Closed
The steps at the Herod Atticus lead south
to Dionissiou Areopagitou Street, where the former Minister of Defence (and
much else besides) Akis Tsochatzopoulos owns a house allegedly bought with
bribery money. Skai
News recently estimated that he must be implicated in bribery of over 2
A little further is the Acropolis
Museum—truly a stunning achievement. It’s closed.
And a little further back to the north is
the Thissio district, which has been turned into a vibrant café area. Tonight
it’s absolutely full. There are thousands of people packed into the open-air
cafes and sitting up on balconies and rooftops. The contrast with the silent
precincts of the Agora or the Acropolis or the Herod Atticus could not be
Sunset over the Agora
It is this contrast between the state and
the private sector in Greece which leaves me more disappointed with each
passing year. I speak now not ideologically, but based on simple comparisons
Why is it not possible to
manage world-class sites in Greece with a little more vision and commercial
benefit, without damaging the site or risking exploitation?
How is it possible that even
now, three years into the gravest economic crisis Greece has known, the Greek
government is still not examining the easy alternatives to valorising
Greek culture and Greek heritage more effectively?
Why have previous initiatives,
such as the “full moon” openings, or the vast knowledge of cultural management
from other countries or organisations such as UNESCO or the Metropolitan Museum
or the Louvre not continued or utilised?
How is it possible that organisations
such as Goody’s or Public can stay open 2 shifts per day, even granted that
private sector payrolls and working conditions are difficult, when major
cultural sites such as the Acropolis can barely manage one?
How is it permissible that
there is no easily-detectable website for the Acropolis? When, after much
searching, you actually find the “Odysseus” site
of the Ministry of Culture (also paid for with EU money), how is it possible
that the site is in English and Greek, but not German, French, Spanish or
Russian, given that these are major tourism source markets?
Is it surprising that according
to a European Commission
study, Greece has among the lowest economic contributions from culture in
the European Union (1% of GDP in 2003)? Since this is entirely under national
control, what measures is the Greek government taking to improve this revenue?
Given that tourism is so
important to the economy, and given that Greece has agreed to support EU
anti-counterfeiting laws, why are there Nigerian street vendors selling fake
Vuitton bags every 100 meters on lower Adrianou street between Thissio and
Monastiraki? How can this possibly still continue?
Obviously, I know the reason why all this
is happening. I’m just shocked and disappointed that even now, there has been
no visible change whatsoever.
The Greek state is locked in its primal
archetype as the guarantor of cultural goods, delivered through public sector
workers and a vast network of related organisations, institutes, foundations
and companies linked to the Ministry of Culture, staffed by apparently very
mediocre managers (to be polite), and without any kind of strategic vision
which might actually improve the situation for Greek citizens and the 15
million tourists that visit Greece each year.
In the meantime, hospitals have run out of
drugs; pensioners are starving and forced into massive bureaucratic contortions
to receive basic medical care; unemployment has hit 22% (but the union members
guarding the Acropolis can only work 1 shift); youth unemployment approaches
50%; the government has over EUR 6 bln in unpaid bills; thousands of companies
are closing; and Greece still has the highest debt-to-GDP in Europe.
We can blame many people for this
situation, but I don’t blame the Persians.