x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Athens: Past and present

Feature With Greece currently in the throes of economic turmoil, we look for relief in Athens' past.

View of the Archaic gallery in the Acropolis Gallery.
View of the Archaic gallery in the Acropolis Gallery.

From the rooftop of the Grand Bretagne as breakfast is served, nothing appears to be amiss. It's early in October and a fierce sun is beginning to warm the massive rock of the Acropolis, crowned with the Parthenon, in the near distance. In between sits Syntagma Square, where the presidential guard is in mid-change, slowly stepping out in front of the parliament building. Watched by a few tourists, evzones dressed in heavy, pleated skirts and thickly embroidered waistcoats slowly lift their pompommed shoes into the air. It's 8am on a Sunday and all is quiet.

Not so last May, when tens of thousands of Greeks marched on Syntagma Square to protest against the package of austerity measures being debated in parliament. Their economy in tatters, the day ended in tragedy when three workers were killed by smoke inhalation after a mob threw petrol bombs at a nearby bank. As a result, tourists have stayed away from the city in droves, shocked by events. I'm not ghoulish enough to go looking to see whether Marfin Egnatia Bank still has a branch on Stadiou Street, but I don't have to step farther than the lobby of my five-star hotel to see evidence of Greece's more recent troubled history.

Above the marble steps, a metal grill is visible, ready to be pulled down to guard against unwanted intruders. I ask the waiting doorman whether he witnessed the now infamous demonstration. His response is heartfelt. "I've worked here for 25 years and I have seen thousands of demonstrations." The number is staggering but I don't disbelieve him. I've only been in the country 24 hours and I've already seen riot police standing on the corner of the square in anticipation of yet another civic protest, this time by lorry drivers. "These people, they strike at the heart of Greece. We don't make anything. Tourism is our lifeblood." He says that occupancy levels at the Grande Bretagne, one of the city's most expensive hotels, and usually home-from-home to wealthy Americans and Europeans, fell by 50 per cent immediately after the violence.

Five months later and rumours of another banking bailout are still in the headlines, but now that my back is turned to the square, I'm more interested in marbles than money. I'm heading to the new Acropolis Museum at the base of the Acropolis via the narrow, cobbled streets of Plaka. The old quarter was practically all that existed when Athens was declared the capital of a newly independent state in 1833 after nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule; its narrow open shopfronts now flog soaps made from olive oil, komboloi (worry beads), and crude fridge magnets of the Parthenon for a few euros to legions of tourists.

There is no love lost between the Greeks and the Turks, not least because the Ottomans allowed Lord Elgin, British ambassador from 1799 to 1803, to catalogue, copy and then remove the freizes and pediment sculptures from the Parthenon, before selling them to the British Museum in London. They are still noticeably absent from the top gallery at the new Acropolis Museum which tells the story of the "high city" from early settlement in Neolithic times to its golden age under Pericles. The Athenian statesman used the most skilled craftsmen to rebuild its colossal monuments out of stone and marble, adorned with bronze, gold and precious stones, after the Persians razed the area in the fifth century BCE.

Even though it's now firmly outside peak tourist season, the queue to visit the museum is lengthy and chaotic. I desperately brandish my six-month-old daughter and am ushered through the ropes straight to the ticket office. The museum houses an impressive collection of artefacts, not least the powerful statues of male and female figures with flowing hair discovered from the Archaic period, and what remains of those controversial Parthenon marbles. The number of plaster casts and labels marked simply 'BM' (British Museum), serve to underline the fact that the collection remains incomplete.

The museum reportedly cost US$200 million (Dh735m) to build and was meant to be finished in time to greet visitors for the 2004 Olympics. It finally opened two years ago, and it's hard to imagine such an extravagant public arts project being funded in the near future. While undoubtedly a beautiful building, designed to mimic the visitor experience on the rock of the Acropolis itself - you move through the galleries as if through layers of archeological excavation - the collection is almost lost in the designer spaces, and an historical narrative is hard to follow. Nevertheless, it's still a must-see before advancing on to the high city itself, not least as an exercise in navigating crowds.

But nothing can really prepare you for standing in front of the Parthenon. Early the next morning, I hot-foot it through Plaka to the foot of the Acropolis, determined to enjoy the site without a mob of tourists for company. Juggling a baby, it's nigh on impossible to make sense of the many piles of stones, trace remains of temples and other monuments that line the path on the way up. Looking over the Theatre of Dionysus on the south-east slope, where the works of Sophocles and Euripedes were once played out to an audience of some 17,000, requires less imagination: a row of thrones made of silken Pentelic marble remains before the stage. Further on, the sheer scale of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, restored in the 1950s, with row after row of seats stretching up the hillside, gives a sense of the scale and majesty of the Acropolis in its heyday. Finally, I approach the ticket gate at the top and the gravel footpath beneath my feet gives way to uneven and well-worn marble stones.

Feeling less than sure-footed, I'm suddenly surrounded by hoards of tour groups, numbering in their thousands and easily reminiscent of an invading army, picking its way towards the temple of Athena. I double back, walking against the flow, determined to enter the site from the bottom of the steep steps that lead up to the Propylaia or entrance gate, as it would have been approached in Pericles' day. Finally, appropriately awed by the scale of the columns and masonry above me, I'm on level ground, and the famously worn columns and broken entablature of the temple of Athena lie dead ahead. It's a testament to the monument's beauty that people posing for pictures and the competing voices of tour guides cannot lessen the Parthenon's impact; I don't even notice the cranes and evidence of the ongoing restoration work inside.

After admiring the temple from every possible angle, I exit down the north slope towards the Roman Agora and busy Monastiraki square. Here many once-beautiful neoclassical town houses decorated with shuttered fronts and terracotta roof tiles stand delapidated; a few have been restored to their former glory, providing a glimpse of the wealth that Athens once possessed. Today, it's the visitor who has to have deep pockets: a cup of coffee costs a gob-smacking five euros at any of the cafes on the main tourist thoroughfares. The price of a small bottle of water is thankfully fixed, though, at 50 cents. A taxi driver complains to me that it used to cost only 50 drachma; what must Greece's citizens have thought when they woke up to the euro and price inflation on January 1, 2001?

Today Athenians don't appear to be feeling the pinch. The restaurants lining the streets around the Roman Agora, where a sit-down meal for two of pastitsio and Greek salad topped with salty feta cheese will set you back at least 40 euros (Dh200) with drinks, are busy with tourists and locals. After yet another expensive pit stop, I brandish my Parthenon ticket, which for a 12 euros (Dh59) buys you admission to a clutch of other historic sights including the Ancient Agora and Temple of Olympian Zeus, and find myself surveying what remains of Hadrian's Library. What stands out however is the ingenious Tower of the Winds with its beautiful relief sculptures that was once used as a sundial, weathervane, water clock and compass.

A small, square building with a portico and domed roof sits apart fenced off from the main site. Windows shuttered, it's obviously closed. "That's the mosque," the woman at the ticket office tells me. "Can I go in?" "No," she says, "It's not safe." She's right, it doesn't look too sturdy. Metal scaffolding is doing its best to hold up Fethiye Mosque which was built in the second half of the 17th century according to the information plaque. Since the overthrow of Ottoman rule, the mosque has apparently been used as a military prison, army barracks and flour storeroom. Today, weeds are beginning to grow through the terracotta-tiled roof, with what's left of what may have been a minaret - steps wrapped around a broken central column - nearby.

Neither this simple mosque nor the far more imposing stone gatewayof a once-grand, early eighteenth-century madrasa, appear to be under renovation but given the bitter history of occupation, it's hardly surprising that the city's Ottoman heritage has been marginalised. Plans for a functioning mosque, the first in the capital to serve Athens' 500,000-strong Muslim population, have been mired in controversy, protest and delay for years.

As I leave the Roman Agora, television cameras are being set up to broadcast a live arts performance, and a glossy leaflet is pushed into my hands. The Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism is advertising its annual awareness campaign "encouraging citizens to take an active interest" in the protection of its cultural and environmental heritage. Athenians, it seems, take the historic riches littered about their streets and city squares for granted. Looking back towards the Acropolis, graciously set apart from the hubbub of modern-day life by a swathe of tall firs, a view that makes this one of the world's great cities, it's hard to understand how let alone why.


If you go

The flight A return flight from Abu Dhabi to Athens on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) costs from Dh2,055 return.

The hotel Until April 30, 2011, a double room at the Grande Bretagne (www.grandebretagne.gr; 00 30 210 3330000) costs from euros 327 (Dh1,603) per night, including breakfast and taxes.